Thomas Csorba — Interview
Thomas Csorba Brings Us Songs ‘From The Jordan’ As A Meditation On Love
Native Texan Thomas Csorba released his EP From The Jordan this Fall, his first collection since his self-titled 2020 album which displayed a wide range of themes and a passion for Americana. The new EP takes a slightly different approach in meditating on the theme of love, particularly within human relationships, and the ways in which that creates an inner narrative in our lives. From the Jordan also features co-writing with Beau Bedford of The Texas Gentlemen (who also produced the album), Brian Douglas Phillips, and David Ramirez.
We spoke with Thomas Csorba about the business side of reaching audiences with his 2020 album and this EP, developing different narrative voices in songs, and how some of the songs on From the Jordan developed their subject and sound.
Americana Highways: You’ve been playing some songs from the EP live, haven’t you? I saw some posts online about that.
Thomas Csorba: Yes, it’s been a blast. Usually, I have a lot of shows leading up to a release to play the songs before they are out, but these release shows have felt like the first time I’ve really gotten to play them live for people. It’s a weird feeling.
AH: It hasn’t been that long since your album release, though I’m sure you’d been working on it for a while before that came out.
TC: Yes, we started working on it in the Fall of 2018, and pushed it a little bit when Covid started happening. Since we couldn’t tour, we decided to partner with a great team who could bring the album to people digitally. We really wanted to figure out how to make it work and we had a really successful release. The From the Jordan EP, from a business perspective, is a way to bridge that gap. I had all of these songs that I was really excited about and seemed to have a cohesive element to them but were also a re-entry into getting to play shows again and could point people toward the other album that I didn’t get to tour.
AH: That makes total sense. I’ve often spoken to artists about how to direct attention to albums after they are out, and this is a great way of bringing more music into the conversation.
TC: Totally. I really want to be the band ten or fifteen years from now who has a robust body of work. I also feel like I can’t sit on something too long before releasing it since these records are a moment in time that’s being captured, especially with the kind of music that I write and the kind of topics I’m interested in. It’s better for my spirit and brain to stay in the world of those songs as they are released. I also feel like I’m writing the kind of music I’m always going to want to sing. I still love getting up on stage and singing “Another Man In Me” from a record I wrote five or six years ago. Those songs are surviving the litmus test of time which is a huge blessing.
AH: This is an interesting subject, how songs change over time for audiences and for performers. Do you feel updates happening in terms of how you see older songs when you perform them again?
TC: Yes, absolutely, even with the new ones, From the Jordan. I believe wholeheartedly that these songs are kind of “beyond me.” I’m a scribe in some ways, and though I bring my own personal experiences and perspectives to the table, these are subjects that will stand the test of time. They are subjects that I’m always going to be grappling with, but it’s interesting to think about my perspectives a few years ago. It’s a really interesting process.
I played a show in Austin the other day, and there was a gentlemen who drove in from outside of town and knew all the songs. He requested me to play a couple of songs that were a bit older that I genuinely couldn’t play because I didn’t remember them. But as distant as I might be from those songs, he might have heard that song last week for the first time. It may seem new to him. My relationship with the songs is different from people who are just starting to listen to him.
AH: It’s so true because there’s digital discovery going on, and there’s physical discovery of music. I discover really old music all the time that feels fresh to me. I know there is a fair amount of autobiography in your songs, but does that feeling of distance, of being “the scribe,” make it easier for you to share things that might otherwise feel too personal, especially on this collection?
TC: Yes, this collection of songs definitely revolves around love, romance, or companionship, in the wake of having a year that, for some people, was about extreme isolation. For me, it was a year about being about to get married, getting married, and starting a life with someone. There is a tension there. I think when I was 15 or 16 years old, I thought writing about my life was the only thing that you can do. Then I heard “Angel from Montgomery” and thought, “That seems agains the rules.” Those are groundbreaking lessons to learn, that the person singing these songs isn’t necessarily the first person character in the song. I learned that when I was an undergrad studying English.
I took a creative writing poetry class, and I was god-awful at writing poetry, which I find way harder than writing songs. I remember somebody went up and read their poem to the class, and somebody said to the writer, “You feel this way.” And the professor spoke up and corrected, “No, that’s the speaker in the poem, not the writer.” I’ll never forget that. My personal experiences will always end up in my songs, in same way that there’s a version of John Prine in “Angel from Montgomery.” Part of him is there, but I think it’s important to be able to toggle between different speakers and characters. That’s been quite a joy to learn, since it really opens you up to different topics and experiences that you can pull from.
AH: That’s something that seems to open up a whole lifetime of possible work. Many folk artists work almost exclusively in third person storytelling and its fascinating. This EP, From The Jordan, has a strong sense of internal experiences to it, too, though. Internal experiences can be a form of storytelling too, and the title track feels very self-reflective. That’s a whole journey right there.
