Heartstrings Interview

All the Right Reasons: An Interview with Joe Fletcher

Joe Fletcher and I decided to save our interview for post-AmericanaFest, so that we could extend our discussion to the next stop on his festival trails and delve into his 3rd (but 1st solo) album, You’ve Got the Wrong Man, just before its October 7th release.

We spoke mid-day Monday, while Joe was still in Southern California, subsequent to his performance at Way Over Yonder on Santa Monica pier. As a devoted attendee of Newport Folk Festival, but only a far-off admirer of their sister festival (Way Over Yonder), I was excited to hear how the weekend was spent. Joe reflected on the camaraderie and spirit backing all Newport Folk events, some performers that us East coast folks should be tapping into, and the prospect of embarking on next year’s ultimate cross-country adventure — Newport Folk Festival to Pickathon — back-to-back weekends, back-to-back fun.

In anticipation of his upcoming solo release, we interviewed Joe about everything from his 10 years as an English teacher, white lighter superstitions and word selection for his record title in attempt to avoid iTunes and Google search confusion, to carrying on the music and memory of David Lamb.

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Lauren Jahoda: Hey Joe! I hope I didn’t catch you at a bad time.

Joe Fletcher: No! I was just in a thrift store…one of my weaknesses.

Me too (laughs).

(laughs) And I’m in a rental car and I don’t have a lot of CDs with me, so I was just stocking up on some music for the rest of my trip.

Cool! Did you get anything good?

I got some old favorites — a Jim Croche Greatest Hits CD that my dad always used to play, I got PJ Harvey To Bring You My Love, which is one of my favorite records…these are sadly all CDs that I have at home, I think every one of them, but they we’re really cheap so…I got Achtung Baby by U2, which really brings me back to my senior year in high school and there’s one more…Paul Simon’s The Rhythm of the Saints — this is a real trip back to my high school years. A mid-life crisis or something (laughs).

That’s awesome. Where are you headed?

I just got on the highway in San Diego and I’m going back to Los Angeles. I spent a few days already. I flew into Los Angeles, I was there Tuesday and Wednesday. and went to Joshua Tree to play. Where are you located?

In New York, on Long Island.

I saw that you were at AmericanaFest. Did you have fun down there?

Oh yeah! How about you?

Yeah, I sure did. That’s where I live, so it’s pretty awesome when something like that comes to your town, especially when you get to be a part of it.

Yeah. It was actually my very first time in Nashville.

Did you leave with a positive impression?

Definitely. I can’t wait to go back. I could see myself living there. Everywhere you turn there’s someone who can help you in some way. Everyone is connected through music.

Yeah. I noticed that. I visited it for years and I toured there a lot, 6 or 7 years before moving there and I caught the bug early. I wanted to move there for a long time. I just moved there a year ago, actually on October 1st, it will be exactly a year that I’ve been living in Nashville.

That’s great. Are you happy that you made that move?

Oh yeah. I’m on the road 6 or 7 months of the year, so it’s amazing to me that it’s been a year. I’m really happy with it.

Do you live outside Nashville?

I live in East Nashville. I don’t know if you made it over there while you were there.

We did. We went to the Groove a couple of times.

Oh yeah. I’m about 3 miles from there. Tucked away in a little neighborhood.

I interviewed Jonah Tolchin in East Nashville. You probably know Jonah, since you both come from the Rhode Island music scene.

Yeah, we had a breakfast the following Monday!

Jonah had a lot of wonderful things to say about you. He’s such a great person.

He is. Very warm and open.

Yes. You performed at Way Over Yonder this weekend — how was it?

It was actually fantastic — not that I expected otherwise — but I didn’t really know what to expect. Newport Folk is involved and I’ve been involved with Newport Folk for 3 years now and I had a feeling it would be a pretty top-notch operation. It was just really cool. I couldn’t really picture the scene, the way it was — it’s actually on the pier. It takes place actually on the wooden boards of the pier. The audience, the stage, the backstage…everything. And there’s one main stage, that Jackson Browne, Lucinda Williams and Chris Robinson played on. Then there’s the Carousel Stage for the smaller acts. Just two stages. The stage is literally in the carousel. The horses are right there in front of you.

Wow, that is certainly unique. Did you feel that Newport spirit there, despite it being so far away?

