Finding the Balance as a Touring Musician: An Interview with Joey Landreth

Joey Landreth is a singer-songwriter originally from Winnipeg.  His and his brother's band, The Bros. Landreth, have made waves in the Canadian music scene, earning themselves a Juno award in 2015 and nods from some roots music legends like Bonnie Raitt.  A couple of years ago, Joey started touring under his own name, as well, performing his own bluesy, roots, soulful, folky, singer-songwriter tunes.  He's currently touring his album Whiskey, and will be stopping by Crow Bar & Variety on Tuesday, March 13th for a dinner show as part of the 'Crow Sessions'.  He's also got a new The Bros. Landreth album in the works.  I called him up to pick his brain about touring, songwriting, and Manitoba music.

The following is a transcription of that conversation.

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 Photo by  Mike Latschislaw

LC: I think Collingwood, from what I’ve heard, is similar to the Winnipeg music scene in some ways.  It’s a small town with a great music community, really supportive musicians and stuff.  With all of your touring experience and being constantly on the road, do you feel that that sense of support and community carries with you as you travel?

JL: I mean, it certainly depends on the context.  Yeah, it certainly does.  I’ve found in my music, I’ve kind of developed a fan base which is made up of people who… and I guess it’s partially the roots community, I’m not sure, but everywhere I go, people are very supportive.  They’ll come to a show, just to come to a show, just because they want to give you their $15, $20, $30, whatever the show costs.  So it is kind of an interesting little community that gets built.  It’s certainly different everywhere you go.  But I kind of feel like music fandom in itself is kind of transcendent of that in the sense that it’s just like, people who love music love music in a very similar way.  They may cheer differently, they may sound different when they speak, but the motivation is the same, and their end goal is the same.  It’s a pretty beautiful thing.

LC: I think that’s very true.  Maybe even more related to the genre of music, or something, that creates that sort of following everywhere you go.

JL: Yeah, it could be.  I think certain little cultural things follow different genres.  Of that, I’m sure.  But beyond that, people who love music will go out to see music no matter what.  It’s a cool thing.

LC: Absolutely.  And I was looking at some of your stuff online, like different interviews that you’ve done before.  I found those YouTube videos that you did for Reverb, where you were talking about different ways of playing the slide guitar, innovative ways, different setups, and like Joni Mitchell-esque tunings.  I was wondering, does your setup change from show to show or do you have a tried and true collection of gear that you’re travelling with now?

JL: You know, in the early days of doing the solo thing.  Well, not early days, like two years ago.  When I first started playing solo shows, I was really hypersensitive to that.  I wanted to make sure that… you know, I wasn’t quite confident in the fact that people were coming to the shows to see me play my music.  I’ve been a musician for a long time, and I’ve been a professional, you know, I’ve worked professionally for other people.  So it’s safe to say, I’m okay at the guitar.  My thing was like, people are coming to see a guy play the guitar well, and sing some songs well.  So, it took me a long time to realize that people were actually along for the ride whatever it was.  So in the early days, I was really worried about making sure that, ‘OK, I’m not coming with a band so I gotta give them something interesting and unique.’ So I tried really hard to develop different rigs so that I could generate more noise than one guy normally could make on his own.

My manager, who’s also one of my best friends in the world, whose opinion I trust more than just about anyone else, he comes to a show and goes, ‘Man you sure are looking at your feet a whole lot, messing around with pedals.  I kinda wish you’d just stand there and play the guitar to be honest.’  So, I kind of went away from that just because, for me, I found it really distracting.  So that’s the long version of the answer.

The shorter version is, I mean, it kinda stays the same.  I’ve got an electric guitar and an acoustic guitar, that I use pretty much in the same way whether I’m playing in a band or playing on my own.  And the main thing that I try to bring forward is just that I kind of feel like, people don’t miss the band so much if they can see that you’re enjoying what you’re doing.  I feel like a lot of times I’ve seen a solo act that normally play with a band and you look at them and you can see that, man they’re uncomfortably.  And it is uncomfortable, especially when you’re doing it for the first time.  There’s no drummer, there’s no bass player, there’s nobody to share the blame if something bad happens on stage, you’re all on your own up there.  So it took me a little while to just really settle into enjoying playing on my own and feeling confident on my own.  So, I guess that’s another long answer too.

LC: I think that’s so true.  And it works the other way too.  If you’re shifting from playing in a band to playing solo, or from being used to playing solo and then playing in a band, it’s completely different dynamics.  You’ve got different things going on, and the thing that freaks me out sometimes, and I’ve spoken to other musicians about this, is just the banter in between songs.  I’m fine standing up there singing my songs, but then the audience is just watching me.  There’s no one else to feed off of.  That’s another thing that I think takes solo musicians some experience sometimes.

