Beloved and lauded from Idaho to NYC, The Black Lillies will release their fourth album, Hard To Please, on October 2nd. Now a six piece, the band consists of Cruz Contreras (guitar, keys, mandolin, vocals), Trisha Gene Brady (vocals, guitar) and Bowman Townsend (percussion) alongside new members, and multi-instrumentalists, Sam Quinn, Mike Seal and Jonathan Keeney. As the band has grown and expanded, so has the music, which features soulful grooves, varied instrumentation and genre blending styles. Front man Contreras kindly took the time to speak in depth about the album, songwriting and more.
Congratulations on the record, it’s truly fantastic. The album was successfully funded via a PledgeMusic Campaign, which really speaks volumes about your ever growing fan base.
It does, absolutely. I think this is the third record where we’ve done some sort of fan funded campaign and this time I definitely feel like all of the pieces came together and we got to make a pretty legit record. We got a producer [Grammy winner Ryan Hewitt], worked in a great studio in Nashville [House of Blues Studio D] and brought in great players. It’s all because of our fans that we were able to make the record we wanted to make and the record they wanted to hear.
Alongside the personnel changes in the band, there were a few things that were done differently with this record, such as bringing in an outside producer and going outside of your hometown to record. How do you think those things affected the process and the record in the end?
They affected it a lot. In the past everything has been self-produced; also, we tour so much that we don’t really rehearse per se, we work out our sound and songs on the road in sound check and playing live. So when it came time to record in the past, we booked time and recorded everything live in about a twenty-four hour period. That had some really great results, the best part of which is that you get the live energy, which to me is really crucial and important, but sometimes you cut yourself a little short on sonic quality. Something I would hear from people would be like “hey we dig your records, we like the songs, but we really want a record that sounds a little more like a live show, something that you can crank up and everything’s there, big and strong sounding.” It’s hard to capture the live energy and get a really high sonic quality recording, but I think we got it on this one. We had enough time, everybody was on board and the experience we had [in the studio] made for the chance to get it, so we’re thrilled. I think we made our best record yet.
As a fan I would have to agree.
You really hunkered down within a two week span to write for this record. Were most of the songs written in that two week period or had they been around awhile and tweaked during that time?
It was a combination of both. Each song has its own story; two or three of the songs had been written about a year prior, some we had previously played on stage and still there were some that were evolving. We did some preproduction, rearranged them and kind of got a fresh take on them, but the bulk of the material was written in the two weeks leading up to the recording, which was pretty daunting, but also challenging. I always respond to a challenge and having a deadline forced me to focus. Those two weeks before going to record were the only time we hadn’t toured in, I don’t remember how long. So here’s the thing, even though that was the first time I could sit down and focus, I had months and months and months to think about it, so the concepts for some of them were totally fresh. I think the very first song I wrote for that new batch, the song called “Desire,” came out of nowhere. It’s special with the first song because you’re in the moment and you’ve got a sum total of ideas from a year of touring and the second I got it done I was like alright this is cool. It was a new idea and it kind of set the tone for the record.
When you work with a producer, they’re going to really encourage you to come up with the best material. Honestly, a few months before [going to record for this album] I thought I had the whole record done; so I grab my phone and I’m like “Okay I’m ready, let’s go do it.” And Ryan’s like “Well okay, you have three songs.” I’m like, “What?” There’s different ways you could respond to that, I could have been like “Oh well these are my songs I wanna stick with them,” but I think another thing that really made this project work was the mutual respect of everybody involved, respecting other people’s opinions and perspectives. So I went back to the drawing board and I’m glad I did because I think we came up with a really strong record from beginning to end.
Definitely. Reading the liner notes, you write how these songs were penned from the heart and their personal nature. That being the case there seems to be, or maybe I’m off the mark, a theme running through the majority of them--the push and pull of love and relationships.
Yeah…that’s interesting. In some ways writing from a personal space technically, musically is the easiest, most natural thing to do because you’re conveying something that you know intimately, but for that same reason it makes it the most difficult too because you have to be really emotionally invested. I’ve written in different ways. When I first started writing I wrote what I knew and it was very personal and I think people responded to that, but over time you always wanna delve in. On the flip side I really like story songs and historical songs which is kind of a whole other genre. And I had written a few tunes like that that I was personally proud of, but when I presented them, people were like “Nah, maybe for a concept record or something.” Friends and family have given advice and reminded me to write from the heart; it’s something that comes naturally, but it’s not always easy, so I just kind of took a deep breath and went for it.
