Lucette, Justin Wells
William Collier’s; Nashville, TN
March 26, 2015
Review by Jacqui Sahagian. Photos by Michael Brooks.
Canadian Americana singer-songwriter Lucette played at Marathon Music Works bar William Collier’s last Thursday, and took some time to have a long chat with us beforehand about her time at South by Southwest as well as the ups and downs of her burgeoning career. Former Fifth on the Floor frontman and mentor-collaborator to Lucette Justin Wells opened with a solo acoustic set of riveting traditional country storytelling.
Click through for our review of the show, plus our interview with Lucette, where we talked about Nashville, the difficulties musicians face getting an American visa, South by Southwest, and her melancholy new video, as well as photos from the gig by Michael Brooks.
Country singer-songwriter Justin Wells was the frontman of the alt-country band Fifth on the Floor for a decade before their recent breakup. His gritty storytelling in the tradition of Steve Earle or Johnny Cash doesn’t require more than his powerful, growly baritone and an acoustic guitar, so from what I saw, he has a promising solo career ahead of him without the band that put him on the map. He easily held the attention of the small bar crowd with his dark country-blues songs, and his deep voice was loud enough to fill the room without help from a microphone. The song “January in Louisiana” was particularly memorable in the vein of the aforementioned singers about a night spent in a Louisiana jail that didn’t have the jail-mandatory flip-flops in Wells’s size fifteen, so he was forced to go barefoot. It wasn’t all dark and serious, though, as Wells is a sort of mentor to Lucette, who has sung with him, and he ribbed her for borrowing his van and leaving it broken down in Texas after South by Southwest. Like the best traditional country singers, Wells juxtaposed the dark songs in his set with so-bad-they-were-funny, self-deprecating jokes.
Lucette sings and plays keyboard, and for this show as well as the ones she did at South by Southwest, the Canadian songstress was accompanied by a four-piece band of Nashville-based musicians. She played many of the melancholy and melodic songs from her debut record, Black Is the Color, including the title track, her biggest hit “Bobby Reid,” the pop love song “Utah,” and “Able May.” She has a husky low voice with a sweet tone that makes the dark Americana-country she sings beautifully eerie. She said that “Fly On,” about her native Edmonton, is one of her favorite songs she’s written. Lucette also had the time and the attentive audience to play several of her favorite covers, including Ryan Adams’s “Sweet Carolina” and Waylon Jennings’s “Freedom to Sing.” She wrapped up the set with the bluesy stomper “Muddy Water.”
Lucette. Photo by Michael Brooks.
We had a lengthy chat with Lucette about her fast-ascending career, her plans to move to Nashville, and what her next record is going to sound like before the show.
NO COUNTRY: How did you feel professionally about SXSW? Did you feel like you learned a lot?
LUCETTE: Yeah, I mean, it’s a totally obscure experience compared to touring or anything else. You’re lugging your equipment through crowds of thousands of people down a cobblestone street, my keyboard case weighs like five hundred pounds, so that’s not as fun. But I think it was such a good opportunity for me to get in front of new audiences and I definitely gained I think some new fans while I was there. So I think it went really well. There were a lot of bloggers that I got to meet and new bands and stuff. I don’t know, you probably don’t really know professionally speaking how it goes until later on, you know? As long as your shows go well, that’s just the biggest hope.
NC: I just watched the new music video for “Black Is the Color.” Do you want to tell me a little bit about the making of that and what your ideas for it were?
L: It was so fun. A friend of mine at home, she actually just moved to Toronto, she started a freelance video company and I wanted to take a little bit more of a hands-on approach. I think with the “Bobby Reid” video there definitely was a lot of my influence in it but it still was someone else’s kind of direct idea. But with Sarah – my friend, her name is Sarah Edwards – we really just bounced off of each other and just came up with ideas. “Black Is the Color” is a song that’s about losing a loved one and kind of what follows after that, so I kind of wanted to show what it would be like to be alone, going through motions and things without that person there. Doing things by yourself that you once did with them, that was kind of the concept behind it. I do like dark things, so I think always adding kind of a darker, maybe not twisted but a little bit more of a melancholic vibe to everything, that’s kind of maybe my thing.