It is very, very different than Newport, but the one similarity that I noticed was just the vibe among the musicians, ya know, friends reuniting and just meeting a lot of new people. I saw a lot of cool bands. A lot of the bands that I had not heard of were from California or more specifically the Los Angeles area. Just bands I wasn’t aware of before. The Far West — who I actually saw, they played in Nashville the Sunday before AmericanaFest — my friend JP Harris threw a record release party in East Nashville and they were on the bill. They were out touring, so I saw them and their name looked familiar to me but I couldn’t figure out why. I eventually figured out that it was because I kept seeing it on the Way Over Yonder poster too. They blew me away in Nashville and they blew me away again at Way Over Yonder. It was nice getting to spend time with a group of musicians who you like their work. I felt the same with a girl who I didn’t know before, her name is Leslie Stevens. We had a lot of mutual friends who put us in touch in advance and she came up on Friday and sang a song with me and I sang a John Prine song with her during her set on Saturday. So I just made a lot of friends in a short period of time. I was able to connect with people. It was just a pleasant atmosphere surrounding any event that Newport puts together. There’s no real ego among the artists and everyone’s just kind of in it together. Whether you’re in Newport or on Santa Monica pier, you’re in an idyllic location and it’s just hard to be in a bad mood.

I can understand that completely. Way Over Yonder is a lot smaller than some of the festivals you might be used to playing.

Yeah it is. Newport Folk is only about 10,000 people a day, which usually blows the minds of people who have never been there before. Because it has such a name and such a history, people think of it as being bigger. It’s just not, and I think that’s one of the reasons it’s still around. They could try to move it to a different place…I mean they sell out every year before the line-up is announced, these last few years…so they could obviously sell more tickets, obviously they could make more money, but the history and the location is really important to them and I really admire anything these days in the music industry that isn’t based upon the financial bottom line. It’s rare.

I feel the same way. It’s that commitment — to the history, to the location, to the fans and musicians — that brings me there every year. I went to Pickathon Music Festival over the summer for the first time…

Oh yeah…that’s my girlfriend’s favorite festival. She wasn’t there this year, but she’s been there the past few.

I can’t imagine not going back every year for the rest of my life. It’s that good.

Yeah, it was killing her to miss it. She had been at Newport Folk the weekend before and she couldn’t make it. She works for a company called Live & Breathing. They do really top-notch, high quality video sessions usually in really cool locations. They go to Pickathon every year and they have an area called the Pumphouse where they set up shop.

Oh I know it well (laughs). What’s really incredible about Pickathon, that a lot of people don’t know, is that they cap the festival at around 3,500 people.

Wow, I gotta make it out there. Hopefully I’ll be playing next year.

Yeah I hope so too! I know that Newport is the weekend before and that makes things tough. I actually met Jay Sweet while I was at AmericanaFest and this was the first summer I couldn’t go to Newport because I arrived early for Pickathon and I was worried that he was going to ask me if I was there this year because it was the first weekend in a long time that I wasn’t. And of course he did ask, and I said no because I was at Pickathon (laughs). And he said honestly if you said any word other than Pickathon, I would have yelled at you (laughs). For those who know about it, there’s a lot of respect for Pickathon.

When is it?

They are back-to-back weekends. Newport is the last weekend in July and Pickathon is the first weekend in August. My goal is to get both done this year somehow.

Yeah, yeah. It’ll be worth it.

You weren’t born and raised in Rhode Island, but you did live there for a long period of time, correct?

Yeah, most of my life. I was born in St. Louis, Missouri and moved to Rhode Island right before kindergarten. It’s kind of a long story but I moved around a lot when I was in elementary school, but from 5th grade ’til about a year ago, I lived in Rhode Island, except for one year while in college. But yeah, basically not born but certainly raised in Rhode Island.

Nathaniel Rateliff, who I interviewed during AmericanaFest and who was also at Way Over Yonder, is originally from Missouri.

Leslie Stevens is from St. Louis, Missouri too. It’s nice to see these Missouri kids making good.

It certainly is! Small world. I also read that you were an English teacher — is that true?

That is absolutely true. I was a teacher for 10 years.

When did you start teaching?

I started in 2001 and I left after the school year that ended in 2011.

