Nashville, Tennessee songwriter Arthur Alligood has been on my radar for a while now, and I feel bad this is the first chance I've had to write about his music. I've got his earlier album, I Have Not Seen the Wind, and it's a great slice of dark Americana and a vehicle for Alligood's excellent songwriting chops. I'm not the only who thinks he's a precociously talented songwriter either: in 2011 he won the Mountain Stage New Song contest. No small feat that, and he got a recording contract as well out of the win! His new full-length album, One Silver Needle, comes out of that contract and it's more proof positive as to his rock-solid songwriting chops. Each song on the album is carefully constructed, in fact I'm starting to think of Alligood as a master craftsman of American songwriting. Arthur's also been moving into the producer's chair more, first with the excellent album from Alabama indie roots band Fire Mountain. I figured it was high time we got to new Arthur a little better, so I sent him along some questions to find out more.
Hearth Music Interview with Arthur Alligood
What's Nashville like? Do you find it hopelessly mired in old-school mainstream country, or is there a great creative community for you to work with? Where are you from originally?
Arthur Alligood: I've lived in middle TN most of my life…mostly in suburban towns just around Nashville. Nashville is a great city with lots of history. As far as the music scene goes, a lot is going on besides modern country music. You have everything here from gospel to hard rock. I think more and more outsiders are taking notice of the diversity of our music scene.
What were your earliest musical inspirations?
AA: Good question. Didn't listen to much music until late high school. I remember having an oldies tape that had songs like "Yakety Yak" and "La Bamba" on it. Not sure if I was really inspired though. I think the band that made me want to play guitar was Jars of Clay.
Where do you write most of your songs? Is there a place you go to for inspiration, or isolation?
AA: I write 99% of my songs in my house either at the kitchen table or in the bathroom. Sometimes I record melody ideas on my phone when I'm driving and then work on them more when I get home.
Tell me about the new album and the Mountain Song contest. How did that come about? What song/songs helped you win the contest? Is the album, One Silver Needle, a direct result of that?
Well, I entered three songs in the contest this past year. I was fortunate to be chosen (based on those songs) as one of 12 finalists. So, I flew to New York for the competition and long story short, I ended up winning the whole shebang. The grand prize was an opportunity to record with producer Mikal Blue out in L.A. One Silver Needle is the record we made. I'm pretty proud of it. The songs I entered in the contest were the same songs I played during the live competition. They were: Gavel, Keep Your Head Up, and Turn It Over. [note: Songs from his 2011 album, I Have Not Seen the Wind]
You seem to move effortlessly between beautiful acoustic folk songs with carefully crafted, subtle lyrics, to more pop-oriented songwriting (great hooks and choruses, lyrics less about telling a story, more about conveying emotion). That's not a dig at all, that's a compliment. Do you see this in your own songwriting, or do you see less of a dichotomy between singer-songwriter lyricism and pop songcraft?
I've learned over the years to just run with what's working. I'll go through seasons where all I can write are ballads. Then I get bored I think and start experimenting with melody and guitar hooks. This fog eventually lifts and I find myself writing an old country song. I seem to jump from one rock to the next. It all feels good to me. I think my albums for the most part reflect this method. In my mind, there is no division between any of it. I am really aware though that it's easy sometimes to write the same type of song over and over. I don't want my records to come off this way. The trick is to write songs that can stand up all on their own and also fit together to make a greater work i.e. the album. People say the album is dead, but I still believe in its power. When you can take a group of "singles" and make a great record you have done something.
How is the new album, One Silver Needle, different from your past album, I Have Not Seen the Wind?
There is lots more storytelling on One Silver Needle. I think this is the major difference. I Have Not Seen the Wind in my estimation was more of a "relational" record. There were some narrative songs there, but for the most part the album felt more like a conversation. One Silver Needle feels more like a group of short stories.
Your new album seems more produced (bigger band, more arrangements, fewer acoustic numbers) than the last album. Did you have more time in the studio, or a different vision for the music?
I had way more resources at my disposal this time around. Mikal brought in players that he thought would suit my style well. Legends like Jim Keltner and Leland Sklar played on several songs, which was an honor. I was out recording in L.A. for nearly two weeks. We were really only supposed to do an EP, but we decided early on we were going to press hard for a full-length album. Beyond writing the songs I didn't really have a vision in terms of production. It was fun to see how Mikal shaped the songs.
Tell me about your work as a producer. I recall you produced the Fire Mountain EP, which was excellent. How did that go and was it a challenge for you to move outside your own perspective as solo artist to produce the work of a full band that you're not actively a part of?
I met Perry from Fire Mountain a while back and fell in love with his voice and songwriting. We did some pre-production via Skype and then they came into town and we tracked the whole EP in one weekend. I'm not really a producer, but I do enjoy the process and seeing the end result. Working on songs that aren't mine makes me a better songwriter. It gives me a different perspective and helps me to see my own songs more clearly.
I can't find a bio of you anywhere on the web. Why is that? Do you not like writing about your music? As a challenge, I'd love to hear how you'd describe your music in a sentence or two! :)
Bios are way harder to write than songs. I've written them over the years and have never really been happy with how they've come off. I make the music and am up for talking about it, but I just don't like having that conversation with myself, which is what a bio seems to be to me. Describe my music? Why don't I describe the music I like and hope I make. It has to have a certain ache. It doesn't take long to listen to feel it and hear it. It's the ache of the broken and lost. It's that desperate ache to see things made right as they should be. I guess you could say I make modern roots music with subtle, poetic lyrics. Hopefully, it has the ache too.
Who are some other songwriters who've really inspired you? What about writers, like authors? Do you read much for inspiration?
My songwriter list continues to grow, but here are a few of my favorites: Paul Simon, Townes Van Zandt, Washington Phillips, Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty. I used to read a ton, but my reading has died down due to having kids and what not. Some of my favorite writers are Flannery O'Connor, Wendell Berry, Ernest Gaines, William Gay. I love me some Southern literature.
Arthur Alligood: Darkness to Light
Arthur Alligood: We Had A Mind To Run