On Tuesday, Nova Scotia's Old Man Luedecke releases My Hands Are on Fire and Other Love Songs, an impressive followup to his 2009 Juno winning record Proof of Love. The songs on this album help the banjo plucking folk songwriter step out a little further from mistaken impressions cast by his misleading stage handle. The paradoxically young talent delivers track after track of infectious rhythms, powerful lyrics and a sound that grows on you every time you start the record over again.
In advance of the March 30th release of this collection of "love songs" (Black Hen), NxEW shines the spotlight on some of the relationships that made this incredible album possible in this Q&A with Chris "Old Man" Luedecke.
Q: You went back to producer Steve Dawson for this record...tell us about that relationship? How long has it developed and what does he bring to your music?
A: Well, I can be pretty lonely as a solo artist and being a solo banjo player makes that a tiny little musical world for me. I wanted to see if my music could stand in a less weird context on record and be better for it. Steve knows and gets really great sympathetic players for his projects and is sensitive to the essential nature of what I do. We started out on Proof of Love with that and I think we got closer this second outing to how my music can work in a band context without losing it's immediacy.
I've learned a lot over the last few years too. Until lately my main interests have been expression and songs and performance, and recording less so. Having Steve who's so passionate about it has been invaluable for my personal growth (in large part since I was involved and present for mixing and the few overdubs in a way I wasn't last time, where I showed up, played and left) and has infected with me with desire to make more records and really work at how to translate what's essential about what I do into a radically different creative arena.
Anyhow it's been a fabulous and intoxicating learning process for me. Especially watching Tim O'Brien work in the studio at his harmonies -- a story in itself.
Q: You've chosen a full band approach to recording this record, though a lot of people know you for your ability to mesmerize with just the rhythm of a banjo and a skilled turn of phrase that ties modern stories to an old sound. Tell us more about your process when it comes to taking a song from your head to the banjo to the studio... are these songs that have been with you for a while, or did they come together for this project?
A: Basically I'm done writing a song if I love it and am playing it all the time for anyone that comes near (thankfully for most people we live in the sticks). Songs I love I want to play right away. So over the course of last year I worked really hard and wrote a bunch of songs that weren't that but these are the ones that were.
Lass Vicious was a slightly older song that got reset on the banjo so it could breathe and be that type of song, the Rear Guard I thought was a big song for me in a lot of ways and I've played it in concerts from the moment I wrote it starting last year. I just find that its angst and melody and optimism and literary backdrop (icarus flies into the sun and dies! sunny optimism my ass!) kind of full.
These songs are all on the record the way I play them live solo. That's how a finished song is and has been for me. The record is a sparkling conversation with me around this pretty locked-in centre.
Q: And whats your relationship with your banjo? How long have you been together, how much time do you spend with each other, and do you ever need to go on a break?
A: Well the banjo is my first stringed instrument and the one that let me sing with it. I've been playing it for eleven years and was a goner from sometime within the first year of playing, shortly after i learned to tune it likely. I had been too shy and felt left out of rock music until I heard folk music through some lucky record purchases. The banjo seemed to lack the ego and boredom that guitar has in abundance. I thrill at the sound of it. (I have been playing and writing on the guitar over the last few months though, mostly thought because I've really made some progress on that instrument finally.) The banjo has a complete sound for me and so serves playing solo really well, and I love the groove and the way it holds up words and sounds like nothing else.
The banjo I play, I've had for ten years - bought it in Halifax and have played it almost every day since and haven't found or looked too hard for a replacement though I'm sure there are likely better banjos out there. For me this one has a nice tone, not too bright not too thumpy, and has lived in wet tents in the high 30 celcius and cabins at minus 40 something; it's been strapped to bikes and been dropped, left behind and been not too far away for a third of my life. I doubt I'd do this if I hadn't bought it when I did with what I had. Really good banjos are hard to find in Nova Scotia and Canada in general without a small fortune. Mine was totally reasonable.
Q: You're very much an entertainer when it comes to your live shows. As a storyteller, you draw us into the world of this character with his lilting drawl and charming style. Where does Chris end and Old Man Luedecke begin? Whose album is this?
Well, I speak a little faster in real life than on stage where timing is so important, but it's about the same. I sing very personal songs that are layered in the lyric and demand concentration. That's why I try and keep people engaged and blow off steam in the in-between bits at shows and to keep it all moving. And if you're singing about your life you wanna make sure your bias is that it's like everyone else's life, in some ways this has always been a strength and a weakness for me. I have a sort of cursed addiction to authenticity and personal truth which keeps me writing about what I know well, I think of Hard Rain's Gonna Fall where Dylan sings "I'll know my song well before I start singing" a lot. Old Man Luedecke is just a good old crutch to lean on to give a former shy person a bit more confidence to horse around and do the shows that I'd want to see.
Q: In the title track of this record, you cry out "My Hands are on Fire." No doubt they are, with the amount of playing you've done since your last record, Proof of Love, took the 2009 Juno award for traditional folk recording of the year. What's your relationship been with the industry that ultimately feeds and shelters you? Your music suggests you keep pretty grounded... do you ever have to check-in with yourself to slow down the pace or are you always so even keeled?
I'm never even keeled. My Hands are on Fire is the story of an icarus like narrator who's basically a version of me. I often think of my work this way, as an outsider/loser struggling to make something of himself and make it better for everyone who isn't the overconfident insider type. I want to kick the door open for everyone. Icarus of course dies it should be pointed out in the Greek myth, but I'll fly on homemade wings until it happens. Think I've always stood on the outside and built success where you wouldn't think it likely, mostly through honesty, sympathy, intelligence and horrid determination. It doesn't take much but respect to make what I do real and successful. I don't know if people who are into flashy things and being where it's at really have anything much to gain by knowing me or coming to my shows so I'm always delighted and thankful for every person that does.
Q: In "The Palace is Golden", you have the line "our own food grows in the yard". Do you grow your own food in the literal sense or make any point to live closer the the land? What does that choice mean for you?
Well we've lived in the country for five years. Am I closer to the land, yes in that I'm farther from the city. I'm a bit of a romantic who was looking for that life but it's hard for romantics to really get anything done, especially when I travel so much. We have a garden that exists in varying degrees of success and most of that can be attributed to my wife who loves digging. And yes we do eat from it daily when we can and love that type of work in the summer. I think it is finally altering my pysche though, the country life. But I could be happy and unhappy anywhere I suspect.
Q: This record claims to be one of love songs, and it certainly carries its fair share, but there appear to be some "hate" songs too... Woebetide in particular. You lay down a fiery critique with angry force. At the risk of explaining the obvious, what's the story you're telling here and what can we take from it?
Well, the inspiration for Woebetide the doer of the Deed was that that absurd expression leapt into the hook of the song. It's such a preposterous title and such an archaic anachronistic and heavy handed expression. I don't know if you can even call it an expression, I've never heard it said. The song carries a lot of clarity in the lyric I think which I think is good when you have a ridiculous title like that. There wasn't much beating around the bush. I suppose I had thought of those things for quite a while and I'm pleased that it came out in such a straightforward fashion. I often worry that I really only write about my nerves and my loves, this is a nice exception. Someone else to criticize and so deserving of it! I guess in a way it's like my white collar version of a Jesse James type song. White collar crime is so much less sexy to most people than the usual stuff we consume. Here I've got a Moses-like morality cannon to fire at the bastards.