Bluesdoodles met up with the very amiable up and coming American country singer Austin Jenckes on the day that his superb debut album “If You Grew Up Like I Did” was released. The conversation took place on a sunny Friday lunchtime in St James Park two days after Austin had performed an excellent set at the Pizza Express in Holborn.
BD: How old are you Austin?
JA: I’m 31 BD: An old geezer! (laughs) You appeared on the Voice (US version) in 2013 – how did that come about and how did you get to that point Well, I tried out for all the other ones too (laughs), when I was in high school I tried for American Idol didn’t make it, as well as X Factor, didn’t make it!
BD: You were committed to having a musical career?It took me a while to get the confidence to do it , I started playing when I was nine, my dad played guitar and showed me things. I played lead guitar in bands and never really sang. At the end of middle school, the beginning of high school, when I was 14-15, my mum really encouraged me and told me “you need to sing”.BD: Was that because you were always singing around the house?More when we went camping, around the fire, there’s actually a cabin where my family has been going for 50 years; so, family gatherings, church, I sang a lot at church.
BD:You mentioned in the concert (at Pizza Express) that your wife’s father is a pastor – do you have a strong church background yourself?Like many Americans I guess, I grew up going to church every Sunday, but shortly after high school I stopped going; my wife’s parents were friends with my aunt and uncle so my father in law was actually a mentor to me before I met my wife.
BD:Was it quite a small community?Yes it was, I grew up in Duvall Washington, which has about 5,000 people, so is pretty small and is about 40 minutes east of Seattle, it’s a little cow town.BD: A little Hicksville?Certainly!BD: Did you get to go into Seattle often?It seemed far when I was a kid; I always say Duvall was a hippy hick town, people work construction and stuff like that but they do a lot of pot (laughs)!BD: So, quite alternative, laid back, not too right wing?A balance really, same as anywhere, but my dad played and I grew up learning from him and we would go to parks and play, my sister and I would play on the slides and swings and he would get his guitar out.BD: So, he was a bit of a hippy then?He was very free spirited; he was a crane operator, working for Boeing; when my parents split I was about 13. He very quickly went through all of his 401 retirement fund. He bought a boat, a motorcycle and then an airport shuttle van which he converted into a touring rig and started going up and down the coast playing shows.BD:So, he must have been pretty good?He was really good, but he never really did it professionally. He made one CD, recorded down in Florida with my uncle and that was the first time I recorded a song, when I was in 8th grade.BD:So what kind of style was that – country?I would say it was southern rock, he loved the eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd.BD: There’s mention of Lynyrd Skynyrd on your Face Book page – is that your background as well?Yeh, my mum used to sing “Simple Man” to me and my dad would play it – I learned how to play it from him. It’s a kind of crazy thing in that I’m getting to open for them this summer.BD:Wow – if you could have looked ahead from then!I would never have guessed; I won’t get to play “Simple Man” as they’ll be playing it during their set.Maybe you should have a word with them –“c’mon, do me a favour” (laughs)
I’ve been through a lot of change musically; I played a lot of rock in middle school, Active Rock was big, so I liked heavy stuff, the Seattle sound with Nirvana and Alice in Chains, all that kind of stuff. I also liked all the acoustic acts that came out too, people Jack Johnson and John Mayer. They were more chill and the girls liked them so I thought I’d better learn some of these songs (laughs), but it wasn’t until after college that I decided to go for it full time. My minor in college was aeolian accordion, so I always had a plan.BD: Were you playing in clubs and bars at that point, getting a reaction from people? A lot of coffee shops and little bars. One of my fave stories is that when my wife and I started hanging out she drove 2 hours to see me play and I forgot to put her on the guest list, and the show sold out. She stayed in a hotel that night and I didn’t even see her.BD:Great start there – you nearly blew it!Yeh, totally, but I never had very much game so I think it made me look a lot cooler than I really was, even though I just forgot to add her. When we started dating, I was just getting done with college and moved to the Seattle area and played for a year. I met somebody, who knew somebody, that worked in Nashville. So I took my first trip to Nashville for my first co-write – I had never had a co-write before, it was always just jamming out with the band.BD: But at that point had you been writing songs? What style were you writing in and had you found your voice?
