Photo by Steven Johnathan, courtesy of The Press House
Pittsburgh singer-songwriter Paul Luc has never been one to take the most conventional path–he quit his corporate nine-to-five to pursue lyric-driven Americana music, after all–so it comes as no surprise that a couple albums in, he was ready to shake things up.
His latest, Bad Seed, is a product of that shakeup. Aiming to emulate some of the best records of the 60s and 70s, Luc recorded to tape with a group of Nashville studio musicians he’d never met before. There were no rehearsals and no forced retakes.
With that in mind, the end result is surprisingly coherent, balancing spontaneity with a shrewd sense of where it’s pieces best fit. From the rich organ and steel guitar textures of “Restless Mind,” to the galloping drum rolls of the title track, to the intimate acoustic guitar fingerpicking of “Where All the Time Goes,” everything is in its right place, anchored by Luc’s thoughtful wordplay and storytelling.
The recording experiment succeeds, from that perspective, delivering the classic country rock aesthetic of acts like The Band in the process. For a contemporary analog, imagine a more rugged take on Sean Watkins’ work in Fiction Family.
Luc spoke with The All Scene Eye shortly before the album release, giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the Bad Seed sessions and the never-ending road to writing more honest songs.
A lot of the press for this album has focused on the process of making it. You compiled a group of strangers and recorded directly to tape without rehearsal. When did you decide to take that route?
Early on. I had a group of songs written that I thought were probably an album; it might not have been completely done, but pretty close. I started thinking about where I wanted to record, and who I wanted to record with, since I don’t have a steady band. I have some people in Pittsburgh I play with consistently, but not really a touring band. I tour solo a lot.
I was actually talking to Darrin Bradbury, who’s a great songwriter down in Nashville. I was down there, and we had breakfast. I was just talking about what I wanted to do, and looking at different studios and their capabilities, and all that techie stuff, and he said something that stuck in my brain. He said, “I would think about making a record in terms of the experience you want.” Maybe not so much worrying about exactly where you’re going to do it. I never thought about making a record with that in mind.
The last record I made, it was a more piecemeal process. We recorded certain tracks, and then layered stuff on it. It felt a little factory, I guess, so in terms of experience, I wanted to do something completely different than that. I wanted to do something in the moment, and with people who had no preconceived ideas about me as a songwriter. If I use musicians who I’ve known for years, I think they bring something to the table, thinking, “ok, this is what Paul would probably want,” because they know me musically. Using strangers, I figured there would be absolutely none of that. I think that worked out alright.
How much of the arrangements did you have in mind before you sat down with these strangers?
Instrumentation, I had a good sense of what I wanted. That was part of who I recruited. When and exactly where we used that instrumentation sort of unfolded naturally.
Dave Hidek, who I’ve worked with before quite a bit, he’s a Pittsburgh guy who came down to Nashville with me. He had some ideas in his role as a producer as to what we wanted to do as well, so it really was song-by-song. Some I think I dictated a little bit, especially with, say, a drum beat. As a singer-songwriter, you write something in your mind to a beat. You feel it in your head. If somebody plays something really different than that, it throws you way off. I might have weighed in on some of that to say, “this is the general feel.”
There were other tracks that I just totally went off the rails, and I think that’s part of what you should accept if you’re wanting to do something spontaneous. You have a group of people who are going to hear a song in a certain way at that particular time, with all those minds. If you changed any of those components, or changed any player, it’d probably end up a lot different. Maybe completely different. A song like “Vengeance,” I had this idea in my mind, it sort of sounded like a more acoustic Pretenders song, or something, but it turned out to be this total rock track. That just is how we heard it, and I thought, “hey, this is what everybody’s feeling like, let’s see where this goes.” So it was really track by track.
At the end of that track, you’ve got that bit of studio chatter where somebody says “I can play it different, I don’t know if I can play it better.”
