Interview: Austin Lucas on Immortal Americans, Personal Tethers, Adrenaline Spikes and Listening to Music

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Austin Lucas’ new album Immortal Americans (Cornelius Chapel Records) is due to come out in a few days. Listening to the album for the first time I nearly had to pull my car over to stop driving and listen; the lyrics are that evocative and original, and almost as dangerously distracting as texting and driving would be.

So when I had the chance to talk to Austin Lucas on the phone last week, my head was swimming with imagery and questions about the album. The title track “Immortal Americans” presents lyric impressions of kids watching stock car races (though the watchers were never fans), and images of teens singing the songs of their fathers, and of being dutiful daughters, dutiful sons. The words trigger emotional responses, through imagery of teens growing up in rebellion, with elevated “sha-la-la” choruses to heighten the poignancy. Austin Lucas is the son of bluegrass guitarist Bob Lucas (Alison Krauss), who plays on Austin’s new album, which adds a layer of mystique to some of this lyrical nostalgia about growing up. I asked Lucas if this song is about resignation or hope, or a mixture.   He replied; “this song is about overcoming humble beginnings and the desire of young people to push further than their parents. I use things from my own childhood; I’d sit on rooftops in Bloomington, Indiana and listen to these stock cars roaring in the distance and have my heart fill with dread. As a young teenager I was a punk with a Mohawk and the people at those types of events were combative on the street and at school. I was transfixed by the insane noise in the distance that was intriguing and yet had no real bearing on my own life. The only thing that I knew was that if I went to where the noise was coming from I could easily get the sh-t kicked our of me. So it was a combination of fascination and foreboding. Bloomington is a pretty progressive bastion of the Mid-West,” he explains, “and there’s the liberal center of town around the University of Indiana but then the rural surrounding sentimentalities are very different.”

Similarly the song “Goat and Goose,” with its lines about a tin brass goat and a tin brass goose who have a child — they “have a dream their child might see all there is to see from sea to shining sea”–  continues this vision of advancement of one generation over the next, from the perspective of being locked within an immobile “tin brass” body. So I pressed Lucas to say more about this undertone of being locked in, and observing life, and dreaming of more.

Lucas’ forthcoming responses were honest and personal: “I’ve been a prisoner of my own body and my own mind for most of my life,” he said. “I’ve had very significant issues with anxiety and depression since I was very young.   I used alcohol and cigarettes and, to some degree, other substances to combat those issues but those things really didn’t heal me. They were more of a Band Aid. In truth, I became overweight and out of shape, and as a result become more anxious and depressed. Even as a very young person I knew I was afraid of other people and I couldn’t interact with people in the way that I perceived “normal” people interacted with each other. I spent a lot of time cursing myself for not being able to interact with people the way I thought I should and I wondered what was wrong with me. As a result I spent a lot of time dreaming of what the outside world was like for other people.”

I was commiserating, and raised the question of whether introversion could be an additional factor in some of this. Lucas agreed, adding: “A lot of introverts want to be outgoing or are forced to learn to be extroverted as a result of their career path. A lot of people don’t realize this, and people actually comment that I’m “personable,” but the truth is I’ve had to condition myself to be more gregarious and every day is a fresh and agonizing fight to do it. Some days are easier than other days, but it’s always a battle. If I’m talking to someone I’m not already familiar with, somewhere inside is a voice screaming for me to run away.   A lot of people don’t understand that. They don’t know there’s a peak of adrenaline spiking through me all the time, telling me to fight or flee.   I’m not trying to garner sympathy, but this is what my life is like. And some people, like you — you are agreeing and you understand — but really not everybody gets that. Not everybody knows what that’s like. And I write from that perspective a lot – wishing that my life could be what other peoples’ lives seem to be like, and trying to figure out how to get there.”

“Do you find that you’re trying to reach others through song, or is songwriting mainly cathartic for you?” I asked him. Lucas emphasized again: “I am trying to reach others, but I think my songs are only relatable to certain people. People who don’t understand the kind of life I’m talking about don’t really understand my music. I think that what I do is relatable to people who happen to be able to relate. My music is not as relatable in a widespread fashion as songs that are just ‘easy to throw your boots on and go drinking over the weekend’ songs. It’s not the kind of music whose primary purpose is so you can just pop a cold one and sit back and not think. With my music you’re going to think about it. And the people who understand where I’m coming from, those people hear it and relate.   But when you’re talking about a world of broader appeal, there are artists who are more readily accessible to all those people because they are connecting with the kind of emotional processes more people experience on a day to day level.”

