Don’t Blame the Black Swans: An Interview
After the tragic passing of violinist Noel Sayre, the Black Swans are back with a strong new full-length, Don’t Blame the Stars (Misra). A recent Pitchfork review gave the record a well-deserved 7.5 stars, citing Sayre’s lovely violin and the spacious song arrangements. Taking a cue from Willie Nelson’s Yesterday’s Wine, the songs on Stars feature spoken-word introductions that augment and occasionally bend interpretation of the songs themselves. I caught up with lead singer-songwriter Jerry DeCicca on the day before the current tour began.
ELM: So, you’re about ready to set off on tour, I hear.
JD: Yeah, I am. Just a small, ten-day tour in the Northeast with a guy named Ed Askew.
ELM: What is your live show going to be like on this tour?
JD: It’s going to be me and one of the guys from the band just traveling as a duo. I’ll be playing guitar and harmonica, and he’ll be playing banjo and electric guitar. Which is pretty much how we’ve been doing it on the road. This past year we were on tour through September past mid March, and most of the dates were just with a duo.
ELM: Is there going to be a full band tour later?
JD: I hope so. Some time in August or maybe September. I think we’re going to try to go out as four or five people. It kind of depends on what the venues are like and what we can afford to do but this time we’re playing a lot of art galleries and smaller spaces, so it works pretty well to just do a duo. In the past we picked up a drummer in the Bay area, and a bass player out there, a lot of times we just pick up people on the road too, that we know.
ELM: I read that your new album was sort of inspired by Willie Nelson’s Yesterday’s Wine; can you tell me about that?
JD: Willie Nelson does the spoken word introductions to some of those songs, and faith has a lot to do with some of the subjects of those songs, so that was partially an influence with the spoken word introduction on this record, along with people like Lee Hazlewood and people that have done it in the past so a lot of these songs deal with faith in a different kind of way than the songs on Yesterday’s Wine does. We kind of used that as a template. There’s a lot of records that I really liked with spoken word in prose in the past, and it wasn’t something people had really done in a long time and especially not something people would do now where everything is kind of sold digitally, so it was something I wanted to try and it was appropriate for this record.
ELM: Is there anything that you feel like is a central message on Don’t Blame the Stars?
JD: I don’t know about a central message, I’m always kind of happy for people to get whatever they can out of the music, but I think one of the things that I like most about it is that I feel like I was finally able to write songs that were light-hearted that were about serious things, and that wasn’t something I was able to do when I was younger like in previous Black Swans records.
ELM: I felt that way listening to “Mean Medicine,” especially after the intro, which is a little bit heavy. And then the song is something that treats this really serious issue with–it’s not maudlin or melodramatic at all. I don’t want to say it’s light.
JD: Yeah, I think we’re dealing with taking any sort of like anti-depressants, there’s always been songs in the world about using substances to get through your days. And I don’t necessarily think that anti-depressants or alcohol to do those things are necessarily good or bad things, I think different things work for different people, and different drugs work better for different people and don’t work well for others. So I kind of wanted it to be about that, that sort of sense of where it’s not maudlin, you know at the same time, but it’s obviously not going to be something that’s really upbeat or anything either and that it’s still, like a lot of new songs, kind of reverent to music as some sort of drug or some sense of God or direction or something like that, and it’s medicine to listen to the Jimi Hendrix song, “Manic Depression”, for a sense of company. So yeah I like that song and hopefully the introduction that comes before it kind of cut some of the seriousness out of it, too, since it’s a little silly.
ELM: Do you do any other kinds of writing?
JD: Yeah, I work on different types of writing than I have in the past, nothing that I’ve published yet but I’m working on this book that now I’m officially comfortable calling a book because it looks like I might actually complete it. A couple years ago I drove around the country and visited different obscure singer/songwriters from the 1960s and 1970s, and spoke to them about their music and how it fit in to their lives and what their lives are like now and kind of what it means to be, not properly obscure, but it’s art they really care about and so a lot of their identity is placed upon that, if not by the world at large, but how they view themselves. So I’m working on this collection of writing that has a lot to do with identity and work and art and music and things like that. Kind of using these vignettes that I’m writing of these singer/songwriters to kind of look in to some of these other essays that I’m writing.
