This interview originally appeared at North Country Primitive on 5th April 2015
It’s not all about guitar soli here at North Country Primitive. We have a massive soft spot for a human voice - the more human the better - wrapped around a well crafted song; even more so when the singer tips a respectful, but far from obsequious, hat in the general direction of established folk tropes and traditions. Wes Tirey is quite simply one of the best songwriters we’ve come across in a long while: his music evokes the spectral presence of the Old, Weird America, filtered through the prism of the more wayward of the folk troubadours of the early 60s. This is not to say his music is merely an exercise in nostalgia for the ghosts of folk past - Wes is a modern day fellow traveller rather than any kind of pastiche artist. And did we happen to mention that he’s also a rather excellent fingerstyle guitarist? Our thanks to Wes for taking the time to answer our questions.
Can you tell me about the journey that has taken you to where you are now as a singer and guitarist, both in terms of your own musical history and your influences?
These kind of questions are kind of hard to answer, because I think the influences that lead to doing something creative aren’t always creative ones. The musical stuff is obvious. I think I owe more to the Lone Ranger, Daniel Boone, and Davy Crockett being my heroes when I was a kid than discovering Bob Dylan and John Fahey. Playing baseball was influential. My mom reading to me and my sister was influential. Going to church with my Grandma was influential. Those are the kind of things that shape your conscience long before you start writing songs. For me, without them there’d be no songs.
I’ve been finding your lyrics a real joy to listen to. You seem to revel in using slightly archaic words and phrases – you also appear at times to make quite free use of the archetypal language and themes of folksong. If I’m not completely wide of the mark, is this a conscious approach on your part or is it simply how your songwriting turns out?
Thank you. I think it’s a little bit of both, really. Old Ohio Blues is based on the old folk song East Virginia Blues –with some verses being lifted from it. But I’ve also been obsessed with that particular song for a long time now, and wouldn’t use words or images from it without being deliberate about it. Other times, I think it’s just how it turns out. I like to be very deliberate about the words I use, but I feel like I’m not always in control–meaning, some things just eventually reveal themselves in a song after being buried in my mind for a while. At least I think that’s how it happens. It’s all kind of a mystery. I think when I was younger that I’d be much quicker to answer a question about songwriting, because I thought I knew exactly what I was talking about–or could be precise about it all. I don’t think that’s the case anymore.
I wonder if there’s a particularly Southern sensibility to your language and themes? I’m sure I can hear echoes of the great Southern Gothic authors and their present day followers in your writing. Do you consider yourself as being influenced by this literary lineage? Or as a listener, am I simply been seduced by the fact that you appear to be a Southerner singing in his own voice and using the everyday language of the South?
To be clear, I’m not actually from the South. I was born and raised in Ohio and moved to Black Mountain, North Carolina, about four years ago. That said, both of my blood lines run to Kentucky and I do feel a natural affinity towards the South. I feel comfortable here.
Flannery O’Connor was a rather revelatory discovery, and I read her work to this day, still. I love the Southern Gothic aesthetic as a whole, but I’m not sure how exact the influence is. I don’t exactly recall those influences or find myself in the middle of engaging with them when I’m working on a song. I’m taken more by the imagery than the words, I’d say.
A song like Blue Ridge Mountain Blues could almost come straight out of the repertoire of a string band from the Old, Weird America, albeit filtered through the sensibilities of, say, the New Lost City Ramblers. Do you feel any great affinity with the American folk tradition? Is something like the Harry Smith Anthology any kind of touchstone for you?
I think the Harry Smith Anthology is the Alpha and Omega of American music, as far as I’m concerned. Other than Geeshie Wiley’s Last Kind Words Blues and the music of John Fahey, I’m not sure I’ve had a more rattling musical discovery.
As far as feeling an affinity with the tradition itself, I’m not sure. I think that it’s just the music that I internalise the most. It’s the stuff that sticks with me. I listen to a lot of other music other than stuff from the folk tradition––but I experience it much differently. I love Bitches Brew––but I don’t internalise it like I do with the music of someone like Roscoe Holcomb, for example.
I’m also picking up a certain sort of folk revival vibe from some of your songs. The Final Resting Place, for example, could have come from the pen of one of the better early 60s folk troubadours. Specifically, I’m put in mind of the more untamed, ploughing-their-own-furrow side of that movement – artists like Michael Hurley or The Holy Modal Rounders. Do you see these artists as part of your own musical hinterland?
Well, thank you for the kind words. I’d never dare put my name next to Michael Hurley’s! I love Hurley’s songs. I listened to a lot of his music when I was writing O, Annihilator. I think there are songwriters that I feel a natural affinity towards, though––their aesthetic environment is just comfortable to be in. As far as being part of a movement, I don’t really have any concern for that. As soon as you start thinking about those things you’re distracted from writing songs.
