Carbon Leaf, a band that originated on the Virginia college scene, now has 8 CDs and a loyal and growing fan base, won by their evocative lyrics, harmonies, and diverse sound. While bluegrass, folk, and Celtic influences permeate their music, they are always distinctly Carbon Leaf.
I was able to sit with their latest CD, Nothing Rhymes With Woman, in hand and listen straight through while reading the lyrics. In this IPOD/Pandora generation of singles, it was a pleasure to step back and consume an entire CD at once. It made me think about the unity of the songs and the story they were trying to convey, so naturally, I had lots of questions.
Terry Clark and Carter Gravatt, the two guitarists in the band, were kind enough to answer my questions. Check out their answers, below.
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Tell me about your songwriting process. Do you write solo or in collaboration? Do the music or the words come first?
CG: Usually, Terry and I come up with the music on our own, and then bring it to Barry [the lead singer] for lyrics.
TC: Barry files the music on his IPod according to the mood the song evokes for him. Then he matches his words to the music that best suits it. Sometimes years go by before Barry uses a melody, so it’s like new. The words bring the songs to life. Then the collaboration begins.
CG: I can’t wait ‘til that happens. It’s like a gift when you hear back Barry’s vocals with the melody you’ve created.
Many of your songs have a great sense of place or setting: from Riverwood Drive, to Virginia, to Mexico, to Texas. Where do you get the inspiration for your songs? Are they all based on your own experiences, or are some fictional?
CG: A little bit of both.
TC: About 75-80% of the lyrics Barry writes are autobiographical or have happened to someone we know. Some are ambiguous, but are rooted in experience. “What About Everything?” came from a time Barry was feeling pretty down on himself, but then thought about how much worse it could be and started feeling pretty good. “Attica’s Flower Zbox Window” came from a dream about a woman (Attica) who defies her oppressive husband and cuts a hole in the wall to put in a flower box window.
Who influences you musically?
CG: Everything I see, hear, and experience influences me. Music from REM, Bill Monroe, and Bela Fleck are big influences. When I first heard Edgar Meyer on recommendation from Barry, who’d picked up the CD, used, when he was working on the banjo, a big door opened for me. It turned everything I knew about music upside down. He’s somewhere between progressive, improv, bluegrass, and classical.
TC: I listen to everything. I really like classic rock—Neil Young, Crosby, Stills and Nash, the classic metal station on Sirius. Then I’ll think about why I like a song. Is it a chord or a groove? What makes it good and how can I emulate it?
CG: Mostly, we play whatever we feel like. We don’t want to sound like anyone else. We just challenge ourselves to write the best we can, but then go wherever the wind blows.
Now, I come from a writing background, and I would imagine that, like in publishing, defying genre in music is a problem when you’re trying to work with a major label.
CG: That’s true. We don’t fit neatly into boxes, and that has been both greatly freeing and greatly limiting. We are constantly categorized and miscategorized.
Others’ success is perplexing sometimes. We wish we could get bigger, but at the same time we love how we do it and don’t know how to do it any other way.
Carbon Leaf is great at giving audiences enough old songs to appease their need for old favorites, but also introducing new music with the stories of their inception, so audiences have something to connect to. How is the CD launch tour going? How are audiences responding to the new songs?
TC: We’ve had a great response. We try to balance the old songs with the new music. You know some audiences want those old songs that they associate with times in their lives like past summers, or college, or dating. The cool thing about the new stuff is that we hope to be the soundtrack for their new experiences.
What’s the process for taking recorded music to live audiences? What changes?
CG: In recordings, I play most of the guitar parts, while Terry mixes. Barry does most of the vocals on recordings. Jason plays drums and Jon’s on bass. On recordings, Barry and Terry spend a lot of time listening to song sequence. There’s a definite art to putting a body of music together.
For live shows, we need to work to re-blend songs. It depends on the venue and show. We try to respond to the audience. Originally, “What about Everything” started with mandolin, but in big rooms we lost the emotion of the song. It’s distracting for an audience not to understand the placement of an instrument in a song. We ultimately switched to electric guitar and it works much better.
TC: We also save our playlists for each city so we know what we played last time, what worked, and what needs to change. Then we go from there.
Tell me about the Toby Lightman collaboration on “Meltdown”?
CG: We met Toby on tour and had lots of fun singing with her. We decided to call her to add some vocals to a track. We sent it back and forth, and loved what she did with it.
We’re kind of introverts, but we really enjoyed working with Toby in collaboration, so hopefully, we’re expanding our boundaries.
What are your goals as a band? Which direction are you heading?
TC: Our New Year’s resolution is to work continuously—whether that’s writing music, recording music, or touring. We’re also upgrading our studio so we’re always able to record and keep those songs in the arsenal for the next CD.
Back in the day, we played a gig or rehearsed five days a week. Now, because some of us have families, own homes, etc., we have less time together, and we have to make the most of that time. But what we used to be able to accomplish in five hours, now only takes us about two. It’s all about finding balance.
Where’s the best place to buy the CD?
Do you have any thoughts you’d like to add?
CG: We are very grateful for this time. Every day and every show is a gift, and we’ll keep doing it as long as we can.
TC: It’s a gift to make music for a living.
Your music is a gift to us. Thanks so much, guys!