Nine of the songs on the record, you penned alone. Do you prefer to write independently?
I don’t know, it’s pretty normal to me. I went to high school and spent time in Nashville, so I’m certainly aware of the industry and the way people write and co-write. I’ve never really approached writing that way, but that definitely could change. It’s really challenging; I’ve actually only done two co-writes in the past year – one that’s not been recorded and one with John Oates who was the first person I wrote with. I really didn’t know what to expect; you have to be really open minded, open to other people’s ideas and find that natural fit. It was a great experience and I would definitely be into doing that again, but I don’t know….I think back to the personal nature of a song…I think if you write a song on your own you can be 100% personal; it can really be tailor made and that’s probably the main reason I write [independently].
Yes, I can understand that and I think the listener can feel the personal nature as well.
Circling back for a minute, you mentioned historical songs. There is a certainly a historical component to some of your songs. Do you read or just find that to be an interesting topic to write songs about?
I’m actually a terrible reader, don’t tell anyone (laughing). At one time, my mom was a history teacher and our family vacations were Civil War battlefields; we’d stop at all of the historical markers and this and that. I played bluegrass growing up and I’ve always been a fan of history, story songs and classic country music. There’s certainly elements in my writing and musical expression that leans toward that, and the way we travel we kind of get that geographical and historical education. Maybe someday I’ll try to get some sort of concept record together.
That could be very unique!
One particular track I wanted to ask about is “Fade." It’s a contrast to the opening tune and one of those songs that packs an emotional punch. My question is two-fold: what is the story behind the song and why did you chose to put it as the last song?
That song was the last song written for the album. We call it the eleventh song at the eleventh hour because we actually recorded eleven tracks for the album with one more floating around out there which might be on the LP. I knew the record needed one more tune, so probably a year or so ago I wrote this song in a very singer-songwriter style, like a Townes Van Zandt song. It was a little wordy, maybe kind of rambling, but I just liked it and called it “Fade.” It really almost didn’t make sense to me as it was verse after verse after verse, all words and sounds. I didn’t really know where it was going and usually if a song doesn’t come together quickly, I’m gonna trash it. But I had an instinct that there was something there, so I hung onto this all scribbled out piece of paper for probably about a year. When it came time to write new material I got it out and kept looking at it. I just could not give up on the concept of this song, so I spent a whole day rewriting the song and the only thing that stayed from [the initial] song was the title. It sounded like this Modest Mouse rock thing and I loved it, but it didn’t sound like we were the same band, so I knew it wasn’t going to work with the record. Then I slowed it down so it turned into this soul song, very direct and honest, and rewrote the lyrics. I had the title and the lyrics, but I still hadn’t figured out the music yet and didn’t have time, so I kept it in my back pocket. We recorded the record all week and the night before the last day of recording I stayed up and looked at the lyrics. I didn’t tell anyone I had this song--I think everyone thought we were done! We recorded the last two songs and I ran to the piano and followed my gut. I just started playing those real simple chords back and forth and came up with the melody. We went through the song one or two times, then Bowman and Bill came out, just fell into it and we recorded it. We never talked about it and it wasn’t planned out. There have been so many changes over the past year for the band and in life, that to me, the term “Fade” seemed like a good way to tie up the project.
That song definitely had a journey! Finally, why did you decide to title the album Hard To Please?
Well, I’m really glad we have that song on the record, it’s the first song we released [from the album] and the title track. It embodies our philosophy and mentality with this project. It goes back to our manager Chyna, the team and everyone in the band. We decided that we were not going to settle for anything less than our best efforts with this record. And you know, sometimes when you operate that way people can be like “Oh man they’re being difficult,” but we’ve come so far and sacrificed a lot to do what we do and. We just had the mentality that we’re going to be hard to please, we’re not gonna settle for anything but putting our best foot here, and I think everybody took that to heart.
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