Slaid Cleaves Interview (2011)

Slaid Cleaves Interview August 2011

I’m presuming that the majority of No Depression readers have heard of Slaid Cleaves who has been a regular visitor to our towns and cities over the last 10 years or so; but what do we know about him? Not a lot, I’ll wager.

A quick search on Google informed me that his actual Christian name is Richard and Slaid is his middle name; and he’s liable to get a little tetchy if people ask him about it as he finds the subject boring. Another quirky fact is that Slaid cuts his own hair! Family finances had dictated that his Mother cut his hair well into his teens. After some teasing, one day in 1982 he finally went to a real barbers shop and asked for a ‘Rockabilly cut’ and ended up with a Flock of Seagulls creation. Some weeks later, still traumatised by the terrible professional cut, he heard of a friend who cut their own hair and decided that was what he would do and 29 years later he still cuts his own hair; limiting himself to 25 snips at a time.

After that the only ‘interesting fact’ that I could find was that he grew up with Rod Picot and the two songwriters still remain best friends today.

Surely there must be more to the man than this? So; with a UK tour in the offing I rang Slaid at his Dad’s home in Maine the day before he was taking a week’s holiday.

After the customary greetings I asked if he had grown up in a musical household.

“My Mom and Dad both had their own record collections full of Rock and Roll, Hank Williams and Buddy Holly; things like that but I can also remember my Mom playing Beatles records too. On one of my early albums (For the Brave and the Free) I wrote a song about the time my Dad bought a Gibson guitar and kind of ran away to join a Rock band. He still came home every evening; but I guess those are the things that sowed the seeds for my own love of music.

Like most young people in our town I took piano lessons for a while but all I wanted to do was play guitar and join a Rock band and eventually Dad taught me the basics on that big old Gibson and together with Rod Picot, who I went to school with, we formed a Garage Band doing songs as diverse as Ozzy Osbourne’s ‘Crazy Train’ the Eric Clapton/JJ Cale song ‘Cocaine’ (we changed the lyrics slightly) and probably ‘Louie-Louie’ at school assemblies. Like everything else in your teens it didn’t last, but I persevered and eventually went to College as an English Major and attempted to write songs myself. Some were better than others and as part of my course I went to Cork in Ireland for a year. My Dad gifted me his Gibson J50 and I supplemented my income by busking on the street corners. Eventually I had a two hour setlist of cover songs and a few of my own; as I’d set my self a task of writing one new song per week.

The more I played the better the songs became and when I returned home I had the basis of an act. Not long after arriving home from Cork I was due to play in a roughneck bar called Angie’s in Portland, Maine on a Monday night. Because it was a small room I had to unplug the Jukebox to plug my speaker in. On this particular night there was a table full of young women blocking my way and I had to ask them to move. There was a little misunderstanding and one girl thought I was asking what record she wanted playing on the jukebox. I had to explain that I was about to switch it off and sing; but I’d dedicate a song to her instead. I did and that young woman is now my wife; Karen.

By the time I finished College I was getting regular gigs at local bars and a few that were a drive away; but by then I knew that this was the career path I wanted to follow. Karen supported my through 10 years of having no money and apart from doing some awful jobs along the way to pay the rent I’ve stuck by music ever since. Since the success of ‘Broke Down’ 10 years ago we’ve been pretty self-sufficient with Karen looking after the business side of things and me writing and performing. Although it was an exciting time 10 years ago I like to think that the Broke Down album and Horseshoe Loungewhere the hinge that moved my career from the total obscurity to the relative obscurity that it has remained ever since.”

I then asked about Slaid’s songs as they usually have a beginning, a middle and an end which is quite unusual plus they tend to have the ‘ring of truth’ about them and could easily be based on actual events.

“I’ve always had a love of words and I’m attracted to story songs so I guess its only natural that is how I write. For me I love the charge you get from a song that boils down to a single event or an emotion; Hank Williams probably did it best, but there are still plenty of other songwriters out there who write in the same way too.

