By Ryan Meehan
Austin-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Dustin Welch is set to release his second album, “Tijuana Bible”, on February 12, 2013 via his own Super Rooster Records. Like “Whisky Priest” before it, “Tijuana Bible” finds the Nashville-born Welch playing the part of a wickedly mysterious carnival barker, bouncing strains of Americana, rock, and folk music off of each other like a hall of funhouse mirrors. His lyrics are similarly multifaceted, reflecting literary influences ranging from American gothic to gritty pulp fiction and themes both sacred and profane. Welch calls Whisky Priest and Tijuana Bible (named after the hand-drawn pornographic pamphlets that were passed around in Depression-era work camps) the first two parts of a projected trilogy. Although the songs are neither overtly religious nor linked to each other as part of a conceptual story, many of them do share a sense of desperation-hardened fortitude — along with hints of mono-mythic mysticism. Dustin Welch is sure to become a household name, and he’s our guest today in 5 questions.
FOH: You’re from Nashville which is a city that has a significant place within the music industry. What was your first musical experience like growing up? What was it that made you so drawn to the art form?
DW: Almost all my friends’ parents were either songwriters, session players, publishers, producers, journalists, etc. and those that weren’t professionally involved in the industry were still pickers. We’d be at picnics or guitar pulls or gathered around a bonfire where folks would be singing and playing together. So, while it was certainly a heavy industry town, it was really part of the culture there in Tennessee and had been since before the music business settled in.
FOH: Could you describe in your own words what “Americana” means to you? Do you see that as just another label that journalists use to classify music or does it represent a certain type of lifestyle to you?
DW: I remember when that term was finally decided on as a catch-all for what folks were calling everything that wasn’t fit for mainstream radio. Back in the early 90’s my dad, the Flatlander’s, Lauderdale, and the Texas Tornados went over to play the Montreux Jazz Festival and needed something else to call their brand of alt-country/roots-rock music. They decided on ‘Western Beat’ which I assumed wasn’t so much intended as referring to the ‘wild west’ but more descriptive of the Western Hemisphere, and was also drawing an approximate correlation to the Beat movement. Either way, it worked for Switzerland. That term hung around for a couple years, but still didn’t hold the right kind of ambiguity. A few years later (I think it went down at this time, at least) we went to this conference Louis Meyers was holding in New Orleans called LMNOP, and about twenty people or so, mostly radio programmers, met in a conference room and finally agreed upon ‘Americana’. I still think about it in terms of what differentiates American music from the rest of the world, traditional or otherwise. The other thing is that Americana was a subversive reaction to the mainstream, and has generally remained non-corporate. I don’t know if you’d call that a lifestyle, but I think it’s indicative of the spirit it represents.
FOH: My favorite line on the record is “Somewhere, God is in a casket” from the song “Lost at Sea”. Do you ever worry if people who are devout Christians that hear a line like that may misinterpret it and therefore be turned off to what you are trying to do as an artist?
DW: I appreciate you asking this. That particular verse is referencing the Resurrection and also Nietzsche’s The Madman; ‘Whisky Priest’ is based on Graham Greene’s The Power And The Glory; and a Tijuana Bible has nothing to do with religion at all. But your question wasn’t for me to explain this stuff, it’s if I worry it could be misinterpreted.
The answer is the same for devout Christians as it is for anybody…once a song is completed, I can’t concern myself with how people view it. I try to perform it in a way that makes it clear what I mean, and while I’m writing I try to leave enough room for interpretation without the risk of being vastly misinterpreted, if that makes any sense. I use a lot of symbolism in my writing, and particularly religious symbolism because in every faith we have the same myths and fables and it’s all a part of our common fabric.
When I first moved to Austin there was an Oxford divinity student hanging around writing his thesis. He was fascinated by my song ‘Two Horses’, and we began a series of interviews. One of the main points he was making is that throughout history, the people with the most influence over society were religious figures; whereas now, we find that influence in pop-culture. He said the difference between an idol and an icon is that an idol takes all that attention and energy given to them, and becomes something larger than themselves; an icon takes it, wraps it around in themselves and turns it back over to the public ten-fold so they are the ones empowered instead. I guess through the extension of that idea and philosophy, I tend not to steer clear of such lofty concepts.
FOH: How was the songwriting and recording process on “Tijuana Bible” different from “Whisky Priest”? Did you try anything that you hadn’t previously done during the making of this record?
DW: A fair amount of the songs on this album were already around or in a rough draft stage when we made Whisky Priest. That record was made over the course of a year and a half whenever the studio was available to us and beyond the rhythm tracks, each musician cut their parts individually. So we really chipped away at it. With the exception of the violinist, Trisha Keefer, this new one’s a completely different band. The pianist and drummer are extremely accomplished jazz musicians, and the bass player is also an impressive concert cellist. The drummer, Eldridge Goins, also produced the album and recorded everything primarily live in his living room in three separate sessions over the course of six months or so.
FOH: You said that “Whisky Priest and “Tijuana Bible” are the first two parts of a projected trilogy…Did you develop any material during the recording of “Tijuana Bible” that you wanted to save for the third record?
DW: I’ve got at least half of it written, some of which was written before all the material for the second album was done. I may actually go into the studio in a couple days to try a couple of them out. Both the title tracks off the first two albums were the last songs written for each project, so I likely won’t know what shape the next one will fully take until that time comes.
FOH: Although it’s obvious that you are both a storyteller and a songwriter, which one of those two descriptions do you take more pride in? In other words, do you see yourself as a musician first or as somebody who is a storyteller that sets his stories to music?
DW: Every song is different. But I do think about the lyric as if I were directing a film; where the camera is focused, how the lighting falls, or what sounds are happening in the background. I think about the musical arrangements almost like a soundtrack to the story and how it can lend itself to the emotional character of the narrator.
FOH: What’s up next for Dustin Welch in 2013? Any big plans or projects you’d like us to know about?
DW: I helped start a non-profit group called Soldier Songs & Voices a year and a half ago, giving free weekly music and songwriting lessons to Veterans. It’s essentially music therapy, which we’re discovering has enormous benefits in helping regain cognitive functions in folks with brain injuries and PTSD. Plus, it’s providing a vital outlet as a means of expression. We have five separate programs throughout Texas now, and a small handful in the rest of the country. I intend on putting together an Executive Board based out of Nashville or somewhere similar to bring these programs to a national level.
Official Website: http://www.dustinwelch.com/
Dustin on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/dustinwelchmusic
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