Vance Gilbert Makes Sure We’re In The Room For The Mother Of Trouble
Vance Gilbert recently released his fourteenth studio album, The Mother of Trouble, a collection of highly differentiated songs brought together by storytelling and sonic development. On the sound side, they all share a unique quality of feeling that you’re “in the room” with the musicians as they record, as well as preserving instrumental touches and flourishes that expand well beyond a barebones approach. Some of his collaborators for the album include guitarist Joey Landreth, Lori McKenna as background vocalist, drummer Marco Giovino, bassist Crag Akin, organist Dennis Montgomery III, Wynter Pingel on violin, Joe K. Walsh on mandolin, Joey Dalton and Amy Malkoff on vocals, Fernando Michelin on piano, and Herb Gardner on trombone.
The stories on The Mother of Trouble take on heavy themes, like domestic violence, bullying, and even murder, but also explore delicate moments where relationships are teetering but might rebound. Underneath it all, Gilbert brings a warmth and occasional sense of humor that encourages the audience to undertake a journey with him as he pushes himself musically and thematically into less explored corners of songwriting. I spoke with Vance Gilbert about the singer/songwriter approach to music, physical media, approaches to production, and the things he’s most proud of in his work.
Americana Highways: I feel like this is a significant album for you, among your many releases.
Vance Gilbert: It’s so much album. There’s a lot going on with this album that I’m really proud of. This is the one I can listen to.
AH: It is really a lot. It’s not just a lot of songs, but each song is really substantial, set in its own universe. It’s like reading several novels put together. It’s a series of books or films.
VG: I was already ready for someone to say it’s an overreach, but I’ve just decided that all the songs are well-written and the glue that holds them together, hopefully, is me.
AH: I’m sure you’re aware that with the rise of digital and the way that people encounter songs, there is a plus side to this, which is that each song has its separate life.
VG: I agree. I think that’s a great place to live. But this is acoustic music and I’m wondering if that model holds true for people listening to acoustic music. I feel old! When I started putting the album package together, I was thinking about Bonnie Raitt’s new CD. I had just bought it, and everything was there. There was practically a 300-page booklet, pictures, and everything in it.
I realized that if someone is going to take the time to buy a CD, they were thinking, “Let’s really do that. Clearly, people are buying something to hold in their hands.” I felt the same, so with the packaging for the album, and also with the music, I put it all in. For those that wanted to listen to the whole journey, I was hoping that they’d get the journey. That’s all I could do.
AH: Fan communities who follow certain artists are committed to physical media. Whether that’s vinyl, CDs, or even merch.
VG: Why do you think that is?
AH: It must be something about personal connection, a ritualistic feeling about playing music and being part of a community. It has a psychological, as well as physical reality in peoples’ lives. But if you do all that packaging, there’s also stuff to read, look at, and think about. It’s more immersive than googling online.
VG: There’s a “tactility” to it! Am I making up words? There’s a touch-factor to it. Because this acoustic music scene is really about an almost tactile relationship with a performer, and you’re sitting at their feet, almost, and their singing at you, really. Not to disparage artists who become so big that they can’t do this, but do you really want to go to a concert and have to watch it on the big screen? You’re watching it on a TV anyway. But I partake. It’s a wild time. It cracks me up sometimes.
AH: The production style on acoustic albums also often lends itself to feeling as if an artist is in the room with you, even when there’s air around the instruments, and space. It still feels like a small space.
VG: I totally agree. For me, there’s an almost R&B sensibility that comes with the production that I chase down. There’s nothing I love more than that room sound that you hear on an Al Green recording. You don’t hear the air behind the strings, that’s so tight and added later, but the room sound with the drums and bass is there. If I could battle that and make it my own, I would. I kinda can in my own way! That really makes it work for me. When you hear autotune used as art, I think, “I guess,” and I can do that, but hmmm…I’m being old again!
AH: There’s a paradoxical thing here, which affects this album, is that the intimate experience, the room sound, is sometimes even more apparent when you have a bunch of friends collaborating in a live way, too. Some of these songs are very full, with great collaborators.
VG: I’m so glad to hear you say that. I think that’s true. That’s just for real. On the tune “Simple Things,” I wanted that to be a John Prine tribute kind of song, and I did all I could for it not to be an imitation. But I let the drummer, Marco Giovino, do what he wanted to do. And he’s a genius. He came up with that vibe, which was not really in the Country pocket that I was headed for. When I heard it, I felt, “I’m going to go with that. That’s what he was hearing.” That’s a great way to have people in the room with you.
For me, when I was recording this album, the bass player and the drummer were downstairs in this recording house, and they plunked my butt upstairs in another room! They also asked me to play and sing as if what we recorded was what we were going to do, using the proper mics. Then if you’re doing well, take real passes. I thought they were going to replace things. But out of six passes, we kept three or four. I was dumbfounded when I heard the passes. I thought, “That’s me live? We’re keeping it! There’s nothing to fix.” It had that warmth, that reality, of someone else sitting in a room with you. That was pretty important, for several of the tunes, really.
AH: There’s a lot of energy that comes across that way. Were you out playing any of these already?
