He’s fronted Athens, Ga’s guitar-pop darlings, The Lures. He’s written songs (some covered by Bonnie Raitt) with deep South/tried and true artists like Randall Bramblett.
Now, he’s embarked on a solo career, with the release of “We Are Nighttime Travelers.” These days Slatton makes Birmingham, AL his home. Inspired and nurtured by his wife, daughter and a growing community of friends, Mr. Slatton has written, recorded and released one 2015’s stellar recordings. I’ve known Jason for many years. He is a humble, insightful conversationalist who is thoroughly in love with rock and roll. I was lucky enough to steal some time with this literate, articulate songwriter and talk about his new album.
First: Congratulations on the release of “We Are Nighttime Travelers.” It’s a beautiful and deeply rooted album. These songs strike me as snapshots where the characters in transition, often upheaval; trying to make sense of the moment or of the place where things have fallen for them. They typically seem a bit adrift. Agree? Disagree? Care to comment or elaborate?
I think that pretty much crystallizes the whole record. I gave three copies to three different listeners while we were just post-mixing and thinking about sequence, and one of those listeners came back with a very apt summation. They thought the line from “And She Goes On” about “dismantling and then beginning” was the best summation for all the different avenues the album goes down thematically, and I couldn’t agree more. Transition, flux, a kind of chaos, periods of calm laced with moments of overwhelming restlessness: that’s been my experience in both looking at the past year of my life (with the birth of my daughter) and, really, the past ten or so years when I haven’t been nearly as active in the music world as I once was. You know, the idea that all the things you used to be are completely gone—you’ve moved away (figuratively and literally) from everything you once knew. Well, what are you now? Now that all the things you used to have to define yourself are gone, what’s left? I’ve thought about that a lot since I moved from Athens, and sometimes still do. I was adrift for a while. To some degree, in keeping with the metaphor, I’ve found some anchors. Great ones, actually: my wife and my child. But I’m attracted to characters like that, whether in fiction or song, etc., because more than anything, I’ve been those characters.
So these kinds of voices and personas show up in the songs. Often, they’re not characters. They’re me. Even “Chet Baker,” which was very pointedly written to be both in first-person, and then in the last verse, third-person, is in places really just me (and probably, to some degree, Randall, since he co-wrote that one with me). Springsteen’s Tunnel Of Love album is a great example of this, too. There are many characters in the songs that make up that record, (and that record is all about the promise and responsibility of love and relationships), but there’s an air of unease—his eye is always on the door. It turns out that all those different personas on the album are just different versions of him.
2. Totally compelling. The stuff of a great song. Also, I love the way the catalyst to your character’s “enlightenment” is not fully disclosed. “Journalistic type” songwriters (I think anyway) often expect sheer fact of time, place and events to carry a song. They don’t lean enough on mystery. You’re the opposite. Your approach seems to be one of letting the more universalistic range of emotions, the ones we all share, to step upfront. I think it makes for a more powerful song. Is this something you’re aware of as you write or is it something that falls to you naturally?
I think I’m inherently drawn to writers that can move, at times, away from the specifics and more fully explore the more “universalistic” emotions. Every time. I think Springsteen, again, is really good at playing both sides of the field, but even his specific narratives access universal emotions and themes: loss, loss of self and individuality, healing, pain, redemption, transcendence, etc. Some of the songs on …Nighttime Travelers are markedly specific. “Bloom,” for example, is absolutely my experience (and my wife’s), and I even use some verbal idiosyncrasies that are only ours, but I hope that it also communicates some ideas that we all can understand and experience. “Chet Baker,” very much that idea. “Ghosts,” too. Not to embarrass you, but your song “Certain Slant Of Light” has always struck me that way. Likewise with “Fight Song.” Though I’ve never been a boxer, I connect with that person speaking in that song, line for line. I think I’m aware of it more so in the editing process than in the moment of creation. I’ll write pages and pages of lyrics that at times are me more “emptying the barrel” than anything else. When I’m sifting through those pages looking for ideas that interest me, I think I become more aware of what I’m doing and how I’m editing. I’m on a massive Neil Finn kick right now where I’m listening to all of his solo work, and his Crowded House-era writing. He’s a master of getting oddly specific and then letting those specifics reach higher into the “we can all relate” type of song. God, he’s so, so good. And, in a narrative sense, I like songs that are at times more obfuscated and less didactic. I’ve listened to entire Vic Chesnutt albums with little idea what he’s talking/writing about specifically, but…there’s something at work there, what he might call “the tingle of euphoria / of total animation and of wonder.” That’s where the real magic happens, I think. Circling back, I ultimately don’t care if “Bloom” is understood by everyone or not. It’s for me, my wife, and one day, my daughter. That being said, if someone feels a bit of recognition or familiarity with it, then…great.
