Drew Holcomb — Interview
Ellie and Drew Holcomb have separate careers that intersect when the creative stars align. With a new album and corresponding tour, the couple is making family the focus in the early part of 2022. Given how important their music has been to this writer’s household, the combined entertaining efforts of the Holcombs are a welcome tune for both the young and old.
Coming Home: A Collection of Songs, by both Ellie and Drew Holcomb is available this Friday via Magnolia Music.
I recently sat down with Drew Holcomb to discuss career introspection, having a conversation with a song, and small cakes with lots of icing.
AH: Your songwriting has been a big part of our family dynamic here for quite some time, especially during the pandemic. When I told my nine-year-old son I was interviewing you, he asked that I kick off the interview with a question of his own.
DH: I love that idea. That’s awesome.
AH: He’s a drummer. He’s always been interested in music. He wants to know, what age did you write your first song, and what was it about?
DH: I wrote my first song when I was a sophomore in college. It was about my dog. (Laughter)
AH: (Laughter) As a multi-dog owner, he’s going to like that answer.
DH: (Laughter) That’s awesome.
AH: I’m going to follow up on his question and ask, what would the Drew who wrote that song about his dog think about the music he’s making today?
DH: Oh man. I think he would be really proud. I think he would definitely not believe that this was still my job—that it was my job ever, honestly—but that it was still my job this far into my life. And the things that I’ve gotten to see and do, and the places I’ve gotten to play…I think 19-year-old Drew would be pretty impressed.
I always say my career has been mostly icing, because the cake that I imagined was pretty small. The way that it’s gone has been really a lot of fun. Not without it’s hardships and disappointments obviously, but it’s been pretty great.
AH: These last few years made people take stock of their careers and look at what they had been doing with a new set of eyes. Did the pandemic force you to rethink things and look at your career in ways that maybe you wouldn’t have if you didn’t have that time to slow down?
DH: Yeah. Like for everybody, it forced a good bit of introspection and inventory—emotionally and job-wise. I think mainly my takeaway was that I really love my job. I especially love the core of my job, which is writing, recording and touring. Or performing, maybe, instead of touring. The years leading up to that, I had certainly gotten a little bit distracted by the difficulties that those things sometimes present. No one tells you that you’re running a small business when you decide you want to start a band. You can get bogged down in the details of making it all work, and worrying about the future, and worrying about whether people are going to continue to come to your shows. I think every musician has fears that their next record is going to bomb and no one is going to care anymore. I’ve never had a record bomb, but I’ve definitely had records not do well. And so I’ve already, in my career, experienced that sort of up and down roller coaster that you can have as an artist. That said, I got distracted with other things. I had bought a little farm that I was thinking about turning into a multi-site Airbnb with tree houses. I was just getting distracted. And so COVID reoriented me towards things that I love.
But also, I think I was touring too hard pre-COVID. And now, I won’t do that again. I think there comes a point where you can be gone so much that you lose your love of what you’re doing out there. I’ll be 40 this year and so I just reoriented the way that I work. Just in general, though, there’s a sense of gratitude for the work itself.
AH: Your Kitchen Covers streams with Ellie became so important for my family and in the lives and other listeners because it gave us something to look forward to during that intense period of widespread shutdown. As part of the silver lining, did the pandemic also show you how important your songwriting was to people?
DH: Yeah, it really did. I had the time to read the emails, and the Instagram messages, and the notes.
I had this kind of weird thing happen in 2016 where I was in the hospital for 10 days. I got meningitis. I’ve told this story publicly before, but I was stuck in the hospital for 10 days. When I finally started feeling better, I knew I was going to be recovering at home for a couple of weeks. I was like, “Well, here’s my post office box, if you want to send a letter, I’ll read it.” And I got like 400 letters. And I still have them all. I kept them all. And some of them were real short. “Thanks for this song.” Or, “What are you doing for Christmas?” (Laughter) Kind of funny stuff. But a lot of them were really heartfelt. And so I had already had a moment in my career where I was able to take stock of, “Hey, this music is bigger than just you.” Like anybody who is a music lover, you can take or leave the artist sometimes, but it’s the song that speaks to you.
AH: And what’s so beautiful about that, Drew, is that the song speaks to people in different ways, too. That’s the beauty of music.
DH: Yeah, absolutely. And really, the Kitchen Covers thing, for me, was about me rediscovering that, as a fan. As much as it was about playing the music for the public, it was also just about, “I’m stuck here at home, I can’t do what I love, but I love music, I’m going to reconnect with all the music that I love.” And also really challenge myself. A lot of the songs were pretty difficult for me to learn and play. And so it was kind of a mixture of those two things.
