Frank Solivan can’t stop singing. He’s sitting at a truck stop somewhere in Nebraska, taking a break from an endless drive between gigs, but he still launches into song like he’s leading his band Dirty Kitchen through a rambling bluegrass number on a festival stage.
This is not an unwelcome habit, as Solivan possesses a gently-grained voice that is both soulful and spry. It’s one of the best in bluegrass, with a 2014 IBMA male vocalist nomination to back up that claim. On Cold Spell, his third album with Dirty Kitchen, he puts that instrument to good use on downhearted songs that use a variety of techniques to convey immense heartache.
“We play traditional music and we play nontraditional music,” Solivan explains. “We play nontraditional music traditionally, and we play traditional music nontraditionally. We don’t want to be pigeonholed.”
CMT Edge: There’s a lot of heartache and betrayal on this album. It’s motivated by romantic despair.
Solivan: Every song is definitely a love song gone awry. Except for “Yeah Man” and “Chief Taghkanic,” which could be interpreted in any number of ways because they’re instrumentals. It just happened like that. It wasn’t really planned. I find myself attracted to songs that can wrench you pretty good. I want to play music that moves me in some way, and I want it to move people.
In that regard, “No Life in This Town” stands out for equating the end of a relationship with small-town America.
It’s a great song, and I can say that because I didn’t write it. A good friend of mine wrote that one, and I like the idea of it, for sure. It was just a chord structure, lyrics and melody when he sent it to me. A good song has more than just great lyrics. Part of having a good song is finding an arrangement that helps it to get noticed.
We like to capture the essence of the song, to strike a good balance between arrangement and performance. So we tracked all the instrumentation on “No Life in This Town” at the same time so we could get an emotional performance.
There’s definitely a lot of that musical interplay on this record — not just on that song but on the whole record. There’s a lot of instrumental conversation, I guess would be a good way to put it. The instruments talk to one another. That’s how we feel, too. When we play onstage, we’re trying to communicate with each other and with the audience in some way.
Does that make performing these songs live especially intense?
I think so. Each record that we do is a slice of time, and there’s just a bigger sense of maturity in the playing and singing on this record than on our previous one. Maybe that’s just life. We always want to put ourselves out there. We’re always trying to gather those types of performances in the studio, but it has to happen naturally rather than just being forced. You can’t force maturity, though. That would be immature.
Each song can mean something completely different for each person, however they relate it to their own lives. Just two weeks ago, I lost my mom. I was in the hospital with her, and I sang the first song on the record, “Say It Isn’t So,” to her. [sings] “Wake up, wake up from a bad dream.”
She was having some trouble with her ticker, and when you’re sitting there in the hospital, the words mean something completely different than how they were initially intended. It’s a different situation altogether. That song has been this constant soundtrack in my brain for the last couple of weeks, like my mom is living in the song somehow.
There are several songwriters represented on Cold Spell. What are you looking for when you’re picking out which songs to record?
I want to either write the song, or I want to have a family member or good friend write it. My cousin Megan McCormick wrote “Say It Isn’t So” and “Better (Days Go By),” and another cousin of mine, John Cruz, wrote “Missing You.” And yet another cousin of mine, Charles Tyson Smith, provided half of the song “She Said She Will.” [sings] “She said she will, but she won’t … like I knew she would.”
So every song is either from the family or from someone close to the band. It’s rare that I can’t find a good song from one of them because I come from a very big music family.
Bigfoot — you know, the monster truck — just rolled by on a semi, right in front of me. I am in Nebraska, for sure.
You wrote some of these tunes, as well.
I wrote “Cold Spell,” but I didn’t write it until two weeks before we went into the studio. And we didn’t learn it until a week before we went into the studio. I knew I needed to write something for this record, but I wasn’t inspired. Being on the road is tough sometimes for writing. All your energy is diverted into running a small business.
We were having these cold spells all last winter, and I got this idea from these houses you see in New England with the candles in the window. I was thinking of a chorus: [sings] “Cold spell…” That would be a good hook if I could figure out the rest of the song.
Candles, flames … what do they do? Well, they sort of dance. It’s like they’re dancing jigs. [sings] “Candle flames dancing jigs upon my windowsill, fat snow falling just beyond the pane.” I wanted to capture that sense of winter.
Then the second line is, [sings] “Lonesome shadows move along the wall, sleeves down, bracing for the worst again.” … “Sleeves down” could mean it’s cold outside, or it could mean he’s covering up the heart he wears on his sleeve. You can interpret it any way you want. That song came in about half an hour, and I think it says a lot without saying a lot.