I sometimes put my own experiences into songs but most are based on things I’ve witnessed or events I’ve heard about and put my own spin onto them.

I wrote Quick as Dreams after reading the book about the famous American racehorse Seabiscuit, Broke Down, Key Chain and Horses and Divorces aren’t 100% true but the basic stories are all true. One of my most popular songs isBreakfast in Hell which is based on a folk tale that Gurf Morlix told me one day when were visiting him in Ontario. He’s a great storyteller and I believed every word when he told me about a lumberjack called Sandy Grey who once dammed a river to stop a flood. I wrote the song the following day on the drive back to Texas.”

I then butted in and ask why he hardly ever sang or wrote overtly love songs.

Slaid chuckled then considered the question for a moment or two before telling me; “When I was 17 I was a huge Clash fan and when someone asked Joe Strummer the same question he replied by saying ‘It’s all been covered, already;’ so that kind of sums up my own approach to writing love songs. I do write them, but you just have to use your imagination to decipher which ones they are. Another hero from that time in my life was and still is Bruce Springsteen who really inspired me to write about the things and people around me. The town where I grew up had a lot of shoe factories and a big farming community plus a lot of unemployment; so my earliest songs reflected those peoples lives and I’ve tried to carry on Springsteen’s tradition ever since.

I often get asked why I don’t write ‘political songs’ and I do! But they are just as subtle as my love songs. Who wants to hear another singer singing ‘War is bad’? In Green Mountains and Me I take the place of a soldier’s wife waiting for her husband to return from War and Hard to Believe is about Soldiers fighting to make the World a safer place for the millionaires; which I firmly believe they are doing and Beautiful Thing addresses the cynicism that is sweeping across America these days. They are there if you look for them.”

Warming to the theme of Slaid’s writing I mentioned that some of my favourite songs of his include drinking and gambling and the people who populate that murky world; so I asked if this was a world he too inhabited.
“Not directly.” He laughed, “But I’ve played in hundreds of bars that these people frequent; so I’m steeped in the culture of a clientele that are usually more interested in watching the hockey or fights on the TV than the artist on the stage; so I pick up on the characters, sometimes by having a beer with them sometimes just by watching them. I guess I ‘people watch’ for a living.”

Although Slaid Cleaves has been recording for 20 years he’s not the most prolific of writers. I asked why he’d released a covers album (UNSUNG) in 2006.

“I needed to release a new album but had no songs!” Slaid laughed again. “A lot of my writer friends are very talented and I often include their songs in my act so it wasn’t too difficult a decision to make. Plus it helps promote their work on a different platform. Everyone wins.

One of the problems I felt I had; was that I’d said all I wanted to say. But after recording UNSUNG I took a long look at my writing style and decided to write in a more modern style, much less simplistic and it proved interesting and challenging as I stretched myself. I was listening to U2, REM and the Clash of course and tried to use their styles of writing for EVERYTHING YOU OWN in 2009. Thankfully it was very well received by the critics and fans and sold a respectable amount; which made me feel pretty proud.”

At this stage I had to ask about Slaid’s stage act and his constant touring.

“Although I’m pretty shy by nature I love being onstage in front of an audience. I’ve sang in the smallest of dive bars and alongside Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival; which was a historic moment for me.

In England I’ve been very lucky to be invited to the Cambridge Folk Festival quite a few times and my audience has been noticeably bigger every year; but I still get back to play the Horseshoe Lounge in Austin whenever possible.

I’ve finally got round to doing a live album and the Horseshoe seemed the logical place to record it. It’s just me, Michael O’Conner and accordion player Oliver Steck playing all my hits (laughs) on a double album and it will be released a bit later this year and my British fans can buy it first when I tour in September and October.”

This interview first appeared in the October 2011 issue of

Photos of Slaid Cleaves in concert at

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