No Man Has a Voice Like Colter Wall
The country music wunderkind speaks on his new album 'Songs of the Plains,' 11 tracks of vintage country and heartbroken triumph. Stream it now.
Photo Credit: Little Jack Films
On “Plain to See Plainman,” the first track from Colter Wall’s forthcoming Songs of the Plains, the Saskatchewan born, Nashville living singer sounds like a late-career Johnny Cash. This is odd for two reasons, the first being that Wall’s 2015 debut, Imaginary Appalachia, peddled in the sort of alt-stomp-clap folk that’s been invading sunset festival slots—although last year’s self-titled record was a more straight-shooting folk record—and also, more importantly, Wall is a 23-year-old Canadian and not an old man covering Nine Inch Nails. But the way Wall’s deep, haunted voice echoes the story of a Canadian man wanting to live and die in the place he loves recalls troubadours of eras past, ghosts of the Western plains. Despite this vintage approach to storytelling, the song is still autobiographical, for Songs of the Plains (which Noisey is premiering below) is about the history of the West, a world that wholly informs Wall’s style.
“It felt very natural to tell these stories as someone who grew up in Saskatchewan and as someone who grew up on the plains,” Wall explains to Noisey over the phone from his western Canadian home, visiting his folks for his country’s Thanksgiving. It’s easy for a record like this—a loose concept record about a world gone and now only existing in our broken collective conscious, a laughable romance indescribably far from where we are now—to drift into appropriation or exist as a saccharine lament for the things we’ve lost, but Wall’s grasp of songwriting (remarkably assured considering our dude wasn’t able to drink when he released his debut three years ago) paints a landscape that’s not only charmingly romantic, but actively responsive to the modern iterations of country western music. This is where Wall’s biography plays a crucial role.
As a descendant of this world, this mindset, this way of life, Wall infuses old traditional folk songs and tunes he wrote with equal weight, moving them outside of any era and into a domain he controls every aspect of. It’s a subtle and ecstatic move, the result of a guitarist and songwriter strikingly mature for his age—or any age, really.
Songs of the Plains was produced by Nashville superhero Dave Cobb, and his watchful eye creates a space in which Wall’s voice bounces and pushes against thoughtful acoustic guitars, pedal steels, or, on album closer “Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail,” old-timey percussion and back-and-forth vocals. As everything continues to get exponentially worse daily, this move backwards, to a past no longer imaginable, can feel retrograde and defeating; but Songs of the Plains is a heartbroken triumph, a statement suggesting that all that’s missing is perhaps not forever lost. It’s a healthy reminder, because it sure is nice to close your eyes and feel the tall grass of the plains beneath your feet, even if it’s just for eleven songs.
Noisey: What’s it like going back to Canada now that your career has really taken off? Has that life changed?
Colter Wall: Everybody here is very supportive and it’s just nice to see some familiar faces. It’s a small town so everything moves a little slower. It’s just the opposite of how things go with this current gig. It’s always good to come back, that whole cliché of not forgetting where you come from.
How do you feel now that this new record is done and about to come out? Is it more nervousness or relief?
It’s a lot of long-waited relief. For everything I’ve done I record the album and that process never takes long. This record took about a week to cut. But the long part is the waiting and sitting on the record. You wait for months or half a year to put the record out and that’s always the hard part for me because I’m pretty eager to get these songs in people’s ears. It just feels like a long time coming. I’m just so proud of what we’ve been able to do with this project.
When did you begin writing this new record?
Some of the songs had been written long before the record’s conception. “Thinkin’ On A Woman” is a song I’ve had long before this process began. I think I wrote that after we finished the last record. A lot of these other songs were written pretty close to when we started to work in the studio. It was a combination of mostly newer tunes and a few older ones.
When did you hit the studio for Songs of the Plains?
It was in the spring. We went in the first time in March and then finished up during the end of April. But combined it only took about a week to be done with it. That’s about how long the last one took with Dave [Cobb, producer] over at RCA. I feel like if you spend too much time on the record then there’s something wrong. It shouldn’t be like pulling teeth. It should come naturally. It’s kind of bittersweet, though, because I really love being in the studio. But it’s also nice to get things done quick.
