Life – and death – inspires Slaid Cleaves
There is something admirable about Slaid Cleaves. It takes a certain level of gumption after five years of consistent touring but no new studio album to come out with one based on inscriptions on tombstones and bearing the title Everything You Love Will be Taken Away. If that weren’t enough, it’s accompanied by an effusive message of praise from horror writer Stephen King.
The songs are desperately honest – Come December when the lights go out/You know you can't count on anyone, Cleaves sings in the first track, “Cry.” Yet on the first hearing you would hardly know that. The tunes are musical, the lyrics carefully constructed and the tempo is upbeat.
“It isn’t as dirgey as the lyrics are at some points,” Cleaves admits. “But I’m one of those guys that I feel like what I do best is connecting with people on a more sorrowful level, a more tragic level. That’s the kind of literature I like, the kind of music I like.”
Cleaves, 45, says it was thinking about the life he has had and what is to come in his life that inspired the album.
“I’ve had a very fortunate life. I still have my parents and my best friends, I’m married, I have my career and I play music for a living, but somehow it just occurred to me that it’s all going to be downhill from here. One by one I’m going to lose all these things.”
The album contains tales of domestic abuse, of loneliness, of holiday crowds and public executions. It ends with “Temporary” – just in case you still haven’t got the idea that everything you love will be taken away! Yet there is a thread of hope running through the songs too. In “Beautiful Thing” Cleaves sets out the ways in which the government and the media lie and mislead people every day, but ends it with the line Somehow I still believe in the goodness of man.
“The silver lining is that this is the only way to live,” Cleaves says. “Life’s temporariness is what makes it precious, so holding on to this notion of imminent loss is the best way to appreciate your life to the fullest.”
The songs are less immediately approachable than the story ballads of Cleaves’ previous albums. “I’ve tried to make my songs work on more levels and be more rich and deep so that they have some kind of lasting value. There is in my eyes nothing worse than a song that you figure out on the first listen.”
Everything You Love is Cleaves’ first album to be produced on his new label – Music Road Records, a tiny cooperative effort set up by Jimmy LaFave and to date featuring just three artists – Cleaves, LaFave and Sam Baker.
“Jimmy’s been with various labels and he has had the horror stories and been burned by labels and been restricted by them, and he’s a real freedom-lovin’ kind of Oklahoma guy, so he found a financial backer who is a big music fan and he found a guy to run the label, a guy who Jimmy has used as a studio engineer for years and years. So that’s the label – me, Jimmy, Sam, Kelcy (Warren) and Fred (Remmert). Oh and they hired an assistant recently, Natalie. It’s incredibly small.
The label is profit-sharing – Cleaves is an investor and he splits the profits. Decisions are made jointly.
“I was very lucky with Rounder. I had been with them about 10 years. They were very good with letting me do my thing. I wasn’t fleeing a bad situation, it was just that my deal was up and they wanted to sign a more traditional deal where I would be beholden to them for years and years and it seemed a lot more attractive to kind of have more control over my destiny, more freedom.”
Cleaves won’t be using that new freedom to put out a new record any time soon, however – one studio album every few years continues to be as much as we can expect. But he’s hoping to put out a retrospective – perhaps a live album, or a collection of rarities – “something to give me a little breathing room to write the next batch of songs.”
Meanwhile, he continues to tour, making it to the U.K. once a year. “It’s a change of pace, change of scenery. Good for your brain. Driving on the wrong side of the road for a while.”
Audiences in this country, he finds, mirror those back home.
“As much as they do in the states, they vary here in England. You get this very reserved, proper English audience some nights – and you see that in New England in the States.
“But also, towards the edges of the island, in Wales and in Scotland, you get the much more rowdy exuberant crowd that you see in Appalachia. It’s funny how it’s the same on both continents – the Celts versus the Saxons.”
Slaid Cleaves on Backroads