10 Questions with ... Aaron Lewis
September 25, 2016
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
After a decade of success fronting the rock band Staind, Aaron Lewis embarked on a solo career in 2011, focusing on traditional Country music. His 2011 EP, "Town Line" was followed by the full length "The Road" in 2012. Earlier this month, Lewis released "Sinner," with Country icon Willie Nelson featured on the title track and his daughter, Zoe covering lead vocals on a cover of "Traveling Soldier." An outspoken advocate for traditional Country music and the values associated with it, Lewis' lead single on "Sinner," called "That Ain't Country" bemoans current Country songs "Full of tales of good times and happy endings." More recently, Lewis made news after calling out Sam Hunt, Luke Bryan, Cole Swindell and Dan + Shay for, "Choking the life out of Country music" during a concert in Colorado. The video clip featuring his comments went viral, sparking both criticism and praise for Lewis. All Access was able to sit down for a long form discussion with him about his single, the comments and, the state of Country music in general.
1. Not saying it can't happen, but how does a guy from the Northeastern United States become a fan of, and end up performing, hard core, traditional Country music?
Well, there's a bit of a misconception to the Northeast. You get outside the very blatantly liberally controlled metropolitan areas, and shit goes south real quick. They are country folk, and it's all gun-toting, America-loving, constitutional-thumping Americans. I grew up in rural Vermont of all places, where Bernie Sanders came from. Ain't nobody in my family that lives in Vermont ever uttered a positive word about him, and he's from Vermont. The misconception is that north of the Mason Dixon somehow doesn't fall into the category of Country. I beg to differ, because the people that I know from up north - my friends and my family - are some of the most Podunk people I've ever met.
Is that what you're singing about in the song "Northern Redneck" on your "Sinner" album?
Yeah, and I did that song in a very tongue-in-cheek fashion. I threw all of the Country clichés that tend to be in every song these days into the song on purpose just for that. Because, hey guess what? All of that stuff applies to us up here, too. Even to the point of laying on a stylistic Southern drawl a little bit heavier on that song -again on purpose - tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes I'm not sure people pick up on my sense of humor.
2. You have a stone old Country song - "That Ain't Country" - from what is arguably the Countriest album of 2016, "Sinner." At All Access, we talk with radio about songs all the time, and, if I'm being honest, the feedback has been pretty polarizing. Some people applaud the message; others have declared, "I'll never play that" - because it takes a dig at everything else on their radio station. How would you answer that resistance from the latter group if you were sitting in the same room with them?
I guess it's their choice to react that way to my song. There comes a point in all formats where the flip of the circle happens, because everything is cyclical in radio, and it always has been. An example of that would be when the heyday of the 1970s with all of that amazing Outlaw Country music that I grew up on. At the tail end of that it was Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, and how far they had pushed that - at that time - toward the Pop side of things crossing over to Pop charts and everything else. The full circle of that was Randy Travis and George Strait, and then later on it was Travis Tritt. It came from being pushed too far away from its core. What happens is that it ends up coming all the way back around and centering again, and there's a wave of music much more based to the tradition of that format. I watched it happen under my feet during my Rock career with Staind; from our first record to our last record, the way the landscape had changed while it was happening was undeniable. It was as blatant as the writing on the wall. It's happened in Country. I think we're at that snapback point again - that precipice where it's been pushed so far away from its core - from the music that defined the genre - that it's about to happen again. I think that's evident in Chris Stapleton record sales, evident in - regardless of everything that happened last week on the internet with me - our record has been sitting at #1 since it came out on Friday (9/16). Right now, it's sitting at #1 across all formats. So that's got to say something. I might have pissed off some people with what I had to say; I might've alienated some people, but I also polarized some people that liked what I had to say.
3. I want to circle back to your internet moment in a bit, but first, let's talk about the current state of Country music, as you see it. On your current single, you ask where are the songs full of "pain and heartache and desperation and ones that got away," name-checking Willie, Merle, Charlie Daniels, David Allan Coe, and other icons. The format has definitely been in a party central/pop cycle for the last four or five years now. Do you think that's partly due to the growing influx of younger artists - many who are Millennials - who grew up with, and were musically influenced by everything, thanks to iPods and more recently, streaming services?
I get that, and I think it's interesting that someone that's close to 50 years old can still sing songs about spring break. I don't know. I guess I come from a different school. I come from a different time. Some of those artists come from the same time as I do - some of them are my age, and some of them are older. I just don't see where the dots can connect to the music and the artists and the songwriting and where it came from - it was four chords and the truth. And it was somebody's truth. It was connected to somebody's heart. It wasn't connected to whether you could get it played on radio or not. It was connected to a soul. And that's the first music I ever heard as a child. That's always been my approach to writing songs. I'm a songwriter. I write all my own stuff. There are only two songs in my 11-record career that I haven't written. I can't count "Traveling Soldier" [on "Sinner"], because that's my daughter singing that song. Or, "Whiskey And You." I started covering it in my shows saying, "it's a song by Chris Stapleton." And we got to the point in the 16-hour window that we recorded this entire record in where we needed one more song for time efficiency, and I said, "I've been covering 'Whiskey And You' already, and the song knocked me flat the first time I heard it, so I feel it." That's important. I can't play somebody else's song if I can't attach my own heart to it.
