Rod Picott’s Hang Your Hopes on a Crooked Nail showcases a singular songwriter in peak form. He supports the new album next week at Folk Alliance, a gathering in Kansas City, Mo.
“The best thing about Folk Alliance is seeing my friends because we all spend so much time on the road,” the longtime Nashville resident says. “Plus, I always discover somebody great. It’s such a great thing to immerse yourself in.”
Describe how the new album took shape.
Picott: There weren’t any leftovers this time. There’s always been one or two from the scrap heap that I polished up and called new. These were all written over the last year and a-half. … It was a nice feeling coming into a record with a whole crop of new songs.
Explain the new album’s title.
It’s probably only the second time I’ve tried to infuse a wry sense of humor into what I do. It was just a wry, descriptive way of saying, “Hang onto your hope.” There’s a theme that runs through the record that’s about staying the course and recovering from whatever life throws at you. I just liked the title. I thought it was very funny.
Tell the story behind writing the song with that lyric in “Dreams.”
Now that you bring that up, that was a song I wrote with Slaid Cleaves in a different form for his last record. So that one is left over, now that I think about it. I wasn’t completely happy with the way it took form for Slaid’s version. I liked it a lot, but there was something a little bit light about it that I wasn’t fully onboard with.
You know, I’m not sure I nailed it on my version, but I felt like I wanted it to be a bit darker than the version I wrote with Slaid, so I rewrote it. I like it. It’s a song about the value of keeping your faith in something and finding your place in the world.
How did “You’re Not Missing Anything” come to you?
It’s a song I dreamed, actually. It’s a particular kind of angle with the narrator looking back on a relationship and trying to confront it and saying where he is in the moment. You know, I love these songs where you have a narrator that’s speaking in his own voice and he’s saying things that aren’t necessarily true. And you communicate that those things aren’t true, but it’s believable. It’s a real trick.
Explain the line, “You’re not missing anything but the living and the dying.”
Well, he’s trying to convince himself, is what it is. It’s a very subtle thing to get across. He’s trying to convince himself, “You’re not missing anything, just the laughing and the crying. You’re not missing anything, just the living and the dying.” You’re missing everything. Everything.
It’s what we do as people — tell a story that we know is not true to convince ourselves and find comfort. It’s tricky to navigate a song in that way, and it’s really exciting when you can do it.
I also wrote that with Slaid, and we wanted the song to be open and feel like you don’t know exactly where the loss has come from. Did somebody die? Was it just a breakup? We wanted it to be ambiguous where the loss came from. It was hard to get three verses in there and keep that element running strong. I think we did the best we could.
You’ve written with Slaid for years and had success with songs like “Broke Down.” Has it gotten easier or more difficult?
Interesting question. (laughs) In some ways, it’s gotten harder as we’ve both gotten better as writers. It’s always been easy, in a way, because we’ve always let the song rule, and we’ve always been vigilant about letting the song dictate where the lyric or melody went and how the pieces all fit together.
Both of us are really good at letting go of our pet lines or things we just like because they’re writerly, and we’re proud of that element. That part has remained steady, but it’s a bit more difficult these days because I know what I want to write more, and I suppose he does, too.
It’s still a nice balance. Slaid is a little more interested in exposition and moving the story along. He’s very good at that. I’ve become much more vigilant about language. I’m very, very careful about the language the narrator will use to keep it believable.
Example: “Mobile Home.” The neighbor “plays Aerosmith all goddamn day long.”
“Mobile Home” comes right out of my life. (laughs) You know, I take myself out of it and sing it as if it’s a narrator who isn’t me, but he is. I got out of high school and moved in with my girlfriend. Bought ourselves a mobile home at Marshwood Mobile Estates. I just love songs like that.
This is the first record I really experimented with injecting a little wry, downcast, dark thread of humor. It’s not easy to do. You don’t want jokes in songs. I don’t want a song to sound like wackity-schmackity-doo. There’s something really poignant about a dark sense of humor running through songs. It was an experiment, and I think it worked.
Are the details totally true, or did you fudge a little?
I don’t remember if he played Aerosmith, but I grew up an hour north of Boston. That’s the thing I was addressing earlier. Details are important. That’s what makes the song sound real.
I’m singing from the perspective of this particular place, and singing that line puts it in that place. It doesn’t sound like it’s in Montana. It sounds like New England. Those details help give a song definition and make it real and believable. He could’ve been listening to Pat Travers, but Aerosmith sounded right.