The universe is making music all the time

Chosen One: Wooden Wand

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Interview with James Jackson Toth.

“Ask anyone who writes songs — other things get sacrificed on the altar of the song. It isn’t martyrdom, though — it is, like the song says, “a kind of coma (but also), a kind of crown”.”

—James Toth

Words: Mark Carry, Photographs: Loney John Hutchins/Kyle Hamlett

woodenwand_Kyle Hamlett_Battle Tapes studio in Nashville

‘Farmer’s Corner’ is the title of the latest record by the song-writing luminary, James Jackson Toth AKA Wooden Wand. The American songsmith has been responsible for a plethora of truly transcendent works under various guises this past decade, encompassing psych folk, roots/country and blues. The recent releases of Wooden Wand — including the formidable ‘Blood Oaths Of The New Blues’ and this year’s ‘Farmer’s Corner’ — marks a career peak in Toth’s empowering songs of redemption.

A marked positivity abounds the scintillating nine sonic creations that comprises Toth’s latest masterpiece. ‘Sinking Feelings’ is a gorgeous country gem that conveys the uplifting spirit of Wooden Wand’s rich canvas. The clean guitar tones are reminiscent of the pristine sound of Buddy Holly, while the harmonica-led passages conjures up the sound of new beginnings and endless possibilities. The opening lyrics resonate powerfully as Toth sings “You gotta make a pact with the earthly body / Make a trade and take a stand.” The fresh country sound could belong to any array of timeless gems such as ‘Harvest Moon’ era Neil Young or Dylan’s ‘John Wesley Harding’. The chorus refrain of “Don’t let those sinking feelings draw you in” offers ceaseless solace, sung beneath a delicate guitar-led melody. One of the album’s lyrical highlights arrive at a later verse: “In every looking glass there’s a crack / Where the looking glass looks back.” As ever, the narrator’s poetic prose and imaginative wordplay leaves you mystified.

Another tower of song is ‘Dambuilding’ which could perhaps be seen as the album’s centerpiece. A cinematic feel permeates the head-space of eerie banjo notes, soaring pedal steel and warm percussion. A bleak atmosphere is effortlessly created as the central protagonist lets go of his past and sets foot on a new frontier, wherein a new day is dawning: “Trying not to worry / I told myself I’d better hurry / And buried everything I could stand to lose.” Half-way through, a beautiful interlude of guitars (rhythmic pulses of banjo notes are interwoven with a ripple-flow of pedal steel) rise to the forefront of the mix. The song becomes a representation of the songwriter’s mind, an insight into the creation of art, in which a lovely parallel exists between Toth’s masterful songcraft (and the song-writing process of collecting ideas and inspiration) and the process of dam building: “There was no time to be nervous / As I kicked up the dark with purpose / Soon the water rushed through my knees and over me.” The music flows effortlessly into your consciousness, like the water-flow that fills the vast plains of land.

‘Farmer Corner’s cycle of intimate songs were recorded along the singer-songwriter’s travels. The new songs were recorded as he wrote them, resulting in a liberating and spontaneous process. The sessions for ‘Farmer’s Corner’ involved over six sessions in four studios, spanning three states, and the dutiful task of amassing the tracks would begin. Remarkably, the latest Wooden Wand album marks the first self-produced Wooden Wand album, having producers at the helm for the previous outings. The majority of the tracks were aided by the supreme talents of electric bassist Darin Gray (On Filmore, Jim O’ Rourke) and guitarists William Tyler and Doc Feldman. In addition, Toth also called on friends in St Louis, Nashville, and his current home in Lexington, Kentucky. As ever, a wonderful sense of musicianship is etched across the album’s sprawling canvas, as the seamless layers of immaculate instrumentation forms the ideal backdrop for Toth’s engaging and illuminating song-craft.

The opening lyrics of the dazzling epic cut ‘Port Of Call’ perhaps best explains the sonic trajectory of Wooden Wand: “We do not decorate / We like an empty space / We like to fill an empty space.” The hypnotic bassline and Keith Richards-esque guitar wizardry (think ‘Let It Bleed’) on display is filled with endless stellar moments (particularly, the divine funk of bass towards the song’s close). ‘Gone To Stay’ is a more sparse blues track that brings ‘Farmer’s Corner’ to a fitting close. A gospel feel radiates brightly throughout. Elsewhere, ‘When The Trail Goes Cold’ is a divine slice of Americana that echoes the spirit of Howe Gelb’s Giant Sand (a distant companion to the similarly cathartic ‘Corridor’). ‘Adie’ is a stomping 70’s rock opus with an infectious groove and killer riff. The expansive sonic terrain covered throughout ‘Farmer’s Corner’ is a joy to witness. ‘Home Horizon’ is an achingly beautiful ballad that feels close to Toth’s previous song-writing master-class of ‘Blood Oaths of the New Blues’. To echo Swans frontman, Michael Gira, the narrative of Toth’s timeless song-craft “leaves you mystified, both smiling and sad.”


