Steve Earle was a country music star in the 80s. But a heroin addiction took its toll on his career and personal life causing a downward spiral that landed him in prison in 1994.
He’s worked hard to get his life back on track since those days and his efforts paid off in the form of a critically acclaimed career and a new life with singer Allison Moorer who he married in 2005.
I talked with Earle last summer about what was his latest release at the time, “Washington Park Serenade,” and his creative process. Earle recorded much of the album in his New York City apartment using his computer and Pro Tools—a popular music-recording program. The result is both organic and driven as Earle’s guitar weaves around electronic drumbeats.
GM: The beats work well with acoustic guitar. Did you start by writing around loops or did the drum machine come later?
SE: There were a few things that were built around loops like “Satellite Radio,” which was built around a loop and a riff. The loop came first and then the riff. But with a lot of the stuff, the songs were completed before I ever started recording, just like they always are. “Down Here Below” and “Satellite Radio” were the only two where the way I compose changed that much. “Satellite Radio” was a beat. Then came the riff and the lyrics. “Down Here Below,” there was pretty radical editing. There were two or three different versions of it.
GM: Will you be using Pro Tools and your computer more in the future?
SE: Definitely. I am making a new record of all Townes Van Zandt songs. I will probably record in the computer from now on. I don’t have the studio anymore…I don’t know yet. I haven’t started recording. It’d be more or less the same way the last record was recorded…Pro Tools sounds pretty good. I really like the way the last record sounds. I recorded in analogue because it was what I knew and I didn’t have to put a lot of thought into it. But a lot of Pro Tools is more democratic. I’ve learned pretty quickly how to get good sounds out of Pro Tools.
GM: Now you’ve been successful, you pulled yourself together and you have a good home life, critics love your work and even your country fans are coming back, do you worry that it will hurt your muse?
SE: Things have been going pretty right for me for a long time. I don’t worry about that kind of stuff. If you were put here to do this, you do it. You gotta get up in the morning and work at it. I think the whole concept of a muse is overrated. The muse is there. It’s really just a matter of working every day.
GM: Would you compare how it felt playing guitar as a teenager to how it feels now? Has your relationship to music changed over the years?
SE: It’s coming full circle. Lately, I have been concentrating on playing acoustic guitar. As a kid, I wanted to play electric guitar, but I only had an acoustic guitar. Lately, it’s been by choice. I collect guitars. It’s where the money I make goes. I’ve got over 100 of them. I have a lot more guitars than I did then. I am a lot better of a guitar player than I thought I would be when I was a teenager.
GM: Do have any songs left over from the latest album that might appear in the future?
SE: There’s never any tracks left over from my records. I release everything I record. I may try to hold back a couple of things for iTunes this time because everybody tells me I need to do that.
GM: I read an interview where you were talking about how Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello are great singers. Would you talk a little bit about that?
SE: They sell songs. They are good singers for the same reason that Ray Charles is a good singer and Hank Williams was a great singer. People that said Bob Dylan couldn’t sing in the early 60s were comparing him to Perry Como or something. It is an archaic idea to say that Bob Dylan is not a good singer. I think it’s laughable at this point.
GM: I don’t think people realize how much work goes into singing.
SE: You have to work with the equipment that you are given. But a voice isn’t what being a great singer is.
GM: Being a great singer means you convey the song?
SE: Yeah, basically. It’s a skill akin to acting that makes a great singer.
GM: How much do you work at it?
SE: I don’t work at it as much. I am a lot better singer than I was when I first started making records. But I think a lot of it was trial and error and I make a lot of records. So I worked enough that I got better at it.
GM: What are some of the ways in which you got better?
SE: I’ve gotten better at a lot of things, especially in the last 13 or 14 years, because I took my reservations about myself off the table. I made a bluegrass record. In the 80s or 90s, I would have vetoed that because I would have thought that I am not a good enough guitar player. But I did it, and I did it with the best bluegrass band in the world and I came out of it a better guitar player. I approach it that way. I am a little less afraid to make an ass of myself.