ELM: Have you done creative writing like that in the past?
JD: I hadn’t really done writing like that in the past. I mean I’ve done writing in the past but I’m somebody who reads a lot, and twenty years ago went to college. I’ve always had this idea that I wanted to write something about music without it being a music book. Even though I read a lot of music books, I tend not to really like them that much, I think I read them because I love music, and often times really don’t think that they’re that good as books. So I wanted to write something that was more about these people’s lives and for me, because I love music so much, it’s such a big part of my life, it’s really easy to learn something from these people and kind of figure out something about who I am that I’m struggling with by talking to them and seeing how their lives play out and how they view themselves and how their family views themselves, how their community views them, and I think for a lot of these people some of them are in their seventies, there was nothing for them to look back on when they were making records about what it was like to be obscure, like I think that people made records and the only people you really heard about making records were the ones that were famous or lived within your community, so I think it was kind of a new thing for them to venture out, I think it was more risky, then, to live that way. I haven’t done any writing like that before, but it’s something that i’ve thought a lot about, so hopefully it’ll turn out well. It’s one of those things that it’s like you’re writing about real people and their lives, you don’t want it to turn out poorly, so I think that’s my only real concern.
ELM: Who are your favorite writers?
JD: They seem to change quite a bit. I go back to poets quite a bit. When I get stuck in my own writing, if I read poetry it really kind of opens things up for me, because I think that poetry, more than song writing has a broader sense of subjects in general? So you know I like a woman named Laura Newborn who just published a book of poetry in the last year. This poet David St. John, he’s fantastic. And Donald Hall I like, Elizabeth Bishop, I was a really big Robert Creeley fan for a long time. As far as poetry I like those writers. There’s a guy named Leonard Gardner, who wrote one book, called Fat City that I really love, lately I’ve been reading Jim Thompson which I’ve been enjoying a lot, I don’t think I would have enjoyed as much ten years ago, but lately I haven’t been reading so much fiction.
ELM: Yeah, I read mostly poetry as well.
JD: Oh you do? Who do you like?
ELM: I actually got my MFA in poetry.
JD: Oh you did? Where did you go?
ELM: University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, it’s about an hour south from Birmingham. There’s too many poets I like. I’m a big Jorie Graham fan, but I know she’s not for the faint of heart.
JD: Was she, maybe I’m thinking of somebody else, was she married to James Galvin?
ELM: I think so.
JD: Yeah I like his stuff quite a bit. Did she teach in Iowa? I think I knew her stuff a while ago because I knew she was married to Jim Galvin. I like his stuff but he actually wrote this book called The Meadow about the Colorado/Wyoming border that I really loved, and through that I was reading some Hart Crane a while ago.
ELM: Her later stuff, I think is much more dense and complex and less accessible, but the writing is still beautiful and I think her mid-career stuff is my favorite, like Erosion, End of Beauty is a really good book, I recommend that one.
JD: Oh okay. I think it’s one of those things where people ask you what you read and you tell them that’s what you read, and I think it’s not just poetry really, I think some people are just like, oh, I like to read, and then you say something they haven’t heard of all the sudden it’s like, antisocial, or something like that, instead of it being what I think it should be where it’s like, “Oh, that’s interesting i’ve never heard of that, maybe I should check that out.” For some reason I think most people that read poetry it seems like have been in an MFA program, it just doesn’t extend beyond that unless you’re Billy Collins or something like that, you know that’s taken on some kind of celebrity to it.
ELM: Switching topics, lately, I’m aware of a little bit of the Columbus scene, I was just reviewing Psychedelic Horseshit, who’s from Columbus, I don’t know if you were aware of them, but I don’t know what the scene is like there in general for indie bands.