‘Farmer’s Corner’ is available now on Fire Records.


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Interview with James Jackson Toth.

Congratulations, James, on the latest Wooden Wand masterpiece, ‘Farmer’s Corner’. It’s a pleasure to ask you some questions about this latest record. I love how that spark of spontaneity is clearly evident that illuminates throughout the album’s nine songs. Can you please discuss the latest album and the narrative that lies at the heart of ‘Farmer’s Corner’?

James Toth: Thank you, Mark — I’m really glad you like it. Narratives usually only become obvious to me after the album is finished, and this time, I noticed that Farmer’s Corner is a relatively “affirming” record. There are some pretty positive songs here – Sinking Feelings, Home + Horizon, Port Of Call, Gone To Stay, etc. If there is a theme, it’s that.


What is remarkable about ‘Farmer’s Corner’ is that it’s the first self-produced Wooden Wand album. I would love to gain an insight into this aspect of the music-making process. What was the experience like? How did you find it shaped the final sound and feel to the record?

JT: I didn’t really understand that I was producing the album until halfway through. Excepting home recorded things, every album I’ve ever made in the studio was made with a producer of some kind. I like having a producer, and I like the idea of collaborating with someone whose work I respect who will leave their fingerprints on the record somehow, but this time, I decided I didn’t need that input. I just started recording the songs as they were written, more or less, to capture the excitement of them before they started feeling over-rehearsed and stale. To do this, I had to strike while the iron was hot, so to speak. There are obviously things on this record that many producers would not have been OK with, like the ‘cocaine country’ phaser on my acoustic guitar. I didn’t want to have to defend those decisions or answer to anyone when it came to that sorta stuff.


The last time we spoke, you described [previous Wooden Wand album] ‘Blood Oaths Of The New Blues’ as a truly collaborative process where you were simply a member of the band. I feel this is still the case on the new record where I feel each band member contributing a big part to the record’s sound. Do you feel ‘Farmer’s Corner’ is another collaborative album, James?

JT: Less so. That is not to diminish the extraordinary contributions of everyone involved — especially Darin Gray, who really should have gotten a co-producer credit on more than half of these songs — but because I was assembling people almost as an experiment (some of these people were meeting for the very first time in the studio, just hours before we tracked a song), and more or less conducting. But everyone’s individual parts were mostly their own, save for the sort of ‘riffs’ and harmonies and certain parts I had written and included on the demos. But overall, less band input than with the Alabama contingent — with those guys, there’s no ‘pulling rank’ or having ‘final say’ — after the songs are written, decisions about where they go are made more or less by committee. Luckily, we almost always agree. This time, I sorta felt like the captain.


As always, you are joined by a wonderful ensemble of musicians — I think of The Band such is the peerless musicianship on display — with the guitar prowess of William Tyler, Doc Feldman, collaborator Darin Gray and bassist Darin Gray. Can you please recount for me these recording sessions? It must be a fulfilling and rewarding experience to have such a wonderful ensemble backing your penned songs? The music just flows out from each member.

JT: I will defer that compliment to the band, but thank you, and I agree. There were four sessions and each one was pretty magical in its own way. I will say the Lexington session that produced five of the album’s nine songs — with engineer Jason Groves — was especially positive. Everything just seemed to work.


How much of a challenge was it to record in four separate studios (spanning three states) during the making of ‘Farmer’s Corner’? I feel that it must have been a liberating process to venture down new roads here, both in terms of geographical (new locations) but also the process of writing and recording the new songs during the same space in time? This aspect definitely resonates on the album’s tracks. I’d like to think of it like Dylan’s ‘John Wesley Harding’ album; it occupies a special moment in time.

JT: There were pros and cons to doing the album this way. Again, it wasn’t really intended to be, like, a ‘road album’ or anything, and to be perfectly honest, my preference is still to sort of hunker down and record in the same place — to inhabit the record with no distractions. I like it when the day ends and no one has to pack up any gear you can just leave everything where it is to resume the next day. I think the ‘roving’ style worked really well for Farmer’s Corner, but I think the next album will be different. We’ll see!


‘Dambuilding’ is one of the album’s stunning highlights. It’s such a tour-de-force. I love the dreamy, searching feel that permeates throughout. The banjo part adds to the sense of mystery. I would love for you to discuss this song, your memories of writing and recording it please? Your vocal delivery is sublime. Was this the first take?

JT: It was a first take, and a live vocal. Funny thing about that one was that we lost the master recording — some error between the tape and the digital — so I thought that was gonna be our “Second Arrangement” or something (if you know the Steely Dan story). But everyone liked that song so much, we just mastered from the rough mix we had, which was a high quality mp3. Maybe that’s supposed to be a secret. Ooops.