NC: I know you recorded the album in Nashville, so you’ve spent some time here, and you’re very influenced by southern music and country music. How has working here and hanging out here been for you? What do you think of the city and music scene here?
L: Well I started coming here – I’d been here once when I was fifteen – but as far as actually recording I started coming here about five years ago and I feel like it’s changed a lot in the last five years, too. There’s so many new things going on so many new bands popping up, but as far as being kind of involved in the Nashville scenes, it’s kind of interesting because in some ways I feel so connected to this place, but you know in other ways I’m gone most of the time. So it’s kind of this weird thing. I feel very much connected to this city but also there’s a disconnect there too because it is a little bit difficult I think not being able to be here full time. I think there’s definitely something to be said about kind of the camaraderie with musicians in Nashville. That’s something that I think is really great. Even though I’m gone most of the time I’ve still met musicians here who’ve really gone to bat for me and who really help support me. Like my producer, Dave Cobb, really got me involved in this scene where people really are just kind of rooting for each other. Like I opened with Sturgill [Simpson] and Anderson East also opened for Sturgill and I’m good friends with Anderson and I met Kristin Diable through Dave. A few of those artists don’t live here, but I think there’s definitely something to be said about the kind of bands in Nashville. Even when I was at SXSW, I’m friends with the guys in Coin and I went and saw them and some of them came to my show. I think Nashville’s a really cool place for musicians to be because it’s intimate, but there’s also a lot of opportunity for everybody.
NC: Have you considered moving down here?
L: Yeah, that’s kind of the next thing. I can’t get an American visa right now, so that’s the toughest thing. Right now I just get temporary visas in and out, so I have to be out of the country on Monday. But I think now that I’ve been touring a lot more and doing a lot more stuff I might make a better case. I think that’s my goal is I would really like to be down here by maybe the fall. I think I’d maybe like to live outside the city a little bit, just because it’s – there’s traffic everywhere, it’s crazy. It’s changed, it’s so funny especially in the Gulch area, all these places, like 12South. It’s nuts. Every time I come back here there’s like eight new coffee shops… But yeah I’m thinking Nashville makes the most sense. Mostly because I have a really core group of people that are kind of like my second family. That’s another thing, the only thing that would be keeping me from moving here is my family, you know it’s an eight-hour travel day, it’s a long day. So that’s the only thing I think that would keep me from Nashville, but at the same time I really do think it’s the best place for me to be right now. And I love it here, I really do. The people that I’ve met here have really made it worthwhile for me to keep coming back. There’s a reason I store my keyboard here, I’m here seven or eight times a year, so it’s definitely become like a second home.
NC: So you’re from Canada but you’re obviously very influenced by southern music and traditions and southern gothic stories, what got you interested in that kind of aesthetic?
L: I grew up listening to country music. Like Shania Twain and then from there I got into Patsy Cline and Elvis. And I think the darker stuff coming in maybe in my teens. I got really into Flannery O’Connor and maybe a little more poetry. I started getting into Simon and Garfunkel maybe in my early teens and from there I think I was a lot more interested in creating stories and painting a picture with words. I think that’s what I like to focus on when I write songs and I think the southern gothic genre is dramatic and dark. I like the spookiness of it. I like that the south has its own specific cultures and there’s such deep history and I think you can really feel it down here. I don’t really know why I love it so much, I guess your taste is just your taste. I guess I’ve always just been drawn to sort of the grittier writers, like I love Johnny Cash for that reason. I’ve always just been drawn towards the darker side of things. I’m not necessarily a really dark person, but I think in recognizing darkness you’re recognizing your imperfections. I feel like a lot of musicians, they see things from their perspective so they’re almost not as honest with themselves. I think in recognizing and singing about darker things and talking about darker things you’re recognizing that everyone has those sides to themselves. It’s a big pet peeve of mine when people just, especially songwriters, just live in their own head and only see things from their perspective. Especially love songs. Those are the worst! It’s only their side of the story, you don’t know what the other person’s story is.
