By: Natalie Gallagher
The first time I saw Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons play, it was the 3 p.m. opening set on the main stage at last year’s Soundtown. There were a few dozen audience members who stood watching the Appleton, Wisconsin native deliver a performance that was effortlessly impeccable.
I remember being absolutely taken with Chisel, a tall-dark-handsome type with a voice that sounds like watching a sunset from a rooftop, and being so deeply disappointed that there weren’t more people watching him perform. There was something so entirely unassuming about Chisel’s presence, so gracious and honest, and when he sang, it was like you could feel plant roots stretching deeper.
Chisel has come a long way since then. His latest album, Old Believers, comes three years after his full-length debut Death Won’t Send A Letter. As far as folk and roots music go these days (which is pretty far), there’s absolutely nothing like it. It’s a stunning arrangement of deft guitar strings with haunting harmonies added by backing vocalist Adriel Harris, and Chisel’s grainy voice has a way of lifting his lyrics to heights other singer-songwriters will never know. Old Believers is a beautiful bruise of an album, something that fits right in a listener’s catalog between Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison and Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever.
Speaking over the phone, Chisel has a soft, slow voice, a little scratchy Nashville lilt to it (he’s based there now), and listening to him talk is almost as good as hearing him sing. The artist took the time to answer some questions for Cake in 15 about the new album and what’s next for the band.
The last time I saw you, you had just played a chill midday set at SoundTown in Somerset, Wisconsin. Catch me up. Where have you been since then?
Well, we’ve provably traveled the country six times over since I saw you last. and I got a bunch of songs that I recorded… We were at an all-analog studio at United Press recording our second EP, and it kind of led to recording our second LP, actually.
Tell me about Old Believers. Part of the Wandering Sons backing group includes back-up singer Adriel Harris. How long has she been with you?
We’ve been playing together for about five years. She is by far my favorite singer, and there’s something about the quality of a performer she is and the type of person she is… it’s inspiring for me to work with her.
Really? I don’t really remember her from your previous work…
On our last record, we weren’t really sure how to utilize our collaboration quite yet. I’ve had a lot of people with this new record be like, “I don’t remember there being a strong female presence [before].” I think that was a mistake on our part. This time, it was like, “Let’s just record an album as her and I and Brenden [Benson].” Like, we’re three friends, and how would we do this as friends, just making music together? Before, I always had control of my record but there were always voices of influence and I just felt more pressure.
I’m really turned on by the song “Times Won’t Change.” It’s got this old war gritty-ditty feel to it, like setting a scene in the Civil War, but the lyrics can be interpreted for Vietnam or, especially, the warring in the Middle East. How do you begin to write so politically?
I fought against even putting that song out on the record, actually. No matter what you do, if you start talking about that stuff, you alienate people… But I was listening to old protest songs, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan’s “Masters Of War.” I tried as best as I could to voice the frustration of a world that despite all these radical, beautiful things, it still looks the same. The great thing about folk music is that release, that feeling that it’s still possible to change things even though some shit still isn’t moving forward. I think it’s the job of an artist to somewhat mirror the times. Right now, Madison doesn’t look much different from Ohio State in the 1960s.
In the song, you ask the listener to tell you why the times won’t change. Why do you feel they won’t change?
I think it’s due to the social conscious of what we accept as a society and what we accept as moral and okay. I think that it’s coming around. People keep saying that the Occupy Movement didn’t have a direction or a voice, but I think it did. It said “Fuck you.” Things don’t have to be the way are just because the people above us say they do. I think we have the right to say that corporations don’t control the majority of the wealth while half of America lives below the poverty line. That’s happened in our lifetime. We’re being galvanized into these two groups of Democrats or Republicans, and we’re arguing about things that the actual president doesn’t even have the right to control… I try not to sound cynical, but I am hopeful that the social conscious is shifting away from the biases people have about being Democrats or Republicans.
[Pause, deep breath.] I’m normally not the type of person to start talking about this. I don’t like causing scenes, but sometimes you can’t be quiet.
Yeah, you definitely don’t sound like someone who is unwilling to get political. I think it’s great—I think your lyrics are powerful and definitely on par with what’s happening right now. To switch tracks a little bit, I read recently that you were collaborating with Roseanne Cash—something that’s been in the works since the last time we talked. Can you tell me about how that evolved?
We have a really valuable friendship. She’s one of my guiders in this whole world of songwriting. She’s a really important presence, one of those people I send my records to first, and in being able to write together—in writing with a legend, and hearing beautiful stories about people I’ve respected my whole life—I’ve learned so much. As far as writing with her… we’d talked enough, and then you kind of go to a song to say the next thing.
How did you meet her?
It’s funny. She was traveling in Stockholm, Sweden and someone gave her the record [Death Won’t Send A Letter] and told her she should listen to it, and I started getting calls from friends that Roseanne Cash was tweeting about my record. I didn’t have a Twitter account, and I quickly opened one up to sort of respond and thank her for her interest, and we started corresponding through that and started a friendship. It was one of those striking friendships, like when you meet someone that you’ve been missing in an artistic sense.
You can read Natalie’s review of Chisel’s show at Soundtown here.