TC: I wrote that song with my buddy David Ramirez, who I idolized as a kid and he’s become a friend and collaborator, which is really fun. We were sitting there just talking during the stage of Covid where we could go and see people if we stayed outside. So we were sitting on his porch talking about friendships and me moving to Dallas from Waco, where I went to school. The beginning of the song, with the line, “A little too ambitious for my own good,” was something that David pulled directly from what I was telling him about in moving on from this small town. So yes, there’s some personal experience in there for sure.
I think that song, more than anything, though, is about that tension we all feel in telling someone, “I love you and I’m going to be here forever for you.” While also knowing full well that there are days where I’m going to fail. Or God forbid, I could get hit by a car or something and I won’t be there. Who knows what’s going to happen? I think that song is kind of about that tension and if you’re able to take these personal experiences and link them with that bigger feeling, I love that melding.
AH: It’s like understanding the impulse to reach far ahead and promise things to others while hearing the echo in the back of your mind reminding you that you have limitations. But should we let that stop us from making promises? We can’t let that determine whether we try.
TC: Yes, let’s roll the dice. That’s how the song ends, saying, “I’m willing to roll the dice on each other.” I think that’s the only kind of promise we can make.
AH: The song whittles down the promise to what it really means, which is rolling the dice. But it’s a hopeful song in that way. Do you think, musically, this EP sounds different than the songs on your 2020 album?
TC: These songs are pretty recent. “Crystal Eyes” was written shortly after our wedding, which was August 2020. Musically, these songs all kind of lent themselves to a more sentimental vibe. I’ve been pretty obsessed with guys like Willis Alan Ramsey, J.J. Kale, and even Cat Stevens. They seemed to embody the right kind of sentiment for these songs that feel very close to the speaker. I think Cat Stevens does that really well. There seems to be a really great respect for the song where there’s silence because the song needs that. Some of the songs on the EP get big and triumphant, like “Crystal Eyes,” but I think that song needed that. It needed a great rejoicing.
AH: That one feels like it has an emotional build and release. Some of your songs seem to suggest that there might be something bigger than humanity out there, and that one really seems to jump off in that direction.
TC: Yes. I think the way we’ve Americanized marriage, too, has turned into that. Marriage is the way that we can show each other what love and commitment really looks like. In a song like “Crystal Eyes,” the chorus invites people in to let that be a communal and community endeavor. It’s a beautiful thing. We had a smaller wedding because of Covid, with thirty to fifty people, all outdoors. But it ended up being about telling people about our commitment to each other, but also saying that it’s something that we can’t do alone. There’s a great humility in that, knowing that it takes an army, but also a rejoicing in beautiful picture of an unearthly kind of love.
AH: “Backroads” was also a song I was really struck by. The sound is very different on that one. It feels dreamy and hypnotic, but when I say that in the context of your music, I don’t mean it as strongly as I might if I was talking to a psych rock band. But it’s got that echoey effect. Is that a new sonic direction?
TC: That was kind of new to me. It didn’t feel new because it happened so naturally. I wrote that song with Beau [Bedford] who produced the EP. He came with that melody which is so ethereal and lovely. What that song needed was a dreamy thing. When people ask me about songwriting, saying, “Is it the music or the lyrics that come first?”, I say, “It’s kind of like riding a bicycle.” You can’t balance or pedal, both have to be happening. When we had that melody, we thought, “This is a dreaming kind of song.” Then that turned into that verse, “but I can get lost dreaming of you, loving on me.”
It’s that introspective feeling, and those lyrics inform the time and tempo of the song, which is so slow. I feel like as slow as we can play that song live the better, since it’s so hypnotic, as you were saying. So, yes, those things inform one another. I think that’s a really beautiful thing about that song, that the music and the lyrics really mesh and inform each other well.
AH: They do. It has a very slow, wandering feeling. The image of back roads has exactly the same atmosphere. This kind of suggests a place even though it’s introspective. I heard in another interview that you like to listen to music in the mornings. I am a non-morning person and maybe I should listen to music in the mornings.
TC: There’s something, too, about really quiet mornings. Though not all mornings are the same. This morning, I had an eighteen-wheeler on my street. It wasn’t the kind of morning for quiet. I want to start doing a thing called “Morning Pages,” where when you wake up and you’re still in a dream-like state, and there seems to be something that’s out of the way in your psyche. Jeff Tweedy talks about it as the ego. But if you write first thing in the morning, and you write three pages of whatever, you’re going to filter out less stuff.
It’s a dream-like state and I think that listening to music in the mornings, you also pick up on things that you might not otherwise pick up on as often. When I listen to music, I am a words guy and I pick apart words. But in the morning, when I listen to music, it’s so obvious that the spirit and the vibe of the song are foremost. My brain can’t comprehend lyrics at that hour of the day, so that part of me is kind of taken out.