Life is moving is pretty fast, but I’m hanging on. It feels like every day I’m doing an interview or playing a show, or assembling a crib, or going to birthing class… so I should be counting every blessing as it comes, I guess. How have you been? Can I get you anything?
From all the songs out there, why did you choose to cover “Ho Hey”?
Songs are alive. They take residence inside you and sometimes they become the annoying neighbor that keeps you up at night. I kept being drawn to the friction of these lyrics and couldn’t juxtapose them with the stomps and shouts of the original arrangement. This is a lamentation and I needed to hear how the lyrics fell over a darker harmony. When I broke it down to the core and pieced it back together, it needed to be quiet so you could hear the anxious overtones.
Any plans to release a video for the cover?
I just a finished some acoustic video sessions to accompany this album. Many of these arrangements are already stripped down, but these videos will hopefully capture the delicacy I’m trying to offer on the more produced tracks. When I tour I’m usually solo on half of the routes, so I try to make sure I give an accurate portrayal of how I’ll be performing the songs live. The videos should be rolling out in a few weeks to complement the release.
The single comes off your new album A Fly Can’t Bird – what made you want to do a cover record?
Honestly, I never really intended to make one. The first track was a Quiet Company cover I’d already arranged for my live shows. (Just as a fan of their work) But, then my licensing company, Frog Music, wanted to create a concept album where Austin artists covered other Austin artists so I jumped on the opportunity to track it. It seemed like a waste to just record one song with a full studio day, so I tracked three covers on the first session. Once I had those, I thought I could get at least three more with another session. I was sitting with six and wasn’t sure how to release them. Then I realized…if I tracked two more I could release it as a full record! It was all very practical and pragmatic as it rolled out. I love adding my own spin to covers when I perform live anyway, so this is just a document of some of those arrangements.
Really, this is a much older practice that faded out in the past few generations. When you look at catalogs from legends like Willie Nelson you see a lot of cover material. He just liked to play his friends’ songs. It’s something I’d like to see a lot more of because it creates a strong community between artists and overlaps fans to discover new music.
What’s the story behind the title?
Well, it’s really from a poem within a book within another book. In college, my friend lent me a copy of “The Tao of Pooh” by Benjamin Hoff. It’s an introduction of Eastern philosophy for Westerners through the beloved conduit of Winnie the Pooh. One of the more profound chapters is about discovering one’s personal identity and the way Pooh uses the poem “Cottleston Pie” to recognize the beauty of his limitations. Things are as they are, but people violate this simple principle every day of their lives and try to fit round pegs into square holes. We are not called to change the world…but to create culture. There are some things I simply cannot achieve, but there are many others I absolutely can. A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly. Once you recognize what you are capable of personally, you can move all of your energy toward it and that potency will bring great change.
How was the recording process?
I have a few steps to my process before I get the whole band in the studio. First, I demo at least three variations of each track in my home studio, and try to make each track uniquely different. Whether it’s altered instrumentation, groove, tempo or key, I try to make myself discover alternatives for how the song can exist on tape, even if they’re not my standard approach.
Then, there is a lot of listening. When you are producing yourself, it is difficult to asses other options, so you have to train yourself to question your arrangement the way someone would hear it on a cold listen, and recreate that moment over and over. I usually sit with the demos for a few weeks, then I choose an arrangement that shines above the others.
After the arrangement solidifies, I have a groove session with drums and bass to see how the songs truly agree with real players. The questions I’m usually asking players in these sessions are, “Is that fun to play? If you could change anything to make it feel better, what would you do? Does this feel boring or do you feel or like something fresh you can be proud of?” A lot can change in this session, so I try to record a finalized version of what we decide on and make sure it lines up with what I’m imagining with other hooks and parts.
So, by the time I’m actually in the full studio, the songs are pretty solidified and we only have to focus on capturing strong performances. I tracked this record at Ramble Creek studios in Austin, TX with Britton Beisenherz engineering. I feel really comfortable there and can trust Britton to go above and beyond what is necessary to translate the performances to tape. He usually has a tape measurer on hand to calculate microphone placement and understands the subtleties of pre-amps and compressors more than anyone I’ve ever met.
Based on what did you choose the songs to cover?
Music is the only art form that can enter your heart without your permission. It’s hard to identify why a song resonates with you, but you become aware of it and you form a relationship. Sometimes the relationship stays casual, but sometimes you take it to the next level.
I’m used to covering songs every week for live shows. If you want to connect with audiences and build community between your fans and other artists, you offer them something familiar. When you cover someone’s music it is a gesture of respect and I think that goes a long way.
I have a connection to each song on the album. A few of them are by friends whom I admire and wanted to acknowledge their work. Some are effigies I needed to burn to overcome old memories, and some were simply in the right place at the right time to help me keep moving forward.
Do you take a different approach when you are covering someone else’s music than when you are writing your own original material?
Definitely! And, that is part of the attraction. Original songs are fragile when they come into the world. They haven’t made a name for themselves and if they make a bad first impression, they might fall into the shadows and never see the light of day. There is a vulnerability to the lyrics when they are from your own heart. Every syllable is uniquely your choice and responsibility.
But, when you cover a song, you are taking something that already fought through the brutality of creation and simply making a comment about what it means to you. It’s an entirely different set of risks because you have to develop something great into something entirely new. The original will always stand, and the cover is simply a variation to continue the conversation. When I heard Michael Andrews cover Mad World by Tears for Fears, my appreciation of covers was radically transformed. Both versions stand on their own as monuments and are equally moving. It’s like listening to two different people tell the same story. The point-of-view is paramount to how you will perceive the experience.
Any plans to hit the road?
I’ve been touring pretty heavily for the past three years promoting my last record, Certain Circles. We’re averaging 150+ show annually across the country and it’s been a wonderful, laborious experience. I’ve seen Oregon, Colorado, Louisiana, Kansas, Tennessee and everything in between. This album is going to function as a placeholder for a few months as we park the van for a while.
My wife and I are expecting our first child in March and I’m slowing down to focus on being a father for this important season. I’ll still be playing a fair amount of shows, but I’m trying to stay in Texas as much as possible.
What else is happening next in Chase Gassaway’s world?
I know fatherhood is going to radically overwhelm my life and I’m excited to experience this next chapter. I’ve got plenty of new songs in the works, but I’m going to be moving my full attention to my family for this season. Making music for a living is a hard undertaking, but I have a good community of musicians who have shown me you can carry the mantles of parent and performer with grace if you respect the responsibilities of each role. I just can’t wait to meet my baby boy.