That’s the drummer, Paul Griffith. I wanted to leave that in there because it gave a little insight into exactly what was going on. A lot of the stuff, we just ran at it a few times and let it be. That was kind of the sentiment. We could try this a different way, but to do it a fourth, or a fifth, or a sixth time–which, people do that and more in the studio–there really wasn’t a point, unless we were going to change something.
That’s interesting as a methodology, because there are a lot of places that feel, not rehearsed, necessarily, but very well plotted out. Tracks like Bad Seed, for example, where there are starts and stops with the band.
I think that speaks to the talent of these people in the band. I think they all felt like I don’t necessarily follow the conventions, and particularly as a singer-songwriter, I’m a little bit more lyric-based. Whatever I need to say, I say it. One verse might be five times, the next time might be seven, which can throw you off as a player. They had to follow all that, so we would sit down and they would make charts. Especially the drummer, so he knew where breaks were. We certainly stepped on a lot of those spots at first, as you’re kind of running through, and you’d mess it up, and just come back until we get a couple clean takes.
Speaking of lyrics, in “Vengeance,” you say “It’s risky, I treat fate like I drink good whiskey / it doesn’t need any fussing or fixing / I just leave it the hell alone.” Can you tell me about the perspective that’s coming from?
The fate thing, I think people can get caught up with overthinking. I’m certainly in that category, being a somewhat anxious person. With some life experience, you realize–certain things, you let them be, and live out each day, whatever it is. I like bourbon too, so it was a kitschy analogy to say, I take the days as straight on as I can take it, and if it’s a bad day, at the end of it, at least I know I can have a glass of whiskey too, which I wouldn’t want to fuss around with either.
You’ll give a one liner like that–“I treat faith like I drink good whiskey”–and then you’ll take it two or three steps further in the verse, and I think that’s really cool. It’s not the way a lot of people write songs.
That’s just some pattern I probably got into, and it stuck with me. But I have no idea where that would have come from. I’m definitely a reader of poetry, and I do try to think of songwriting like that.
I think there’s a time and a place for a song that says exactly what you mean. That can be a strong tool, to say it very plainly. But generally speaking, I like a play on words or something that makes me think, to dig into what this person’s trying to say. Sometimes I write things really plainly, and then say, “can I say this in a more interesting way?”
I think, very obviously, if you read through any of the great poets–you could pull a name out of a hat–that’s a convention most people use. You come up with a theme, and you see that through various lines and stanzas. I’m sure it’s just a byproduct of reading a lot of poets.
Are there any in particular that have influenced the way you approach what you do?
Not consciously, but certainly I think everything we take in is probably in the ether somewhere. W.H. Auden is a big one, I would say. The limerick kind of stuff, I have a book that stuck with me from him. A lot of his are written as songs he didn’t have music to, and they’re always really good play-on-words kind of things.
I’m sure there’s a lot of different stuff in the ether. I was big on a lot of the beatnik poets. I don’t think that necessarily influences my writing, but I can’t really say. I like Hemingway as a writer, not as a poet obviously, but I do read a lot of his books. I think the way that, thematically, he sees things through an entire novel, some of that seeps in there too.
After you went through this specific method of making an album, is it something you would recommend to other artists?
Not necessarily, no. I think it’s a gamble. For me, if this would have flopped, or we just didn’t get good material, I would be in a bad place right now, in terms of budget. I don’t have endless resources, as an indie artist, to be in a studio.
I guess it depends on the artist. I think if you have a limited budget, there’s a lot of upside to having more control over the tracking, and not limiting yourself. It worked for this particular project–I’m sure I’ll revisit this at some point, doing things this way–but I don’t know that I’d say I’d recommend that out of the gate, unless you’re somebody who has more resources to take that gamble, and/or if you’re really comfortable with a band. I don’t know if I’d say to put all these things together the way I did, with tape, and strangers, and no rehearsals. That’s not really a good recipe.
Is there anything you wish you had known at the outset, before you got into this project?
[laughs] I think there would have been some upside to having some rehearsal time, for sure. I guess the nice thing about tape is it’s a slower process. That did slow things down a little bit, and I mean that in a good way. If we had to take breaks to change tape out, or they were rewinding to find a spot, those breaks were the time we were using to hash through something, or talk something out, or figure out who’s playing what sounds like a wrong chord.
