Travis McNamara photo by Preston Uttley
Trout Steak Revival’s Travis McNamara Charts His Journey With Moon Calendar
Trout Steak Revival’s Travis McNamara will be releasing his first solo album, Moon Calendar, on March 10th, 2023. Born and recorded fully in the Denver area during the pandemic period, the album tracks McNamara’s own exploration of recording methods as he composed and played over 15 instruments himself. But this wasn’t an activity that happened entirely in isolation. It sprang from McNamara’s decision to reach out to a friend to learn more about recording methods and from the continual warmth and support of a writing group that McNamara continued to take part in.
Those key elements enabled McNamara’s explorations, building on earlier experiences he’d had playing solo shows and pursuing connections with his audiences. Working toward subjects and ideas that were open enough to be broadly inclusive to others and allowing imperfections in his work kept McNamara moving forward during a difficult time and now opens doors for further outreach to audiences. I spoke with Travis McNamara about the drive he felt and the fortuitous circumstances that he feels enabled him to create Moon Calendar.
Americana Highways: To what extent had you done any solo performance work before writing and recording Moon Calendar? How did you know that you wanted to do it?
Travis McNamara: There was something I could feel growing in me. Whenever I got the opportunity to play a really quiet show or a listening room with a band, it elicited a different performance from me. Everyone is listening to everything that you do, so you just become more intentional. You can play different kinds of songs in those rooms. Maybe you can have more emotional, more vulnerable music. Those were always so fulfilling for me, and whenever I got to do this as a solo artist, it was like the same thing on steroids. It was also terrifying! In a great way.
AH: Looking at this album, I can imagine that playing this could be terrifying. There are a lot of quiet moments. There is a lot of nuance to the vocals that convey a lot of emotion. But playing quieter gigs is also an opportunity to talk about the songs with audiences. Do you do that?
TMcN: There was something in me that desired that. It’s less about me trying to emote and get my feelings out there, and more about sharing a real connection with listeners. I have always loved that about house parties, about campfires, and about more intimate events, where people are there to hear the songs and have an experience. So am I! I love the challenge of playing a solo show and breaking down that fourth wall between me and the audience.
I love telling stories about the songs and establishing a vibe.
I love it when I’m at shows and that happens, too. Last week, I played a solo show and it may sound trite, but because of experiencing the pandemic, it still feels like something that I know is only happening once. It’s occurring in a specific moment. This room of people and this collection of ears is never going to be the same. There’s something really special about that.
AH: For some musicians, that live approach is their whole focus. It’s also just objectively true! That period of time, with those people, in that place, will never happen again.
TMcN: Even extending it to the studio process and making an album, I have been trying to internalize the Neil Young and Bob Dylan approach to recording, which is trying to get it on the first take. Even if you can’t, just try. The mistakes are beautiful. That’s where all the good stuff is. These are just snapshots. It was actually really fun playing all these instruments and recording them all myself.
I reached out to my buddy, a good friend of mine and front of house engineer, Eric Loomis. He’s a super-talented audio dude. I called him up during the pandemic and said, “Eric, I have selected you as my audio teacher. I’m going to pay you and you’re going to teach me what you know about recording.”
AH: That’s awesome!
TMcN: We got to have these great Zoom hangs where he taught me about compression, reverb, and all the stuff I was trying to level up on. He extended the snapshot idea to being a recording artist. He said, “You listen to a record, and that’s how good a guitar player you were that day. That’s how good of a singer and songwriter you were that day.” He pointed out that I would progress and learn more, but I shouldn’t go back and rerecord things just because I had gotten better.
AH: That explains how you were able to do this because a lot of people had to take courses or reach out in order to open up that tool box to allow them to work at home. But I’m sure that would have been a more painful experience if you hadn’t accepted imperfections.
TMcN: It’s painful enough! Finding ways to accept myself, and keep moving forward, and finish things was a big deal. That actually connects to where the title of the album came from. I would go out walking at night and I was trying to figure out how to keep moving forward creatively because all of our work had gone away.
I started making songwriting goals for myself on the new moon and I would have to write a song by the time the moon ran out. It was like a clock in the sky. You can see it go full and start getting into its final quarter, and then you know you’ve got two days to finish a song. I was finding as many ways as possible to keep it light, to keep it moving. I was reaching out to friends who were also writing to get accountability. Talking about it, it all sounds like ways to fight isolation and stay connected.
AH: That’s what it is, but it’s also more goal-oriented than some approaches. You have something in your hand at the end of that process, something to show for it.