NC: What made you want to pursue music seriously?
L: When I was in my teens, like later teens, I was really into musical theater, and from there I started to play piano a lot more. And then I went to Switzerland on exchange for a year and had a really, really rough time there. I basically was just playing piano and songwriting all the time. When I got back home I just really realized that I really wanted to do this. I think being away from home and having that time, that solitude and also finding that it was a really dark period for me personally, so I think going through something like that and having songwriting as a tool to weave your way through those times; it was really therapeutic for me and special to me. At that time all of my friends were going off to college and doing their own thing, and the only thing that I could really think about doing, focus on doing, was songwriting and getting my first album out. It’s kind of always been that way. I started recording my album when I was nineteen. It’s just taken a long time for it to come out. It took three-and-a-half years to finally get the full length out. I think it’s always just been a part of me. I think it’s the one thing for me that makes the most sense to be doing. It’s not that I would necessarily be unhappy doing other things, I just think that it fits, and it’s as simple as that. I just want to be able to do what I love, it doesn’t need to be anything fancy or crazy. I really love to play music and write music and it’s going towards the direction of me being able to actually live my life and do this. It’s just working and I’m happy!
NC: Was it frustrating that it took so long for the record to come out?
L: Oh my god, it was terrible. It was so terrible. I had gone through, you know I first started off with a different management company and that agreement had to be terminated. Now I’m with an amazing manager. I think there’s a lot of things I had to go through in my early twenties – I’m still in my early twenties – that I had to go through right off the get-go that I didn’t expect. I think I thought, once the record was done that’s all that it took to really kind of get it out there. There was so much waffling back and forth. It just took forever, it was so frustrating. There was many times were I just thought, you know, “I’ll just stay in Edmonton and work with my mom. I’ll be happy-ish.”
NC: There’s so many things that people don’t think about or know about when it comes to the business side of stuff.
L: Yeah. I’ve learned so much. I’m almost grateful that it did take this long, though. I mean, don’t get me wrong I would’ve loved for it to be seamless. I don’t think anyone has a seamless experience in that, though. If they do then, I don’t know, they don’t have a thick skin like I do. Now I actually have some education, some life experience when it comes to what it takes to actually put something out and what it takes to make music. It’s become a lot more realistic for me and I’m grateful for that, because for so long it seemed so farfetched and seemed like a dream. I think it’s also because my parents aren’t musical, I didn’t grow up in a musical family. So I think growing up in a family that’s really practical – being a singer-songwriter is more of a dream than anything – and they’re very supportive but growing up with that mindset it just seemed so farfetched and now it seems like if you put in the work it’s actually a practical and realistic thing. And I think if you are good at what you and I think I am really proud of my record, it’s actually realistic. But it was extremely frustrating to get it out, it took so long.
NC: So if your family isn’t musical at all, when did you start playing? Where did that drive come from?
L: I took piano lessons from when I was eight until I was eleven, and I really didn’t like the structure of it. I was never classically trained, I never got to the first level of Royal Conservatory because I didn’t practice enough and that’s the honest truth, I didn’t have the drive. I think I always knew I could sing. I remember when I was in middle school I had a flip phone that had a MP3 thing on it and I listened to Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” over and over and over again beside my piano and just figured out chording. Then I got back into piano and it honestly just took that one song for me to really kind of realize that I wanted to do that too and I wanted to make something – one day, I’m not saying I’m there yet – one day make something that sounded that amazing and move someone in that way. So I just sat there and plugged away at it and it kind of just stuck with me. It was pretty bad but I would skip school and play piano in high school. It was the one thing that I constantly wanted to do. I’m glad I stuck with it.
NC: What was it like coming down here at 19 years old to make a record?