You honor a certain Western folk and Country tradition on this record. How did that idea or concept come about for this record?
I knew before going into the studio that I wanted to make a Western record, featuring a combination of traditional Western folk and cowboy songs and some tunes that I had written that were heavily influenced by that kind of music. I love that kind of music and as someone from the Northwest it’s kind of native to the world I grew up in and the culture. In the current day and age you don’t hear a lot of Western albums any more. When you’re talking about the genre country music, it used to be called Country & Western music. It plays a pretty big role in that pantheon of country music. That’s the whole reason why those guys in Nashville started wearing cowboy hats and boots back in the day. That didn’t come from the South, that came from the West.
It’s a shame that not too many people are really aware of that anymore or shedding any light on it. That was sort of the mission statement of this record, to experiment with that particular sort of subgenre of country music. It was easy, it was a no-brainer. It just made a lot of sense from the beginning. The songs just flowed out from there and I hope people are able to hear that on the record.
But at the same time, this mythos and world you’re describing is a uniquely American perspective, at least in popular culture. How did being a Canadian play a role in this process?
That’s the other thing about public perception. Here in Canada we have a lot of heroes within that world of western folklore and country western music, which is why I really wanted to put that Wilf Carter song about the Calgary Stampede on there. That’s a big rodeo up here. He’s one of those guys, and no one knows his name. Even here in Canada a lot of people have forgotten about that guy. I tried my best to remind or inform folks about that history and where that comes from.
It would have been pretty easy just to go in and make a period-piece, historic cowboy record. Songs all based in the 1800s or something. But I wanted to give it a modern take as well. It’s sort of a combination. John Beyers [“John Beyers (Camaro Song)], for example, is a more or less true story about my hometown. But it’s more or less a modern day cowboy ballad, only instead of horses it’s Camaros. Again, I feel like folks—especially in the States—aren’t aware that this part of Canada, Western Ontario up to the prairies—don’t know much about it. That’s fair because there aren’t too many of us up here. Not a lot of people visit here. That accounts for a lot of the unawareness regarding our culture, but I wanted to tell that story and clear that up for some folks. It’s just about where we are, where we come from, and what we do up here.
What do you find so appealing or romantic about this old western world?
It’s a strange thing because the West is rooted in a very harsh reality of hard living and scratching out a life for yourself, but it’s also wrapped in this mythos. There are of these tall tales and crazy stories about the West that you hear and can never really be sure of what’s true and what’s not. That’s a really weird dichotomy and that alone is really interesting to me. I think it’s worth some research and interest. There’s this natural romanticism. A lot of it has to do with geography and the big sky and the way the land really opens up, but a lot of it has to do with this idea of a new world and a new frontier. When they were first populating this area, that was the appeal, it was a fresh start for people. There’s a sense of freedom that you don’t get anywhere else. Obviously, it’s a lot different now, but there seemed to be that feeling of wide open spaces and an untouched, unsullied world. It’s really easy to get caught up in that romanticism—which is a beautiful thing—but there are still the harsh realities of that hard life because of the nature of the place. Everything that makes it Western makes it rough.
"There’s this natural romanticism. A lot of it has to do with geography and the big sky and the way the land really opens up, but a lot of it has to do with this idea of a new world and a new frontier."
Was it difficult representing that world without selling it short or perhaps appropriating that culture?
The struggle with doing this project, making songs like this that are unabashedly western, is trying to avoid being hokey. You can listen to a lot of cowboy records that sound goofy and almost cartoon-y. It’s a fine line to walk, having traditional cowboy songs rooted in some kind of reality, while at the same time maintaining that mythos without it becoming a mockery of it. I put a lot of thought into that, both musically and thematically, balancing it being a western but not having it sound like theme music for some weird cowboy sitcom from back in the day. That wasn’t ever hard but something I was certainly trying to be mindful of. Just servicing the songs and the whole idea behind the record.
What’s your collaborative process like with your band? Do they participate in the songwriting?