TMcN: It’s something funny that I learned about myself that my stress response to losing work was to keep busy and just kind of keep the lamp burning. I had the sense that relaxing and waiting wasn’t the right for me. That would have been fine for some, but bad medicine for me. As touring musicians, we would be home for two weeks, then gone for two weeks, all year long. The lived experience of that was that you could always start projects, but never finish them. So myself and some other musicians thought the pandemic was great, being home, and having uninterrupted time. It was a novel feeling.
AH: You could be a human being for a while! What is the Beaver Moon Songwriting Club? Is that a real thing?
TMcN: It’s real. I had the very good fortune of being in the right place at the right time before the pandemic. I was at a concert for one of our bands in Denver and one of my now very good friends, songwriter Nat Tate, was there. Nat said they were starting a songwriter circle to get together and play each other songs they were working on and asked if I wanted to come. I didn’t know how to say, “Yes” more emphatically.
For two months before the pandemic, we met in person. It was community time. It was very awesome. The name came from me talking about the different seasonal moon names. It was November and when they asked what moon we were under at that time, I said it was the Beaver Moon. We got a shout-out at a show and were called “The Beaver Moon Songwriting Group.” Once the pandemic happened, we were all full-time musicians whose work got taken away. We called a Zoom session to check in with each other and it was kind of like group therapy.
Because this felt great, we decided to keep doing this, but we recorded songs, uploaded them, and listened to them together with headphones. We’d write to prompts every week that would be very different from the songs we’d usually write. We all learned way more about making recordings at home trying to impress each other and it was also accountability to bring something. It was a total life saver for me, and for everyone else there.
AH: The song “This Time” is really interesting, and I also thought that the video for it was subtle and worked especially well. It’s a lyric video, and it’s not scripted, but there’s something a bit more than that to it.
TMcN: I can take credit for the editing and programming the lyrics, but the images are Michael Olbinksi, a National Geographic stormchaser and he’s amazing. It’s all timelapse. It’s dangerous shit! I felt honored to get to use those images. It was kind of great synchronicity putting the lyrics and some of those images together. There were lots of happy accidents.
AH: We’ve all seems storms in our lives, but his footage is remarkable to see the way the storm moves, almost like an alien thing. The lyrics leave a lot of room for interpretation, but the song has a lot of impact. I think it speaks to a lot of things human beings have felt, but it made me think of times when we’re aware of our own limitations and we feel like there’s nothing we can do but wait to see what might happen next.
TMcN: With some friends who I’ve sent the song out to, I’ve gotten a similar response. The openness of it seems important since it leaves a lot of space for people to bring their own experiences to it. That’s what I’m trying to do.
AH: I’m sure it’s tempting to wrap things up neatly, as a songwriter, but here this song is avoiding that, which feels more approachable.
TMcN: The first thing that I thought of when you said that was that in my younger writing days, in my older writing, I would always try to explain everything in the third verse. That’s when it would get too proscriptive. I’ve heard some songwriting advice from someone else, that writing a song is like tracking a wild animal through the woods. You just want to stay on its tail. But the moment that you leap on it, pin it down, and say, “Tell me what you are!”, that’s when it dies.
AH: What about the song “So Far Gone”? This is also a very mysterious and moody song and it doesn’t deliver a limited meaning. It reminded me of relationships where I feel some anxiety on behalf of other people but I’m not sure how to act on that, or even concern I might feel for myself and the choices I’m making. Also, I love how the piano is used as percussive element, and I noticed unconventional use of percussion on a few of these songs.
TMcN: I was actually just cooking with a wood spoon that I have and it’s got a giant chunk taken out of it because that was the percussion for “The Not Knowing.” There’s a wood block in that, and it was my kitchen spoon against my kitchen chair. “So Far Gone” is one that came to me at a time that I was feeling really indoors and pent up. I wanted to get out. It still feels very pandemic, like kicking at the walls, to me. I felt like I wanted to be free. From a musical point of view, it was having all this energy and nowhere to put it.
One of the other Beaver Moon writers said, when they heard it, “It sounds like you really needed to move some energy.” Some of those feelings were in there. While this isn’t what the song is about, I found out during the pandemic that one of my close friends and former bandmates in my high school band, The Diamond Bullocks, had passed away.
I loved that band. I was playing keyboards and it was indie rock. His name was John Miles and was a major influence on me. It was five months into the pandemic that I heard and I didn’t know if anyone had been able to be with him in the hospital. I tried to cover some of our old songs, and it didn’t feel right. I couldn’t find a tribute for him and it felt lodged in me. I didn’t feel I was able to honor him. I think that he came out somewhere in those lyrics for “So Far Gone” and he’s first in my “thank you list” on the album.
Thanks very much for chatting with us, Travis McNamara. Find more information on the forthcoming album, tour dates and more here: https://troutsteak.com