BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
As a savvy songwriter, Drew Holcomb is as skilled as a surgeon at curing what ails the hearts and minds of his staunch supporters, while equally adept at soothing hearts and minds with his heartfelt musings about the joy of love and laughter. Aided by his ace band The Neighbors, the Memphis-born, Nashville-based wordsmith’s marvelous new album Medicine serves as an excellent elixir for the emotional bumps and bruises that fill all our daily lives – and his as well. “There have been so many moments for me, really going back to high school, where music was like the glue that brought people together,” Holcomb said during our recent conversation about Medicine, family, friends, faith and many more subjects.
Holcomb and The Neighbors are currently in the midst of the Tour De Compadres cross-country trek with NEEDTOBREATHE, Switchfoot and Colony House which runs through August 19 in Highland Park, IL. Before barely catching his breath Holcomb will head out on his headlining Medicine Fall Tour, starting August 27 in Greenville, SC. That string of shows comes to a close November 14 in Atlanta. For more tour and ticket information visit drewholcomb.com.
In a way I would say the first prescription for what has eventually turned into your latest album, Medicine, was written by a dentist. Tell everyone the story about how your dad helped put you on the path towards making music.
Yeah, so when I finished college at the University of Tennessee I went home and, like a lot of good conversations I’ve had with my dad, we went to the local coffee shop and got some breakfast and I asked him what he thought about me trying to be a singer-songwriter. He just asked me one question; he said “are you gonna work hard at it?” And I said, yeah, I am, and he said, “Then I’m definitely in your corner. Why don’t we go down to the guitar shop and I’ll buy you the best one I can afford.” So we went down to the guitar shop and bought a new guitar, and that was his kind of blessing in a way. And then he and my mom continued for the next few years to come and see me play all the time and have been some of my biggest advocates.
That’s a very cool story. So let’s talk about Medicine. I was struck by a line in your bio in which you describe the recording of the album. You said, “We recorded one song at a time, until it was finished. No studio tricks, just me and a great band working together, creating, having fun, embracing the sorrow.” What was the sorrow you were embracing?
Well I think a lot of times in the studio you lose track of the heart of a song cuz you’re trying so hard to make the performances perfect or the vocal sound a certain way. In a lot of ways, for me, music has always been about kind of embracing a sorrow. My wife and I have this metric that we talk about music; it can be pop music, country music, R&B, soul [or] singer-songwriter. We decide that whether or not we like music is whether or not we feel like the music has ache in it. You can have a great, happy song that has ache in it. For me, my music, even though it may a lot of times land more on the side of hope and joy, it comes out of sorrow for me, in some ways it’s my medicine for dealing with the realities and sufferings of life, whether it’s personal to me or just going on in the lives of those people that I love. That’s kind of really what that line is about. Embracing the sorrow is like the opposite of despair. It’s recognizing the value of the hard things and trying to make something beautiful out of them.
Speaking of something beautiful; when you and I last spoke back in September 2013, you told me then that your wife Ellie had decided to stop touring and stay home. You wrote “You’ll Always Be My Girl” on this record for your wife. Take us through that 24-hour love story of this terrific track, from writing to recording.
Well I had the line “you’ll always be my girl” and I tried to put lots of different music to it and every time it just felt kind of one dimensional. I was home alone the night before our last day in the studio and we already had enough songs for a record but the entire week of that second session I was wishing that I had another song. So I was home alone with my daughter who at the time was one and a half, and I was trying to keep her entertained so instead of turning on the TV I just had the guitar out and I was just playing chords and singing a bunch of nonsense. I sang that first line of the song out of nowhere, just freeform: “From the start of spring to the autumn leaves, and the summers and winters between.” All of a sudden I just thought I had to write that down. So I wrote it down and then ended up putting her down to sleep 30 minutes later and then came back to the chords I was playing and those lyrics and finished the song that night and played it for Ellie when she got home. She got kind of emotional and it was kind of a sweet moment. The next morning I went into the studio and said, hey guys I wrote one more song, do you wanna hear it? I played it for them and there was no response with words, they just got up and went to the piano and upright bass and started playing around with the song. Thirty minutes later we recorded it live, just sitting in a circle. And that’s what you have on the record.