VG: I was really playing all of them out before they came to fruition. The hardest one to play live was “Body in the Well.” I was playing it at my Monday night Pyjama Party kind of thing I do. I was taking several approaches. Then I had Joey Landreth from The Bros. Landreth play guitar on that. I felt like he was playing better guitar than me, so I had him play guitars on that. The others I felt like I could handle the parts. Something that Shawn Colvin said years ago that she would never record a song that she couldn’t step onto the stage and play live. I have always had great respect for that sensibility, and I get it.
AH: Do you play “Body in the Well” totally solo also?
VG: Sometimes I do. I still don’t feel that I do it as well as some of the other stuff on the album, but it’s a funny learning thing. It gives me an opportunity to get out of the way and try something else if it’s not working for me. That’s how I chase it down.
AH: Are you someone who writes every part on each of these songs, or do collaborators bring in suggestions?
VG: For that song, “Body in the Well,” I was chasing the vocal line on my guitar, and seven out of ten times, I wouldn’t get it. With the other stuff, I’m sitting in the middle of my element and can handle it. On the big band swing tune, I hadn’t planned to keep the guitar playing I was doing, and was keeping it only as a reference, but then the engineer, Sam Margolis, in his genius, muted it a little and set it in the back of a tune, and suddenly it took on new life. It sounded a little like Freddie Green, from the Count Basie Orchestra. All of the sudden it did, indeed, work, so we left that guitar in there. It sounded like a dude with an arch-top and a mic in front of him, which was essentially what it was.
AH: It’s funny how we can rediscover things that people used to know, but have just gone out of fashion.
VG: It is funny! I think my ears and my Production skills are essentially trapped in 1976. I like the room sound and I like it sounding like an old Spinners, or Four Tops, or Al Green album. Let all the cuts sound that kind of live for me. It’s rediscovery for some, but it’s where I’ve always been. I wouldn’t know what to do with a synthesized drum parts or “any of those things the kids do today”! [Laughs] I’d really have to do a lot of work to have my stuff speak through modern production. I wouldn’t be able to be the producer.
AH: I’ll say up front that your music doesn’t really fit into a particular category. But if someone tried to place your music, they might associate it with singer/songwriter music that’s personality-driven. So I feel like your songs could stop at that point and remain narrower, but I feel like you go further with the instrumentation and musicality. You go further with your compositions than you may have to do, in a way, but I feel like that is part of what makes them unique. I haven’t come across a lot of artists who go further in that way.
VG: Let’s go right down to the song level. The song is the thing that I really feel should take the bow and take all the kudos. The song itself is the thing that can either stand on its own or have all the magnificence of pomp and circumstance draped around it. I think great songs do that, and are able to take on either one of those costumes. They can either be naked or worldly. Songs can be three chords but also have full orchestra and band. That’s what Linda Ronstadt did, adding even more to songs.
I think in this folk, acoustic scene, we try to write songs that have the biggest spark of anything that’s going on there. But the truth is that we would all love, at some point, to be bigger and do more. There are plenty of crappy songs out there with a lot of strings. But what do you do to a song to make it sit apart from just Vance and a guitar? I think the thing that makes it sit apart for me is to reach into my background and what I listened to coming up. I didn’t listen to folk music, or acoustic music, as you might put it. My life came up through pop and R&B, and whatever was on the radio station. No one wanted to hear just a guitar on a radio station back then. That would have been construed as boring. Did “Penny Lane” have to have a trumpet solo? Well, no it didn’t. But who of us doesn’t wait for that trumpet solo, when that song comes on?
AH: That’s a really example, because I feel like that’s what’s going on with these songs. You’re not overloading them, but I feel like you’re making room for these touches.
VG: Going back to the Shawn Colvin thing, could I do a whole album of me sitting and playing by myself? Sure. It’s still funky and fun. But yes, why not try to be like the acoustic version of Lauryn Hill? She took tunes and turned them into Funk. D’Angelo did it with “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” Lauryn did it with “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.” Although these tunes have become Pop fodder for most people, they are actually really well-written tunes. They are!
AH: One of the songs on this album gets called out for being more stripped down and bare, “A Room Somewhere.” But I actually take issue with that. I don’t think it’s that bare. I think it has a lot of atmosphere. I still think it has the kind of hallmarks that we’re talking about. Is it more like your earlier work? It seems like you’ve always fitted extra elements in.
VG: Yes, I’ve always been a little like this. There’s an album of mine called The Nearness of You that I was very proud of. It’s all Jazz standards. It’s just me, the guitar, and voice. A friend of mine, Shawn Staples, Produced this album for me up in his loft. We’d work two or three hours at a time, and then we’d be done, because after two or three hours or recording like that, I was toast. We thought it would be too much to even try to get two songs done in a day. Every day I drove home utterly exhausted because I was really concentrating on getting great music in barebones still. It was a boutique approach.
I can do barebones, but I feel like I want to hear more. I don’t write the songs hearing those things, but I love when a song presents itself to have those outstanding elements. My previous album, Good Good Man, had a bunch of strings on it, like it was trying to be a Randy Newman album, and I was very satisfied by that.
Thanks very much, Vance Gilbert, for chatting with us. Find more information about his album and tour dates here: https://vancegilbert.com/
Enjoy our previous coverage here: REVIEW: Vance Gilbert’s “Good, Good Man” is His Latest Home Run