I don’t know, I’m sure I’ll think of something as soon as we hang up, but no. I kind of got it in my mind, and once I commit to something, I was pretty dead set on just doing it.
What about the people you worked with? Any you would work with again?
All of them. Honestly, you just referenced a line where I’m saying I’m not going to worry about fate, yet I do feel like this group was just–this was the way it was supposed to pan out. Each person brought something unique to the table, not just musically, but with their personalities, and the way that meshed. That’s almost impossible, to have that happen. It’s one factor to say, “can we play together and make music together?” and make sure that’s emotionally where it’s supposed to be for a listener. But then, to have personalities work in the studio for long hours, and that kind of thing?
Everybody just had that one element that was needed at certain times. If we needed a champion, energy was kind of low, then Cameron [Carrus], who was playing bass, seemed to be the guy who would notice that, and would do something kind of wild to get everybody back in it. Or Paul, who was the drummer, has tons of experience, played on so many great records, and when it was time to really make a decision on something, he had a lot of good insight. Even his words of wisdom at the end of “Vengeance.”
Everyone filled a certain, not just musical space, but also something that was needed to push the project forward at various times.
In the end, there’s a singularity, or unity of sound to the project–more than the sum of its parts.
And that, I think, is dumb luck. I was really nervous that Monday going in there. When you first get there, that’s the longest lull, because Dave and the engineers, it takes a long time for them to get the sound that they want. They set up all the mics, they’re moving them quarters of inches, and all the crazy stuff those guys do. We’re kind of poking around, using that time as rehearsal time. Some guys came with complete charts from demos I’d sent, and a couple of guys didn’t do any of that work. So I was definitely nervous.
Then we jumped into “Restless Mind,” the very first track that we tackled. As soon as we started playing, I’m talking about 30 or 45 seconds into that song, I’m like, “this is going to be just perfect.” Everybody fell directly into an appropriate space. I have no idea why, it’s just how it happened.
That organ solo, which we initially planned would be a guitar–he had never heard the song. When I talked to Jefferson [Crow], I got introduced to him through Laur [Joamets], Little Joe, who’s playing guitar. He was like, “you’ve gotta talk to this guy, who’s just a great keys guy.” So I got a hold of him out of the clear blue, and we finally ended up talking. He’d listened to some stuff that I had recorded, not new songs, but old stuff. He said he was into it, so I said, “listen, I’ll send you these acoustic demos, so you can work through some of this stuff.” Then a long pause, and he was like, “well, I don’t think I want to listen to any of that.” He was like, “I’d just sit here and think about it for the next month, and what I do would only get worse.”
I was like, wow, that’s really cool, but also really frightening that you don’t want to do any prep. So on the solo he tracked, that’s the second or third take at that. That’s just what he did. That’s how good those guys are.
I’m so in awe of people who have such a level of mastery of their instruments, and also the theory of it, that overthinking is worse than the thing they’ve trained themselves to do by instinct.
And It worked perfectly for the project the way I wanted it to be. When you talk about any of these legendary record people seem to admire out of the 60s or 70s, some of those people did labor. You can look at old Tom Petty records, and listen to how they tracked this thing, and it took months. But a lot of those records, it’s studio musicians that walked in, they did these sessions, and they got some great tape. You can read about how Dylan, you know, some guy sat down at an organ who’s not an organ player, and came up with this memorable line. Things happen so naturally. And that plays into exactly what I wanted to do.
Jefferson’s take, just on his own, saying, “look, I’d rather not hear it,” that fits perfectly. He heard something, he felt it, he played it, we captured it. That’s music. Not every project needs to be perfectly clean. This has some dust on it, it’s maybe not perfect, but to me, it’s perfectly imperfect, if that’s possible.
How did “Bad Seed” become the title track?
