During the isolation of quarantine, The Steel Wheels sought to continue flexing their creative muscles, which was no easy feat considering the distance between them. That’s when they embarked on a songwriting adventure that would come to shape the last two years of the band – crafting songs based on the personal stories and experiences of their fans. That experiment in community creativity not only lead to one album, 2020’s Everyone a Song, Vol. 1, but now its sequel, an outcome the Virginia-based quintet never anticipated when they began this intimate musical march.
Everyone a Song, Vol. 2 is due November 5.
I recently sat down with primary songwriter Trent Wagler to discuss uncorking the bottle of lightning, exercises in empathy, and being true to their musical roots.
Americana Highways: First, what a great concept for a concept album. How did involving the stories of fans inspire you creatively to write without that initial spark of inspiration that says, “I need to sit down right now?”
Trent Wagler: I think it took some time to get into a, no pun intended, rhythm with it. But what it ended up doing, especially in this weird era, was it gave us regularity to… because we couldn’t be on tour and we couldn’t do what we usually do, creatively, it was like, “Okay, I’m going to the studio. There’s 10 songs we’ve got to write over the next two months.” And it was more like a day job, if that makes sense. Even though that doesn’t sound as inspiring as when you feel like you’ve got lightning in a bottle with just a momentary inspiration from a conversation or something like that, there’s something about that kind of regular discipline of just sitting down and saying, “Okay, I’m writing,” that ended up being really, really freeing for me.
And also having a story to start from takes the pressure off of, “Where do I start?” When you sit down and you start writing a song, usually it’s like, “Where am I going with this? This could be a sad song, could be a love song, this could be anything.” I’ve got anything in the world to draw from and in a way that can be more paralyzing. So having a story to start from was like, “Okay, let’s just do it.” And then it’s just a matter of following your impulses and playing around and improvising until you find a direction you’re enjoying and go for it. There was a freedom in it that I was surprised by.
AH: People tend to assume that the lightning in the bottle strikes musicians, but when you look at something like television writers who are on a schedule and are working with deadlines, they still come out with something like Breaking Bad, which changes the ballgame.
TW: Right. I think that’s part of a myth around art and artists, just this mad genius who is almost taken by this spiritual element, almost. It’s just external to them and it doesn’t have to do with discipline and hard work. You think about a potter or you think about a painter and, to some degree, it’s just a matter of keeping those muscles flexing. And that was, I think, part of what this was initially like. “Let’s find something that can keep us creatively connected as a band, even.” Because we don’t live in the same town and so it was like, “How are we going to even keep a band together?” I’m not even talking about the financial side or the aspirational side of, like, “Do we want to be in the band?” But just from the sense of, “Are we creating together?” This gave us that regularity that kept our muscles moving in the creative sense. People will talk about journaling or morning pages as a way to just keep that creative force flowing and this became that. In addition to that, when we first started writing all of these songs, we had no thought that an album was going to come out of it. It was just like, “This is a one-off song for this person.” And so that also took some of the pressure off and I think you become a little less precious with every single choice than you do when you’re working on your seventh or eighth studio album and you’re thinking, “But this is going to go out to all the people I care about.” There’s a weird sense of how that can start to throw your decisions. “We can’t do what we did last time!” Instead, I think I felt a little more free to just follow whatever inspiration came from the story and just let that happen. And then by the time we had 45 songs or something that we had written, that’s when we were like, “Oh, wait a minute, there could be an album here.”
AH: And now two.
TW: (Laughter) And now two, exactly. Yeah, we couldn’t leave it there.
AH: So from a songwriting standpoint, do you think that this process also puts you in a position to write about subject matters that you wouldn’t normally be writing about?
TW: Yeah. It was a great exercise, at the very least. It was a fun dance. I believe there’s an element of: all writers are kind of putting themselves into everything they write no matter what they’re writing about. I think that’s the exercise of empathy that’s required to try to put meaning to whatever form of writing you’re doing. This is something that I’ve toyed around with in the past, doing other concept albums, or, I once upon a time talked about a musical that I was considering. And so some of those things, they feel more realistic or a possibility after doing this kind of project.
AH: Do you feel like this and Vol. One will become time capsules for what people were going through during this time period, because it feels like you’ve almost created a documentary in a sense?
TW: Yeah. I think that’s why we did the podcast. We have this podcast, We Made You A Song, where we go into every single song and talk about the story and a little bit more about the weird process of never playing any of these songs together as a band and just recording them. A lot of them were one or two takes and then you pass it on. And so I do think that the podcast definitely is like the documentary in a very real sense. I am always fascinated by looking at our work in retrospect and we go back to the early albums and I’ll have things that strike me now that I’m just like, “I can’t believe we made that choice.” And it’s not really regret, but you just shine it in the light of some time that has passed and what you were focused on at the time has really changed. So I have no idea how these albums will feel in five years or even six months, but I do think there are a lot of themes, for sure, that are going to be timely of this moment. I had to stop worrying about that at a certain point because there was a part of me that was like, “Well, I don’t want to write a bunch of pandemic songs. I don’t want that to be the story.”