So Drew, if this next question is too personal, feel free to decline to answer. I wanted to ask you how you guys – and I’m talking about you and your wife – handling the transition from being together 24/7 to now having to say goodbye?
It’s not too personal. I think that it’s actually been kind of a great new season for us, really in just a very practical sense. When you’re together 24/7 and working together all the time, you sometimes don’t have time to miss each other, and so now we do. We have time to miss each other and time to actually remember how much we enjoy each other’s company. And then creatively we’ve given each other a lot of space, and Ellie in her time off has written and recorded her own record and had some time to figure out her own creative identity, which has been kind of great for me to watch and be kind of a cheerleader and hopefully an advocate for her. One of the things that initially drew her to me was watching me – in our early days before we were together – sing and write songs. I think she’s kind of enjoying the nostalgia of that but from a much different angle. [So] it’s been a really great season for us.
“American Beauty” is another one of the 13 beautiful tunes on Medicine. This one has a far more universal theme running through it, I believe. Would you agree?
Tell me more about that one.
That was just a song [in which] I was trying to paint a relatively open ended and vague picture about the sentiment of lost loves; a kind of youthful version of that when you look back on your life and there’s always that person that you may have felt strongly for and you thought they did too, but in the end they didn’t. The one that got away, if you will. It’s one of those songs – it’s under three minutes, it’s very simple – that we decided just to keep it really simple because I think the sentiment is very universal. One of my favorite songwriters is Tom Petty and one of the reasons I love him is that he speaks in specific but pretty universal metaphors – very particular but open ended songwriting. That’s definitely where I was coming from with “American Beauty.”
I remember we talked a lot in our previous conversation about Bruce Springsteen being a major influence on you. He’s in the same ballpark regarding these universal themes.
“Sisters, Brothers” has a great groove along with what I think is a deep message. Can you share the backstory of that one?
That was just a song written out of the frustration of the cultural and political gridlock, without trying to be too publically political, or necessarily choose sides. It was just this kind of like, come on, buddy, can’t we just treat each other with a little humanity? Just kind of remembering that everybody is somebody’s family and somebody’s friend and has value. My favorite line in that song is “Fear only goes where it’s invited to stay.” People who typically have the most negative things to say publically about others live in a state of sustaining fear in order to make their opinion of position more stable. So that’s kinda where that song came out of.
Fear is an emotion held by those who lack perspective. So Drew, I think we both can agree that some of the best friends we had in our high school and college years were the ones on our bedroom walls and in our record collections. I know for me that’s certainly a fact. Which song on Medicine best sums up how important a role music played in your life during those years?
Oh man, that’s a great question (pauses). Um (pauses again)…
Yeah, sure, you go ahead.
To me, it’s “Tightrope,” but don’t let me sway you (laughs).
I was thinking you were gonna say that or “Here We Go.” I think “Tightrope” for sure has a very nostalgic, looking back over your shoulder and figuring out what that means for how to go forward [vibe]. But I think for me in some ways, “Here We Go” – especially the verse “music makes you feel good, makes you feel understood/like you’re not alone, not a rolling stone” – was in a lot of ways how music made its way into my life. When I heard Bono sing [“Who’s Gonna Ride Your] Wild Horses” off of Achtung Baby on my way to school almost every day of my junior year of high school, it gave me some fuel to get through the day; it kinda help me figure out who I was as a man and a person. That song came out of this night at Bonnaroo when I had a little bit too much wine with my brother and my manager and my cousin and my wife sitting out in lawn chairs next to the tour bus just talking about life and music. There have been so many moments like that for me, really going back to high school where music was like the glue that brought people together. And that’s what that song is about.
Wow, you mentioned U2’s “Wild Horses” and I got a shiver when you mentioned it because just yesterday I took a “mental” day off and went on a five-hour hike and I had my iPod going throughout and of all the songs that I heard, when “Wild Horses” came on I was like, God I haven’t heard this song in so long, and man I miss hearing that song!
