Greg Trooper: "There's no formulas in this business"
In a studio in Tennessee, Greg Trooper and his technicians celebrated: they’d just finished recording the song “Nobody in the Whole Wide World”, and they knew that it was the one, “the single”, the song that would be played on the radio.
A while later, the album Upside-Down Town came out, that song was the first track and – no one paid any attention to it, or to another that Trooper had high hopes for. Instead, to his surprise, all the focus was on a completely different song, “They Call Me Hank” – one that Trooper had thought was never going to attract radio play.
It always surprises me which songs people are fascinated by and which songs they’re not,” says Trooper. “‘Hank’ is not the most radio-friendly song. It’s long, it’s slow, it’s a story song, very hard to make that work on the radio ... but there’s no formulas in this business. I’m just glad someone likes something.”
“Hank” is based (loosely) on the Cormac McCarthy novel “Suttree”, the story of a man living alone on a houseboat on the Tennessee River in the 1950s. Trooper changed the names and some of the details, and produced a remarkable vignette of a life that was captivating enough to break through the usual radio limitations. Despite all the predictions, Trooper says, that’s the song he’s getting calls about.
Upside-Down Town is Trooper’s first new studio album in six years – though he did recently release an album that he recorded in 1995 but had never been released. When he last made a record, in 2005, he was signed to Sugar Hill, but now he’s an independent artist, experiencing all the highs and lows that that brings.
“It’s a lot of work, you know. You don’t make much money selling records when you’re with a label unless something really turns a corner for you, but they do do all the work. Sometimes that feels like a pretty fair trade-off!”
Trooper had originally been determined that he wouldn’t go down the route that many independent artists take nowadays and ask his fans for money up front to get the album made. He was concerned that if he did that once, he would be obliged to do it every time he wanted to make a new record, and that ultimately he would lose fans.
In the end, however, he decided that asking for money was the only way to give the new album a fighting chance.
“I got the record made and I was pretty much tapped, and I wanted to hire a publicist and radio promostion. When you’re doing it yourself your reach is so limited compared to a record label. So I said: I’ll try this fan financing.
“People were extremely generous. It was shocking. We got up to our goal in no time. It was very flattering and quite encouraging really,” he says. “Now we’ll see if I get stuck going back to them or not.”
The early recordings for the album were done in Tennessee. But Trooper recently upped sticks from Nashville and came back to New York, and the album was finished there. The decision to return was made for personal reasons, he says, unlike the move to Nashville which was a career move.
“When I moved down to Nashville I had a publishing deal and a record deal. It seemed like a smart move. People recorded my songs, I lived off publishing deals. I had a good run down there. But once you establish some kind of career, at this point in my life you can sort of do it from anywhere, especially with computers and internet and digital recordings and e-mailing songs. You couldn’t do that when I was living in New York before. We had to run the tape up to the guy!”
As time went by, Trooper found himself putting aside much of the material that he’d recorded in Tennessee because he liked his newer songs better. He says the album represents “five years of contemplation rather than five years of writing” – most of the songs were written within a few months of the completion of the project.
With the new album firmly under his belt, Trooper is also hoping that he will start picking up money from publishing. “People will start hearing songs and want to record them. You can only win it if you’re in it.”
And now that he’s got his feet wet as an independent artist, he plans to keep it going.
“I’m still writing songs as I go. I hope to make a follow-up record. You go till you can’t go, you know, but as long as I still go, I’ll go. What does Dave Alvin say? If you can do something else you probably should.”