Q&A: Singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves

Q&A: Singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves In “Beautiful Thing,” Slaid Cleaves sings: “Passion is a song only fools and traders sing/ It’s a beautiful thing.” The line is fairly simple and straightforward – and is also a perfect introduction to Cleaves. His songs are seemingly light and airy, yet the lyrics themselves deceptive- – much like his thoughts on passion. Listen to the entire song if you get a chance; it will be more than obvious that passion is not lacking in this soft-spoken Austin, Texas, native.We spoke to Cleaves as he watched the sun go down from a buddy’s porch in Richmond, Va. The conversation was casual, his tone much like his singing voice – unforced and unassuming. His music is country in the sense that his songs tell his stories with a twang. However, he has mercifully strayed from a growing pattern among country’s better artists to overproduce his music (or add that “slick” feeling in business terms). Instead, he relies on his voice, his melodies and that sense that once you hear him, you know him

Here Cleaves talks about growing up and reaching out – as well as some of the things he has learned while doing both. One thing we’re sure of: He has come a long way since those guinea pig days.

You were born Richard. When and why did you start to be called Slaid?

The day I was born, my dad said that “I am not having a son named Dick.” I was named after my mother’s father. Honestly, I never even heard about Richard until I was in first grade. Slaid is my great-grandmother’s maiden name. There’s no other Slaid out there except maybe a couple young ‘uns out there.

Someone told us something about you being a human guinea pig before making it as a musician. Can you, um, specify?

Well, in my early struggling singer-songwriter years I did various odd jobs and they always impinged on my time as I was trying to work on my chops. I found a job as soon as I moved to Austin. There was a research company that needed human volunteers for drug trials. I was young and healthy and got a month’s worth of flipping burger money from doing it.

Any weird side effects?

(Laughs) Nothing lingering, thank goodness.

You have been on the road for quite some time now. What is the best part of performing?

Well, I guess my favorite part is when my mind is not wandering or thinking or calculating but just being in the moment and enjoying the music and enjoying the people I am playing with and their contributing and the audience. It’s a magical thing and it doesn’t happen all the time. I actually wrote a short story called “Playing with Abandon” about just that.

Do you have a set method to your songwriting?

It doesn’t really come in a chick-and-the-egg type of way. It comes much more in a jumble, where I might put a melody down and forget about it and a month later or a year later might write some words down and realize that they can be pieced together and they can happen. It might happen over several months or years and kind of mix them into the songs.

How did you discover your musical talent?

Well, I grew up in a kind of musical household. My dad played guitar a bit – he was the inspiration and made me want to do this. Mom and Dad had a great collection of LPs in the ’60s and ’70s. I was exposed to really great music at an early age. Beatles and Hank Williams and Kris Kristofferson and Chuck Berry – all this great seminal American music. Bruce Springsteen became a hero of mine and found a lot of music through him.

What do you put on when you’re blocked? Any artists that really come through in your music?

That has happened, when I’m stuck in a direction. Often I put on Woody [Guthrie] or Hank [Williams] and it centers me onto what is important. The economy of style and depth of emotion that they went for, that is what is most important to me.

My favorite album was the Library of Congress Recordings. It’s at the Smithsonian museum now, I believe. Those records were when Woody was 28 years old and he talked to Allen Lomax and Allen is just teasing out stories about his wild adventurous childhood and hobo days and all these songs about his life. That’s what made me a Woody Guthrie fan.

You obviously do this because you love it, but at the risk of sounding vague, what is music to you?

Music is a very powerful force in my life. It is inspiring and seemed important even when I was a little kid. As a teen it helped me figure out who I was and what is important in life and as I get older, even though sometimes the passion for things fade as you reach middle age, it is true with music.

But then there are those times every once in a while where I’ll be reminded that music and art in general is sort of, when you remember its importance, it really is what makes life worth living. We forget that every day, but when I sing to a friend in bad shape and see the reaction in that person, I’m reminded that it is incredibly powerful and makes life better.

On that note, could you ever imagine being anything else?

I’d be a guinea pig. It’s the second-easiest work after being a musician. Sit around and get poked with a needle and that’s about it.

What are you most looking forward to in the next couple of months?

Honestly, I am really looking forward to these shows with Guy Clark. It’s a real treat. It was very important to my development early on to open for people that were a few steps ahead of me in my career and talent and it has been a long time since I’d been out doing that. I am just genuinely looking forward to a new audience and watching him work and learning from him.

One more question: Is everything really bigger in Texas?

(Laughs) Yes, it is actually. Everything really is.

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