Yeh, it was definitely acoustic rock, pop rock, like John Mayer, who was really popular.BD: I’m really interested in your song writing process – listening to what music you have out, I really like your songs , which are really well produced ( thanks man!) but you played live with just the acoustic; is that how you write the songs? Did you start writing in that autobiographical style early on?It took me a long time – I was thinking about this last night – part of it was me being afraid if I was being cool enough, especially coming from more of a rock background. It’s a bit confessional – it doesn’t seem cool, but you’ve got to put yourself out there, show vulnerability. I always wanted to do that but I didn’t know how. I was trying to make stuff that sounded cool. I ended up moving to Nashville – I took a trip there for a week for my first co-write.BD: Was that through a contact you’d made?It was a friend of a pastor in Seattle. The sanctuary that we practiced at was named after this guy’s dad and he was a manager in Nashville. He was back in Seattle visiting family and the pastor asked him to come see me practice. He had a few country artists he’d been working with that I knew of. He just said “why don’t you come down for a week and see what you think.” My family was really supportive, my mum said I should try it. That first day was difficult – I’d never written a song like that, because I’d only jammed with friends. That first guy was Neil Mason, the drummer with the Cadillac Three.BD: They are a great band, was that pre-Cadillac Three?Yeh, they were called Cadillac Black then; they’d already had a band before that called American Bang and had been playing for a long time. They were born and raised in Nashville so that was a cool way to be introduced to Nashville, because they’re such awesome guys and very hard working.
I met Neil and then the wife of Jaren, the lead singer of Cadillac Three, got me an audition on the Voice. The steel player in the band and I were working in a warehouse together driving forklifts. Those guys have had us hand in everything I’ve done since I moved to Nashville.BD: You must be pretty tight with them- you should be opening for them, never mind Lynyrd Skynyrd(Laughs) Yeh, I’ve done a few with them actually and we’re talking about doing that over here at some point.BD: Well, if they want to record at Abbey Road, I’ll be there!(Laughs) They did! They have an Abbey Road sessions CD they did around a year ago.BD: The Voice was not the scene you had been used to, probably very artificial and competitive, or did you bond as a group?You definitely become a little team, it’s like 6 months of being sequestered in a hotel. I had to quit my job; believe it or not I actually cried when I left the warehouse, it was because I was happy and sad at the same time. I felt like I was letting them down but was also very happy I was getting out of there. It was a pretty cool experience, just so much exposure so fast, 16 million people watch the show.BD: It’s the same here; the exposure for even a week or two is more than most musicians will get during their lifetime.You can’t pay for that, even as a major artist.BD: The production levels are amazing on those shows, you probably had makeup artists etc? Hair and wardrobe – that part of it I was a little weary of, but it ended being cool and everyone that worked there was cool; they’re dream makers man! BD: Who was your mentor?Blake Shelton, the country singerBD: Did you learn much from the show? Did you have to learn how to make compromises? Do they tell you what to singThey tried to – I went in with a pretty good idea of what I wanted and didn’t want. There was only one song that I didn’t pick, which was a country song. All the others were rock songs. I sung “Simple Man” and stuff like that; “She Talks to Angels” by Black Crows. There was a point where I got far enough in the show that they wanted me to try something different, to sing “It’s a great day to be alive” a Travis Tritt song. I started to feel more comfortable to perform and write country music after being on Blake’s team. BD: Did he give you any particular guidance? I think it was realising that the lyrical content and stylistically and musically there was more there that that I could relate to in country music than a lot of other areas; you know, I was a huge Kings of Leon fan and I grew up playing Oasis, everything pop rock, but I’d also heard Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney and stuff like that, so I guess that it took me a little while to figure out what my style was, which in this day and age just happens to make sense to call country.BD: The standard of musicianship in country music is really good, especially the guitar playing.Definitely, people like