Joshua Powell, of Joshua Powell & The Great Train Robbery, was kind enough to talk with me over email about his music last year. Our discussion covers his take on the current state of the American folk scene, the difficulty navigating between the business and artistic aspects of being a professional musician, and his personal creative songwriting process on his third album Aylosha.
IVM: Alyosha is your third album, following up 2013’s Man Is Born For Trouble, and I can hear the two-year gap. It’s a very different sound, electric guitars replacing the more typical banjos/mandolins that have come to be the generic furniture of “folk” music. What prompted you to push back against those genre boundaries and experiment with your sound?
I started making folk music at kind of an unfortunate time. I was looking back at Fionn Regan and Neil Young and Denison Witmer and being inspired by all these folk guys when modern radio was getting taken over by this Urban Outfitters genericana Mumford & carbon copies trend. Our record came out within a year of the Lumineers’. And I’m not trying to dump on them, but where are they now? I mean, they’re still wildly more famous than us, but people have moved on from that. Even Mumford has moved on from that. I’m still as in love with old Iron & Wine records as I ever was, but there are only so many songs you can write on a banjo. I wanted to imagine what folk music would be like if we didn’t hammer it down into these constraints. The songwriting isn’t all that different than it ever was. Folk is storytelling and I’m telling stories with a synthesizer. And I still have my banjo. I just stopped being afraid of people telling me that my band didn’t sound like a folk band.
IVM: “Genericana” is an apt description. And yet I have fond enough memories of Mumford, if only for being part of The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. But your charge about constraints rings true. Sufjan Stevens took a wild departure in Age of Adz, Josh Garrels approaches folk with sampled beats and loops; there’s plenty of room for stretching out your sound beyond what a certain group of people say it should be. But that fear of being pigeon-holed, has it been replaced? A fear of people finding your music inaccessible or “pretentious”?
Llewyn Davis was swell, even though Isaacs’ abrasiveness and general vocational dysphoria hit a little too close to home. Yeah Stevens deviated, Iron and Wine got crazier and crazier, even Justin Vernon has done the Volcano Choir records, the Shouting Matches record, and the terrible Jason Feathers record. I’m not concerned about being labeled as inaccessible or pretentious. Look at Sufjan: some people loved Adz, most hated it. He did something honest and inspired and alienated some and endeared others. Now the ones endeared are generally still with him, and the alienated ones maybe came back for Carrie & Lowell. If the Beatles had kept making Beatles for Sale, there’d be no Revolver. And as far as “pretentious” goes, I think that generally an insult for people projecting their own insecurities. If someone wants to disparage you for setting high standards for your own cultural intake and being a discerning consumer, that’s on them. I try to function on a high level of cultural consciousness and just cut it with humility. To distill this and bring it back: I’m sorry if you don’t like this record, maybe you’ll like my next one.
IVM: What musicians, classic and contemporary, would you describe as influences, not only in respect to your sound but in your approach to musicianship?
From both a music and an entrepreneurial perspective, I respect David Bazan to death. Our beliefs definitely diverge, but I literally lecture about this guy in the college courses I teach on the music business. He has the freshest approaches to all these stale ideas about how to tour, or how to fundraise, or how to challenge yourself as a content creator. I’m really inspired by Damien Jurado and Richard Swift from a studio perspective–just watch the album trailer for Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Sun. Justin Vernon is my favorite vocalist. Neil Young brought me into the fold. I also got obsessed with The Beatles this year and bought almost every record of theirs and started reading books on their songwriting and studio techniques. That’s a band that deserves all the hype they ever got. They were the most important band that’s ever been.
IVM: Bazan is close to genius, although heartbreaking to listen to, and I can definitely hear the shadow of Justin Vernon on the album (and is the Emma from “Decalogue” perhaps a reference to Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago?). With regards to The Beatles, I saw you uploaded a cover of “Julia” on your Youtube channel; any chance you’ll be putting your own spin on any more of their songs?
Bazan is genius. Listen to his interviews with Matt Carter or Pete Holmes. I love this dude. I don’t really want to talk “Decalogue,” I probably owe some folks an apology for that. Had an artist friend recently ask, “Is it worth hurting someone’s feelings to make good art?”, and I’ve been grappling with that. I love that the name harkens back to the Bon Iver record, but it was just coincidence.
On the Beatles, I’ve been mining them for production inspiration. I’ve been covering “Eleanor Rigby” or “Here, There and Everywhere” recently. I can’t help but think that there are more to come. I rediscover them on a monthly basis.
IVM: Besides experimenting with your sound, you also took a risk by using Kickstarter to fund the album. Now, if I recall correctly, you ended up having to contribute around $4,000 from your own pocket, in order to meet your $16,000 goal. That’s quite the leap of faith; has it affected your mindset as you’ve recorded and produced the album?