Pretty recently then.

Yeah, three years ago. I was playing music and touring…I played music all year round but I would tour over summer vacation, February vacation and April vacation. It was a really good job for trying to launch a touring lifestyle because of the amount of time off was really conducive to getting out and losing money. You had a job and you didn’t really have to worry too much about making money. Once I figured out how I could make money, then I had to let it go. But it was a really wonderful experience. It definitely shaped who I am in a number of ways. Definitely a very valuable experience. I’m glad I did it.

What ages were you teaching?

I started out the first couple of years in middle school and pretty much went on to teaching high school. It was a charter school k-12 campus, so there was some flexibility straddling middle school, but then I think the second to last year I had high school classes, except for one 8th grade class, that I did as a favor (laughs).

I actually went to school for teaching English, grades 7-12, and received my certification.

Oh yeah?

Yeah. I remember reading that you said you taught your students about Robert Johnson and some others.

The school let me invest in an American roots music elective, it was separate from my English classes, but for 3 or 4 years I taught this elective and was able to propose things that were my genuine interest. I had a good audience of musicians and music fans, who wanted to know where the music was coming from. I had a really wonderful experience with that class. We put on a concert at the end of every year and by the time we got to the end of the year and you had kids arguing over who was going to the Johnny Cash song or the Robert Johnson, that’s when you knew…kids were walking away with an expanded musical mind. I think it’s important to have a frame of reference. There are so many things these days…the White Stripes are a perfect example because of a lot of the kids in the class were fans of that band and so much is drawn from early country blues and roots musicians, there are a lot of references. It’s important to know where that stuff comes from.

Yeah. I also read that with the new album, you had asked your booking manager to book your tour throughout Alabama and that is what ultimately inspired You’ve Got the Wrong Man.

Yeah, that was a tour I did right after I left teaching, in the fall of 2011. The previous album was already out, so I was touring on behalf of White Lighter at the time, but I happened to be out on this solo trip and yeah, I had asked the guy who was booking me at the time because I’m really interested in the traditional American styles and I’m a big Civil War buff. At that point in my career, there were only a handful of places that people were asking me to come to so I’d go where I’d want to go and set up a tour around the historical sights I wanted to see. Now it’s a little more complicated because you have to hit this city and that city, but I still do a lot of stuff during the day, in between shows. I get up early and go to museums, Civil War battlefields, especially if I’m out on the road alone. That’s one of the reasons I like touring solo.

There are a lot of references to Alabama. The Hank Williams Museum, which I visited for the first time. It was a really moving experience. Florence, Alab. was just something I kind of began imagining while I was down there. Florence, Alab. is not mentioned in the song but it’s the title of the song. Something about that trip was a turning point in my life. I had two weeks worth of shows in Alabama and that was my first trip totally alone. That trip was actually supposed to be a duo tour but the guy coming with me quit the band the day before we were leaving. I had never been on a long two-week trip on my own before. Ya know…am I going to be able to do all this driving? What if something happens? What if I get a flat tire in the middle of nowhere? I just thought of all the things that could happen. But what actually happened is that it was one of the best experiences of my life. Ya know, him quitting the band, although very upsetting at the time, it was probably the greatest gift he could have given me. It put me out of my comfort zone — something I was afraid of, but now something that I cherish.

Yeah, leaving your comfort zone is almost always necessary and traveling alone is an extremely rewarding experience.

I love it. I’m out in California and I’m out here another week by myself and then my girlfriend is flying out. That’ll be fun too, but being alone is a beautiful way to see the country because you don’t have anyone else to talk to. I’m a bit of a shy person by nature but when your in a club in San Diego, which is a town I hadn’t been to before, it kind of forces you to connect with people and meet with people. If you were traveling with the band, you kind of talk to the people you know, even if you don’t like them so much (laughs). Not that I don’t like my band (laughs)…you just tend to gravitate towards what’s comfortable. I was talking about that with a guy who was in the band I was playing with last night because he was asking me about traveling alone and I said I probably wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation if I had three guys with me.

Yeah, that’s so true. I’ve traveled alone before and it’s so amazing because you take advantage of all that is around you. You just absorb every opportunity because you can and because you should and because you’re alone.