Brent MasonBD: When you’re in Nashville, do you come into contact with a lot of these session musicians.They‘re all available, that’s the crazy part.BD: Are they mega expensive?If you’re in town and you have a showcase or are recording you use them. Because of the Musician’s Union, everyone’s rate is the same, a flat rate, as long as they’re available, a lot of the time they’re not.BD: I suppose they’re not available for anybody?Sure, the guys who played on my record play on everything. There’s one guy named Rob McNally who’s an amazing slide player, he just killed it. We tracked that record in two days!BD: When you are writing songs on acoustic are you thinking about what the band arrangement is going to be like, or do you just say to the guys, there’s a space there, fill it?Different songs are different, I record a lot a home. My wife is the most amazing person ever because she allows me to do that; she doesn’t play music but is incredibly supportive.BD: She likes what you do?Oh yeh, she loves it man and she’s really excited that I’m over here. Day to day, I wake up in the morning with my daughter and the publishing deal that I have and the way that the Nashville writing schedule works means that when you’re not gigging you write from 11am to 3.30pm every day. My calendar is booked out three and a half months in advance; the next co-writing appointment that I have available is in October. Basically, I drop the baby off at my mother in law’s house, I write a song, get done by 3.30, come home, hang out for an hour or two with the family, have dinner, then I lock myself in my cave, my little home studio, for another four hours and record what I wrote that day.BD: A lot of writers work to a routine; how do you deal with writer’s block, do you have to plough on through?For me it’s always happening when I’m alone with my guitar and a microphone, or coming up with piano parts, drum parts and just tracking out a song; that part always feels creative to me. Writing lyrics every day is really hard for me.BD: How do approach song writing, start with a lyric, a melody idea?It’s definitely both, “Ride Away” is the last song on the album: I had that whole guitar lick and the drums and everything recorded the night before we wrote the song and then went in to write the next day, so I had the whole idea of how it should sound in my head and then we just figured out what it should be about; it’s just a driving song about getting out of town, wide open highway type of thing.BD: Classic American rock, Tom Petty territoryYeh, a feel good song, but there are other songs like “If You’d Been Around” or “American Nights”, those both had the title first and we figured out how to write the words and then the chords and melody.BD: You say we, who are we talking about?I wrote a lot of those songs with Lynn Hutton and Tammi Kidd, they’re a husband and wife team. “American Nights” I wrote with Mike Walker and Geoff Middleton, they’re both songwriters in Nashville.BD: How did you hook up with these guys?It’s kind of crazy, it’s a little more corporate than you might think – most of the people write with their own publishing companies, Tammi and I are now on the same company; all the big major labels have publishing companies and then there’s another 5-6 smaller ones, but they are all just as impactful in Nashville. If a songwriter has 10-15 number ones they will usually will form their own publishing company and sign other writers. I would say there are about 300 songwriters in Nashville who are being paid to write their own songs.
That’s a lot – it must be v competitive.BD: It must be like tennis players trying to pick a doubles partner (big laugh); they’d like to go with Djokovic but have to settle for someone else. It must be easier to write with someone you get along with?A lot of times, you never know what will happen; sometimes you write a good song with someone you’ve just met and probably couldn’t stand to go hang with. You play off your strengths and weaknesses – there’s plenty of hilarious stories about people being humiliated in the writing room; it’s like “what about this?” and they get “you’re stupid!”. It’s crazy, for me, growing up in the northwest that would be a big no no, to critique someone’s creativeness. It’s a job and it’s been very helpful for me to have that structure to get songs done. I write 50-60 songs per year and I know people that write 200 songs a year.BD: Do you know straight away whether it’s a good’un?No, and out of those 50-60 you might have 3-4 that are worth anything. You get too close, all of a sudden you’re comparing apples to oranges, you write a song that’s more of a ballad, or even a different genre, maybe it’s not a country song, maybe it is. I get up every day I go write what I write.
