Sessions: Thad Cockrell

Written by January 27th, 2010 at 9:30 am

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Thad Cockrell visited the American Songwriter offices from Raleigh, North Carolina to play a few songs from his new album To Be Loved. Thad talked about co-writing and what’s it’s like trying to write songs you “dont’t know how to write.”  This session was recorded with three microphones: MA-201 fet for Thad’s vocals; Blue Bottle Rocket Stage 1 with a B-8 Capsule on Acoustic Guitar; and Neumann TLM 67 at head height in the middle of the room. Enjoy the tracks, read the interview, and don’t forget to check out the video down below!

Thad Cockrell - RosalynThad Cockrell – A Country Of My OwnThad Cockrell – Pride (Won’t Get Us Where We’re Going)

American Songwriter: For this album, did you collect these songs over the last few years? How does that process work for you?

Thad Cockrell: Well, I had been writing fairly prolifically. I was suppose to do a record for Yep Roc and had plenty of songs to make a record. I could have made 4 or 5 records. I felt like if it’s a journey, then I wasn’t at the exit yet. So I just kept writing and I think at some point I just tried to think about songs that I didn’t know how to write. I wanted to try and write something like that, ‘cause I knew how to write what I was writing. But I was probably avoiding the conversation of these songs.

Anyways, I just started going for walks, and I wanted to write songs more about “us” than about “me.” I’ve written songs about my ex-girlfriend, and while it’s fun, you have to keep making ex-girlfriends to make those records. Some of these I had just written over the course of the last 5 or 6 years, and certainly when I wrote them I didn’t think I was writing a record. I was just writing. They are the songs that I couldn’t get away from.

There were a couple of producers that would have loved to had done a record on spec, ‘cause I was no longer on Yep Roc Records. We decided to part ways [with Yep Roc]. I think everybody wanted to make a country record. I’ve never really wanted to make a country record necessarily. I wanted something that emotionally felt like a country record, but thematically and sonically and melodically it was actually not quite in that small box.

So, I started talking to Jason Lehning. I hadn’t told this to him, [but] my favorite Willie Nelson record, probably one of my favorite records period [is] Phases and Stages. We were rehearsing for that Americana Folk Festival about two years ago. I was like, “Why don’t you put the band together with players that you would want to play on the record?” He did that, and on the way back home I was like, “Man, that was great! So you want to produce a record? Would it be a country record?” And he was like, “No.” And in my mind I went, “Thank God!” Without me saying anything, he was like, “I don’t know if you know this record, but it would be a country record in the way that Phases and Stages is a country record. Everything about it is country and nothing about it is country.” I was like, “Done. We got our guy!” He and I just started going back and forth with these songs, and it was really clear, at least when we recorded the EP, what those songs were. Then we had a bunch of label interests. I think he and I both realized that the conversation wasn’t done. Like those songs were great, but I think it needed the other stuff to give it context. Anyway, we went back in and recorded the full length. So these songs have kind of been around, but there is probably a common thread that goes through all of them, that make them a family.

What are the common threads that stick out to you?

I would say the most common thread is redemption. And the word “hope” gets thrown out there, but that’s not quite it. I think more than anything it would be redemption. Like the character in “Look Up Sarah,” those two people end up redeeming each other. There are lots of great movies that a good relationship goes bad and then it works out, but there aren’t a lot of songs about that. They end up stuck. In “Rosalyn” once again there is redemption, and then in “Country of My Own” there is redemption. I would say that is probably the biggest thread. What’s cool about it is that I’ve gotten feedback from people like, “I’m an atheist, but I find comfort in this music.” And then there are people who go to church and they’re like “I really find comfort in this music.” At least, I felt like that helps me know that I made the right record when everybody can listen to it.

[“Pride (Won’t Get Us Where We’re Going)”] has kind of been a mantra of mine. A lot of these songs were songs that I needed to hear. To me, it’s as much political as it is relational. It kind of means a lot of different things to me.

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Photos by Rachel Briggs

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When you started putting these songs together with Jason Lehning, what were those conversations like?

I started writing “Country of My Own” outside a gas station, outside of Bend, Oregon. I was out on tour for Begonias [2005 duets album with Caitlin Cary], and I don’t know. I was probably wondering what the hell I was doing. I had been listening to that Sam Cooke song “A Change is Gonna Come” like ten times a day. It was obsessive. I’d put it on earphones, but the strings would start and… it would be up so loud everyone would be like, “Again?” So it was kind of like this hand that would grab me by the back of the shirt and pick me up and over. So just listening to it I wrote down, “I’ve got no home / But I’ve got a destination.” I put down the pen and was like, “Well, I can only screw that up, so I’m just going to let that sit for a while.”

So I’m playing these songs for Jason Lehning. I was playing this song called “Searching for a Country of My Own” and I was like, “It’s not finished, but I think the idea is right.” He was like, “Yeah, that’s great. Definitely.” Then I played him this other song called “I’ve Got No Home, But I’ve Got a Destination.” So I’m playing him these two different songs and he’s like, “Do you think that those two songs might be the same song?” And I was like, “No. That’s definitely not the same song.” And while I’m answering, “That’s definitely not the same song.” [I’m thinking] “Yeah, that’s definitely the same song!” [Laughing] So, I was like, “Well, let me take it home, and I’ll work on it.” Literally, I don’t think I changed [anything]. I had the verses of one written and I needed a chorus, and I had the chorus of one and I was like, “I don’t know what kind of verses to write for this thing!” I literally sat down and I played it and… I hadn’t changed anything on it. I was kind of intimidated by both songs, which is interesting because it goes back that I was trying to write songs that I didn’t know how to write. On both of them I was like, “Oh, gosh! [Let’s] call up a friend and have him come bail me out.” In this town, that’s easy to do! Sometimes it’s not that. When I’ve said all I needed to say I should bring a friend in and we should finish it. But that’s not what it was. It was more like I needed to call a friend and have him come bail me out on this song because I don’t know what to do. And it ended up being done.

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What is co-writing like for you?

Co-writing, for me a lot of times is [that] I need an editor. Or I’ll literally have the whole thing written and there are like three empty lines, and I’m just like, “Let me call a friend and I’ll make breakfast, and maybe it will charm him a couple of really good lines out of it!” I think there are times that I’ve done that for other people where they are like, “I need help with this song.” And I’m like, “That song is done…. You have a chorus right there. Get rid of this, this, and just repeat that three times.” And they’re like, “Of course, it’s done!” And I don’t take credit for it. I mean, it was written. It was right there. I guess in the same way Jason could have taken co-writing credit, but sometimes you just need an arranger. It’s hard because you want to get in the room with someone you trust and that will be really open-handed like they’re not in there trying to owe it something, like “That’s a great song!” I don’t want to be that way with somebody. I have a friend that just finished up his record, and before he went into the studio we went through it. He was really discouraged…. And I was like, “Man, these are good! Maybe you just need some editing.” He got so incited. We spent like two hours going over every song by the time it was done….

Having worked on these songs over the years, did you have to sit down with Jason Lehning and narrow down a group of songs?

Oh, no. We knew exactly what songs [we wanted]. He had full free range to produce it. I talked about what I wanted it to sound like emotionally. We went in and cut the first six songs over the course of two days, Bass, Drums, some acoustic and vocals, and I left. I went back to Raleigh…. [When] I heard the first six songs for the first time… I was like [Awestruck].

Audio and video for the Thad Cockrell session was recorded and edited by Kyle Byrd.

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