4. But there appears to be a slow, gradual shift toward a more traditional sound from commercially targeted artists and music - with William Michael Morgan, Jon Pardi, and Chris Janson to name a few. Can these guys - and you - help the format pivot back to its roots, and connect those dots?
There has to be an anchor to call it a format. How is it a format if it's just all over the frickin' place? There's got to be something that centers it and makes it a format. When your focus is so specific as it is right now - the narrowing of the demographic that Pop-driven Country radio targets to - there are a lot of people left in the lurches that are wondering what happened to the genre and the music and the radio station that they loved. You can't narrow the focus like that - the genre is too demographically broad. You CAN narrow down a demographic in a Pop setting, because that narrow demographic is really who is listening to Pop. As the demographic widens and the people that they're focused on are getting older, the amount of listening is very drastically dropping off. With Country, from age 90 through as young as the listener gets - that's very broad. Treating the Country format more like a Top 40 station and more like Pop, they've alienated all the rest of that demographic. I've been in the business for 20 years. I've crossed over from the Rock charts to the Top 40 charts and seen how they work songs. And I think another thing affecting it is the corporatization of radio. I'm not trying to alienate myself from corporate radio - holy crap - but when you disconnect the program director from the listeners of that area, and there's a playlist and a format that's coming down from somewhere 3,000 miles away on the other side of the country, and it isn't connected to that local listening base in any shape or form, you're disconnecting yourself from that audience. You're not necessarily truly playing what they want to hear. Don't get me wrong, I'm not putting the blame entirely on radio. It's all symbiotic. It starts at the record label. It filters down. It's writers needing to live and make money, and they're going to write what the record labels want, which is what radio wants, which is this big vicious circle that keeps going around. It all affects the final outcome.
5. So last week the YouTube soundbite you referenced earlier went viral, and immediately provided more ammo for those who were already naysayers. I listened to your interview with Bobby Bones a few days later, and you talked about context - knowing the audience in the room. For anybody who didn't hear that conversation, can you expound on your comments here?
That's what you do as an entertainer - you play to the crowd. If you actually clicked on the video and saw it in context you will have heard the response. It certainly didn't seem like anyone was upset with what I had to say. [The Bones interview] was awkward. It was the first rebuttal interview that I'd done. I don't remember exactly what he said, but I was listening five minutes before I was to call in, and whatever they were talking about, and whatever they said, I welled up with nerves - I just got really uncomfortable, and it affected me that way just hearing it. I was doing the best that I could. Again, I will repeat, I stand behind what I said. I own the fact that maybe I was a little overzealous by calling people out by name. I know Dan + Shay. We've hung out- this isn't anything personal. It's simply drawing the line and connecting the dots to the history and the music that defined the genre. There's a lot of stuff out there that I scratch my head going, "Where is the connection?" I hear the connection to Pop. I'm scratching my head, just because there's a song in particular - I won't say a name in particular, because I've learned - that the entire song is completely void of anything that even is on the color spectrum or palette of Country music. All the way up to the very last line - the very last measure of the song you hear a banjo pick for four measures and then the song is over. It was the only thing that even told you, oh, is that a Country song? Because a banjo came in at the end?
6. You've been in the format a while now after many successful years in the Rock world with Staind. Did you ever experience similar scrutiny from media, listeners, or radio over something you said in a song, on stage, or in the press?
I have always been pretty scrutinized. I believe it was 2010 that I put the record out that had "Country Boy" on it. I have been going quietly and with minimal radio support. There are definitely radio stations and program directors that have believed in me and that have been very supportive. But it's harder. I never thought an eight-record 30-plus million-records sold career would ever be held against me, and it has, at every turn. I'm sticking it out, continuing to sell out honkytonks, growing every single time I came back to the market, and selling out that place and still limited radio support. I found it funny when a radio station wouldn't support me in any way, shape, or form for the show, but then showed up for the show - and put their big inflatable out in front of the venue, parked their van, wrapped their call letters, and utilized the show to their advantage... but didn't help me sell a single one of their tickets.