I usually have the songs already and bring them to the band. The songs I write are pretty musically simple. There aren’t a lot of chords and not too many changes. It’s usually not too hard for them to get it. But I write on my own. I don’t do a lot of co-writing. The band just fills it out. I’ve had the pleasure with this record and with my touring of being able to work with some really great musicians. Musicians that are much better than me. They’re able to add their own flavor while making sure it’s a representation of what I want. I just make sure it all fits.
How did you link up with Dave Cobb for these last two records?
I met him a few years back. I cut the LP from last year with Dave as well. I met him right before we started working on that, so I guess we met a little over a year ago. He had been turned onto my stuff through a couple mutual friends, one of ‘em being Chris Powell who drums on my records. Chris was playing a gig—one of the first gigs I ever did in Nashville. Chris was drumming with Jamey Johnson at this fundraiser, and I played a few songs to open the show. He heard ‘em and liked them. I was obviously aware of Dave beforehand, he had done all of these great records, and that’s how he found out about me. We went out and got a bite to eat to discuss working together, and one thing led to another. I’m glad to call him a friend. He’s a good guy.
Was there anything sonically you wanted to do differently on this record?
With the last record I gave Dave the reigns in the role of production. I let him go with it. I trusted him and I wasn’t as sure of what I wanted that end product to be. With this one, I was a little more pre-meditated and I had a better idea of what I wanted to do. So I stepped into a sort of co-producer role with this one and made more calls that I didn’t with the last one. That presents a lot of changes just in the way the songs turn out, the way the record sounds. I think Dave knew I’d be playing more of a role because when I decided to make a western record, that has a big effect on the way the music sounds, with the arrangements and the instruments. It was a no-brainer for us to take that approach. Dave was still definitely in that producer role but I was sitting side-by-side with him. I’m just real proud of how it turned out.
Do you have a favorite track on the record?
That’s tough. From a songwriting point of view, I think “Plain to See Plainsman” is my best work, but my favorite one to listen to right now is the last one, a traditional tune called “Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail,” which I cut with a few buddies. That was a lot of fun because we really let loose with that one. We had a couple drinks of tequila before we went in and just approached it with a reckless abandon. Dave was all for it, too. We had so much fun with that one and I hope the listener hears it the same way I do.
What do you hope people take away from this album?
Shit, I dunna. Obviously I hope people enjoy and dig it, but I hope it inspires more people to get into this world, this other side of country music that’s rooted in cowboy songs and rodeo culture. At the same time, I hope it clears up some things about where I’m from. Whenever I tour the states people always have questions because no one knows much about where I’m from. They don’t have any background about my weird little corner of the world. So I hope my record shines some light on that one way or another. Obviously, where we come from has a lot to do with who we are, so in a way this album is kind of an autobiographical record. I hope people are able to pick that up. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t, but either way I’m proud of the way I represented it.
"It’s a strange thing because the West is rooted in a very harsh reality of hard living and scratching out a life for yourself, but it’s also wrapped in this mythos."
Do you ever stop and think about how successful you’ve been as someone still so young?
Yeah, obviously it’s something I think about every now and then. But to be honest, I try not to think about it too often because as a creative person I don’t feel like it does too much good. Sure, you can pat yourself on the back, tell yourself people are diggin’ these songs you write and they’re coming to shows. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t do anything for me to sit there and think about that for too long. It’s really easy to get into an ego-stroke realm. It just doesn’t do anything for my songwriting. I try to avoid too much reflection on success or trajectory just because it’s not conducive to what I’m supposed to be doing. My job is to tell stories.
With the themes of this record being so prevalent, where would you most enjoy hearing this album?
This is kind of a gimme answer but the other day I was driving to a buddy’s wedding in Saskatchewan, just a bit east of my hometown. That stretch of the plains is a beautiful spot. I was driving back as the sun was setting and looking in the rearview. We have some pretty incredible sunsets out here because of the size of the sky and how quiet it is out here. That to me is the perfect place to listen. It doesn’t have to necessarily be Saskatchewan, but that landscape is so perfectly western, so beautiful to me, that it’s my most ideal spot. I went ahead and put the record on during that drive, and it was one of the first times I put it on all the way through while I was in that area—the place the record’s about—and it was really beautiful.
Will Schube is a writer based in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter.