Paul Burch pretty much nailed it with the title of his upcoming Plowboy Records album, Fevers. Not just this time around, but for his entire decade-and-a-half recording career, the singing, songwriting, self-producing East Nashville fixture has had a way of summoning sublime, swinging musical warmth.
Music journalist types adore Burch for the deceptive simplicity of his output, for the restless intelligence and historical expertise beneath his agreeable grooves. Not only does he have his surefire ways of planning for spontaneity in the studio, he’s perfectly willing — and able — to spell them out.
CMT Edge: From making an album inspired by a novel to your Buddy Holly tribute, you seem to have no shortage of conceptual grist for the mill. Did generating those sorts of ideas come naturally to you, or was that something you cultivated?
Burch: I think it’s something that comes naturally, only in the sense that I personally use it as a way to step outside myself, as the phrase goes. In other words, if you have a concept, then you start to have some rules — although I’m not crazy about necessarily following rules. You say to yourself, “I’m going to use just acoustic instruments or electric instruments.” Or maybe there’s a new person in the band.
Those are the kinds of things that are fun because then you put yourself in a frame of mind, and you can help put the [other] musicians in a frame of mind, too, so that they’re not preoccupied with pleasing me. I’m not putting them against the wall to comment on whether they like a lyric or not. I can say [to them], “I’m trying to do something that’s a little slow or dark or bright or sweet or sour.”
It’s kind of heavy coming in and playing on someone’s songs. You don’t know whether it’s autobiographical or not. And sometimes I don’t know either.
Do you feel like the musical concepts you explore work better for you than the explicitly autobiographical vantage point associated with singer-songwriters?
I can’t help but have the records be kind of a literal record of where my head’s at. But songs are so funny. Typically the songs that make it on a record come to me in about 10 or 15 minutes, the whole thing.
The first two or three songs seem to come on really strong, and I think, “Hey, this is a good reason to go into the studio,” in the past, they’ve all had something in common. You know, like a groove or the way that I’m singing or a tone. Or if one of the band members has a new instrument, that’s even an excuse to go in the studio.
In the case of Fevers, the first two or three songs that I wanted to go into the studio with were completely different. … They were all sort of individual fevers. They were bound by being played by the same group of people. And if I wrote them, they were written by me in the same period. But I vibed on the fact that they were all going to be different. I didn’t worry whether it was going to be a loud record or a soft record or a record that felt a little R&B-ish. Because it was all over the place.
I think had this been the first record, maybe I would have been worried about that, or maybe somebody would’ve wanted me to focus. But since all the other records have had some theme that they centered around, it was fun to make a record and not even worry. … It was almost an album of singles, you know?
I was about to ask what sort of musical headspace you were in when you wrote these songs. But it sounds like the concept in this case is the absence of a concept.
(laughs) Well, um, yeah. I hope that doesn’t drive people away from listening to it.
If anything, I’m more relaxed. And I have my own studio, which I’ve had for many years. But I also knew how to use it a little bit better.
So I feel like this record is a little looser. It was made really live, even more live somehow than the previous ones, which I’ve always felt like were pretty live. But this one was really kind of untouched. We would do something in a few takes, and I’d listen to it a lot just to see if I still liked it. It’s not very fussy, but at the same time, it turned out really rich.
I really enjoyed the fact that I didn’t really have a concept. It’s very band-y. [With the WPA Ballclub] we’ve all played together for a long time. I feel like it’s gotten into our heads that even though this is a band where I play my songs, it also is a band, you know? And we were able to make something that really reflected that we love to play together.
You’ve taken a live tracking approach on other occasions but not like this. The vamp at the end of “Couldn’t Get a Witness” captures a moment when you sound like you’re fighting off laughter.
Thank you for noticing. Yeah, there are a lot of moments on that. In fact, I was listening to the [vinyl] LP of the test pressing, and there are some sounds at the end of “Cluck Old Hen” that I don’t really know what they are.
The studio’s really not the place to be fussy, I think. If I’m anyplace in my songwriting, I think it’s that I want to be over any fussiness by the time I get in the door. I really want to enjoy the company of the musicians I play with. I figure that if they really enjoy what I’m giving them, that somebody else might like it, too.