Yeah. It’s a good thing. You learn a lot about yourself and what you’re capable of…how far you can drive in a day (laughs). Farther than you probably think.

I realized that the titles of your records aren’t named after songs within them — where do your titles come from?

I did actually write a title track for White Lighter that came out after the album came out. So there is a song called “White Lighter,” it’s just not on White Lighter. It’s not on any record. The reason I called it “White Lighter” is because I grew up in an area where a white lighter was considered very, very, very bad luck and a lot of people know that and a lot of people don’t. It seems to vary by region. Some places know it and some have no idea what that refers to. I just like the sound of it as well and I read a little more about it and it has a lot of connotations from the witch world, which I’m not into in any way, shape or form, but a good witch is a white lighter and I just thought it was an interesting pairing of words and it meant a lot to me from being a college student. I know it’s something that signified bad luck.

Yeah me too. I remember everyone refused to use white lighters.

Yeah, I would be at parties and if they asked you for a light and you pulled a white lighter out of your pocket, they’d take it and throw it off the deck and into the woods…just like get that out of my house, what were you thinking bringing that in here…don’t you know?

Yeah. It’s really interesting.

Originally when I was writing for the record, there was a song called “You’ve Got the Wrong Man” that kind of fell by the wayside. I knew it was going to be a solo record. My band is Joe Fletcher and the Wrong Reasons, so one of the reasons was that my first record came out under the name “Wrong Reasons,” my second record came out under “Joe Fletcher and the Wrong Reasons” and this being the solo record, I had no choice but to call it “Joe Fletcher,” so technically if you’re looking on iTunes, it’s a nightmare because it’s three separate bands. It sucks. I’ve tried like hell to get them to fix it but it’s like trying to walk to Oz. The kingdom is impenetrable (laughs). So I was playing with titles that had either “wrong” or “reason” in the title so that people might see and be like oh that is the same guy…that’s funny I know Joe Fletcher, that’s Joe Fletcher from Joe Fletcher and the Wrong Reasons. So I figured if it had one of those words in the title, it might help. It’ll probably help in a Google search too. “You’ve Got the Wrong Man” is a song that I nearly finished that I abandoned a year ago that I really liked at the time but it’s part of my process to sit with it for awhile — to get really excited and then the next day, week, month or year later, I see the flaws in it and I disappear it (laughs). I liked that title and I felt it fit the record. It was going to be that or Just One Reason and I think I made the right choice.

And if you had named it Just One Reason, you would have “Reason” to link to “The Wrong Reasons.”

Yeah, exactly. And instead of the Wrong Reasons, it was a solo record so that’s “just one reason.” Yeah. It started to feel a little bit corny to me, but I still like this one.

(laughs)

The track “Oceanside Motel” — is that one of the songs you recorded in a motel?

I recorded a lot of songs in hotels, but none of those actually made it onto the record. I recorded in a lot of places but only 3 of those locations are actually represented on what I ended up keeping for the record. I was traveling around and touring when I was making this record and I had a very mobile recording unit, it only takes about a half hour to set up, but then you have to play with it to see how the room reacts to the microphone, ya know. So it’s not the kind of thing you want to do every night after a show because it’s a little involved just to get the right sound. If I was going to be in a hotel for a couple of days, if I had some off days, I’d get a room for a few days and record something. I did that a handful of times, but I ended up keeping stuff I recorded in my old apartment in Rhode Island before the move and then in the meantime, I spent a lot of times at this property outside of Athens, Georgia and that’s where the bulk of it was recorded. This old farmhouse from the mid to late 1880s…right after the Civil War…1867, 1870…somewhere around there. And then the last 3 or 4 songs were done in my new house in Nashville. Any song that has guests on it was recorded there. I recorded everything alone up until then. We just threw a party and before things got too out of hand, we moved everybody into a couple of rooms and arranged them by the loudness of their voice. It was all recorded by just two microphones. Everything on the record is live…playing and singing at the same time. It’s just supposed to be sitting in a room, listening to me play by myself.

What kind of equipment did you use to record?