BD: Whatever you write, does it come out country? Yes, for sure.BD: What defines it as country?Lyrically, I’ve learned that it’s something you might say in conversation. Another thing which is a very big indicator of whether it’s country or not, especially for a male artist, is, does it sound like what a guy would say? What a dude would say? You don’t have to be super tough but you can’t be too soft ether.BD: But there’s also that thing with country where you see big grown men crying over an emotional lyricYeh – there’s a whole flip side to that and musically you can do it , have a super sad song, but lyrically it can’t be too emotive , it has to say what you would say. It’s really hard to write life lesson songs, or be too preachyBD: The song you sang about your father, “If You’d Been Around” is a very good example of a song that’s very emotive as well as honest and heartfelt. Was that a hard song to write?That song to me felt like someone in the room had an antenna up to the sky; the first verse and first chorus took half an hour and then me and Tammi – she lost her father too when she was young, my dad died when I was 16 – were just a mess, crying and talking, just sitting there.
It was about a year later over text messages that we kind of finished it; we lost our fathers the same way; my dad took his own life.BD: That must have been v difficult for you to deal with Yes, for me it was very unexpected. I think my mum saw the signs. Even though they were separated they were still friends; I think for her it was even harder. Growing up she was always there to help us figure it out, although there’s no answer as to why someone would do that; you could spend your whole life trying to figure it out. I just tried to work out how to be myself because for a long time I wanted to be like him. When someone passes like that you kind of lock them in a time capsule, you remember the good things and forget the bad things.BD: We all do that – it’s part of the human condition that we block out the bad stuffThere are some lines in that song that are a little redemptive, like, “I hope you know I‘m ok” and there are lines that are a little more angry.BD: It can be hard when you write a lyric to find the music that fits it like a glove?I’ve written songs that have way too many lyrics, that sound forced.BD: It must be interesting when you have the whole process of fine tuning the production on an album and then when it comes to paying live you’re back with your acoustic. Do you a enjoy constructing and deconstructing?I’m a little self-centred and narcissistic so I like playing solo and can take all the attention for myself.BD: What, just like every other musician in the world!(Laughs) Yeh, you’re right, I guess everybody is that way. I‘ve been playing with a 6 piece band back home.BD: Are they friends?They are a full band by themselves called Cody Beebe and the Crooks; we met at college and played shows together; we play when I go back to the west coast. I also have a touring band out of Nashville.BD: There must be so many good musicians and songwriters; do you ever feel the competition getting to you, like a runner looking over their shoulder?There’s a handful of times where I’ll meet someone younger, better looking and talented and I’m like “Ok!” but those are also the moments when you realise what you do have and what it’s worth.BD: You could torture yourself thinking I’m better, I’m worse, bigger, smaller…Someone told me the other day that comparison is the Devil! If I could complain about one thing it’s that I could have been born in a different generation; there’s so many people making musicBD: Everyone can do it at home; there are people who appear on shows like the Voice that don’t have your background of playing music and have never sung in publicIt’s a catch 22; that’s what makes some of those people such fun to watch, watching someone who’s never been on stage freaking out while someone like me is trying to play it cool like it’s no big deal, even though I’d never done anything like that. Looking on the bright side, who knows 30 years ago if you and me would be standing in a park talking like this.BD: We’d have had 4-5 people operating a reel to reel tape recorder(Laughs) I love the idea that there’s enough room for anybody to be making music. Some morning’s I wake up and think this is the best job in the world and some I wake up and go, “what am I doing with my life?”, either way it’s a huge blessing, especially for me to be able to come over here to play; that was seriously the first thing I wrote down this year, this is my dream, this is what I wanted to do, to go over and play the UKBD: If it’s not too rude a question, can you make a decent living out of doing this? I know you’ve had some of your songs covered by other people, which must be thrill, but does that translate itself into hard cash?Yeh, it’s hard not to get bitter sometimes but my wife is the first to remind me that three years ago I was saying I wanted somebody to record one of my songs and by the time it happened I was going, “well it’s not going to be a hit, it’s not going to be on the radio” and she’d say, “why do you do