L: It was a bit of everything. It was really a whirlwind experience. I actually met Dave through a friend and I played like five songs for him on Skype and I wanted to work with him and he was like “Yeah, we can work together.” And then I flew down here. I had already written my album but we scrapped most of it. And I worked with a songwriter named Brent Cobb, who is Dave’s fourth cousin or something, I don’t know. Brent is amazing. It was very surreal at first. Literally the day I flew in I was writing new songs for my album. It just came together so quickly. I think the hardest part was having that amazing, positive, awesome experience and all the musicians I worked with were so amazing too, that coming off of that and expecting to have that high keep going, that was the hardest thing. I had this record that I’m so proud of and I really want people to hear it but it kind of just went like this [downward hand motion] for a little while. It was pretty amazing for me and I recognize that not everyone gets to have those opportunities. I was lucky enough to have people that were willing to give me the time of day and work with me.
NC: You came down here thinking you had a bunch of songs for the album. Was it hard to get rid of those songs? Or did you feel like “I’m fine with it”?
L: I think half the record is the original and then half is new. My mindset was, I think I recognized that as a songwriter I still had a lot to learn. And to me the new songs were just better. That’s what it comes down to. I think I’m sensitive, but I also don’t think I get attached to songs as much. It took so long especially for this record to come out that I’m so excited to make my new record. I think as a songwriter recognizing that something could be better, you just know when something sounds right. Hearing Dave and I writing the new stuff compared to the old, it was just on a different level compared to my ‘50s and ‘60s country-pop that I was writing before. It kind of just worked a lot more. Dave just helped me focus on what direction I wanted to go. I think I’d been moving in and out of genres and little bit and I hadn’t quite figured out my niche. We were able to really hone in on that. It wasn’t hard, really, to give those songs up.
NC: Have you been writing new stuff? What is it like? Can you tell me about it at all?
L: Yeah, I’ve been listening to a lot of traditional southern gospel music. There’s this Staples Singers record called Uncloudy Day, I think it was released like 1956 or something. It has really haunting harmonies. I want to modernize that sound a little bit. I have a deep history in Celtic folk and there’s always going to be that folky element, but I think sort of blending that rich gospel sound with the country writers I’ve always loved and the Celtic music that I have a history in, I think that’s what it’s gonna sound like. It’s gonna be different. I think for me, it is my second record, I just want to focus on doing something different with everything I put out, not repeating the same thing.
NC: Do you think you’ll work with Dave Cobb again?
L: Yeah, definitely. I have the majority I’d say of it written. I’m hoping to maybe get it done in like September, maybe get it out in like spring of next year.
NC: What are your plans for the rest of this year? Are you touring more?
L: I’m playing four shows or five shows up the coast with Mason Jennings. And then I’m doing a few festivals back at home. I think I’ll be back here for the Americana fest in September and making my new record hopefully in the fall. I don’t have any extensive touring plans as of yet, but I have the Mason Jennings shows coming up, which I’m really excited to do. I feel like I’ve been really lucky as far as touring because I’ve been given the opportunity to tour with people who I think are in music for the right reasons. Most of them are married with kids, they’re not crazy, you know just the typical sort of musician lifestyle. They all have really good heads on their shoulders and it’s been awesome to tour with people with lots of experience and tour with people who are just in music because they want to play music and they want to keep creating something that pushes their own boundaries and pushes other people’s boundaries. I hope to keep touring with people that do that for me. It’s really nice for me as a newer artist to actually have that influence. I’m sure things will come up. Tours seem to come up like a week-and-a-half or two before and then I’m scrambling to get all this shit together before I get out on the road.
NC: Do you like being on the road? Or is it hard?
L: I really do. It’s different every time. I actually like being out on the road on my own a lot of the time too. I really enjoy the solitude. All of these guys [her band] I just brought to South By and they were amazing. A lot of the gigs I’m getting touring are just acoustic duo things. Plus it’s expensive to bring a band. I love it, I really do. I really think that kind of my experience touring has been really great because it reiterates the fact that I’m very fit for this role.