‘Ever do cocaine?,’ Todd Snider asks us
It’s not unusual to call an artist on a home or cell number and get the voicemail on the first attempt. After all, they’re busy people, touring, recording, doing coke off some stripper’s cleavage. You know, the average life of a musician.
When I called folk artist Todd Snider at his home near Nashville I wasn’t surprised to get his answering machine. As I started leaving my message, however, Snider picked up the phone and, in his own, rambling, charming way, like that stoner uncle you can’t help but love, proceeded to work his way into my All-Time Favorite Interview status.
Of course, what else could I expect from a man who just wrote a song (“America’s Favorite Pastime”) about a Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who threw a no-hitter in 1970 while on LSD and likens the decision making process of sifting through what songs to release to the public as similar to deciding how to tell your friend his girlfriend is fat when you’re drinking in a bar together.
Oh, and he ended the interview asking me if I’ve ever tried cocaine.
Snider, just answering the phone: Oh hey man. Sorry about that. You know how people screen their phone calls?
Snider: I was screening for family. I forgot I had this interview.
Graffiti: Is now a good time? Should I call back?
Snider: Oh no. I just didn’t want to hear their problems.
Graffiti: Well, I’ll refrain from telling you about mine.
Snider: (laughs) Well, I could handle yours. Where are you calling from again?
Graffiti: West Virginia.
Snider: Oh yea. All Good. I’m very excited to get to do that.
Graffiti: Have you played All Good before?
Snider: No, I’m very excited for that. I’ve seen ads for it and I thought, ‘oh, I need to check it out.’
Graffiti: Are you going to be able to hang out for a bit after you perform or will you have to hit the road?
Snider: I’m going to try check it out. Do you know what day I’m playing? Is it a two-day festival?
Graffiti: It runs Friday-Sunday. I think (you’re playing) maybe Saturday? I don’t remember. (Ed. note: He plays Friday).
Snider: For some reason I remember somebody telling me I get an extra day. So yea, I’ll check out some shows.
Graffiti: Well, let’s start with the new album, “The Excitement Plan.” Tell us a little about the new album.
Snider: I know artists say this a lot, (but) I’ve never thought my new one was my favorite. More than ever, I feel that; this one I feel close to.
I don’t even know what it is people like from me but I know what I like, you know.
All the songs I felt like I was patient with the words and I didn’t make up songs to fit the theme. I hope people really like the lyrics because I was patient with them and with the music and the actual melodies. I hope the melodies are original; that’s not my strong suit. I hope it’s rough and tumble and loose; we cut it live to get that feeling.
I’ve been working on my guitar playing a lot in the last four years and this is the first time I’ve been able to carry a record with my guitar playing. I’ve been working on my finger picking. My guitar teacher’s been encouraging me a little more to do that.
It’s also a turn from the last two … I made those with the same team and I did it in house and then we had the EP with the same team. This one’s a change; it’s a little folky and doesn’t have those fast rocking, Chuck Berry songs.
My favorite records have the same sound throughout, like (Bob) Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding.” I don’t say that to say I’m in the same league, just so you and I have some idea of what I’m trying to say. Those records keep it, it gets in the pocket and stays there. You know, it has the same feel throughout. Whereas my past records have a fast rocker and then a folkie one.
Graffiti: You’re known a little for your sly humor, whether you’re talking about Seattle grunge or right-wing Christians. Do you make it a point to inject humor into your songs, or does that arise more naturally out of the way you see things?
Snider: It’s kind of natural. It’s always just showed up on its own. I’ve never said, ‘you know I need a funny one,’ and a line comes out and it’s like, ‘oh that’s funny.’
This record I feel my favorite kind of song is sad and funny depending on the way you want to listen to it. I like it when they mix together. I was trying to make every song on this record have heartache and humor in it as opposed to being separate themes.
Graffiti: In your press material, you say this album can be part of the solution for people going through tough times right now with the economy. Those are pretty big words coming from a folk singer. Explain what you meant by that.
Snider: I think I was just trying to sucker people into getting the record (laughs). That’s why I called it, ‘The Excitement Plan.’
My dad was a grifter. When I started working on the record, I was spending a lot of money. I like to record a song and then record it again. That’s what I spend my extra dough on. I don’t go golfing.
I always have to go to my guy and say, ‘Give me some more money, I want to record it again.’ And he says, ‘Who are you, the Stones? You’re a folk singer.
