Korby Lenker ’s eighth studio album, Man in the Maroon, arrives May 21st from Grind Ethos Records, and the album itself draws a great deal from Lenker’s experiences on a ranch in Montana that he retreated to from his home in Nashville in order to gather his thoughts following the death of his younger sister. The location, called “Crow Country,” referring to its Native American heritage, became a source of inspiration for him, and you can see a great deal of the landscape and sense of the place in the film video for the song “Crow Country” that has been released.
The album’s title, Man in the Maroon, refers in part to Lenker’s own isolation in working out these big life events, but it also seems to be a nod to his self-professed role as a “write for introverts” both in fiction and in songwriting. As a TV, film, and short story writer, as well as songwriter, Lenker finds a lot of points of commonality in his creative endeavors, though he rarely knows where he’s headed when he’s writing and he prefers it that way. Korby Lenker joined us to speak about Man in the Maroon, how songs were selected for the album, and how he came to work with esteemed Native American musician and flute player Bill Miller on “Crow Country.”
Americana Highways: It sounds like this album is the product of a lot of soul-searching for you and was personally challenging to create.
Korby Lenker: I think that’s a fair assessment. It’s been the coming together of many loose ends for the last three years or so of my life. I’ve been doing this for a long time, making music, writing stories, and making art. With the absence of a routine approach to the record industry, which was probably prompted by the pandemic, there was a more permissive environment, so I just tried some things on this record that I think are fairly unorthodox. One of those things was including a 15 minute short-story. I just wanted to be myself, to put it in a nutshell.
AH: Do you think that the lines of “how things must be done” when making an album were blurred in the past year and a half which gave you the chance to be more exploratory?
KL: Whether or not that was true objectively, I think that was my perception, and it made me feel like, “What the hell. Do whatever. Don’t try to kowtow to the demands of the industry, whether it’s making something more genre-specific or more cohesive tonally.” I just made the record I wanted to make, you know? I like a lot of variety, I play a couple of instruments, and I’m interested in a lot of things, so I tried to make it reflect that.
AH: Do you usually work on songs gradually over time, and when you have enough, you put them together? Or was this more of a direct approach to making an album?
KL: It’s definitely more of a lifestyle for me. At some point I say, “There’s enough for an album here.” Like a lot of people, I recorded three or four that didn’t make the cut. I’ve written three songs since the new year that I will cut, and a bunch that I won’t. [Laughs]
AH: For this particular album, what were some of the ideas that led you to include or to cut songs? Was it more about themes or sound, or about which ones were strongest?
KL: I think it was more of the former, with both themes and sounds. I’m thinking of two songs that didn’t make it onto the record that were two of my strongest songs but they just didn’t hang together very well. One was a quasi-spiritual acapella song that I wrote that I play every time I play out. It tends to be a crowd favorite but it was a little too stark compared to the others.
What happened with this record is that I originally set out, at the beginning of the pandemic, to make a really good work tape collection. I have a studio and have produced things in the past. I tried to create a really good vocal and guitar representation of the songs, and as I went down that path, it was really clear that some didn’t work at all with a vocal/guitar approach. My interest in a melodic element usually carries the song, but some of the songs needed more.
At first, I was playing all the instruments myself, adding things, and after a couple of months of that, I just got disgusted with what I was doing. There was nothing surprising in the music for me because I was making all the choices. Shocker there! I reached out to a friend of mine, Skylar Wilson, here in Nashville, and Skylar helped me put together a band. We went back and forth about mixes and production choices, and everything became a joy again. Having a bunch of different musicians on the record made it surprising for me, and that’s a huge part of joy in any creative effort for me, the surprise inherent in it. If I’m writing a short story, I don’t have an idea how it’s going to end. I’m just kind of writing to discover. And that’s so much of what keeps me interested. My long project at the moment is writing a screenplay every day, and it’s weird because I kind of know where I want things to go, but I write to discover.
AH: The screenplay stands alongside the TV series you’ve been writing, right?
KL: The TV thing is another thing entirely. The TV show is at a point where we’re just fundraising for it, and it’s something that I write with a partner. I’ve found over time that I still need to have a solitary effort in something that I’m doing. Me and my cowriter have gone through 18 iterations of a pilot script of a TV show I wrote and developed. We finished doing that, and rather than writing more scripts for future episodes, we’re focusing on producing that pilot script. It’s kind of a big budget effort. It’s a whole journey. It’s always slower than you want it to be, like most things in film and TV, as I’m learning.
AH: I know that you have a story collection out, too. I thought it was interesting and fun that you included a short story reading on this album because storytelling in music is something that interests me and a lot of other people. This brings the crossover closer together. Do you think that all songs have some element of story to them, or is that just your personal approach?