JL: Yeah it is, and it’s a funny thing.  Because, I’m a guitar player, right?  And that’s my trade, at least, and certainly in my own eyes I identify as a guitar player.  So to me, my favourite guitar players are always like these cool, mysterious creatures.  They wear weird clothes and interesting jewelry and they say cool stuff.  And I was always like, ‘I don’t know how to be that guy’.  I am just like a geeky white guy from Winnipeg.  I tell Dad jokes.  It took me a while to just own the fact that that’s just who I am.  Sometimes I’m awkward on stage, it doesn’t actually bother me anymore.  I think more than anything, people just think it’s kinda funny.

LC: Yeah!  Well people are there to see you.  They’re your songs and your experiences, so to get to know that person is definitely part of the whole experience.

JL: Yeah, yeah.  I totally agree with that.

LC: And going off of that, on Whiskey, because you are a singer/songwriter, but you are first and foremost a guitar player, do you feel that the guitar on that record is there to support the emotions of the song, or do you feel that sometimes the guitar is almost like a secondary character in those songs?

JL: Oh, that’s a great question.  Um, I don’t know that any decision was made deliberately in that regard.  I think, you know, my goal is always just to chase the music as much as I can.  So if there’s something interesting or adventurous or something slightly off the cuff happening on the guitar, it wasn’t really so much out of, ‘I want people to acknowledge this side of me’, as it was just to like ‘Hey wouldn’t it be weird if I did this little thing here?’ instead.  I try to approach all my music that way, as much as I can.  I think that’s where the heart of the artist lives; it’s usually the place where we say to ourselves, ‘Oh, no I don’t think I could do that.  I probably shouldn’t do that there.’  And for me, without fail, and I certainly wouldn’t give this as advice to anybody, but for me, usually when I have a gut feeling like that it’s because I probably should.  I probably should do that thing there.  Because that’s probably got a fair amount of musical DNA in it that, you know, belongs to you, as opposed to avoiding the things that might be a little risky.

LC: Right.  And then probably every time you listen back to a certain song, if you hadn’t put in a little lick or whatever, you’d be imagining it in your head every time you heard that song.

JL: Yeah, well, the funny thing is that there is so much stuff that we took out.  Because that same mentality was like, I want to chase down every idea.  I really get a kick out of arranging vocals, as well, it’s a big part of what I do.  So, the amount of background harmonies that got struck off the record afterwards, like, ‘OK, uh, we gotta remember that there’s actually still a song to sing here.  This song doesn’t just exist for the vocal arrangement.’  In particular, there’s a song called “Gone Girl” on the record and there was a handful of background vocals that got pulled off and still, if I ever hear that song in passing, I always hear those vocals and think, ‘Oh yeah, we cut those out.’

LC: Do you throw them back in sometimes when you’re doing them live?

JL: Some of them, yeah.  But usually, they were the right call, to take them out.  There are definitely a couple of parts that have snuck their way back in.

LC: Very cool.  So I read that, “Still Feel Gone” and “Time Served”, I don’t know if there are any other ones, but those were co-written with Donovan Woods.  I was wondering if you could shed some light on best approaches to co-writing with someone.

JL: Don’t be precious.  I think that’s the toughest thing.  You go into every songwriting session, whether it’s by yourself or with someone else with an idea that’s usually, at least for me, in the past certainly, you go in with ideas that are dear to you.  Sharing them with someone else is always a risk, because, you know, you’re a little worried that maybe this won’t become what I think it’s supposed to become.  And I feel like that can be detrimental to a session.  I’ve walked into many a writing session where somebody has an idea that they bring to the table and they’re so afraid that the song’s never gonna reach it’s potential that they wind up sabotaging the write.

And if you do have an idea that is so precious to you that you’re afraid of sharing it, then don’t share it.  Because, my next bit of advise is always to try to say, ‘Oh, cool idea!’ more than you say, ‘Hmm I don’t know about that.’  Because that’s another thing that can kill the vibe of a co-writing.  People going, “Erm… Ahh…”, especially if it’s somebody suggesting something that you could not ever see yourself standing on a stage and singing into a microphone.  Then, yeah, of course you gotta say no to that.  But, you just never know where the ideas are going to lead and that’s always the fun of collaborating with somebody.  You bring an idea to the table and it almost always ends up something different than what you thought it was going to be.

LC: Oh, totally.  But it’s a balance of openness and also sticking to your guns with some of your artistic ideas.

JL: Yeah, it is a balance.  I think you just have to be ready to, you know, compromise isn’t even really the right word, but to a degree, you have to be ready to compromise a little bit.

LC: Yeah, for sure.  Now, the album Whiskey has been described as an album about being on the road and maintaining that connection to home.  Do you feel like with your experience of spending a ton of time on the road, do you feel like you’ve found that balance?