AH: You and Ellie are only a few weeks away of kicking of the You and Me Tour. Not all couples share hobbies, never mind turn those hobbies into a career. When we talk about couples and that spark, we tend to talk about the spark between the couple, but I’m curious, do you two still have the spark with music itself? Does it still excite you the same way it did when you first picked up a guitar?
DH: Yeah, I’d say it does. I still get the exact same feeling when I know that I’ve written a great line, or I get a hook in a chorus. That is always as much of a thrill now as it was then. And sometimes it’s more of a thrill, because I feel like I’m better at it, so it happens more often than it did 15 years ago when I was first starting out, or 20 years ago when I was in college writing songs for the first time.
So, as a fan, it’s harder for me to just sit and enjoy music, because now I’m thinking about production, and where is the influence, and I’m also thinking about Moon River, and would this band be a good fit for the festival. So I have to separate myself. And one way that I’ve been able to do that is through the lens of my kids, because they’re just discovering all the music for the first time. For instance, we just saw Sing 2 at the theater over the holidays. I’ve been trying to get my kids to listen to U2 for years. They’ve just been disinterested in it. And all of a sudden, because some animated characters are singing U2 as a part of this storyline, now they’re like, “We love this band.” So, it’s just fun to watch that discovery process happen with your kids. I think that everybody re-experiences the things they love when their kids start to become old enough to love those same things. And you have to be careful, obviously, to push your own tastes and hobbies on your kids, but it’s at least fun to introduce to see what sticks.
AH: When you go out on the road with Ellie, and if the kids are coming along as well, how important is it for you to be able to build those memories about being on the road with your family, as opposed to just sharing the memories with them after the fact? Does it sweeten it for you?
DH: Yeah. Honestly, it just makes it easier to be out there. We always say, “Home is where the family is together.” So if we’re in a bus in Cincinnati, it’s as good, in some ways even better, than being at home. It’s just a more memorable experience, so you’re not having to try to create memories. Just the sheer fact of being on a bus in different cities, in and of itself, is a memory machine. And so you don’t have to really work too hard at it, other than 12 people sardined into a tour bus. There’s definitely some sacrifice involved in that. But the kids love it.
That was one of the biggest disappointments for them of COVID. We got to do the 2020 You and Me Tour in February. It was when everybody was sort of chattering about this thing that was happening. It was coming, but it was before it really took hold. We didn’t get to do it, obviously, in 2021, and that was one of the biggest disappointments. So they’re even more excited about it now, because they know what it’s like to not be able to do it, even though they’re only nine, six, and three.
AH: You and Ellie also have a new album due out this week. As you look back over your career, especially where we started our conversation—college-aged Drew writing his first song—is it surreal to see your music catalog expand, and know that you have not just an album or two now, but a full library?
DH: Yeah. Honestly, that’s the wildest part that younger version of myself wouldn’t understand. And I know that because I have conversations with younger versions of myself all the time, who all they can see is the record right in front of them. And it’s like everything, they have so much value and identity wrapped up in this current project that they’re doing, because it’s their first, or second, or third. And they either don’t have enough momentum, or they have it, and they want to make sure they take advantage of it. And so there’s just all this pressure on the work to create identity for them.
I was the same way. And as you get older, and you have this, like you said, this library of work, there’s a freedom in knowing that you’re not defined by the current work. So there’s a creative freedom in knowing that there’s more room to fail, because you know you’ve been down this road before, and you know that if it’s not well-received, as long as you still put your best work into it, you could be proud of it.
Now, the other flip side of that is I think a lot of people coast on their library. And they say, “I’ve got all this library. People like the old songs. I’ll just tour those. And I don’t need to make anymore music.” And there’s certainly a time and a place for a sabbath of sorts from writing. Everybody needs to sometimes take a break, if their work starts to suffer, or their life circumstances need that. I’m not judging anybody for taking a long break from making music, but I think for me, the new stuff, continuing to write, and trying to challenge myself to beat the old stuff, or at least compete with myself for the attention of my own listeners or new listeners, I get a thrill out of that.
But there’s also a freedom in knowing that at least we have the old stuff. (Laughter)
AH: (Laughter) The back up. The safety net.
DH: (Laughter) It is a little bit of a back up. And I’ve always been the kind of artist who wants to play what people want to hear. I want to play my new stuff, too, but I’m never going to be the artist that never plays their fans’ favorite songs. I recognize that the reason I have this job that I love is because these people let these songs into their atmosphere. And so that’s really cool, and I don’t want to take that for granted.
For the music, click here: https://tonetree.ffm.to/cominghome