I pointed out that his music and lyrics are both complex, which is another significance to appreciate. Lucas replied: “Yes that’s true, and I don’t think a lot of people out there want to deal with complexity. I mean there are some who do, and those people are more likely to like what I do. Personally, I have always gravitated toward songwriters who are a little more complex, that’s what’ll catch my attention. If I’m listening to music that’s not complex then it better have the most perfect little earworm melodies and hooks that draw me in. But when I’m listening to serious songwriters I’m looking for depth of story, depth of emotion, intelligent word play; listening to how they construct things, whether it’s traditional or their own style. I want music where the person is speaking from a position of authenticity. In a different way, there are a lot of good writers who catch a lot of people’s attention and are part of a movement.   And maybe these more popular artists are writing more concise imagery as a vehicle for speaking to the people who are going to follow in that movement, but I’m speaking to people who feel like they are on the outside and not part of a huge movement, or really any movement, but just want to relate to another person.”

“I try to make music for people who are thinking and want to be engaged; for people who maybe came from a time when music was more of an active experience, when people took the time to devour every aspect of a record. I’m making music for people who’ve had repeated experiences really listening to an album and have taken their time, and listened a few times. Maybe they didn’t like it the first time but kept listening a few more times and it became their favorite record. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but my quest has always been to create a piece of art that has an effect on other people intrinsically. I’m not creating something that you can put on, in the background, while you get on with your party life.”

We turned to discuss how challenging it is to get new music heard, because society is so complex it’s hard to connect. “I don’t have a precise formula for how to connect people to my music.   And even more so, I wonder whether, even if I can connect to one person, can I motivate him or her to sit down and listen to it?” he said.   “In the digital age, if you don’t like something immediately, you just move on to the next thing. There’s something cool about that, but at the same time, I know for some of the things that had the most relevance and greatest effect on me growing up, I didn’t even like the first time I listened. And then over time I heard the layers and realized it was harder to get close to than by simply grabbing ahold of it immediately. On the first listen it’s hard to hear everything.”

“It’s like a poem, if you are hardly paying attention and just brush past it, you might miss the best poem of your life. And music is like that in this day and age. People just don’t take the time to sit down and make a conscious decision about whether they like something or not. They listen a little bit and make a fast decision, basing their decision on whether they like it or not on whether it fits into a category of things they already like. I mean, this is simply the way it is. But it is a different world.” Then, as an afterthought, Lucas said: “this is maybe even the way people always have been but it’s just accentuated now.”

“I believe listening to music is analogous to forming a friendship. You have to get to know someone to become his or her friend. To me, albums are friends. Books are friends. And unless you spend time with them you’re never going to get to know how much they can mean to you.”

For an example of Lucas’ lyrical singularity, try these from his song “My Mother and the Devil”: “My mother says the devil is the only one who ever gained a thing by telling folks the truth. And my father says the devil and my mother are the only ones who’ll be there always and forever, no matter what I do.” These lyrics demand your attention, require you to think. And it’s good to make people think, in general. And in this case, they are a catalyst to consider the meaning of the concept of “truth” itself.  “What is the degree of reality of truth?” I asked him. Lucas responded to this: “The truth is subjective. Your truth is maybe not always somebody else’s truth and is maybe not accurate.” I continued: “To me the lyrics suggest there are different truths, your mother’s truth and maybe the devil tells another truth.” Lucas replied: “When you say that, that’s so obvious to me, that now the song is about that too.”

“That song came to me in a dream, and unfortunately that song really hurt my mom’s feelings. But it came to me when I was in a very dark place and I was trying to tell people the truth of my personal situation so they could understand me, but it kept driving people away, like nobody wanted to hear. For example I tried to tell my friends they couldn’t leave me alone if we went out to a bar. I’d tell them my anxiety was too great and I needed them to be a tether. But they’d disappear on me. And this would cause me to have a fit, crying in a taxicab going home. I felt so completely alone. In my dream my mother was telling me to keep this to myself and hold it together.“

So I asked Lucas whether his tether now is his songs and the music. “My career is my tether. I can go to a show and act normally with human beings. I can use my work environment as an avenue to be around people and have them hear my truth.”

Austin Lucas’ new record is coming out on Cornelius Chapel Records after his having released several with Last Chance Records. Regarding this change, Lucas said: “I’ll always be on Last Chance Records; Travis Hill [the owner] runs a great record label. Travis and I are thick as thieves, it was just that Cornelius had a little more time for me right now. But all of us, we’re a collective, like a family. A good opportunity for me might help everybody else, like the other artists on Last Chance, too. And I’m not moving far from the ideology of Last Chance Records. Travis has a lot of my back catalogue because that’s my family. But now my family is just bigger.”  [For more about Last Chance Records, read our interview by clicking one of these bolded words.]

Check out Austin Lucas’ new record coming out on Aug 17; he will be hitting the road to tour constantly starting in September. Follow him on social media.  Check his tour dates here.   https://www.austinlucas.com/

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