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Drew Holcomb on Songwriting, Fatherhood, and the NBA

DrewHolcomb
You’ve probably heard a Drew Holcomb song before. His music has been featured on an endless amount of television shows: Parenthood, Justified, Deadliest Catch, How I Met Your Mother, House, One Tree Hill — and those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head, so it’s ironic when the words “I don’t watch a lot of TV” come out of his mouth in the opening line of “Rooftops” from his latest release, Good Light. Because if he merely watched the shows that have featured his music, he’d be watching plenty of television.

It will be hard for Holcomb to top 2012. His wife and bandmate, Ellie, welcomed their first child Emmylou, who has been out promoting their new record. Although playing Bonnaroo in 2013 won’t hurt, and for the next week, Drew and his band are on The Rock Boat cruise with Sister Hazel, Brandi Carlile and others.

Normally here at Popdose, we pick up the phone and have a conversation with artists. But my day job makes that impossible. So I did my best to put together a decent batch of questions. Hope you enjoy the interview.

Did you get put in the doghouse by your wife and bandmate for this tweet?

That was a good time. She laughed it off. Ellie is pretty amazing like that. She laughs at herself often, so it takes the heat off me. We enjoy each other’s idiosyncrasies 99% of the time, which is good because we are together 99% of the time since we tour and record and write together.

Speaking of tweets, you woke up last month with a ringing endorsement from Rob Thomas.

The early returns on that song have been really strong and supportive.

Video may have killed the radio star, but TV shows have helped keep your dream alive. Your video for “Fire & Dynamite” was played on VH1 for awhile, but it seems you almost get a stronger reaction for being included on a TV show.

Having our music used on TV has really expanded our fan base, and put our music in the ears of hundreds of thousands of people (even millions for some shows), who probably would never have heard us otherwise. It has also helped keep gas in the tank and the light bills paid.

And it isn’t just TV shows, either — the NBA (or TNT) believed in you, and you even won an award for it. Tell us about the award and how that came about.

I woke up late on Christmas morning in 2012 to a barrage of texts and tweets from friends and fans congratulating me on the NBA commercial. I had no idea what they were talking about, until I finally saw the commercial “NBA Forever” a few hours later, and the sports blogosphere was aflame with praise for the piece. Apparently, the creative director at TNT had heard my song “Live Forever” and built this beautiful commercial using footage of older and current players. It was very melodramatic, and Rick Reilly was tweeting, calling it the greatest sports commercial of all time. It was all very surreal. We won a Sports Emmy the following summer, which was obviously very exciting for a guy who got cut from the baseball team in 10th grade.

And about your Grizzlies, are they going to win the Southwest division this year?

I sure hope so, they are the hardest working team in the NBA, and thankfully I was able to go to a game earlier this season.

“Live Forever” was written for your nieces and nephews. Now that you’re a father, have you found yourself writing songs for your new child? Is a kids’ album in your future? Ellie was a part of the Rain for Roots album.

I don’t know if a kids’ album is my future, but I am sure that being a father will continue to influence my writing and the way I see the world. Many of the songs on Good Light were written and recorded while Ellie was pregnant, and it is the only music that soothes our daughter, Emmylou. We can put on our record and she gets calm immediately. The only problem is that I have to listen to my own voice more often than I would like.

It seems with Good Light, you’ve finally found a groove/comfort zone and written an album where you can say “This is what I’ve always wanted a Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors record to sound like.”

I agree. It is a very personal album. Songs like “Tennessee” are about my family and my upbringing. “The Wine We Drink” is about Ellie and our marriage. These songs were coming together and I wanted to treat them differently than I have in past records. We recorded live at Ardent studios, a historic studio in my hometown of Memphis. We did not layer guitars, or build the Wall of Sound type recordings like we did on Chasing Someday. We had five rules on the wall during the recording process: 1. Be Brave 2. Perfection is a myth 3. Keep it Simple 4. Take Chances 5. The song is in charge.

