Andrew Stern and Laura Arias (aka 3 Pairs of Boots) photo by Eric Wolfinger
3 Pairs Of Boots’ Andrew Stern Shares The Western Roots Of Mighty Love
San Francisco-based duo 3 Pairs of Boots, comprised of married partners Laura Arias and Andrew Stern, have just released their new album Mighty Love, following on from their 2021 collection Long Rider. Like their previous album, Mighty Love, has some recognizable themes that tie together, but it also allows for more varied discussions of relevant history, like you’ll find in “Labor Day” and “Just Call Him Love.” However, it’s the title track that really sets the tone, giving primacy to love as the main agent for raising the human spirit to new heights.
Arias and Stern spent much of the pandemic period developing greater production skills and expanding their songwriting in new dimensions, and that’s easy to spot on Mighty Love, where wider instrumentation makes for added dimensions in sound and a particular interest in Western elements comes to the fore. Expanding on themes and on instrumentation meant including friend and lyric poet Wren Winfield on songwriting, working with former Ringo Starr drummer Randy Cooke, and bringing in Nashville keys player Dave Cohen, who was the 2018 Music Row Musician of the Year. As all of these elements come together, Mighty Love often evokes a rather epic feel while tying into the ideas and emotions that are most important to 3 Pairs of Boots. I spoke with Andrew Stern about these expansions in songwriting and sound for Might Love.
Americana Highways: What’s the timeframe for you working on Mighty Love? I think when we last spoke, Long Rider was coming out, but you said you already had some new music in the works.
Andrew Stern: Right now, we have one foot in the current album and one foot in a new album. Mighty Love was finished in December of last year, and we are already planning and recording an album that will come out next year. We really want to put out a record every year and build up our catalog. We really want to enter into a relationship with a publishing company because we write a lot of songs. Laura’s songs usually make it on the album, but I write in quantity, and we have a lot of extra songs.
AH: When you’re writing so widely, how does the album concept come together for you? I know with Long Rider, there was a specific narrative at work for you rooted in history.
AS: I think that’s something that starts to bubble to the surface about half-way or three quarters of the way through. In the beginning, we’re just writing songs and trying to find good songs. Because of a particular time in our life, the subjects seem to be linked. For Mighty Love, it’s been a turbulent time in the last couple of years, and I think that’s there. There are a couple of more history-based songs that I wrote on the album, for instance about labor strikes on the West Coast, or the story about Nat Love, the cowboy.
But I really wrote those because those stories had a lot of relevance to what is going on today, like the federal government sending in troops to quell riots that came about because of police actions and how they were treating African Americans. That’s when the stories about Black cowboys were coming up in The New York Times, and that’s when I latched onto the story of Nat Love. The federal government was also part of the dock strikes out here before there were unions. It’s not just about the government overstepping their boundaries, but what struck me was that these dock workers were all sorts of people from different cultural backgrounds, so it was a unifying example of people coming together.
Laura wrote “Mighty Love” later in the process and I think some of the things coming together on the album led her to that. We wanted to talk about some of the things that were going wrong in the world, but we wanted to talk about them in a positive way, and I think that’s where the song “Mighty Love” came from. It was actually the only song that Laura wrote for the record, but it quickly became the title and the theme. Three of the songs were also written with our friend who is a poet, Wren Wingfield, the person who actually did the documentary film on the Lady Longrider [Bernice Ende]. I did one with her on Longrider, and we collaborated and did three for this album. I wanted to get a different perspective, lyrically, by doing so, but they fit right in.
AH: I totally see what you mean about this more positive approach with these songs. There’s a common thread among many of the songs about the human spirit kind of rising up. Love is a connecting factor that enables that.
AS: Even though I’m the person writing most of the songs, Laura’s influence on me is there, as a person and in her spirituality, and subconsciously it seeps into me. [Laughs] She indirectly helps write the songs by who she is. Also, she has to connect with these songs to perform them. If something doesn’t work, we move onto the next one.
AH: Do you see developments in terms of the sound of these songs compared to your previous album?
AS: We did some new things, like we had some friends orchestrate horns because Laura felt that she could hear horns on “Mighty Love.” I am trying to expand the production and instruments that we use. I tried to use more banjo on this record. Up until two years ago, I had never played banjo. I felt I could hear banjo on a song, so I’ve gotten to the point where I can fake it. We’re just always trying to get better at things.
AH: I know that was part of your direction at the end of your last album, adding to your production approach. Was one of the songs with banjo “Sweet Spot”? I love how that song talks about all these places in the world but keeps a Western feel to it.
