Joe Purdy‘s Eagle Rock Fire equally matches wisdom (the title track) and wit (“L.A. Livin’”) with an everyman’s elegance.
CMT Edge spoke with the Southern California resident about his songwriting process, the Los Angeles music community and his excellent new country-folk collection.
“I wrote the title track, and the rest fell in quickly after that,” Purdy says. “There are maybe two songs that were written prior to this record cycle, so the songs on this reflect that there’s a little before and after. I wrote a few, maybe three, when we were in there recording.”
CMT Edge: Which songs were older than the rest?
Purdy: When I say older, I mean maybe by a year. One’s called “Good Gal Away,” and the other’s “Sorry You’re Blue.” I’d written them at a time when I’d left somebody. There’s been a whole lot transpire in my life since then, but I guess that was the beginning of the new beginning.
Do you typically write in the studio?
Yeah, it’s pretty typical, unfortunately. It’s a pain in the ass for all the guys when they’re sitting there, but sometimes I’ll have an idea for a song, and I’ll be like, “You know, I’d love to put this on there, but I forgot about it.” Something I wrote down right before a show or on my way out the door. I used to just quit what I was doing to write, and I lost a lot of jobs back in the day. If I started to write a song, I wouldn’t stop until I finished it and properly recorded it.
It’s hard keeping a job when you don’t show up.
Well, it was a good way to get a lot of songs done. Now that I have a job I want in music and touring, though, you can’t really be late. So I’ll write a piece of a song, and if we’re sitting in the studio, I’ll play it for the guys, especially when I really get into record mode. If it sounds really good in the can when you get a lot of reverb going and it sounds like a record already, that really sparks me into heavy writing mode. That’s one of the places where I can just write on the spot.
So, you’re mostly a stream-of-consciousness writer?
Most of the time when I write, it just falls out. If it’s not falling out at the time, I don’t usually try. I just wait for it. When I’m in the studio, I get really inspired by the way things sound. I’ve done it a lot solo, too. When I made the last record (2010’s This American), I went out to New Mexico by myself with a few songs that I wanted to get down. I got inspired and dumped out eight or nine songs in the next three days just because it sounded good. That happens a lot, but I try not to do it too much when there are other people involved so I don’t waste their time.
Tell the story behind writing the title track.
I was rehearsing with some guys at my house, and there was a fire on the hill, going up the hill, and it was starting to creep up. So they did an evacuation on my area after the guys had left for the day. I couldn’t see the fire, and so instead of leaving, I sat down and wrote that song as it was going on. It just fell out. Luckily, the fire didn’t make it all the way up the hill.
Does the new record have a common lyrical theme?
Yeah, probably. It goes over a little larger span than I usually do. There’s usually a very short, specific time for a record when I’ll dump out a bunch of songs. Because a couple of songs had been written before, this one spans through a couple different phases of my life, but for most stuff on the record I used a talking blues rhythm that I’d never found before. I’d never been able to do it like Townes Van Zandt or Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie. It always sounded forced, like I was trying to copy them. So, I hadn’t tried it in a number of years.
I saw Kris Kristofferson earlier this year and ended up getting to play a little with him and, man, just watching him, he’s so effortless with it. I think I could say that I found my own style, but watching him, I learned how to pick up the little piece that I needed to get into that style. He really reminded me that they don’t all have to be sad-bastard songs. It can have humor in it. Life does. There can be some levity in songs, and that’s a great lesson that I took away from that.
Your touring guitarist Brian Wright is a big Kristofferson fan, too. Explain how you hooked up with him.
Oh, yeah! We just got off the road. He’s a good old friend of mine. We probably met 12, 13 years ago at the open mic at Molly Malone’s, his first week out in L.A. and not too far from mine. We were just like, “I like your shit.” “I like your shit, too.” We’ve pretty much played off and on together since then. He’s been on most of my records, and I’ve been on all of his. He’s in Nashville now.
How has the songwriting community in L.A. generally shaped you?
It used to be heavier for me. There was a time here when B. Wright was living out here when we did open mics with Alexi Murdoch and those guys. And that’s how I got started, meeting all these songwriters doing open mics literally seven nights a week. We would go every night, and then we started booking shows, and every single one of us would go to the person’s show and pay five bucks or whatever so they’d have 35 people there. The next night, you’d be playing, and they all came to your show. That’s how we started getting shows in L.A., going to each other’s shows night after night.
Does that spirit still exist today?
Now there are a lot of people making music that’s built on computers and stuff based around their influences in the ’80s or ’90s. Our influences were ’60s and ’70s and sometimes the ’50s and ’40s and old country and western music or ’60s folk writers or the Stones. When I come back here now, I find more a group of players now. There’s a guy named Brother Sal, who plays the Piano Bar every Thursday and Sunday. Me and B have both sat in with him on electric guitar. He’s like a Dr. John character with the baddest-ass band around.
Brian’s told me about Brother Sal a few times.
Dude, it’s a rowdy time, but we have fun. B introduced me to him. I’d been out of town for a few years, went back to Arkansas where I grew up and bought a house. I came back, and the first night I was in town, I met up with B for a few drinks, and he was like, “Let me take you to see Brother Sal.” Of course, they’re playing with all these people sweating and dancing, and we got up and started playing guitar. It was like, “Wow. This never happened before.” This was a juke joint, and there’s nothing more fun than playing an electric guitar on a small stage and sweating while wall-to-wall people dance. It’s kind of the best thing ever.