In many ways, Carrie Rodriguez’s fifth solo album Give Me All You Got, out Tuesday (Jan. 22), finds the sultry singer-songwriter and fiddle player operating in a new state of mind.
“In the last couple of years, I’ve made a lot of life changes,” Rodriguez tells CMT Edge. ”I left New York City and moved back to my hometown of Austin, Texas. It was easier for me to hole up in my house, move slow and take two hours to drink my coffee.”
That slowed-down approach found its way into her new music, as each song on Give Me All You Got serves as a patient exploration of a different emotion. “I Cry for Love” screams with passion, “Brooklyn” aches with failure and “Sad Joy” describes a feeling you won’t see defined in a dictionary.
Her creative collaboration with songwriter Chip Taylor continues on the new project, but Rodriguez takes the reins — with a little help from her mentor — and offers original material after releasing two covers albums. Along the way, her world-class fiddle melodies tie ideas together in ways that a voice alone just can’t.
CMT Edge: How did you approach Give Me All You Got?
Rodriguez: This is the first record of original material that I have made in quite some time. I put out a covers record in 2010, and after that I put out another set of covers. That was a really good time for me to take a step back from my own songwriting because I still feel like a new songwriter. And I think through that process of making covers records, it helped me get excited about writing songs again and gave me a little bit of direction. What I connected with the most were songs with very few words and pretty raw emotion, and that’s what ended up coming out of me for this new record.
You’ve said you still don’t quite think of yourself as a songwriter. How were you able to overcome that feeling?
Well, it’s a lifelong process. I’ll probably have some of the same feelings 20 years from now if I’m still doing this. Because I started out as a classical violinist, my beginnings of music were all about instrumental music. I came into singing just because I met Chip Taylor, and he encouraged me. But that being said, I found that I do have things that I want to sing about. I haven’t had the most extraordinary life, but I have seen quite a few different places, and I have my own unique experiences, and I think everybody who has lived is a storyteller and can be a songwriter.
How do you think working with Chip Taylor helped you with your solo career? Was it mostly just that encouragement?
It’s more than that. I’m not even sure I would have found my voice or come into songwriting if I hadn’t met Chip. When I met him, my goal in life was to be a sideman. I didn’t even think I could sing. I didn’t have any confidence in that. I think the first year he had me singing duets with him, I couldn’t believe that I was getting away with it. I kept thinking, “People must hear that I’m not a singer.” Then I made that first duet record with him, and I went “People are going to know I’m not a singer.” After making the third duet record with Chip, I finally started owning the fact I’m kind of a singer, and I started realizing it was making my violin playing stronger and better and more lyrical.
Did he work with you at all on this album?
I really felt like I wanted to work with him on this record. I knew [writing with Taylor] would be a great way to get good songs. And he also sent me a couple of songs. I think there are two Chip Taylor songs on the record that are just his. He sent me them a while back and said, “You need to record these songs, especially ‘I Cry for Love.’ It will be a hit.” So I said, “I should listen to this guy. He knows things.” (laughs) I felt so connected to those songs, I asked if we could co-write some more, and we ended up with “Devil in Mind” and “Sad Joy.”
“I Cry for Love” has a sharply-pointed message. Does your love life ever make it into your songs? Or do you like to think more broadly about the songs themselves?
My personal experiences definitely affect the music. When I’m singing “I Cry for Love,” even though I didn’t write it, my experiences with heartache, falling in love, falling out of love and getting my heart broken are all coming out. I would never separate myself from the songs that I’m singing. I just don’t know how to do that. Every night, I think it does take a lot out of me. I feel all of those emotions when I’m singing those songs, every single time. If I’m not feeling them, then I don’t really enjoy performing. It just feels wrong.
”Sad Joy” is both heartwarming as well as heartbreaking. Could you tell me the story behind that song?
That song came from a conversation I had with Chip. We were catching up and I told him about an experience I had recently. I went to see Ray LaMontagne at the Austin City Limits festival because my friend [pedal steel player] Greg Leisz was playing in the band, and he invited us to watch the show from the side of the stage. On the other side was a couple my age. The man was in a wheelchair, and he looked like he was about to die at any moment. His color was completely wrong, and you could just tell that he was almost gone.
I later found out they had gotten this special seating through something like the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Anyway, I was watching this man who was at the very end of his life — about 30 years old — watching Ray LaMontagne and his band playing, and it was the most moving experience. When Ray sang “Trouble,” this sick man threw his arms up in the air, and it was like he knew what Ray was singing about, and he felt it so deeply. It was a beautiful thing to watch. It was a hard thing to watch. I was telling Chip about this, and I don’t know where or how that term “sad joy” came out. I’m sure Chip probably said, “Yeah, it’s just like sad joy.” It’s like we almost don’t have a good word in the English language for that feeling.