KL: No, I don’t actually think that all songs have an element of story to them. I think there’s an approach to songwriting that’s more like a tone poem or a vignette and I enjoy those kinds of songs a lot. Elliot Smith comes to mind when I say that. Sometimes they just surround a mood or a feeling and that’s what the song’s job is. To me, that’s really what the song’s job is whether or not a narrative is part of it. A narrative is nice for some minds to latch onto and follow along, and I’m one of those minds who enjoys a strong narrative. I love Richard Thompson songs. “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” is such an amazing song! It’s a great little story song with a beginning, middle, and end. But at the end of the day, it’s about that emotion you get from a song, and there’s many ways to achieve that.
Words and poetry are very mysterious and that’s part of why we are so attracted to it. What is really going on when you’re making a song? I don’t know. I still don’t really know what’s going on when I write songs or stories. You just kind of put yourself into it and kind of start thrashing around. Sometimes you have something that’s interesting or makes you feel a certain way, but most of the time you don’t.
AH: I was going to ask you how you developed your sense of songwriting, but now I’ll ask instead: Is everyone just thrown in the deep end, really, when it comes to songwriting? There’s not something you can follow proscriptively, is there?
KL: Maybe there’s something proscriptive there. I live in a town [Nashville] of proscriptive songwriters. There are definitely guys writing five songs a week. They are a little more formal because they are aiming at something a little more formal. Not to take anything away from that. There are some mainstream Country songs that destroy me.
AH: This does remind me of your story that’s on the album, “Mose and Ella”. It does seem to be about this very subject. It’s about supporting yourself creatively, by output, versus being struck by inspiration or being purely creative.
KL: That’s absolutely what it’s about. That was me trying to work through something that I find very confusing in myself and something that makes me really insecure from an artistic perspective. Namely, that I’m making a living doing this. Barely, but I’m doing it. A lot of that is about maintaining a relationship to productivity, to making stuff happen. That’s a parallel universe to inspiration at best. I’m always wishing that I spent more time in a purely creative mode, whatever that means. I guess an “aimless” mode. I never hang out. I don’t like to party. I’m very purposeful and deliberate with my time, though it’s embarrassing to say that out loud.
In the story, I explore this idea of two little girls on a walk and I thought it might be a funny conversation. But as I was writing, I was learning. There’s something that Mose, the more free spirited one, shows Ella, the uptight one. It was like something in me showing something to myself. I got very emotional towards the end of writing it, which happens with a lot of my stories. I’m so attracted to fiction and the written word because of its intimacy. There’s a conversation you can have with another mind that can span centuries. If you’re reading Emily Dickinson, she’s right there with you. She wrote it yesterday. It doesn’t matter. There’s something so sacred about that space, and I live for that. I find that to be where I most want to live.
AH: I would say that I can see some of these same approaches in your songs, too, in the sense of talking to the audience in a very specific way. Is that your goal, to create things that can cause this same situation for other people that you experience and appreciate?
KL: I think that’s fair to say. Something I noticed about my songwriting is that I’m not a writer of songs that you fire up at a party. It’s not “Let’s get it started with Korby Lenker!” [Laughs] I’m definitely a road trip soundtrack artist or a late night soundtrack artist. I’m a writer for introverts. I like all kinds of music, but my meat and potatoes type stuff that I go for is that quieter leading acoustic music, these thoughtful songs, rather than fun time songs.
AH: I meant to say earlier, when you mentioned bringing in a band to work on this album, is that it has a lot of sonic layers to it. It really sparkles for that reason. “Crow Country” is a great example of that, which I know was inspired by Montana and has a film video that was shot there, too. How did you come to work with Bill Miller, the Native American flute player, on this song?
KL: There’s a friend of mine, Tim Lauer, who has produced music in the past. He and I work together often. I gave him that version on the record, minus Bill. He asked if I knew Bill Miller and in talking about him really suggested “the legend of Bill Miller” to me. He put me in touch with someone who knew Bill and she put me in touch with Bill. Bill just came over to my house one afternoon, though we’d never met, and played what’s on the record. It blew me away. That was the beginning of a real friendship that I’m in now. We talk every week.
He came over and we just filmed a live version of that song. I think he is so special. He doesn’t need my help. He’s got two Grammys and he’s famous, but he’s gone through a lot of stuff in the last two years. His daughter died last year, he had cancer, and he’s taken some real shots. But he’s back in it now. When he came out the other night, there’s this part in the outro where he’s chanting along, praying in Mohican, and it’s something you just don’t get to experience. I feel super lucky to have him in my life and I can’t wait to see where that friendship goes.