JD: There’s definitely bands like Psychedelic Horseshit, and Times New Viking, I mean when I was in my early twenties it was some of the punk bands, like New Bomb Turks, Gaunt, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, I think people have always thought of it as more of like a rock, but I mean Psychedelic Horseshit’s great, they all play like, way past my bedtime, so I don’t usually go. But there’s also this other guy who made a record on this label called Mexican Summer that’s from here called Andrew Graham and Swarming Branch, which is a really good record too, so there’s tons of music in Columbus, there’s a ton of bars and shitty little venues, and everybody’s in a band, so it’s pretty active in that way. I think it’s only like those couple bands that people have really heard about in the past couple years. Other than that Columbus is an odd little city. It’s like the state capital and a big ten college town, and it’s surrounded by strip malls.
ELM: You mentioned bands playing past your bedtime, which prompts me to ask, do you have a regimented schedule for how you write and make music, or is it more whimsical?
JD: I don’t really have a schedule for it, I’m pretty active in working on something all the time, working on this collection of contemporary country songs right now for a female singer, that are all written from a female point of view, so they can only be sung by a female singer, which has been pretty fun, it’s been a really good writing project, trying to see if I can write something that I think is still a good song but maybe doesn’t take the same kind of shape or sound as the type of music I normally write or listen to, but I love country music so I wanted to try to do something that was more of the genre, I just go to bed early because when I’m home here I work this vocational rehabilitation gig where I’m up at like, six o’clock in the morning, I have to be at work at eight, and I’m pretty beat by ten o’clock, so they kind of let me come and go whenever I’m not traveling, which is really generous of them. I’m usually asleep by 10:30. Most shows in town here don’t even start until 10:30, at the earliest. Some of the rock bands I don’t get to see that often.
ELM: Do you have any plans for the future of Black Swans, or what you’re going to do next?
JD: This record just came out last week, we’ve got our forty-five we’re doing as a split single for this next tour, we’ll probably just keep playing shows around this record for a while. We’ve already got our next record done, that’ll probably come out sometime in the next year, so I don’t know. You put out a record and you just hope for the best, this is sort of in that weird little limbo period where I know I’m going to be gone playing shows in July and all of August and all of September, but I don’t know where those are going to be yet, so yeah, I guess for at least the next six months or year that’s probably what I’m going to be doing.
ELM: My last question for you is that you recently did this split seven-inch with Bonnie Prince Billy, how was that?
JD: Good, they were both songs that were by a songwriter called Larry Jon Wilson, and I had produced the last record that he made before he died back in 2008, it came out in the U.K. and the next year in the U.S. It was a record that Will Oldham really liked and he was kind of responsible for Drag City releasing it, he heard it when it came out of the UK and encouraged me to send it to Drag City when the other U.S. label fell through. We had planned to do a whole tribute record to Larry Jonson, it was somebody I feel really close to and was really involved in with music and nobody had really recorded any of his songs before. A lot of his songs are tough to sing, and in general kind of hard for other people to feel comfortable singing because of their sense of detail and how personal they are, like, the language is very southern, and there’s a really strong sense of regionalism to his music as well, so it’s kind of like a failed attempt to put a tribute record together. Will was the only person who really wanted to do a song, it ended up as a 45, and it came out only a couple months after Larry Jon passed away. I don’t know if you have much interest in kind of like weirder roots music from the ’70s, but Larry Jon’s music is pretty fantastic I think, he was in this movie really briefly with Townes van Zandt in Heartworn Highway, which is how I first heard his music, and then kind of made these, kind of sentimental and also kind of funny and funky country folk rock records in the ’70s and then never made a record for 28 years. The one we did was mostly solo acoustic. There’s clips on Youtube of him recording the record with us, so if you have any interest in hearing somebody sing with a Georgia accent I can recommend that, it’s pretty great, it’s a rare thing.