The 4k we didn’t actually get was essentially what he had budgeted to hire a publicist. This is, in my opinion, our best record by a long shot, and we didn’t want to just promote it on Facebook and let it fizzle out. My hope was that the merit of this record would help carry us over the door frame into the next stage of the industry. And to do that, you need a PR person with a name that has some weigh to throw around. We were going to work with Solid Gold out of LA, but that guy ended up treating me incredibly discourteously out of nowhere and I got really bad feelings about it. My mentor advised me to ditch because we hadn’t signed a contract yet, and I did, and I was totally relieved. But we’d already had to push our album release back, so I had to step up and learn about PR myself. I’d never pitched a blog or written a press release, and that’s like my full-time job the next couple months. I’m learning a lot, and it’s still really grassroots, but we want to do right by the people who supported us, and I want people I don’t know to hear this record. I’m incredibly thankful that people believed in our vision as much as they did. I’m keeping my head down and working harder than ever. I want to do them proud.
IVM: It can be a tough business. Now, you’ve mentioned how much work you yourself have to do, but to what extent is Joshua Powell & The Great Train Robbery a solo act or a band? Is there a difference in the line up between the studio and touring? And, if you are are your own while on tour, how do you incorporate the new repertoire of sounds and effects from the new album into your live performances?
That’s the question isn’t it? I guess at it’s core, the Great Train Robbery is a construct behind which I can hide a little. It’s me at the core. I built the “and the” brand so that the collective could be fluid and I could maintain the homogeneity of our merch and web presence and everything. I have a couple really committed members right now as we’re working on rebuilding a more consistent live lineup, but the band is structured that you’re getting the same content whether it’s a four-piece rock show, or just me with my guitar and kick and tambourine.
On Alyosha, it’s basically just me, Jonathan Class (the producer), and my brother Jacob. Jason Barrows (Josh Garrell’s guitar player) did a couple aux tracks. The guys who are playing with me now are basically just learning all those parts from the record. When I’m out solo, I do the multi-tasking with autonomous limbs schtick to try to fill out some of the sonic gaps, but people are getting a lot more stripped, intimated incarnation of the songs, closer to how they were written. I’m confident that the quality is still there, but I miss the energy and chemistry of the full group on stage.
IVM: Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is a favorite of mine; one of those electrifying novels I read as a teen whose influence I’ll be feeling throughout my life. What was it about the character of Alyosha that pushed you to name the album after him?
Alyosha is the only likable character in the book, but he’s more than just likable. He’s basically Jesus. At least I saw him that way. And as someone who occasionally faces some spiritually based cognitive dissonance but still believes in Jesus, it was beautiful to experience this character in a way that wasn’t stale. I’ve read the Bible a lot of times, and the parts with Jesus were always my favorite because the Old Testament and Paul all get so controversial and weird, but this was a lot like experiencing Jesus show up in another book. Alyosha makes you wish you were like him: kind, clean. Knowing you’re not and that you can only reclaim that in a spiritual sense and not an absolute one is simultaneously sad and hopeful. That character is who I would be if I hadn’t already forfeited the idea so many time. I guess like an alter ego ideal.
IVM: I love Father Zosima’s advice to Alyosha: “Be no man’s judge; humble love is a terrible power which effects more than violence. Only active love can bring out faith. Love men, and do not be afraid of their sins; love man in his sin; love all the creatures of God, and pray God to make you cheerful. Be cheerful as children and as the birds…Life will bring you many misfortunes, but you will be happy on account of them, and you will bless life and cause others to bless it.” It’s this impossible standard of what it is to be good in this world, yet Alyosha takes it on knowing full well his own limitations. To what extent is the spirit of Alyosha present throughout the album, especially in light of how many songs reflect a sense of doubt or failure?
I’m not identifying with Alyosha on this record–I’m setting him up as the ideal. At the end of the day, this character is a thin poetic veil over the face of Christ. Alyosha is this pure-hearted mystic, and I find myself split between the heads of Dmitry and Ivan, the grimy hedonist with no room for hope in his self-concept, and the cynical intellectual who is perpetually jaded. I knew the minds of these guys, and Alyosha was this mystery, you know? I fell in love with that enigmatic open-handedness, the way I feel whenever I read the Bible. So much of it’s so confusing and so seemingly archaic, but when you read about Jesus, he’s impossible not to love. And the disenchanted tones of this record reflect my own shortcomings as wanting to be like Alyosha/Jesus and feeling unable to do s
IVM: Lyrically, your songs range from fairly straightforward stories (“The Farmer and the Viper”, “Birth Control”, “Decalogue”) to ambiguous, mood dominated ruminations(“Petrichor”, “Ernest Hemingway”), all the while flitting between references to the Bible, literature, politics, history – do you write your songs with these references in mind, or do they naturally reveal themselves in your writing?
