There is nothing like a global pandemic to keep musicians home recording albums. Those making electronic music may have it a bit easier than those requiring a full band in these times of social distancing, but Clark Andrew Libbey found a workaround for this problem on his new album Small Town Famous by playing all the instruments himself. It is the brilliance of multi-track home recording that makes all this possible, but it begins with a small kernel of a song nurtured into an anthem for just getting through the day. The stories we tell ourselves can be medicinal.
Weekly Alibi sat down with Libbey to talk about the writing process, combating depression and his new album. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
Weekly Alibi: Small Town Famous is your fifth solo album. How much of this was written before the pandemic?
Clark Andrew Libbey: Five or six of the songs. A couple of these songs were written for the High Desert Playboys. A couple of them were songs that I'd written months ago for a rock band that never existed. Then there were three or four that I wrote for during the process while I was recording. I would have loved to record the ones that I do with the High Desert Playboys with the guys. I'm sure they would have sounded much better, but we were all quarantined, so I decided I wasn't going to let an opportunity, however grim, go to waste.
You recorded at home and then had Ken Riley of Rio Grande Studios do the mix?
I was very lucky to talk to him about that because he is an incredible engineer and really made these songs jump. He did a fantastic job.
Was this a nonstop weekend or was this a little at a time?
This was over about five weeks. I did every single part. I pretty much would get up almost every day at six or seven in the morning and start recording usually by eight, then record till the afternoon. I had a pretty bad breakup right before the COVID, and I needed something to do. I wasn't going to be able to sit, do nothing and think about the relationship that just ended. So, this was therapy. I would often record five or six hours during the day, then go for a bike ride, have dinner and then start recording again until two in the morning.
Most of the songs are along the sad country continuum.
I think it's about half and half.
There are some rockers in there.
I grew up with ’90s alternative rock and punk rock, and that's still a part of what I write. I don't really write in genre anymore. I don't think about it. I think about melodies and stories. I feel like those are the important things and that the genres will fall into place. There are definitely four or five country songs, alt.country, Americana or whatever you want to call it these days.
Some say that sad country songs make you feel better when you're sad. You do believe that?
I think there's certainly something to be said for the sad country song. Either it being something you can relate to, or it's something where you can say, "Well, my life isn't so bad, because look at that guy's story. It's terrible."
At least you can think, "I still have my dog."
I've just been going through quite a bit of depression lately.
There’s a lot of that going around.
There is a lot of that going around and a lot of anxiety. I don't feel like that's necessarily pathological. It's an anxiety- and depression-filled time. If you're an artist during this time, you can't help but write things that reflect the moment, and it's a pretty depressing moment.
The single “We're Gonna Get By” is anthemic. It would be a sing-along to the pandemic if it were possible to gather people together for a sing-along.
That's the idea. I wrote that honestly as a mantra for myself. When I write songs, I think about melodies and stories. I don't care about chords or beats anymore. I'll find the melody and then I'll fit everything else to it. I came up with that melody as a mantra to get myself out of bed in the morning because I was in the depths of such a depression that I just didn't want to get out of bed and do anything. I knew if I let that happen during a quarantine, I wasn't going to make it. So, it was a mantra, almost a prayer, to just get myself going in the day. The “we” in "We’re Gonna Get By" is a royal “we.”
Did you write it as a single?
No, I just wrote it as a mantra to wake up in the morning. Then I put some guitar chords to it and thought to myself I should probably write fancy verses. That was obviously the chorus. There are some other words, but not really much. There isn't a verse to that song. It's just a chorus and a bridge. I wanted to think about the simplicity of gospel music, where gospel music will repeat a phrase over and over again. I’ll just have a nice chord progression with a great harmony and then just beat it to death. They'll just sing it over and over and over again and eventually, much like “Sunday, Sunday, Sunday,” just melt into your brain.
It is catchy.
I thought I should remove my ego that makes me want to make it more complicated and make it some sort of fancy song that everybody says, “Oh, he's a great songwriter.” I should just take my ego out and record that chorus. It turned into sort of a COVID anthem, but it was born out of a personal need to psych myself up to just have breakfast.
You played nearly all the instruments on this album, except where Kristen Rad plays a few violin pieces and sings a backing vocal. How did that work?
I'm a drummer, a bass player, a guitar player, a washboard player and a harmonica player. I've been playing all those forever. I'll write the songs in my head and then play the drums to the backing tracks. Then add all the other instruments on top.
How are you going to promote your album without touring?
I have a label out of San Antonio, Texas called Slow Start Records. They've been great. They've been aggressively promoting it. We're pretty much considering this a digital-only album. We're making two videos out of “31 Crosstown” and “We're Gonna Get By." We're going to push those pretty hard on Instagram. This was originally intended to be on vinyl, but we decided to hold off on the vinyl until I can tour.
You have set for yourself the goal to write a song a week. When did that start?
It originally started with a group called the Four-Track Club back in Cincinnati in 1995. It still goes on there. We challenged ourselves to write a song a week, at the time it was to record a song a week on a four-track. The idea is to just make as much content as possible. It's much easier to edit something that exists, than it is to create something out of nowhere.
Shitty first drafts as Anne Lamont would say?
Exactly. You just think of it as a widget, you don't think of it as a child. It's a widget. If the widget isn't good enough, you throw it away. If it's good, then you work on it, edit it and make it into a song. Basically, you're trying to increase your percentage of things that you keep.
That’s a very workman-like, rather than an inspiration-driven way to write songs.
You can't wait for inspiration. I mean, you can, I suppose, and sometimes it happens. You've got to get this stuff done. Eventually, you train yourself to make the most of inspiration.