You know, when I look back at the songs I’ve written, I don’t ever set out to write a collection of songs. It’s just not how I work. Maybe one day I will put a theme purposely behind something, but I didn’t.
I think music is something that I’ve always been able to lean on, and this is stuff I must be thinking about currently. There’s an old play, and a book, and they turned it into a TV movie, I think in the 60s, called The Bad Seed. The idea behind it was this girl who actually was kind of evil, but the premise of it is, are you born that way, or do you get nurtured into whatever?
It got me thinking about the good and the bad in most of us, and just thinking about how in different circumstances, I could probably have done better. And that seems to be a theme in some of the songs. Bad Seed seemed like the right title.
Not to be down on myself; I don’t write music to bring people down. I look at it as opposite. Even if I have a somber song, or maybe a take on something where I’m a little self-deprecating, the idea is really positive, which is that we could do better. To me, that’s uplifting. So I hope people hear things that way, but you know people are going to hear things how they hear it.
There’s a really positive energy to it, in my listening.
When we got through a bunch of songs, I was taking Laur home one night in East Nashville, and he said something–it meant a lot to me, because I hadn’t thought of it this way–he was like, “your songs, they have a little healing thing to them.” And I thought, that’s perfect, right? Isn’t that the point? That’s how I’ve always connected with music. No matter what stage of life I was in, or what frame of mind, there’s always been music there to serve that. Whatever I needed. When I was young, through teens, through even now. Whether you’re depressed or joyful, there’s always music that gives you what you need, if you’re a music lover. If somebody can connect with my music in that way, that’s the ultimate point, I think.
The Bad Seed thing can come off like, heavy or negative, but it’s really not that. I think it’s cathartic, you know? That’s what it’s there for. It was a way for me to be able to say, “here’s a few things I’d change and do differently.” And I will. It wasn’t necessarily a standout track to me, it just seemed like the right title, for whatever reason.
On your last album, Tried and True, you had a song about Adam and Eve, so I wondered if Bad Seed was another pass at original sin.
[laughs] I hadn’t thought about that, but maybe being raised Catholic, that’s always going to play in there somewhere. Maybe it’s in the ether too.
Again, you’re just this culmination of all your experiences, so to have that stuff floating around in my brain, I’m sure it’s in there. You want to be novel and new when you’re writing a song, but certain themes are going to arise. I think that’s probably not far-fetched.
What are your plans for the rest of 2018?
I want to turn out work more rapidly than I have.
Most people pursue this stuff when they’re a little younger. They come out of college, or maybe don’t even do that, and just go on the road. And it’s a little bit of a young person’s game to be touring and sleeping on people’s’ floors. I kind of did it in reverse; I worked for a long time, went down that corporate path, and then decided this is something I should do.
If I have any goal, I do want to turn out work more consistently. I’m pretty focused on a regimen, and not getting distracted with any number of things you could imagine that people distract themselves with. For me, the biggest thing I’m looking forward to is getting this out, to support it, to do whatever’s next. I really think the last record was the first that I put some real thought into. I was really scraping away whatever’s sitting on the surface and trying to get into something more real. This one, I feel like I inched closer to that again, and I want to keep chiseling at that, but doing that as quickly as I can. I feel like I should be putting out more work than I have.
That’s an interesting way of putting it, chipping away at the surface.
I feel like it’s definitely that process of never arriving, you know? In any art form, whether it’s songwriting, or painting, or what, you want to keep constantly looking. For me, that’s the challenge: to put those blinders on and take a good long look at like, “what am I supposed to be saying?” or “is this authentic to me?”
That’s what I concern myself with most these days as a writer. Is this really what I should be saying, or want to be saying, and not just something where I think, “oh, yeah, songwriters write about that topic, that’s what I should do.” Even if that’s not a conscious thought, which it certainly isn’t for me. It’s just, you can be persuaded subconsciously, so it’s tough to dig into yourself.
To me, that’s a daunting part, but also the exciting part, because that never ends. There are plenty of artists who have shown us that. Up until the day you can’t do it anymore, you can still be chipping away at that surface to see what’s in there.