Interview and Photography by Chris Phelps
Joe Fletcher is a singer-songwriter currently based in Nashville, Tennessee. He recently released a new record entitled “You’ve Got The Wrong Man,” a collection of original songs and covers recorded in various places around the country on his 4-track cassette recorder. We caught up with Joe in Austin, TX and spent some time exploring the legendary Broken Spoke taking photos and talking about life on the road, inspiration, and the creative process.
Chris Phelps (CP): Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you started playing music.
Joe Fletcher (JF): I was born in St. Louis, Missouri but my family moved around quite a bit when I was young. We settled down in Rhode Island when I was about ten. I started learning to play guitar in 8th grade and at the time I was pretty heavy into British rock, Aerosmith, and the first Guns N' Roses record but I also loved U2, Love & Rockets, R.E.M., and The Cure. This essentially meant I had two groups of friends and neither one took me very seriously. I took about five or six guitar lessons from the same guy that everyone else I knew took lessons from and started learning Zeppelin and Hendrix riffs. I learned how to read tablature and relied on guitar magazines for the rest of my early education. By the end of high school, my friends and I had started a band called 5th Wheel. We wrote a few songs and covered Alice in Chains, Operation Ivy, The Violent Femmes, Bad Brains to name a few. We played our last show the night before we all left for college.
CP: Where did you go to school, what is your degree in?
JF: I spent my freshman year at Saint Louis University and then transferred back home to The University of Rhode Island because I missed my girlfriend. I graduated with a BA in English and absolutely no idea what I wanted to do other than to play music.
CP: I read that you were a high school English teacher. Tell us a little bit about that and how it has inspired your music career?
JF: I taught English for ten years up until about 3 1/2 years ago. I loved it for a long time, but music was always what I wanted to be doing full time. I think being in any job that is not your number one passion should inspire you to work harder at your true goal. I knew I had to get here to be truly happy. That being said, teaching allowed me to discuss literature and writing and creativity for much of the day, and it gave me a good deal of time off to start touring and not worry too much about making money from music. I'm not sure how it could have happened any other way for me.
CP: How did you take the plunge from the classroom to life on the road?
JF: I had decided at least six months before it started that my tenth year would be my last. I'd released White Lighter in December of 2010 and things were picking up. I remember opening for Deer Tick in Portland, ME on a Wednesday night and driving four hours back home to be back at work at 7 AM. It became impossible to balance. I was cheating both jobs, and not giving my all as a teacher was something that really ate away at me. I also knew that if I didn't give music an honest shot that I'd never feel good about it. I left in June 2011 and have been on the road at least half of the days since then.
CP: Who are some of your musical influences?
JF: There are just so many. I never know where to start. I'll rattle off the first few that come to mind: The Rolling Stones, Hank Williams, Velvet Underground, Blind Willie McTell, PJ Harvey, Jimmie Rodgers, Robert Johnson, Cream, Woody Guthrie, Ian Fitzgerald, 13th Floor Elevators, Nick Cave, Christopher Paul Stelling, Howlin' Wolf, Bob Dylan, Wooden Wand, Leonard Cohen, Levon Helm, The Gun Club, The Modern Lovers, Neil Young, Mance Lipscomb, Waylon Jennings, Deadly Snakes, Lefty Frizzell, and The New York Dolls.
CP: What other creatives inspire you (writers, visual artists, film makers, designers, etc.)?
JF: Vivian Maier, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edward Hopper, Stanley Kubrick, Al Pacino, Robert Creeley, Joshua Black Wilkins, David Milch, Josh Wool, Cormac McCarthy, Harold Pinter, Chris Hedges, W.H. Auden, David Hockney, Jose Posada, John Hillcoat, William Eggleston, Robert Frank, Frank Armstrong, Pablo Picasso, Emily Dickinson, and Vladimir Nabokov.
CP: What inspires your songwriting? Tell us a little bit about your song-writing process. Do you find it’s easier to write on the road or at home?
JF: I do not really find it easy to write anywhere. It is a certain frame of mind that I spend a fair amount of time trying to get into. I try to write a little every day and go back through what I've written regularly and discard and re-write and hopefully add to. I have no particular steady process to rely on. Yet.
CP: Does being on the road inspire you or become monotonous? How do you stay inspired on the road?
JF: Overall, I do not find life on the road monotonous. The constant travel makes me feel like I'm living my life. Seeing things that I've never seen before is something that I know I need. To me, waking up at the same time to drive to the same place to see the same people is very taxing and would almost surely send me to an early grave.
CP: Do you make it a point to stop new places along the way and explore new parts of the cities you've played in? That has to be inspiring in and of itself.
JF: I stop as often as the schedule will allow. I love history and museums and seeing the things I've read about. I'll start seeing signs for Lawrence, KS and I'll say to myself, "Hey, William Burroughs used to live here." I'll look up the address and I'll go see his old place. I take a lot of pictures along the way to document the trips. After a while, you realize that this is really you documenting your life. In that way, photography has sort of accidentally become very important to me.
CP: Do you have any other creative outlets?
JF: Aside from photography, I do love to draw in my own primitive way. I do most of my own flyers for shows and all of the merchandise designs. I've always loved bands that had their own sort of branding and design continuity like the Rolling Stones. This little stick shovel I draw is my lips and tongue and it's been around since I started The Wrong Reasons began in 2005.