this to yourself?” I’ve been super fortunate and there’s been ups and downs, I’ve been doing it full time since the Voice. I signed my first publishing deal and then after two years of kind of having below normal income that went away and I had a year and a half when it changed – I’ve told this story a lot, I bought a new truck and wrecked it, found out we were having a baby and that I’d lost my deal all within the space of two weeks, so I had this payment I had to make for the truck, I wasn’t going to be having any cheques coming in…BD: This is great material for a song, and then your dog died…(Laughs) It sounds like a country song! So the baby was born and I had a year being a stay at home dad, my wife went to work; I would write as much as I could and then just about a year and a half ago, after that break, I signed my second deal and we’ve been working on this record; I had a handful of film and TV opportunities as well; as far as touring is concerned, the last two years is the first time I’ve started to make money.BD: With the decline in CD sales ticket prices for live shows have increased…For me at this point it’s about half and half: I make money from publishing and from touring, and they’re both about the same. Whereas 3-4 years ago I wasn’t making much money from publishing and I wasn’t making any money from touring, it was more money going out; but that was all building towards now. I try to be a good businessman but I’m not the best. I’ve always wanted to be that guy from “Almost Famous“ who wakes up one morning and just does music. Like I said, my album’s coming out today; I’ve been working on it for 5 years. Now I have a manager.BD:
That must be a big help, depending if they’re any good! Do they push you into different areas?The funny thing is for me that it’s a very specific situation, it’s Neil the drummer from Cadillac 3, my old roommate for three and a half years. He’s one of my best friends and he’s very knowledgeable; I’m very lucky in that scenario, he has a lot of grace for me – I might have a day when I’m going crazy and he knows what it’s like to be out on the road, he also knows the business very well; for the first time I actually feel like I can be that guy, to wake up in the morning and say I’m doing it, which is cool.BD: What are the publishers like, are they on the phone every week asking about new songs?E-mails! They’ll book a place for a writers’ night every few months and it’ll be me and a couple of other people from other publishers and they invite people to come along. That’s a cool way of doing it. The other way is they’ll just send e-mails; you know if you don’t have them by the end of the first chorus they won’t listen to the rest of the song. They hear 60 songs day you know, which is mind-blowing. The other thing that you don’t think about is that the way cuts happen is usually just through friends; let’s say I open for somebody and we’re hanging out on the bus after the show and I go “man check out this song I wrote the other day”; that’s how a lot of songs get passed around. You don’t feel it’s so business like. I’ve seen a lot of pitch sheets that are pretty funny, which you get in an Excel spreadsheet from Sony or Universal, and it’s all their artists; so you get Kenny Chesney etc and it has the date they’re recording their album and what kind of songs they’re looking for.BD: Ok, so it’s saying they need songs and might want one about a dog that died and so on?(Laughs) Yeh, they might get 1000 songs for a record. So, like I said, the way that a lot of those happen is just through close friends and obviously too knowing what a good song is and for me that’s been the hardest part, I don’t feel always like I know what’s good and what’s not good but I’ve been really lucky in the last couple of years to be surrounded by people that have helped me through, like Neil my manager, a couple of different people, fellow songwriters that like what I do.BD: Are those the people you trust to give honest feedback?Sure. Man, it’s the best job in the whole world!BD: Your album is out today but what’s the next stage, you’ll be promoting and playing songs from the album but is there a strategy for the way forward?We have a handful of shows booked, the CMA fair is next week; that’s going to be a big moment, there’ll be four shows I’ll be playing that week; there’s a 100,000 people come to Nashville for that. The week after that I’m making my Grand Ole Opry debut, and playing with Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bad Company over the summer. I’m a huge Paul Rodgers fan. We’re coming back here in September and I’m going into Abbey Road on Saturday with the idea to put together a four song EP and put it out in the Fall with the tour.BD: Do you know who’ll be producing that or engineering it?It’s someone who works at Abbey Road. It’ll be just me and a guitar. I’m going back and forth in my head whether or not I want to cut everything live. Probably a combination of the both.At this point Bluesdoodles decided that Austin had been grilled enough and we adjourned to a nearby pub where the chatter continued for another hour of enjoyable conversation.