Wow, small world. That is wild; that’s a great song.
So that’s crazy that you mentioned that song, of the thousands and thousands that we’ve heard. So let me quote a line in another song on Medicine: “I still love the sound of laughter/it’s the sound of hope keeping us alive.” I really, really like that and I know that “Shine Like Lightning” holds a very special place in your heart. Is this an affirmation of what you’ve accomplished so far, despite the naysayers?
Yeah it absolutely is. That’s a very personal kind of song, an idea that turned into an anthem. It’s an anthem for our band and it’s an anthem for our fans. Going back to the question you asked about Ellie, one of the things that used to really frustrate me was that some people would say that they thought that having her in the band was like, just a ploy to have a girl up there who sings, and obviously it was all patently false. But then it’s also kind of like a lot of young people seem to have a paper thin understanding of what a real relationship is like. It just used to irritate me. And then on the critical side, there was certainly a number of reviews and articles over the years that kind of one dimensionalized our relationship, just from a musical point of view. So that song is kind of a reminder to myself that yes, we’ve accomplished a lot, but the reason we’ve done it is because there are fans who love what we do and the music is for people, not necessarily for critics. I mean obviously critics are people, but I think sometimes they forget that. You’re not gonna please everybody, but that song has certainly become one of our favorites. That line that you mentioned at the beginning of your question, I think in a lot of ways defines what music is for, for us.
“Ain’t Nobody Got It Easy” is a favorite of mine off the record. It seems to me to fly in the face of this notion that today’s youth feels entitled much more than previous generations. What are your thoughts on that?
I think there’s a perception among people that if somebody has money or influence or family and the person with that perspective doesn’t have those things; it’s kind of that grass is always greener kind of thing. That song actually came after a conversation I had with someone who I thought had it all – money, nice things, influence, a good marriage – and then after having the conversation with the guy [I learned] he had some real, actual problems that I would not have traded for in any moment. That song was kind of meant as a challenge to people – and myself – to recognize that everybody’s stories are particular and you don’t know the details and therefore you should have patience. And it certainly could be used to encourage people of my generation, and probably up to my parents’ generation, to maybe recognize that the younger generation has its own set of problems.
So you’ve been at this music thing – or as you put it, “making medicine” – for a decade now. Looking back, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned along the way?
Oh, so many things I’ve learned along the way. I think the most important thing I learned along the way that I did not know 10 years ago, especially when it comes to music and when it comes to life, is that the key ingredient is patience. And that’s coming from someone who’s not a patient man (laughs). I think I’ve learned that as far as songs and having something to say, it take time. It takes time to learn your craft as an artist and as a performer. When I first started out I was very earnest and emotional, especially onstage and on recordings. While I have respect for those things, learning how to control them and be more thoughtful about them is one of the things that’s made my last few records seem to have more gravity and levity, all in the same breath.
Having fun while embracing the sorrow.
Finally, Drew, a decade ago your dad asked if you were going to work hard at making music. Do you feel like you’ve held up your end of the bargain?
Absolutely! Lately it’s getting a little easier as we get older, but certainly it’s been a decade of hard work.
Sadly it got stolen.
Oh, no! That’s unfortunate. I’d ask if you want to tell the story, but we’re running out of time. Do you wanna tell it really quickly?
Sure, sure. We were playing at a summer camp and it got stolen by someone who came in from town. It was in a closet full of microphones and all the gear that we’d lock up every night and someone came in in the middle of the night, broke the lock and stole all the gear and my guitar was part of the heist. The good news is the camp had good insurance and they were able to get me money so that I was able to go replace it.
Well that’s good. You can’t replace the sentimental value, but…
Well Drew, it’s been a pleasure again and thanks again for the time. The new album Medicine is out now and it’s a great piece of work. Congratulations on that and safe travels on the road. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to say hello face-to-face again very soon.
Yeah, I’d like that. Thank you very much.
**To hear more audio of my extensive conversation with Drew Holcomb, please “LIKE” Facebook.com/CurrentClassics and look for a link to an upcoming episode of my weekly Current Classics podcast. Listen HERE.