Eric Brace: Finding The Way That ‘Everything Will Be’
Eric Brace & Last Train Home have followed their early 2020 record, Daytime Highs and Overnight Lows with another recently released full album, Everything Will Be, now available from Red Beet Records. If that feels surprising, you’re not alone, since their 2020 record was a big surprise and reunion for the band, and with this new collection, unusual events conspired to bring these collaborators together again for a whole new slate of music. It should have been a more difficult thing to bring together so many players to craft and record eleven songs remotely, but the band instead saw it as an opportunity to capture even more of their vision from home studios.
While at least two of the songs on Everything Will Be reference some of Eric Brace’s experiences during the pandemic period, on the whole the album casts a wider net as a meditation on time and the passage of time. In some songs that idea is overt, while in some it’s more of a meditative presence, but it’s certainly relatable due to the ways that the past two years have made us all think about, and experience, time differently. I spoke with Eric Brace from his home in Nashville about the decision to create Everything Will Be, what he thinks of cover versions and instrumental music, and about how he sees his own relationship to time right now.
Americana Highways: Because of the circumstances of the pandemic, I assumed that this record would have fewer people on it than your last one with Last Train Home, Daytime Highs and Overnight Lows, but when I looked, that wasn’t particularly clear. They seem to be neck and neck.
Eric Brace: Having to make a record in such extreme circumscribed conditions almost frees you to do anything, because as long as you can find somebody who can record something in their basement or home studio, you can call on anybody. You don’t have to have five or six people in the same room playing things. So we called on as many people as I heard parts in my head. We found those people. With Last Train Home, over the decades we’ve gone from five people playing the songs that I heard in my head, on the first record, to growing into a very big band.
The band just kind of grew and grew as I heard more things in my head, and when we became more of a touring band around 2005 and 2006, the album that we made, Last Good Kiss, was really a return to a five piece band. That was the touring band and it was the last studio album we made for a long time. When I said, in 2019, “Hey guys, let’s try another one!”, that’s when it became a nine piece again.
AH: Is this an album that you thought you’d be making anyway around this time, or did the circumstances of the world prompt you to make the decision to work on music together?
EB: It definitely came about because of the pandemic. I wouldn’t necessarily say, “This is an album that is only about the pandemic.” I know that some people have made and released albums like that recently. However, you can’t get away from the context of the times. After our album Daytime Highs and Overnight Lows that came out in January 2020, I didn’t think there would be another Last Train Home album, frankly. I thought it would be a good note to stop on. I’d been working with Thomm Jutz and Peter Cooper, I’d been working with Rory Hoffman, who’s a blind multi-instrumentalist here in Nashville, and we’re starting to write a bunch more stuff together.
I just thought that I was headed in different directions, and I still will be, but this album came from a time when I wasn’t feeling very productive during the pandemic. I did write a couple of songs specific to being locked down, “Just a Moment” and “Next Time,” and both of those were about not being able to see people you care about. I did acoustic versions of those, just by myself, in my basement studio. I had asked Thomm Jutz, who’s an audio engineer of the things I needed to buy to make my programs on my Mac sound better, and I was able to cobble together a couple of those songs.
Then, I was looking back on Last Train Home and the arc of our career, and I had been listening to our Christmas music album, Holiday Limited, that we put out in 2000. There was a song on there called “Christmas in St. Paul,” and it occurred to me, “I wonder what happened to all those people?”, the characters in the song. I started noodling on a song that became a single we put out for Christmas 2020 called “By the Lights on the Tree.” I had sent a note to the guys asking if they wanted to play on the sequel and they said, “Sure!” I sent them a scratch track and they all started sending back tracks.
My secret weapon in the band in Jared Bartlett, who we met twenty years ago when he was a young kid but already a brilliant recording engineer and guitarist. He worked with us over the years and he mixed this Christmas song. When I saw what we were able to accomplish on this Christmas song at a distance, that stuck in my mind. I could tell that everybody was feeling cabin fever themselves and saw them posting demos. I thought I should take advantage of how creative they were being.
AH: How did you choose songs to work on and develop them?
EB: I started sending demos to people, asking what they’d do with certain songs. Then I asked if we covered some tunes, which songs they’d like to cover. We’ve never been precious about that and have always enjoyed putting our mark on tunes that we love. Bill Williams, who has been with us from the very beginning, said he’d always loved the John Hartford tune from 1967 called “The Six O’Clock Train and the Girl with Green Eyes.” I thought, “Wow, that’s a deep track.” Because I love John Hartford and aspects of every part of his career. That was from his Love album and it’s such a cool, weird, surreal song.
AH: That’s exactly how I would describe it! But I wouldn’t have known about the song unless you all had recorded it. It’s such a strange song and almost feels like an updated film noir.