There seems to be a sly humour in some of the songs, too. Brand New Cadillac, quite apart from borrowing the title of the rockabilly classic, puts me in mind of the sort of scenario Bill Callaghan might have set up when he was writing songs like Dress Sexy at my Funeral. Is there a deliberate twinkle in your eye when you’re writing songs like these, or is it more of an accidental humour?
Thank you for the kind words, again. Bill Callahan is a big hero of mine. I’ve been listening to his music all day today, actually. That’s interesting that you found humour in that song–might have something to do with the six-pack I bought before recording that night. I can’t say there’s a deliberate twinkle in my eye when writing. For me, my songs are more or less all concerned with concepts that I take seriously. But I’m not always such a serious person. Most nights I’m at my apartment with my cat watching Bob’s Burgers––and I’m brutal when it comes to Cards Against Humanity.
I can’t help but be reminded of early Vic Chesnutt on some of your songs. Was he an influence on you? Or am I being blindsided by the occasionally similar phrasing?
Thank you– that’s a high compliment. I’m not very familiar with Vic Chesnutt’s music––but what I’ve heard has blown my mind. I need to explore his stuff more.
You seem to take a somewhat different approach to each release: to these ears, I Stood Among Trees seems at least in part to reference the 60s folk troubadours; O, Annihilator resonates with the sounds of the Old, Weird America; Home Recordings takes the American Primitive approach as a springboard for something more exploratory. Meanwhile some of the arrangements and settings on the new cassette, Journeyer / Forward, Melancholy Dream, appear to be more abstract and understated. Do you take a conscious decision to take a different approach with each album? And is it a deliberate decision to largely keep your song-based and your American Primitive-influenced material separate? Do you see yourself primarily as a songwriter who also releases some solo guitar stuff or vice-versa? Or are they simply two sides of who you are as a musician?
I don’t really have an “I’ve down this, now I need to do that” approach when it comes to writing. I think of things in terms of their whole aesthetic and how it relates to the concepts that the songs deal with. As for the songwriter/solo guitar question, I think it’s more of the latter. Some songs need words, some don’t.
Your releases tend to be fairly lo-fi, stripped down affairs. Is this about aesthetics or necessity? If you were offered the chance to go into a top flight studio with a bunch of musicians, a gospel choir and a string section, would you go for it?
Man, I’d love to record with a gospel choir! I’d be so intimidated, though. The lo-fi approach is both an aesthetic and pragmatic decision. I like the sound of it all, and it’s always free to record at home. It’s also just more comfortable for me – I’m not on a clock and can be uninhibited. That said, I’m not opposed to recording in a studio. When I was younger and had a band, we recorded in some great studios, and I recorded I Stood Among Trees at an amazing studio in Asheville. Recording at a studio has its virtues, and recording at home has its virtues, too. I hope to do my next full-length in a studio with a bunch of great Asheville musicians.
There seems to be a pretty healthy outpouring of my kind of music in your part of North Carolina: people like Shane Parish, Tashi Dorji and Sarah Louise are also doing interesting things. Is there any kind of scene – shared concert bills, collaborations, mutual support, encouragement and friendship? Or are you all beavering away in your own silos?
Shane, Tashi, and Sarah are all exceptional musicians. I envy their talent so much and encourage everyone to explore their music. I’ve had the pleasure of sharing the stage with all three of them, and seeing them play live is nothing short of a beautiful experience.
What are you listening to at the moment? Any recommendations, old or new?
I snagged the new Jessica Pratt tape recently and think it’s beautiful. I also got the recent Loren Connors reissue of Airs and the LP Zachary Hay released under the name Green Glass. There’s a great cassette label out of the UK called Death Is Not The End Records, and I ordered some of their tapes––gospel/blues/spirituals stuff.
Recommendations: listen to Maharadja Sweets– tell your mother and father, sister and brother, neighbours, dogs and cats, all the fish in the sea. He’s the best. My pal Andrew Weathers makes beautiful music. Ohioan is my buddy Ryne Warner’s project, and it’s epic stuff. Scissor Tail Editions is my favourite label – Sarah’s new tape is gorgeous and the Scott Tuma reissue is so beautiful I can barely describe it.
What’s next for you? Do you have any future projects in the pipeline?
I got a lot coming up, actually. Some sound artists from Italy approached me about adding some improv bits to their new works. I’ll be adding some guitar work to a cool project that Maharadja Sweets is working on. I’m working on a short piece for a guitar compilation that Cabin Floor Esoterica will be releasing this summer. And this September I’m doing a weeklong residency at an artist retreat where I’ll start writing my next full-length album.
Is there anything I should have asked you but didn’t?
These questions were great! It’s been a pleasure.
You can check out Wes Tirey's music at his Bandcamp page, here.