3. The playing on the record is great, the parts and arrangements never “get in the way” of the narrative. Kudos to producer Jason Hamric for excellent work. Was it easy, challenging or both to bring the songs to a band arrangement that offered more embellishment?
I’ve had the good fortune to work with some amazing producers/engineers: Andy LeMaster, Andy Baker, David Barbe, John Keane, Micheal Rhodes, Dave Sinko, Glenn Cannon, Russ Hallauer, etc., but I can honestly say this was one of the easiest and productive experiences I’ve ever had in a studio. I have definitely been guilty of keeping too tight a grip on something I’ve written, and, alternately, I’ve also given up too easily when I might have been defending or selling an idea about a song, too. I think Jason and I somehow very quickly found the perfect balance—to the point where we initially were second-guessing ourselves: “Why is this so easy? Are we forgetting something?” Every song on the album was built from the ground up. Jason Hamric was amazing at taking what was essentially a demo (vox and guitar to a click track) and seeing only infinite possibility; we’d export the basic track to Les Nuby to add drums to (and, sometimes, bass) and once we got them back, we’d start building. He was instrumental (no pun intended) in both creating an enormous amount of trust, support and creativity all at once. A song like “And She Goes On” was, in my mind, going to ultimately sound like how it was written: hushed, fragile, meditative (i.e. it was written while my daughter was asleep roughly five feet away only days after we’d come home from the hospital). After sitting with it, Jason heard an entirely different direction, and pulled me along to his way of hearing it. I’m really glad he did—pretty much everyone who’s heard the album thus far has mentioned the song. That being said, he was also great at hearing an idea I had, and playing both cheerleader and editor at the same time—he’d let me indulge an idea, more often than not. There’s a terrific and powerful dynamic to recording live “off the floor,” and I’ve had a great time in the past doing that, but from the offset Jason and I both wanted to make a “headphone” record, which required more of a clinical approach to what was embellished and what wasn’t. There are a lot of little ambient details that are very much buried in the songs, things that definitely aren’t evident on the surface, but that are essential, I think. I know most people don’t listen that way these days, but for those who choose to, I think there’s a lot to hear, and, in a sense, “see.”
First, I can totally identify with the “letting go” aspect of walking into a studio and letting the songs be deconstructed or moved in another direction. On these last few “desert records,” I may walk in with a collection of ideas and hopes for each song, but almost always I’m surprised at “where they end up.” I never really know how a record will turn out. They seem to take on a life of their own, which I’ve come to enjoy.
I think the results on We Are The Night-Time Travelers are stupendous. Perfect ingredients: Great songs. Great band chemistry; Lots of variability, lots of emotional range.
Q: Do you see recording in that manner in the future? By that I mean: Could you see yourself walking into a room with say 10 half-finished ideas and seeing where a band of your choosing would take them?