EB: Totally! We could have done it in that way, even slower and even more atmospheric, but when I was learning the chords on the chorus, I found that it goes to a very weird chordal place with all these half-step tones. I’m not a very good guitar player but I tried to learn it slowly, finger-picking. Then I realized that I was playing it in a Samba kind of way, purely accidentally. One of my heroes when I was a kid was the Jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd, and coincidentally me and my brother went to school with his daughter. I suddenly realized I needed a nylon string guitar and to play it like Charlie Byrd, like a Samba, like a Bossa nova.
It turns out that our drummer, Marty, has been playing over the years in a side combo that plays Bossa nova. I thought this would play to all of our crazy strengths. Here we were taking this 50 year old tune from a stoner New Grass banjo genius and turning into a film noir Samba. Strangely, I think it works.
AH: Now I want to know what happens to the characters in this song afterwards. You’ll have to do the sequel to that song in a few years.
EB: You do wonder, don’t you? Did the train come? Was she on it? You put yourself in John Hartford’s head and think, “What is happening here??” The fact that it’s not resolved is the best part about it, since it lets you imagine whatever you want to imagine, which is what all great songs should do, I think.
AH: Have you ever worked on your own songs or cover songs where there really wasn’t any narrative element, or are you someone who sticks pretty closely to storytelling?
EB: I think that narrative has always been really important to me because my parents were readers and my grandparents were all English teachers and professors. I’ve had a very book-oriented life from day one, so for me it was always hard to get away from a narrative thread. I think in the same way it would be hard for a classically trained musician to suddenly start exploring Free Jazz. Whenever I get away from narrative, it’s always a very deliberate thing where I try to get into a zone where less information is being given. Even when I’m being more opaque on songs, in my head there’s always a narrative. That implies there’s a story to be told.
But nowadays, I’m listening to almost all instrumental music. Instrumental music exists in almost all cultures and when there’s a culture of instrumental music, it is almost all related to dance somehow. I think it’s important to allow music to exist without a narrative. Last Train Home has recorded at least five instrumental tracks over the years. Some of the bands I’ve loved most over the years have recorded tons of instrumentals.
One of my heroes here in Nashville is Richard Bennett, not to be confused with the Bluegrass guitarist of the same name. He is a longtime musician and Producer, and he’s steadily made six or seven instrumental records now. The songs are like four-minute movie soundtracks. I’ve listened to them a lot of them in lockdown and they are so evocative of wide-open spaces and dusk on a western highway. Maybe I’ll make a record like that one of these days and ask Richard to produce it.
AH: That would be amazing. I’d be very interested to hear that. Aside from the two more lockdown-inspired songs, what kinds of ideas were on your mind when putting together the songs on the record?
EB: I think, if there is a theme to this new record, it’s the passage of time and the consequences of that. I think that is in every song, to some degree. In some songs, it’s very explicit with references to time, like in the John Hartford cover, and the song, “Just A Moment” and “Next Time.” Time is going to pass, and what’s going to happen? It’s been almost two years of pandemic now, and it’s changed how everybody does everything. Even though some people pretend there’s some kind of normal to get back to, there’s no getting back to how things were. I think that we all have to come to terms with that. Everything we do now is going to be in the context of the pandemic.
The hardest thing has been all the people that we’ve lost, both to Covid and for other reasons. I’ve lost several friends and I wasn’t able to memorialize them properly, to celebrate their lives, to get together and grieve them. I think there’s been so much grief that’s been unrealized and unfulfilled. It’s privately held. My mother, who’s about to turn 90, was listening to the record, and said, “Oh, you sound so melancholy.” I said, “Mom, it’s the nature of the world right now.” But actually, she said something very similar when she heard the first Last Train Home record years ago. She said, “I really like the sound of it, but are you okay?” [Laughs] It’s nice of her to worry.
AH: I do agree with you that, whatever has happened in terms of major life events, whether it’s deaths, marriages, births, or divorces, everything has had to be met with the same kind of holding of the breath approach. But we can’t put off reacting forever. It’s a strange situation.
EB: I have realized that for my whole life, there’s always been the notion of “the next thing.” In my head, when I realized this about a month ago, I was trying to understand why I was feeling uneasy. There’s always been the next round of gigs, a tour planned, or a record planned. There’s always been something that we’ve been planning for. The Last Train Gigs that we just performed, which had been delayed for a year, and that we played up in Washington, Richmond, and Annapolis, were things I had been planning for. Then I had this feeling, before the fact, of a kind of postpartum depression. I wondered, “When that’s done, what’s coming next?”
I’d had a brief e-mail with a DC singer/songwriter who sings on a few of these songs, Laura Tsaggaris, saying we were sorry that we hadn’t seen her at the gigs. She had actually caught Covid during that time, and when I said that I hoped she didn’t have any long-term effects, she said, “I’m not even thinking about that. I want to make plans and keep them.” I thought, “That is perfect.” I’m not sure I want to even get back to normal, but that is my new motto. It encompasses everything, “I just want to make plans and keep them.” With the shows we just did, so many other shows had cancelled, and it really felt kind of important to do them. Now, the question is, “What comes next?”