Tony Cuchetti on Songwriting as Letting Go and Freer Street
Minnesota-based singer/songwriter Tony Cuchetti will be releasing his third studio album, Freer Street, via Farm to Label Records on August 3rd, 2023, and it’ll be available in multiple formats, including vinyl, limited CDs, and digitally. Cuchetti has literally spent his life in music, growing up as part of a large family touring band, and as an adult he ventured into solo songwriting and recording when he received a grant to make an album based on ideas submitted by strangers, resulting in Hid It On The Sly in 2020. Cuchetti followed this with a live album, Live From Drum Farm Studio, also in 2020, where several of his musical family members took part.
This new collection of songs, Freer Street, draws from a wide range of personal thoughts and reflections, but Cuchetti tends to keep the same things in mind whenever he’s songwriting, and that’s authenticity and, at times, simplicity. To add an important third element, he cultivates the ability to let go of his original ideas about how a song should sound. The results on Freer Street are fresh, lively, and at times unexpected in engaging ways. Elements of classic rock, blues, and country blend and retreat depending on the song and its particular mood. For Cuchetti, this choice is determined by the song itself and what it needs. I spoke with Tony Cuchetti about his approach to songwriting and he shared some stories behind writing and recording a few of these new tracks.
Americana Highways: I saw a comment from you that for you, songwriting can coincide with difficult things that you may be going through, and you can still do it, even during those times. Does it make you want to write, as an outlet?
Tony Cuchetti: I don’t wait for bad moments, but when that stuff comes up, writing is very therapeutic, and even if something is not becoming a song, I vent my mind on paper. I’ve looked back on stuff from ten years ago when I was in a rough spot, and it’s amazing what pops out at you that you didn’t realize at the time. If it’s actually the musical part of writing, even if it has no lyrics yet, I log all of that. I’ve had times where I’ve spent days going through all that stuff and I’m so glad that I’ve logged it all because you never know what it’s going to spark. The song “The After,” for instance, that chord progression and melody line was something I stumbled upon from a voice recording I did, I don’t even know when. Hearing that spun out something creative that became “The After.”
I’ve never been one of those writers who can sit down and do the Nashville thing where you block out a certain amount of time a day. I know that’s important, to keep your mind focused, but it’s never worked for me. For me, when things come up more impulsively, good or bad, I write. But I think I’m a very observant person, and when there are things that I read or hear that pop in my head, I’ll write things down or record them. A lot of time, it leads to nothing. But there are times when it does become something good. I embrace those moments. It’s very therapeutic, if nothing else.
AH: Do you ever find that you write something, and it expresses something that you think or feel about life that you weren’t so aware of yet? Does it help you to clarify what you think and feel about life?
TC: I know exactly what you mean. Yes, I’ve read things that I’ve written, and I wonder how I came up with it at the time. Or I’ve listened to songs that I’ve written, and I like the phrasing, but then ask myself, “Where did that come from?” It teaches me another lesson to listen to it after the fact. At the time, it was a raw emotion coming out, and I was just following along.
For me, some of my favorite poets or songwriters, there’s something that you feel in their lyrics that you can’t explain but you feel the genuineness. There’s other music out there where you can tell that it’s not genuine, or it’s forced, and it doesn’t grab you in the same way.
AH: That must set a high standard if you try to apply it to yourself, asking, “Are my lyrics totally genuine here? Is that a little too clever?”
TC: I beat myself up about that all of the time. The older I get, I’m getting better at not trying to be something else or someone else. If you see someone else who seems to have an easy time putting together cool phrases, you can feel like trying to be like that. But then if someone comes up to you and tells you that your music helped change their life, then you know that there’s something you’re doing that’s natural to you and it’s something you should do it. You should just be you. It might not come as easy to you as it comes to some people, but it’s still valid. You have to stick with who you are and it makes your music what it is.
It’s taken me a long time to get over the feeling that a song is too simple, and I have to come up with a way to make it more artistic. But then some of my favorite songs in the world are the ones that are somewhat basic, but it’s all in the way that things are presented.
AH: One of the songs that I really like on this new album is “Heartbreak Town” and its bluesy feeling. I’m a huge Keith Richards fan and the sound reminded me a little of him.
TC: I love Keith Richards!
AH: Listening to him is great, but as a person, he’s also cool.
TC: I love watching some of those old videos, like a show where a fan ran on stage, and without missing a hitch, he slung his guitar off of his shoulder and clocked the guy. The fan was running at him or at Mick Jagger, and as Keith hit him, he swung the guitar back onto his shoulder and kept playing. It was so rock ‘n roll! I hope the guy didn’t get hurt, but…
AH: I’ve heard that story. I think it was probably a really dangerous situation for Keith and Mick.
