Owen Temple’s folky masterwork Stories They Tell showcases a sharp storyteller in peak form. CMT Edge spoke with Temple about the excellent new collection, his approach to narrative songwriting and life in Austin.
“There’s a wealth of great songwriters here, specifically in roots and folk music,” he says. “There’s a great, supportive community in Austin focused on well-being. It’s a healthy place for creative people.”
CMT Edge: Describe how the new album took shape.
Temple: Some songs were co-written with Gordy Quist from Band of Heathens. We had an idea to write a song a week. For about four months, we did. We were due to email each other a song every Monday by midnight that we’d written that week.
Does the album have a common lyrical theme?
Well, after about three songs a concept gelled. These stories have a wide angle. I tried to have a wide perspective for each of the songs. Once the first three clicked and that developed, I continued writing with that theme.
You’ve said your characters are trying to make sense of their time and place.
Yeah. Let’s see. I guess the wide perspective on “Looking for Signs” is that for thousands of years people have looked at what nature is saying as far as what they should do with their lives: “Wait, there’s an earthquake, so maybe I shouldn’t break up with that girl.” … For that character, it’s kind of tongue in cheek in some ways. He’s trying to persuade this girl that she’s gotta come back around.
Explain how that perspective applies to “Johnson Grass.”
In the “Johnson Grass” song with the aging former president Lyndon Johnson, he’s up there at the ranch in Stonewall [Texas] about to go to the Kerrville Folk Festival. I just imagined him that next summer. Nixon’s in the White House. He’s trying to figure out what to do with himself. Is a folk festival gonna help him feel better? Well, maybe. Adam [Carroll] and A.J. Roach and I were trying to get into what it must be like to be a former president, especially one as complicated as he was.
In “Make Something,” you say, “What should I do today?” You know, what’s worth it? What’s worth working on? Sometimes trying to make something satisfying and somewhat enduring is what we spend our time on. Spend your time on your Twitter account or write a book? That song’s saying, “Let’s try to make something that’ll last a little bit longer.” … Or maybe, let’s do everything we were gonna do on Twitter and put it in a book.
The title track is like where all the scratches and the cracks and the broken things — that’s the story. … That’s ultimately the theme of the album. The greatest thing humans have invented ended up being their storytelling ability, to be able to learn and pass on knowledge. Stories are the best way for us to do that.
Your new album sounds like folk music to me. Agree?
Oh, yeah. I would say it’s a folk album, too. Folk music always has been more about the narrative tradition, so, yeah, I’d say that’s accurate.
How did “Homegrown” come to you?
That was written with Clay McClinton. He lives out toward Dripping Springs [Texas]. They have a garden. We were talking about certain kinds of plants people take care of, like coffee and sugar. So we were talking about the garden, and then we were talking about the music business — how long it takes to get something going and how there are no real shortcuts. That metaphor of growing things came up in our minds. You know, growing a vineyard or growing a garden takes a long time. Basically, anything that’s worth it takes time.
Where do you write best?
The way I like to feel like I’m always writing is by taking notes. I’m a big believer that you’re not really trying to write unless you’re taking notes all the time, so I take notes and assemble later. A lot of these songs were co-written, and it’s the kind of thing where I’ll pull out a bunch of notes and say, “You think we can use this and this and this?” Then we start assembling songs. I don’t really write on the road. I collect on the road, but they don’t become songs until I’m home.
How does the album represent your evolution as a songwriter?
You and I had a conversation about this that I enjoyed. We were talking about Guy Clark’s songs being full of concrete images, and you were eloquent about “Arizona Star.” You were like, “Man, you shake that lyric page and things clatter.” One thing I’m trying to get better at is have the songs have vivid images and make them more like experiences. That’s something I was really going for on this album — pack in as many images as I could so it really like was going on a trip or meeting someone.
Are you drawing from any particular songwriters right now?
Not any particular person that I’m really studying, just the normal diet of people telling me about stuff and checking it out. I’ve never paid attention to the genre list on any particular recommendations. I know they’re helpful, but I just look for good songs versus not-so-good songs. That’s my main thing.