Unequivocally: yes. That would be really interesting. I think the people who play on this record, who essentially comprise “the band” (Jason Hamric, Les Nuby, Janet Simpson-Templin) each brought very much their own “thing” to the recording(s), and what they brought in almost every single instance expanded and or completely altered my vision, and, going back to Hamric, he was terrific at knowing when to encourage that, and knowing when to step back a little. There’s a danger to recording elaborate demos and then thinking that you have to stay married to them. That happened quite a bit when I was actively writing/playing with Randall Bramblett. We’d work on demos, at times, almost with the same kind of focus that you might apply to a finished recording, i.e. one that you were aiming to release. It’s a little myopic, at least, I feel that way now. I know he does too, because when we write together these days, the results demo-wise are normally very spartan versions of the songs: chord changes, lyrics, melody, but with little more than an acoustic guitar to chart the song. On my own, I do that quite a bit now—meaning, if an idea arrives to me, I’ll very quickly record it with whatever’s available. Usually, this means my voice memo function on my phone—quite a far cry from the old days when I would actually fumble around with a Dictaphone, or if needed, I’d call my answering machine and sing into it. But, circling back to the answer/question: I think releasing yourself from your vision, particularly if you’re the “author,” is really, really smart. And it serves the song, ultimately, much more than it serves the ego. And that’s more important. I’d love to work with the same team again once I have enough songs to make up another record.
2. I can totally appreciate the notion of (to quote you) “ambient details” having an essential role in song craft. In my recordings, post-band, I realized that crafting a song was beginning to become more like a painting that didn’t give itself up on first viewing. There was no space or sonic “brush-stroke” that was un-important anymore. You mentioned Neil Finn, his solo and Crowded House work. as you said, he is amazing. I get the impression that, like him, you could lock yourself up in a studio once or twice a year, write and record a couple of records. An “emptying the barrel,” as you said above. Jason, you’ve cited the transition from solo/Athens music scene bandleader to married life with children in another town. In my experience, I think sometimes a “town-driven” scene floats on things unreal. It’s typically awaiting “the next big thing,” and often missing the tried and true, the growth an artist makes. So, in what ways do you feel transition for yours has deepened and expanded your “vocabulary” musically & thematically as an artist, as a human? Songs like Octobering come to mind.
Obviously, for me, the scope of what I do has changed dramatically. I don’t have a bigger label anymore handling press, tour support, radio, etc. and, as you mentioned, my focus has changed—my career now is teaching literature (which I love), I have a family, a mortgage, responsibilities, etc. that I didn’t have before. That doesn’t mean that I’ve left behind the part of myself that loves creating things, like writing songs and recording them, and even at times performing them. I remember one of the very first songs I wrote completely by myself, with no input from anyone, and my only tools were a guitar, a notebook, and my imagination. Finishing that song, which was far from great, gave me such a sense of purpose, of identity, of self. It’s that old idea (and I think I got it from you, or at least read you articulating it in this way) about going up to your room as a kid with just some glitter, glue and construction paper, and seeing what you can make of it. The tools for writing/songwriting are so basic, and so simplistic…I love the idea that even though I’m not checking CMJ or Gavin anymore to see where my song is charting, or worrying over a tour, or playing some big room somewhere…I love that the thing that’s always made me happy (creating) is still there. That’s why it’s been so cool to see bands like Five-Eight, for example, still making great records and playing shows, even though the focus is no longer “making it.” Why not do it because…you’re driven to? Reward be damned? I set the goal for myself to try and make a solo record mainly because I just felt like it was time to stick my neck out and do it. Hopefully, I’ll have the opportunity to make more. To more directly answer your question, I think I’m not so worried about how a song might be perceived anymore, or how I’m going to move up another rung on the ladder. I couldn’t care less. If I’ve generated some lyrical ideas that are maybe about my daughter, or nothing more consequential than watching her as she sleeps, for example, I’ll follow that lead. Maybe more than ever, I’m making the art for me. I really did, at one point, think in part about the audience. I think that, at times, Athens could be given over to flash, and not so much substance. As such, I think I’m even more focused on making myself happy with the material. The stakes are high on a personal level, but…I’m not in a scene anymore that’s given over to worrying about things like that. It’s very freeing. I might not have been able to write a song like “Octobering” back then, or “Ghosts,” because they’re quieter, and require a little more from the listener. Honestly, I’ve always had this line from Jawbreaker/Jets To Brazil frontman/songwriter Blake Schwartzenbach in my head, particularly in the past few years: “It’s not what you sell, it’s what you make.” With regard to any creativity, I don’t think an artist needs to know anything else.”