CP: How do you spend your time at home when you have it?
JF: I hang out with my girlfriend. I rest up. I try to write. I go out and see bands play. I read and watch movies. I always have a project or two going on in the house. I try to lead a somewhat normal life.
CP: Do you have any favorite venues or cities to play?
JF: Some of my all time favorite venues are The Dream Away Lodge in Becket, MA, The Bottletree Cafe in Birmingham, AL, Pappy and Harriet's in Pioneertown, CA, and Fort Foreclosure in Warren, RI. I love anywhere with a unique atmosphere where the people came to listen and have a good time.
CP: I think we share a mutual awe and respect for history and particular venues. We talked a little bit about the history of a place like the Broken Spoke and the first time you visited. What does a legendary place like this mean to you and why?
JF: I love any venue that wears its history on its walls. The Broken Spoke is perfect example of that. I first visited the place in 2001 and, at the time, it was probably the first real deal old time honky tonk I'd ever experienced. Its a living museum to the classic music and lifestyle that I love and they are still adding to that history every night. It is a heartwarming thing in this number-crunching, standardized testing, I-don't-like-you-cuz-you-don't-have-enough-Facebook-likes kind of world.
CP: I read that you recorded your new record “You’ve Got the Wrong Man” in various places all over the country. What inspired the process for creating this record? How did you decide to do it this way?
JF: It was time to think about recording again and the next several months were pretty booked. I've used a small blue cassette four-track as a way to demo new songs for many years. As I was starting to demo some new ones, it dawned on me that this might be the perfect way to document this new set of generally quieter songs. I feel like this more stripped-down approach suited these songs and the mobility of recording this way worked nicely with my tour schedule. I could basically set up shop and record anywhere that I was for few days at a time.
CP: How did you choose locations and which songs would be recorded there?
JF: They were simply the places that I was where I had a few days here and there. My old apartment in Warren, RI, an old farmhouse in Arnoldsville, GA, and my new home in Nashville. I recorded the songs that were ready to record wherever I was able to record them. Within each space, I did relocate quite a bit to get the sound I was after for each song. Closets, stairways, shower stalls, etc. It was all one big experiment to me, because I know nothing about recording in any sort of professional way.
CP: Do you prefer to write, record, perform by yourself, or with others? How does collaboration fit into your process?
JF: I like collaborating with people if they are the right people. I need to play with people who think outside the box and try to find something beyond the obvious. There is a fine line between playing from the gut and settling for the first thing that you play on a new song. I'm always looking for searchers.
CP: If you could collaborate with any creative living or dead who would it be?
JF: I would love to collaborate with Warren Ellis of The Dirty Three and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. He seems like the kind of guy who can take an idea, flip it on its side, and spin it around and get something much greater out of it in the end.
CP: If you could play a show with anyone living or dead who would it be?
JF: I'd have liked to open for Leadbelly.
CP: What are some of your day to day struggles with being a touring musician? What are some of the challenges you face with your career? How do you overcome them?
JF: There's never really a dull moment when it comes to figuring out how to pay for everything that needs doing: promoting your record, re-ordering t-shirts, a flight here to rent a car to there, and on and on. Constant travel is also hard on the ones you love and want to be there for. You’re sort of an unreliable friend. It is more or less understood that you are not to be counted on to visit your friend in the hospital or pick someone up at the airport. That can take a toll and cause you to wonder if you are really the most selfish person on earth. Mostly, your core people know that you need this way of life to be happy and they understand as best they can.
CP: Talk a little bit about the crowd-funding platforms and how they help independent artists like yourself?
JF: I've done two of these now and I'm a big believer in it. I've seen some old timers bitch about how this isn't how they did it when they were kids and I yawn and yawn again. Typically these folks are not releasing records or playing live music on any regular basis and this is not necessarily by their own choice.
In short, somebody wants your new record, so they simply pay for it in advance. If somebody wants a t-shirt too, they give you a little more and you spend a little more making it and sending it to them. People are sending you money to help make something they want to happen happen. They become of a part of its creation and you both know it. There is really nothing more to it. It is as pure a transaction as your going to find in the music industry these days.
CP: What is one question you wish you would be asked in interviews?
JF: I wish I would be asked "Hey, I've got this great studio up in the mountains and its 75 degrees all year long. There's a gorgeous apartment upstairs with an ocean view. Would you consider living there rent-free in return for shoveling the the walkways when it snows?
CP: Any particular questions get old?
JF: I wish I would never again be asked "So I see you grew up in Rhode Island. Don't you think it's a little strange that you play country music?"
CP: If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring artist, what would it be?
JF: Set high standards for yourself. Make yourself learn to do things you can't do yet. Realize that unwillingness to change your mind and approach is just fear disguised as fortitude. If you know in your heart what you're doing is unique to you and meets the high standards that you've set for yourself, you'll require very little else in validation from the rest of the world. This trait will come in handy every day of your life.
CP: Anything else you’d like to share?
JF: I just invested in my first pair of serious, adult, outdoorsman long underwear and I don't fear the winter anymore. However, if you have a studio in the mountains, I'll happily throw them away.
Find out more about Joe Fletcher, his music, and tour dates here: JOEFLETCHERMUSIC.COM