TC: I love the reference to Keith. That song, “Heartbreak Town,” came from a buddy of mine, Nate Walker, who is one of my favorite people in the world and also a great songwriter. We try to do a lot of writing together, and he’s in a band called The Sparks. He was the one who initiated that tune. He had this idea, and it started as a kind of country blues piece, and it was fast. It’s odd to think about what it was before it changed! We started texting lyrics back and forth, and before we knew it, we were writing a tune. We thought we had everything down, including the arrangement and the feel, and then we went into the studio. Erik Koskinen, who produced it, is also a great musician and songwriter, and one day in the studio, we were playing it, and something wasn’t popping. We walked away from it, and we did some other songs.
Then, we came back around and Erik just started playing this slow, dragged-out, moody groove. We weren’t even working on “Heartbreak Town,” and then the drummer started coming in with a cool, off-color groove on top of that. Then the bass came in. I thought, “I wonder what the lyrics to ‘Heartbreak Town’ would sound like on top of this!” I just started rattling them off the top of my head with a melody that I thought worked. Lo and behold, the new version was born out of that. I love it and I can’t think of it any other way. The sound felt like it fit the story way better, with a guy talking about being stuck in a dead-end town. It was really amazing how it all came together.
When you open yourself up to letting other peoples’ creativity influence what you’re doing, something beautiful can come out of that instead of trying to own a thing for yourself and not budge on it. I heard Robert Plant say something about this once. There’s music that you can’t keep for yourself because the whole world owns it. There’s so much truth to that. Sometimes you just have to let it go, and where it goes from there, you don’t really have control over anymore. I try to do that a lot in my creating of music.
AH: I love that “story of the song.” It’s an amazing attitude to embrace because as a songwriter, if a song is with you for a while, you could get very attached to whatever form it has been in before recording it. Creative processes can be an emotional event and then it’s hard to move past that initial thought.
TC: Yes, if you’re not careful, you can get stuck on something that affects a song in a negative way. If you’re trying to stop it from becoming what the song wants to become, that’s not good. That’s what I always say to young songwriters who have asked me that question. You can’t try to control it. The best stuff that you write will come when you let go. Your best option is to let the song become what it wants to be, go along for the ride, and learn something from it. That’s exactly what happened with “Heartbreak Town.”
When we were doing our recording sessions, the only person who had heard earlier versions of the songs was Erik because I, personally, did not want anybody to hear it until we were in the studio. The guys were sitting there, hearing the songs for the first time, and I wanted their raw, unfiltered response to what the songs should be. I didn’t want to tell them what I wanted the songs to be. That’s why a lot of it came out so cool, because we were getting their first reaction to the music.
AH: Do you think the other, earlier versions of the songs would have been “okay” but just not “amazing” to release?
TC: I listened to some of those demos the other day, and it’s funny because they work and are fun to listen to. But I think they would be songs that might get lost on the audiences quickly. But with these versions, you can almost become these characters and you want to hear the songs to the end. That’s the beauty of it.
AH: I love the electric, rock ‘n roll feel to the opening of “Time Moves On.” There’s a narrative feel to that song. Is it a story?
TC: I don’t commonly write about things that have happened to me personally. A lot of my stories come from something I thought about or saw that happened to other people, and then I create a narrative around it. This one, verbatim, happened like in the first verse. I was outside walking my dog or something, and I ran into my friend, whose name is “B,” and he suffers from really bad seizures. He can’t really drive because of that, so he walks a lot. I asked him what was up, and he gave me this big smile, and I saw that a lot of his front teeth had been knocked out. He’d had a seizure and fallen on the pavement, which knocked them out. He was laughing about it. I think he said something like, “Life goes on,” so that made it into the song. I was thinking about the concept of time moving on, and the fact that it doesn’t wait for you.
The other part of the song came from my friend Nate, and being buddies in the past with him. That whole narrative is made up of things that woke me up in life. Even the part about a bumper sticker saying something like “time moves on” was real and became part of the song. I wanted one song on the album to have a Stones, Tom Petty-esque, rock ‘n roll, simple feel. That’s how that song came about. Erik came up with that beginning guitar intro and I love how it sets the whole tone of the song.
That’s fantastic! Thank you very much for speaking with us, Tony Cuchetti.
Music fans can find more information including tour dates here: https://tonycuchetti.com/