JL: Yeah, definitely.  And the balance shifts as well, because I have spent a lot of time away from home.  In the past few months I’ve spent a lot of time at home, so now it’s definitely getting into the territory of, ‘OK it’s time to get back on the road now.’  But usually it’s always the other direction.  Usually I’m away from home more than I’m at home, so, like everything in life, you have to find the right balance for things.  If I’m away too much, I miss home, and if I’m home too much, I miss being away.  It’s just sort of massaging the balance of those two things as you go is always pretty important.

LC: Yeah.  And you’ve got a big month coming up through March!

JL: Yeah, March and April are starting to shape up.  The summer’s getting busy.  It’s going to be a big year.  I’m releasing another record hopefully in the fall, so it’s gonna be full.

LC: [In regards to being on the road a lot,] I find that Canadians are so used to driving around all the time, like an hour between each town, and I think that driving around Southern Ontario for my entire life has brought me so much closer to so many albums.  Because I think that listening to a full album on repeat in the car has got to be one of the best ways to experience it and get to know it.  I was wondering if you find that too, and what do you listen to when you’re on the road?

JL: Yeah, interesting.  Nowadays I don’t listen to a lot of music.  The busier and busier I get as a musician, the smaller and smaller my threshold gets, and I’ve found some pretty serious value in having quiet time.  So, it’s definitely shifted.

But, to comment on that, when I was younger, absolutely.  And growing up in the Prairies, where you’re drive between towns is more like between 5 and 8 hours.  Because, you know, the next serious market from Winnipeg is Regina, and then from there it’s Saskatoon.  And Regina is 5 and a half hours and Saskatoon is like 9 hours.  So you get a lot of listening time in.  And I did.  I cut my teeth on a lot of records while making the drive from Winnipeg to Saskatoon, absolutely.

Nowadays, if I’m listening to stuff, it’s… Doyle Bramhall is one of my favourites.  William Prince, a songwriter from Manitoba, he’s really really brilliant.  Singer/songwriter, like quasi-R&B soul artist named Emily King, I really really love her.  So those are kind of my go to records.  Blake Mills.  Who am I kidding, I do listen to a fair amount of music still.

LC: (laughs) Yeah!  But that’s really interesting, that you say that the more it’s taking over your life, the more you’re finding value in quiet moments.  I think that’s really interesting.

JL: Yeah, yeah.  I think it just comes back to that thing about balance as well.  Because my job exists 100% in the music world, it’s nice to have a little bit of space.  But then again, I mean, if you’re only ever consuming your own music, then things get pretty weird.  So, I mean, I guess what I should say is I listen to less music than I used to, but I probably still listen to more music than your average bear.

LC: Yeah, probably!  So I have a couple of more fun questions.  So if someone had one night in Winnipeg, where would you recommend they hang out?

JL: Oh, awesome question!  Okay.  Um, jeeze.  One night.  Okay.  I mean if it’s the summertime, there’s some pretty great parks for sneaking a bottle of wine into.  But in terms of places to go see music, the Times Change(d) is huge.  The Toad in the Hole, in Osborne Village, those are kind of my haunts.  Usually where I wind up going.  There’s so many great little spots, and cool little holes in the wall in Winnipeg.  But yeah, those would be my two spots.

LC: Okay, awesome.  Times Change(d) and The Toad in the Hole.  Alright, sweet.  And then I just wanted to ask a little bit about the new Bros. Landreth album.  What three words would you use as a teaser for that album?

JL: (laughs) What three words, um… Not. Done. Yet.  You know, what three words would I use… Same. Same. Different.  We’re kind of pulling from the same place that we always pull from.  But because we’ve spent the last 5 or 6 years making music together, and then now of course me on my own, you know, we’re coming from the same place but we’re different people.  So the record is gonna be a Bros. Landreth record but it’s just gonna be a little bit different.  I don’t really know how else to say it.  We’re still gonna have lots of singing, lots of guitar playing.  I’m excited about how the songs are turning out.  So, I hope the songs will stand the test of time.  I think that they will.

LC: Oh that’s so exciting!  Well, yeah, I’m super excited for this show at Crow.  Have you been through Collingwood before?

JL: I have, yeah.  I played the Simcoe Theatre a couple years ago, and I played Steve Vipond’s place, he does these shows [at his house.]

LC: Yeah, I love that!  Well he’s doing amazing things for the music community around here.  He’s an awesome guy.

JL: Yeah, absolutely.  Total advocate.

LC: Yeah.  And he posted a clip of Johnson Crook, who’s gonna open for you there, too, and they sound amazing.

JL: Yeah, they’re great, and they’re a bunch of Manitoba guys too.  Or at least half of them are.  So you’ll get your fair share of Western-Canadian accents.

LC: Excellent.

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Thank you so much to Joey Landreth for being so kind and thoughtful in all of these answers!  I loved chatting with you, and can't wait to hear more.

For more info, check out the Crow's live music page here: https://www.crowvariety.ca/music-1/

and Joey Landreth's biography and music here: http://www.joeylandreth.com/