I have a relatively new, nice tube microphone that is the main mic and then I have one other condenser mic set up and an old, I don’t know what year it was made…probably the late 80s…a Tascam 4-track cassette unit, it just takes regular cassettes. It can layer up to four things and you can do it any number of ways. When I was in college, a lot of people had these and then that was all replaced by digital. But on most machines, you can record on all tracks at the same time, if necessary. I think there’s something to be said for working within limitations and deciding what the important things are. What are these four tracks going to be? For this record I only used two tracks. I just played the songs into the two mics and those mics were in different places in the room. And those difference places I recorded were as important as the equipment, they are as much a part of the sound as the equipment. When you really listen to it, you’ll hear the sound of the songs change. So sometimes my voice sounds far away, there’s a lot of reverb on it but no effects, it’s just the placement of the mic in the room. For instance, in the house in Georgia, there’s a room with a really high ceiling where if you clap your hands it echoes for a few seconds.

I can tell, almost every song sounds a little different.

The only two songs recorded under the exact same circumstance were the two with the background vocalist because we recorded those back-to-back. The place in Georgia was just a wealth of possibilities. You could be in the double parlor or in a secret stairwell or in a closet. I just had the most fun moving it around. I recorded a lot of songs under a lot of different circumstances — just trying to see what fit the mood for the song. It was a lot more involved than it sounds, when you say “I recorded my new album on a four-track.” A lot went into it. It was a hell of a lot harder than I thought it was going to be.

I have to talk to you about the song “Mabel Grey” for a number of reasons — I want to talk about you covering Brown Bird’s song but before I do, I want to address the lyric: “We landed our ship in Malta…” I’m Maltese and I couldn’t believe it when I heard it because many people have never even heard of Malta before or just know very little about it. Is David Lamb the original writer of that song?

He is. He actually co-wrote it with another friend of mine.

Do you know the background of that song?

I do know it was an actual ship. From what I’ve read about the ship, it does not sound as though the song was written about that particular story. It was a shipwreck. It was kind of a well-documented shipwreck. I haven’t read anything about it in a long time. I was covering that song, beginning when Brown Bird stopped being able to play live, when Dave was basically going through treatment and then recovering and I had decided that way before the situation changed that I was going to put it on the record. Dave heard that version of it but I wish now that I would have asked him more about the song. I mean I loved it, I heard him play it for years but I never really inquired any more deeply, but he had a great imagination. He was very interested in sea stories, just like I am and he worked in a shipyard until he stopped working fully to concentrate on the band. I have a feeling, if I had to guess…I could ask MorganEve about it, she would probably know. I still close my shows with that song every night…for awhile now. I just can’t see not doing that any time soon. He had the opportunity to hear me play it and hear the recording that is on the record — that was done in February of last year and I had already asked his permission to put it on the record, but he didn’t know I was going to have all the guests on it, so I sent him the recording as soon as I could. It was a lot of our mutual friends who showed up to sing on the song. It was a strange turn of events because I started it as a tribute to keep their name out there when they couldn’t be on the road and then the situation obviously changed for the worse.

What is it like playing that song in his memory?

It’s different every single night. I try to make it very much a sing-a-long, with the chanting parts at the end. I show everyone how to do that and then I switch to sing Dave’s part and so while the crowd is doing the la-dee-dahs behind me, it’s a flood of ya know, different emotions and mental pictures…never the same but sometimes it chokes me up pretty bad and other times it makes me smile. It’s kind of about where you’re at and what the situation is, but the one thing I can say is that it is different every day.

What made you choose “Mabel Grey”?

I like crowd participation. I’ve seen Brown Bird a lot and I like how they always got the crowd going and Dave closed with it a lot. There are many songs I love and I’m definitely going to introduce more of them in my sets but that one is just…I can’t think of one that you can get the participation on. Especially when I am out playing alone. People don’t always get excited seeing a guy take a guitar out of a guitar case and I try to debunk a lot of the stereotypes of the sad man with the acoustic guitar.

That’s my favorite kind of musician, by the way (laughs).

(laughs)

Since the first two albums were recorded with your band and this one is solo, what is that like? Do you think you will continue solo for the next album?

No. I have a lot of songs for the next record and it’s definitely going to be a band affair. Undoubtedly.

You’ve Got the Wrong Man comes out on Tuesday 10/7/14. In the meantime, you can stream it here.

You can pre-order the album from iTunes and it’ll also be available via Amazon, Google Play, etc. on Tuesday! Find out more information at www.joefletchermusic.com!

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