I started to run up a big tab and I wasn’t liking any of (the songs) so I said I wanted to scratch it and start over and I wanted a producer. Don Was was interested (in producing) and he found out I had spent my money and he still wanted to produce it.
My dad had this saying where you do something just because you’re excited about it … I started to realize this record was just about trying to get by. My dad said when you’ve got nothing you could just dance a little bit and make some noise and get some food.
I thought this would be in the spirit of my dad: ‘I know you’re having a hard time, here’s something to get you by.’ Then when you read the liner notes you realize who it’s supposed to help: me, not you.
A gypsy would say, ‘this record will help you with your problems,’ but it won’t help you, it will help me.
Graffiti: So when you’re writing, it sounds like you subscribe to that notion that your thoughts and feelings are most likely thought and felt by others as well. That what you find to be therapy will be therapy for others.
Snider: Yea, I mostly just do it for myself. (But) I try to remind myself that just because I make up a song doesn’t mean it has to leave the house. I’m of the school that believes if it’s not therapy for me it wont be therapeutic for anybody else. But then you don’t know if it’s therapy for anybody else either.
Like there’s “Train song.” I don’t know what it is about that song that everybody likes. I can’t separate from it what helps me. I can’t discern what’s self indulgent from what I should sing.
It’s almost like how do I determine what to say at the bar when I’m drinking. It’s like, what do I say when my friend asks if his girlfriend is fat. Sifting through songs is like trying to determine what I’ll say in my songs to the public.
Graffiti: Along the same lines, you’ve been called one of the sharpest protest songwriters working today. Is that something you strive for? Do you set out knowing you’re going to write a protest song or do you just write and see where the music takes you?
Snider: Just recently I’ve noticed that there’s a bunch of people that feel like I feel or at least they clap at the end of the song. (But) I kind of don’t like those songs. They just come out of me. I’d rather sing about stuff I like, not stuff that agitates me.
With the protest songs, I try to become respectful with the idea (behind) it. The reason things become such a hot topic is because we don’t know the answers. Even though I have opinions, I try to approach it so people that have opinions (different from mine) know I don’t have knowledge for them. A lot of folk singers like to act like they do have knowledge to pass on and I don’t.
Graffiti: How did the Loretta Lynn duet come about? Were you friends before?
Snider: Well, she is now one of my closest friends. I know Loretta’s daughter, Peggy. She was married to a close friend of mine and then she left that close friend of mine for an even closer friend of mine. (laughs) That was about five or six years ago.
About a year ago … (Loretta) wanted to work on some songs and thanks to my friends she was aware of my music. She had her daughter get together musicians to write with and that’s how she came to me.
We worked on some songs for her record. This one we made up is a little bit of a rock and roll song. She came over and did it with me. We were at that studio where she did that Jack White record. I guess we made up about four songs now and I’ve been out there a few times.
She’s a good chick, I really like her.
Graffiti: You’ve been putting out quality records for a while, yet in the last few years it seems you’ve started to gain more national attention, whether that’s performing for Leno and Letterman, or making year-end best-of lists from Rolling Stone and Blender. Why do you think that level of success is coming your way now?
Snider: I don’t know. I wonder that sometimes. I definitely have seen that kind of stuff. I can’t explain it. I know I work hard at my songs but I don’t know what that would do.
Like my wife paints and it just seems every year that goes by we work longer days, but I don’t know that that’s why people like you.
Graffiti: There plenty of people working hard.
Snider: Right and I don’t know what that’s about. But you know that’s some nervewracking stuff. Like they say you’re going to be on TV and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, is that going to be on TV? Are people going to see that?’ But it’s cool. I got to meet some cool people.
Graffiti: Going back to All Good. Since you’ll be there for an extra day, is there anyone you’re looking forward to seeing?
Snider: Who’s playing?
Snider: I love moe.
Graffiti: Ben Harper, Robert Randolph, Les Claypool.
Snider: I love Les. Someday I’d like to go open for moe. or jam with them for 30 minutes. That’d be my dream.
Graffiti: Well, I don’t know how familiar you are with the festival, but often late at night some of the bands will get together and do a jam for those still up.
Snider: Oh shit, man. I’m going to have stay up for that. I’m getting to be an old man, though. You ever do cocaine?
Graffiti: (laughs) No.
Snider: Well if somebody gave me some Percodan or something I’d stay up. Shit, don’t put that in the newspaper. Oh well, f*** it, put it in if you want.
Contact Justin at email@example.com