Spencer Burton‘s Don’t Let the World See Your Love seamlessly matches folk narratives (“Death of Gold”) against buoyant pop melodies (“A Body Is All She Ever Let Me Hold”). The Canadian singer (and former Attack in Black guitarist) spoke with CMT Edge about his excellent new collection.
“I try to discipline myself in that I like to write a record a year,” Burton says. “This one came with a lot of traveling. I was riding my motorcycle around and finding myself in different places. I was in Nashville, the Yukon territories, West Coast, East Coast, all around.”
CMT Edge: Tell the story behind writing “Death of Gold.”
Burton: That was a fun one. Some songs start out as one thing and turn out completely differently. When I started writing “Death of Gold,” I was frustrated with a piece-of-shit car I had, and then that song ended up being about a million other things. I guess it’s about how fed up I got with how everything in the world revolves around the wrong thing. The world should revolve around love and friendship but you can find yourself in frustrating situations because it sometimes revolves around money and greed.
Does that lead to a common lyrical theme throughout the album?
It comes up and down. I think the songs are more or less about love and love lost, friendships and relationships between family and friends. Even “Death of Gold” touches on that subject. A lot of things are lost in the grand scheme of things if you’re not careful.
Explain how this album represents your evolution as a lyricist.
I think I used to think too much about the words I was writing. With this record in particular, I just let it come out. Sometimes I’d reread a line and say, “Holy shit, that’s a beautiful line.” Other times, I’d think, “This is what it is.” I’m seeing it exactly as is. There’s no poetry behind it. I’m just getting it out. I think that’s a good thing. It’s an evolution anyway.
Does that free you up to let the songs come out easier?
I think so. As you grow up, you’re always so worried about what people are gonna think of you. With this record, I didn’t think of that anymore. I was thinking about myself and really was trying to turn myself into a better person.
How did “A Body Is All She Ever Let Me Hold” come to you?
That was one of the later songs on the record. When I first wrote that song, it was in open D, kind of an Irish or Celtic vibe. I wanted to write a story that was like a murder ballad, at least in my mind. I sat down in the studio and did it, and it turned into almost a pop song. I never actually meant for that song to leave my bedroom, but I brought it to the studio and weird things happened.
Your guitar playing in that song is definitely more complex than just three chords and the truth.
Yeah, sometimes I’m just singing, like you said, three chords and the truth, but the guitar needs to tell a story as well. I think it’s just as important as the story I’m telling. I think there are people who look past the words and want the guitar to have its own voice. They just listen to the instrumentation, and it can move them in completely different ways than the song does lyrically.
What songwriters do you draw from in that style?
Well, I know who I like. Willie Nelson is a huge favorite of mine. There’s also some of the folk greats like Paul Brady, people who find beautiful melodies on the guitar and voice and tell some of the most heartbreaking stories you’ve ever heard. I have recently been listening to a ton of Don Williams. I can’t stop. The guy’s a genius.
Describe Don Williams’ greatest strength as a singer-songwriter.
The one I’ve been listening to a lot is [Williams’ 1978 album] Expressions. At least when I was first exposed to Don, I took him as kind of a friendly giant. He’s so gentle and soft, but he seemed so powerful. Then I heard a song called “Tears of the Lonely,” and I realized that even the tallest tree can fall sometimes. As friendly as he seemed, he can still get out that terrible, terrible sad emotion that builds up in us.
Speaking of which, tell the story behind writing “Diamond.”
Again, it’s the story of love and love lost. At least in the people I’ve met, everyone has moments when they’re stones and those stones can be anything — a diamond, a ruby, a sapphire. You can also meet people who are just fossilized dinosaur shit, terrible people. “Diamond” is about that in a way, meeting people who think of themselves as something they’re not and how you need to move past that.
You said you wrote these songs while traveling. Are you still writing like that, or do you ever sit at a desk?
There’s a little bit of both. It depends on what’s going on in my life, I guess. Right now, I just moved to a little town called Ridgeville in Ontario, which is in the middle of nowhere where it’s pretty cold right now. I do find myself at the desk a lot more recently, trying to hide from the snow a little bit.
When did you move?
It’s a relatively new thing. I’ve been here seven or eight months and it’s just paradise. It helps a lot with the songwriting. Instead of cars driving all over the place and honking and planes flying overhead, all I hear are chickens in the backyard and the odd coyote howling. It’s amazing. It’s easier as a songwriter to find peace out here. When I was in the city, it was hard for me to find peace, and I’d have to leave to find it. I was away from it all. Now I’m always away from it all. Songwriting’s always on my front porch now instead of me having to go search for it.