AH: And I didn’t take that from it at all. What I took was, there’s something very human about what we all experienced. We all spent more time with some loved ones than we probably expected and then had to stay away from others far more than we expected. And everyone shared in this feeling at the same time – this sort of two sides of the isolation coin.
TW: Right. And I think, not to try and put meaning where there isn’t, I do think there’s both. We felt less human in parts of the pandemic and the isolation, but I think in feeling that sense of dehumanization of our existence, makes us appreciate the things that we’re missing. I think that was exactly, like you said, the situation with a lot of the songs. People wanted something special for their dad and they wanted a special song for their loved one for their anniversary. There was another kind of thing where we see people making big changes in the midst of the pandemic, where they sell their house and they move across the country and they make these huge choices. I feel like part of what this gave people was the permission to try to reach out and show their care to the people that they love. Which in a certain way – and again, I’m not really grateful for the pandemic in any way – but you could see a silver lining in the sense that people were reaching out and it gave them a reason to take a little more effort and even invest some money in showing that they care about the people around them, which we just don’t typically do when we’re taking that stuff for granted.
AH: Right. Agreed. In no way am I grateful for the pandemic, but I know that I got to spend more time with my kids during this period than I ever would have. That’s not a luxury my parents had, who at the time, were working multiple jobs.
TW: Right. And I think that’s why too, we see a lot of people quitting their jobs. They’re making big changes when they start to look around and say, “Well, wait a minute, is it going to take another pandemic for me to realize I want my life to look like this?” It did get a lot of people making some big moves because it got them thinking big thoughts.
AH: What was something that came out of this experience of writing these songs and delving into the lives of fans that you could have never seen coming, but are so happy now to have experienced?
TW: I guess the way I’ve thought about it a little bit is, a lot of our touring life is about creating a sense of community in a group of people with music as the catalyst. And in this case, it was really a special experience of dialing into one person’s story and really trying to understand it, to the place where you could reflect it back to them in music. What that meant was that people were very vulnerable at times with their stories and their struggles. We wrote several songs to tribute a lost loved one and I think those are the ones where you feel the most responsibility and even a bit of pressure of just like, “Are we going to get it? Is this going to feel enough like them?”
It feels like such a lofty goal, but I think it was really just another reminder of how, when people are willing to be that vulnerable – to open up and tell their story – that then for us to get to participate in that, write a song, send it back to them, we have that whole reciprocation yet again, of them sending back their gratitude for it. I’m so glad we did it.
True stories and real experiences, not only do they make great songs, but it’s something that we all want to connect to in a real way.
AH: I think that’s the beauty, Trent, is that here are these songs that you focused on the micro of, one life at a time, and ultimately they became the macro because we all can relate to them in some way.
TW: And I think in that sense, it also is instructive for me as a songwriter because I think, there’s still many and what I love about songs is there’s a million different ways to create a beautiful song. So it’s not a one thing. I do wonder and I did wonder – I still wonder – whether or not all of these songs that we selected have insider information that, if you don’t know the story, you don’t connect to it. And yet, like you said, I think there’s something about even when it’s a very micro, specific story that you’re telling, sometimes people still connect their own dots and it becomes their story.
I have mixed feelings about the podcast that I’m responsible for getting started. (Laughter) I have mixed feelings about it because the filling in all the blanks and telling the full story and hearing that person’s voice, I think that’s really gratifying for people sometimes, but I also think it takes away the mystery. I do hope and I want people to be able to listen to this record and just hear it and enjoy the music and not feel like they’re always going to be like, “Well, let me go back and figure out who that was about” because I think, especially the records that you go back and listen to over and over again, part of it is because you’ve connected to it and your own story feels like it’s being told through the music. That’s part of the magic of listening to songs.
AH: What would the Trent who first picked up an instrument think about your journey in music thus far?
TW: Honestly for me, I feel like it’s kind of full circle. When I first picked up an instrument, I was listening to Nirvana and Pearl Jam. I was more in that world than I was in an acoustic realm. And so some of the full circle ways we’ve changed our sound over time has really just articulated the broad sense of our influences as a band. A lot of us in the band grew up singing in church and so some of that a capella, four-part harmony is very honest to who we are, but then also we grew up singing and playing rock and roll. I got into jam band music when I was in college! And so now the way we’ve tried to build out the different sounds that we make on stage and in the studio, feels like it was inevitable and I’m so glad that we did that. We didn’t somehow feel hemmed in by our own making. We didn’t create these boundaries. We never saw ourselves as a bluegrass band because we knew we never really played bluegrass. And in part, that’s like an honoring of what bluegrass is, that we were like, “We’re not trying to do that. Don’t compare us to Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe because that’s never been our bag.” We like acoustic music, we like acoustic instruments, but that’s more of a palette and so the music we’re making is our music. We’re not trying to say we’re above genre, but we’re just a mix of influences and we’re trying to be true to those things and the palette of instruments is what we continue to play around and change, but the actual music underlying is pretty much the same as it was when we started.
To learn more about The Steel Wheels and the We Made You A Song podcast, visit www.thesteelwheels.com.