You nearly gave up on the music biz and a career in music. Are you enjoying this sort of second life resurgence in your career? What caused you to nearly quit and what kept that fire going?

People always told me that if you write the right songs, those songs will do the work for you. Up to that point where I almost quit, about five years into my career, I was feeling like everything was a steep uphill climb. Then “Live Forever” came out, and “Fire and Dynamite,” and something changed. It felt like the song was doing the work. When we would play live, there were a lot more strangers than familiar faces, and they were singing along to those two songs. So for me, the songs kept the fire going.

You’ve had your music featured on NoiseTrade numerous times. Is giving away your songs worth getting an email and zip code?

We think so. As an independent musician, you need access to your fans, and access comes through things like a good mailing list, social media, etc. While we love the creative side of our work, we have to pay close attention to the business side too, so we can keep doing this. We only give away music on NoiseTrade long after it has been released, so it’s a way to pick up new fans and listeners who would not otherwise come on board. They trust us with their information, we give them something in return.

In 2012 you released, Through the Night, an album of covers. What were you able to take from those songs to enhance your songwriting for Good Light?

The songs we recorded for Through the Night were all songs that have been a part of my story for a long time. The thing we took with us for Good Light was the approach we took to recording. I have a band that is tremendously talented, and I try as best I can to defer to them in matters of arrangements and parts. Recording that covers album was a very communal, intimate process, and we carried that into our Good Light sessions.

How long have you been kicking around songs for Good Light? Are they all relatively new, or have some been hanging around for years?

Most of them are new, written between October 2011 and July 2012. There are few that have been brewing more much longer than that. “Nothing But Trouble” is a song Ellie and I had written and re-written half a dozen times and this time we finally landed on a final version that everyone in the band loves.

How often do you write songs? Do you sit down and write or do you start singing in your iPhone whenever the song comes to you?

Its a little bit of both. I tend to write more in between records than I do while we are recording or releasing a record. But I do set time aside. Good songwriting is a healthy balance of inspiration and hard work.

Do you kick around a lot of ideas off the Neighbors or do you come to the studio with a full set of songs?

We usually test new songs on the road. Most of the songs on Good Light have been played at least three or four times on tour somewhere. So the band has a big say in how we interpret a new song before we go into the studio.

Your faith and spirituality has always been a part of your music, but it never comes across as over the top religious or preachy. That’s a fine line to tread. Do you feel you need to keep that in check? Nashville has always been a music hotbed, but it seems have gone through a recent resurgence with yourself and Leagues and other artists. How fun has that been to watch?

I don’t feel a need to keep anything in my writing in check. I hardly think about it all, honestly. I grew up on Dylan and Radiohead and Van Morrison, and dozens of other artists who all see the world from a different point of view. I never bought into the idea that we, as complex people, need to make our art one-dimensional by turning it into a sermon. My songs are about struggle, doubt, love, hope, sorrow, discontentment. So many of my friends who make music, like the guys in Leagues who you mentioned, all come from a broad diversity of stories and experiences and we are just trying to add a meaningful contribution to the conversation that has been going on between artists and fans for years.

Best Springsteen album?

Ghost of Tom Joad because it was my first Springsteen album. Born to Run will always be the classic.

What newer albums have you been digging a lot lately?

Amos Lee’s Mission Bell. Dawes’ Nothing is Wrong. Brandi Carlile’s Bear Creek. Leagues‘ You Belong Here. Michael Kiwanuka. Kacey Musgraves.

What classic records have you been indulging in lately?

I’ve also been listening to a lot of old soul like the Staple Singers, the Chi-Lites, the Five Stairsteps. So much great old radio music.

What’s more enjoyable – the studio or the stage?

I love them both, but the stage is home for me.

Social media for musicians – Blessing or a curse?

90% of the time it’s a blessing. It’s great to be able to reach out directly to people who care about your music.

Good Light is available now on iTunes and everywhere else tomorrow.

Holcomb