AS: Yes, it has banjo. I’ve really fallen in love with the Western style. I’ve actually been listening to some particular songwriters now to get ideas for different ways of writing songs than I might normally write. There’s definitely a Western feel on “Sweet Spot” in particular. That’s one of the first songs I wrote for Mighty Love. I heard a banjo, so I went and got a banjo. Our keyboard player, Dave Cohen, from Nashville, is someone we work with in our separate studios, and we just send files.
This is another significant difference for Mighty Love. Previously, I was playing keyboards, and I’m not really a piano player. On this album, early on, I sent stems to Dave, and he sent me back his tracks where he hadn’t needed charts. I wanted him to take me somewhere that I couldn’t think of, and that’s what he did. He played them on a grand piano and they sounded so much better than any plugin I could ever have.
It was the real thing and it was great. His playing, in general, elevated the entire record. He played piano and organ. On “Sweet Spot,” he sent me a track with an accordion! It fit perfectly with a verse about Paris. I love letting the music speak to these musicians rather than telling them what to do. I learned that to let that happen, and for that to come through, I had to leave a lot of room and create space in the songs.
AH: That’s particularly necessary for Americana music, because if it gets overcrowded, it loses that sense of spaciousness that connects with earlier traditions. Did experiencing that development on “Sweet Spot” with Dave, and as one of the earlier songs that you worked on, influence how the rest of the album developed?
AS: Yes, I think as that song shaped up, it pointed in the direction we were going. That one came along around the same time as “Just Call Him Love,” so there was a Western feel coming in. I hit a stumbling block later on in songwriting, and that’s when I contacted Wren, and those songs came together quickly. It’s easier for me to write music to lyrics, whereas lyrics are something I spend a lot of time on. “Sweet Spot” was inspired by a particular person, my niece, who when she finished college went on a three-month road trip by herself. She’s a writer and photographer, and wrote a blog, ending up in Taiwan. I was so impressed by that since she’s not the most gregarious person, and as a quieter person, she was still saying, “I want to find out where I belong.”
AH: A little more of a modern-referencing song is “Ghosted.” Is that drawn from the modern idea that people can drop communication and one never hears from them again?
AS: I think it is. Wren wrote that lyric and it really struck me. She was dwelling upon that kind of theme, but when I talked to her about it, it seemed like it was also affected by her relationships. Unfortunately, her spouse had a heart attack and passed away.
AH: That’s sad to hear. I was wondering if the song had other levels, suggesting the absence of someone, but being aware of a feeling that they were still around, haunting you.
AS: I think, on a bigger level, it might also be about her move away from Santa Fe to Washington. There’s another song she brought to the album, “The Server,” with a fascinating backstory to it. She has a very good friend whose song is a tech guy who has been working on how to prevent hackers from hacking into pace-makers. She expanded on that idea that if someone has evil in their heart, can you just hack their heart, and start things all over again from scratch? It’s called “The Server,” but to her, the server really is God.
AH: It’s an interesting question, whether human beings might turn into totally different people under different circumstances.
AS: Yes, and that idea also relates to a song I wrote called “Leap of Faith,” about bringing a child into the world, but also talking about how children turn up as an empty vessel absorbing what you teach them. So why are there so many people out there who hate? They didn’t start with that. Then there’s the responsibility of teaching your children to be good, kind people and love others. Wren may have been picking up on some of these themes in her own songs, since she had heard them.
AH: Did she contribute to the song “Daybreak”? That seems to have some current world issues included.
AS: Yes, that one is a little more political. As I mentioned, she lived in Santa Fe for a long time, and she was an acupuncturist and a big horse person. She, unfortunately, came to the realization that due to climate change, there was no more water on the ten acres she lived on outside of Santa Fe. She moved three or four years ago, but in the previous five years, she saw her pastures disappear until there was only dirt.
AH: I’ve heard that the scale of the problem is really getting serious in the mid-west and west but it’s not getting much news coverage.
AS: It’s not a story that’s new, but it’s very serious. There’s a book called Cadillac Desert, which talks about the history of water in the United States that shows the competition that went on which affected things. It also talks about the water grab in California. Anyway, Wren moved and now lives on six acres of land up above Seattle, where there’s plenty of water. The song “Daybreak” comments on something that really affected her, climate change, but now she has a place for her horses.
Thanks, Andrew Stern, for chatting with us. Find more info here: https://www.3pairsofboots.com