I have a hard time not wanting to know what people think. As a pretty insecure creative, you hope that you're making everyone happy. You want to make everybody happy. It's not about that in the writing process. When you're done, you're really proud of what it is that you went in there and sweated and toiled over. And it all came out of you, because you wrote the songs, because there was a part of you in everything. And you work so frickin' hard, you put it out and somebody just finds anything to spin it negatively. I've been accused my whole career of being a fabrication - that it was all conjured up. And it couldn't be further from the truth. And what's hilarious to me is I'm going through that now again - that, "it can't be real, true, or legitimate." Some of the comments, "I can't believe in this! It has to be contrived. It came out on Big Machine. It's just another marketing tool for them to use." Are you kidding me? You had to dig that frickin' deep that you're going to hold the record label - that I'm blessed and lucky enough to be on - that has real muscle and real clout, that could actually help get something that you don't hear on radio anymore back on radio! You're going to hold that against me? And you're going to judge my creativity - my blood, sweat, and tears that I wrote? I didn't come in to Nashville to look at a bunch of catalogs and pick songs that I thought would be good songs. That's me. That's my truth. That's my insides. As much as a creative wants to make people happy, I know that I can't - but I'm insecure, and I want to make people happy. At the end of the day in my writing process, it's about me being happy. I won't let anybody put their hands in that at all. I'm extremely guarded about my creative process. I don't want your input. Let me finish what I'm doing, and I'll give it to you and we'll go from there. Someone - who in this business has become notorious for sending people back in the studio, because he didn't hear what he wanted to hear yet - accepted a record from me first time that took 16 hours to record.
7. That seems like a good place to shift gears and talk about the album. It seems to represent what you talk about in the single - the "pain and heartache and desperation and ones that got away, truth and consequences, all the things gone wrong." Every song here as we talked about - aside from the two covers - you wrote, and there's only one co-write. Is this your grander statement about how Country should sound - or is your life truly filled with pain and heartache and desperation?
I'm thankful that you picked up on that and read into it that deeply. I'm a human being. I'm flawed. I make small mistakes. I make massive mistakes. I'm just trying to own them. I've always been pretty brutally honest about things in my songs. I've always exposed a protected, hidden piece of my soul in every song. If I feel at the end of a recording process that I've said too much, I usually am good and know that those songs got what they deserved. That's all I've ever done. If you go back and look into the lyrical content of the songs through my catalog of Staind and everything else, I have exposed every raw nerve and every dark recess and corner of my life in one way or another. Sometimes I did it in a perfectly vague enough manner so you didn't actually get what it was that I was saying, but I have put it all out there.
8. How different is the making of this album than your process in the past?
This was all one or two takes of the song live. I never fix the vocal. We never re-did anything. If the musicians in the studio knew that they had made enough of a mistake that it needed to be fixed, within the five or ten minutes of the song being recorded live, they had gone back, knew exactly where it was, played that one thing again, fixed it, and we moved on. We recorded all of those songs, minus "Guests," in two eight-hour session days. In the past, we would have played all of the songs two or three times, to a click, and at the end of it, the drummer would stay behind - and everyone else would go home. The drummer would spend two or three weeks replacing all of those drum tracks with the real tracks that he did five or six times - that he punched spots and did all these things to make this perfection. Once that's done, the bass player would come in and replace his, and then the guitar player would come in and replace his, and the last thing to do is the vocals - because all the music is done. The whole process is months-long. And what I handed in as a record is what would have started that process.
9. So this was performed live?
Live - one or two takes per song. It's how they used to do it. It was Brent Mason, Paul Franklin, Pat Buchanan. On this record it was Tony Creason on the drums. In the past it has been Eddie Bayers. But everything else has always been the same. Swine is on the bass - who was Waylon Jennings' bass player. Moose Brown on piano and keyboards, and the session leader. Ben, my band leader, is on all the dobro stuff. It's the most magical group of musicians. We did the last record in 32 hours, because half of the songs I hadn't even finished writing yet. There was one song where I ran into the other room for five minutes, messed around on my guitar, and came up with a chord progression. I came back and set them loose. Once again, just riding a bolt of lightning. That's how I've always recorded with those guys. Same with the first one, those same guys. Whether it was James Stroud as the producer or Buddy Cannon.
10. "Travelin' Soldier" features your 14-year-old daughter, Zoe, which I missed somewhere in the liner notes.
She's credited. It's frivolous now, but it was kind of a half of an attempt at keeping her name away from the song and it's down here in the liner notes. I don't mind if only three out of 10 people knew that it was my 14 year old daughter. It's probably one of the proudest moments of my life. It's a song I've heard her singing around the house for years. We've always tried to expose the kids to a very well rounded musical palette.
Before we started rolling tape here, you mentioned how she stops singing when you're around. What about in the studio? Did you excuse yourself?
That little girl handled pressure that is probably comparable to trying out for "American Idol." Standing in front of four people that you know are super famous, and all of the pressures that would just come from the way we put celebrities on a pedestal in this society. She handled it with such nonchalant grace and sang the song from beginning to end three times. And we were like, "we got it." She was like, "cool."