Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt’s For Keeps album charts romantic byways both rocky and rewarding. The folkie Austin-based songwriters spoke with CMT Edge about their debut collaboration.
“We’d never see each other because we were touring more and more in our solo careers,” Schmidt says. “A couple of years ago, we decided to start touring together, and that sort of expanded. It was a pretty organic process.”
CMT Edge: Explain the album title.
Schmidt: We were getting married in October, and as our relationship grew, you get more serious about stuff. Plus, we like the sort of teasing nature — as if it’s for keeps [only] now. We were trying to say it’s permanent in a light way. During the past couple of years as we were writing tunes, some of them just seemed to fit together in a couple setting. We were already singing harmonies with each other, and we decided to do a record together.
The album’s not really a typical duo thing, though.
Elkin: Yeah, it isn’t typical like a duets record. It’s how we play our shows — a song swap. So it’s a Danny song and then a Carrie song and a Danny song and a Carrie song.
So, you purposely did five songs each that you’d written?
Elkin: We did, yeah. Keeping it fair. (laughs)
Tell the story behind writing “Two White Clouds.”
Schmidt: We went through a fertility process last year. It was complicated for various reasons, and I wrote that song the day before we were going in to get our results to see if we’d been successful. It’s kind of the child’s story and where he’d come from.
You’ve said these songs are “stuff we all talk about or don’t … but should.”
Schmidt: We began collecting these songs and looking backwards on them. It ended up being a his-and-her collection, especially since we did do it song-swap style. … Not that they’re contradictory perspectives. They’re just different. I guess it shines a little bit of a light on the different facets of a relationship, but it’s not a record of syrupy love songs. It’s about real stuff that real people go through in a relationship. That stuff doesn’t always get talked about on an album.
Elkin: Yeah, especially when it’s a couple that’s about to get married, you usually hear the sappy stuff, but we decided to put all the facets of the relationship into a project.
Schmidt: And it’s not all the bad stuff, either. It’s just the complex stuff.
Tell the story behind writing “Echo in the Hills.”
Elkin: We were teaching at a song school in northern Michigan. Normally, when you’re teaching, you don’t get a song assignment, but at this one in particular, they gave song assignments. Mine was to write about a narcissistic man. (laughs)
So, I started researching where the word “narcissist” comes from. … It’s a long story, but it’s the story of Narcissus and a woman named Echo, who was in love with him. I’m not extremely prolific. I take a long time to write songs, so this one was special because I didn’t have very much time to write it and I really like that story between Narcissus and Echo.
Danny, what’s Carrie’s greatest asset as a songwriter?
Schmidt: Carrie’s very intuitive and emotional, and there’s a flow with her feelings. Sometimes you can over-edit as you’re going, but she lets it flow out and does the editing later. I think that makes her stuff very honest and true. People can relate.
Elkin: Danny? Well, I think Danny’s one of the best writers out there. I don’t even know how to describe his writing other than it’s absolutely original and smart and witty, and he just has a way with words like no other.
What songwriters do you draw from as lyricists?
Elkin: I actually grew up listening to a lot of vocalists and harmony singers, and I wasn’t super-inspired by lyrics when I was younger. I enjoyed listening to things that were fun to sing. Songwriters haven’t been a huge part of my musical world until the last 10 years. I’m super into Paul Simon, Patty Griffin, John Prine. I’m definitely drawn to a vocalist more than anyone else. (laughs)
How does living in Austin shape you as songwriters?
Schmidt: Well, I’m from here, so Austin was influential to me just for an appreciation of music. I didn’t realize until I lived elsewhere in my 20s that it wasn’t one of the top things on everybody’s list every night when they were trying to think of what to do.
The community, in a lot of ways, has gotten a lot more national in the last few years just because we’re gone so much. We’re still really close to our songwriter friends here, and we see a lot of them on the road as much as here in town, but we started doing songwriter groups when we can and we’ll share stuff we’re working on.
Elkin: I think it is a special thing when you have a community of musicians at home. When you’re on the road, there’s an understanding for what being on the road is about. It’s nice to have your best friends completely understand that. We sometimes don’t keep in touch very much when we’re on the road, but everyone gets it. It’s a pretty special thing.