‘Home Horizon’ is another vintage Wooden Wand song that could be found on ‘Blood Oaths’, perhaps a sister-song to ‘Outsider Blues’. I love the bassline and pedal steel lines. Can you please discuss the narrative to ‘Home Horizon’, James?

JT: I hadn’t made the connection with Outsider Blues, but that’s very astute of you, Mark! I can sorta imagine that the narrator of Home + Horizon is on his way home from playing the Outsider Blues festival or something. Dave Anderson played the great steel part on that, and Darin played bass. The idea behind the song is similar to that of Gone To Stay: the idea that bad feelings, bad memories, embarrassing situations, etc. are fleeting. Like I said, it’s a pretty positive record.


How has your writing process changed, looking back over your rich body of work? I wonder are there certain rituals or habits you find integral to the writing process?

JT: Not really. The way I write has very little to do with intention, so I mostly do it the way I’ve always done it, by paying attention to things, sometimes at the expense of other things. Lately I’ve been wondering if I’ve missed out on a lot of other things in life in my search for great titles, great first lines, etc. Ask anyone who writes songs — other things get sacrificed on the altar of the song. It isn’t martyrdom, though — it is, like the song says, “a kind of coma (but also), a kind of crown.” People who don’t write tend to think of writers as very observant people, and this is true to an extent, but we also tend to be extremely selective about what we observe. Everything extraneous can come to feel like minutiae. A good example would be if you and your friend are walking on the street and you meet someone you both know and talk for a few minutes. Afterward, your friend says “That was weird that Bill had a giant monkey on his shoulder.” And you say “What monkey? I didn’t see any monkey. Can you believe he used the phrase ‘Jerusalem Syndrome?’”


Please take me back to the recording session of ‘Sinking Feelings’. It’s such a gorgeous country gem. The harmonica and rhythm bring me back to ‘Harvest Moon’ era Neil Young and the beautiful guitar lines conjures up the timeless sound of Buddy Holly. As always your lyrics are sheer poetry (“Old friends come bearing the past / But impressions never last” is one example) that stay with you long after the notes have faded into the night.

JT: Harvest Moon was something I was thinking a lot about when the first few songs for this album were being written. It is not a record I listen to a lot, but that’s just because I’ve listened to it enough for one lifetime and can conjure it in my head whenever I need to hear it. But the first few songs I wrote for this one seemed sorta wistful, and I decided to go with that. But when Darin and William and Doc came in, everything got this sorta groove, which sorta countered the Harvest Moon vibes in a really good way. I think William will be really psyched you compared him to Buddy Holly.


What were the records you were listening to the most during the making of ‘Farmer’s Corner’? Any current reading recommendations?

JT: I rarely listen to any music that sounds anything like Wooden Wand — that is, lyric-driven songwriter music. This is not because I don’t think there are some extraordinary writers making this kind of music, because I do, but I have to be really careful to not become influenced by, say, Bob Dylan, any more than I already am. So, these days, I restrict myself. The music I listen to for enjoyment nowadays has more to do with performances than compositions. So I will listen to “Nick Of Time” by Bonnie Raitt twenty times in a row. I will do the same with “When U Were Mine” by Prince, or “Cycles” by Sinatra, or “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” by Crystal Gale, and pay very close attention to the phrasing, the choices the singer makes, things like that. I try to figure out why listening to Darryl Hall sing “North Star” feels like a drug high no matter how many times I hear it. What is that ineffable quality that affects me? And how can I cultivate that? I guess what I’m saying is I’ve been paying attention to singers, not lyricists.

I’m always reading five or six books at a time, which gets sorta confusing and makes for weird dreams. Best book I read recently was ‘The Soundscape’ by R Murray Schafer, which I guess is a pretty well-known sound studies book, but I just got around to reading it; some real poetry in there. My wife and I were reading some of the later Beckett things together, which somehow led to a brief Harold Pinter kick. Before bed I’ve been switching between ‘Soweto Blues’ by Gwen Ansell and ‘Hot Burritos: The True Story of the Flying Burrito Brothers’, by John Einarson and Chris Hillman; 60 pages in, Hillman seems pretty bitter. Lastly, a friend sent me a great collection of Jim Carroll’s poetry, so I’ve been reconnecting with him — I liked him a lot in high school and I guess I still like him as an adult.


‘Farmer’s Corner’ is available now on Fire Records.


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Wooden Wand Photograph credits:

(i) Battle Tapes studio in Nashville. Photograph by Kyle Hamlett.

(ii) James Jackson Toth, “the teacher’s lounge”. Photograph by Loney John Hutchins.

(iii) Photograph by Loney John Hutchins. “Studio is called “the teacher’s lounge”. We were the last session of an 8 year run there. He’s opening a new studio soon, not sure if it’ll be named the same…”  —Kyle Hamlett


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May 14, 2014 at 10:31 am

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