For “Farmer,” I heard the story (one of Aesop’s Fables as told on an NPR show) and wrote the song as a direct adaptation. I wrote “Hemingway” in Colorado, camping with my adopted brother, and the song doesn’t talk about Ernie, but I was reading The Snows of Kilimanjaro on that trip and I was trying to channel his writing style. “Gunfighter” is an intentionally political song because I’m always trying to alert the people to the evils of drone warfare. My work is very directly a product of my intake, so I read a lot, and a lot of those authors and themes manifest themselves in the lyrics. And then other songs just drop in your lap. “Cave of Clouds” was stream-of-consciousness. “Petrichor” was an etymological experiment where I just free-associated words based on their sounds and not their meanings–just a linguistic sensual trip. All of the above, I guess.
IVM: I’m glad you mentioned “Petrichor” — the song has this gliding smoothness to it which drew me in, and those elliptical lyrics that seem to flit in and out of time. You have a way with words, not only in your imagery and sound, but in form as well (the internal rhymes throughout “The Farmer and the Viper” lend themselves perfectly to the aggressive guitars and percussion on the verses). How influential is poetry in affecting your writing style? If you discover a new author, do you find yourself subconsciously incorporating their tics into your own songs?
The guitar is basically a conduit for me. I don’t play guitar first because I love guitar, but because I love writing songs. Poetry is everything in my writing process. I have a degree with a writing minor and I’d like to eventually get into some Masters work with that. I write hundreds of poems that never get fleshed out all the way into songs and on to records. My mom was an english teacher, we grew up without TV in our house. All four other English teachers I’ve ever had (here’s looking at you Kat, Todd, Liz, and Debbie) have been gigantic influences on my life and the development of my worldview. And I owe just as much to Kerouac, Bradbury, Hemingway, Hesse, and Brautigan as I do to any musical artist. So yes, pretty much every time I read a great book, it ends up inspiring a new song–whether it’s one awesome line (the song “Jack Kerouac” lifts a few lines in the chorus from “On the Road”) or a timbre of prose (listen to/read Hemingway). I’m sure there are subconscious elements. But sometimes it’s conscious too.
IVM: We’ve talked about literary intake, but what about visual? In some ways, film has more in common with music in terms of rhythm, style, and can be experienced on a more visceral level than words on a page can be. Any films or even genres which have acted as your muse?
Ha! If only I were that cultured. 9 out of the 10 films I watch are horror. I’m obsessed. It’s hard to be a horror fan, because you know 90% of the movies you watch are going to suck, but when you get the one good one every 10 or so, it gets you going all over again. Most recently those were It Follows and Creep for me. But there’s not a lot of room in the music to reflect that intake. That’s why I’ve been toying with the idea of a punk side project for like a year now. But I don’t have time for it just yet.
There have been one or two here or there. I’m a big fan of the Coens, Anderson, Tarantino, and Nolan. And I’m a huge Star Wars nerd. But film for me is usually escapist. My music and literary intake are a lot more closely tied.
IVM: In an old interview, you stated that you “don’t want to be anywhere near Christian radio.”I echo the sentiment; I once had a summer job as a teen where we were only allowed to listen to Christian radio, and by the end of the summer I was sworn off of most of CCM for life. That being said, I sincerely doubt there’s a danger of Alyosha being picked up by Christian radio. But how do you navigate the line between your faith and your art, especially in light of your self-described “spiritually based cognitive dissonance”?
You know? This comes up all the time. It can be hard to identify as a believer and be taken seriously in the art world. But that goes for science and humanities as well. There isn’t a lot of room for mysticism in the 21st century, and it’s harder and harder to cultivate faith the more you delve into theology and philosophy. I think it’s really easy to be happy-go-lucky and adhere to any religion for the ignorant. It’s easy to be carefree if you’re dumb. I know that sounds nasty, but I’m jealous of that group sometimes. I think the more you learn, the easier it is to get sad. All that is to say, my life doesn’t necessarily look like mainstream Christianity prescribes, but I still adhere to the fundamental tenets of your classic Christian doctrine. When I can’t navigate a gray area, I try to err on the side of empathy and compassion. I don’t believe there’s Christian music or Christian art of Christian damn coffee shops. It’s a noun, not an adjective. And I’m just trying to model my life off of Jesus’s. Or off Alyosha’s, as it were. When the faith and the doubt show up in my music, I’m just trying to be honest. If you have one without the other, it’s probably inauthentic. I don’t want that.
I thought you asked really good questions here, Josh. Had to chime in at the mentioning of Dostoyevsky. Though I only made it through the first book of The Brothers Karamazov, he sure was a great writer and thinker. As cliche as it might sound, my favorite writing from him is the beginning of The Grand Inquisitor, which I had read in an anthology beforehand. The part where God points to the Christ during crucifixion, asking “How can I forgive his tormentors?” is one of the most profound things I’ve ever read.