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Living Up To A Well-Earned Reputation
Rod Picott
I don't worry about becoming a product. There hasn't been much interest from labels which is where that danger lies. I'm my own label, so I tell myself to just be honest or I'll be dropped - just the opposite of a record deal. - Rod Picott
by Matt Mrowicki
 [Chorus and Verse] August 2003 Feature: Rod Picott
Rod Picott

Successful musicians thrive on challenges. The very act of creating music and performing it live in front of strangers takes a courage that most people simply do not possess. When beginning a musical career means leaving behind a paying day job and putting it all on the line to pursue a dream on the road, the pressures can be overwhelming.

When that first album is finally released, most bands just hope that it will be heard, perhaps generate a little local interest and sell enough units to pay for their manufacture. When Rod Picott released his debut album, Tiger Tom Dixon's Blues, in 2001, the attention added a whole new pressure to his career: critical acclaim. The disc was hailed as the birth of a major artist, and while undertaking an international tour to build on his growing audience, the positive reviews piled up as radio stations around the country put tracks from the album into their rotation.

The first album was a lifetime in the making. While Picott grew up around music in his hometown of South Berwick, Maine, and played in garage and bar bands during his teenage years, it would be more than decade before he would finally lay his music down on tape.

During that time, he earned his songwriting stripes in the cut-throat Nashville scene, building his reputation as a songwriter on the rise and getting his first tastes of national touring as an opening act for Alison Krauss.

With all of this time and experience under his belt, it wasn't too much of a surprise that Tiger Tom Dixon's Blues would be polished and emotional, immediately confirming Picott's status a talented writer and performer.

Less than two years later, Picott returned with his sophomore effort, Stray Dogs, twelve tracks that continue Picott's narrative style, while proving that he's an artist capable of being both prolific and exploratory with his music.

While taking a brief four-week break from touring, right before hitting the road again for a heavy two-month schedule along the east coast before heading to Europe, Picott explored his career thus far and the work that went into following up one success with a bigger one.

Rod Picott

At least one reviewer called your debut album, Tiger Tom Dixon’s Blues, “the birth of a major, major artist.” With reviews such as that, was there added pressure to live up to expectations on your new CD? Can you describe some of the different emotions that you go through working on a second album, as opposed to a first one?

I put a lot of pressure on myself by my own nature which is part of the reason the first album came out when I was 36 and not 26. I felt strongly that I wanted the second album to be different from TTDB.

I wanted Stray Dogs to have more variety and a wider scope of emotion. Thinking about the album that way helped take some of the pressure off. If we had made "Tiger Tom Dixon's Blues part two" I think I would have worried about the expectations more. As it was, I felt I had an album that was as good as the first, probably better, but different.

You started out playing in garage and bar bands, but have built your career out front as a solo singer/songwriter. When did you decide that you would go that route with your music, instead of being part of a band? Are you more comfortable putting your name out there and being the focus of attention, and are there any worries about just becoming a “product” to be marketed?

Early on I knew that while I loved playing with a band I needed to be in the driver's seat. I was always the guy getting the gigs and making the calls and maybe just a bit more focused than the other players. It took me awhile to find myself as a vocalist but I was always working towards the place I'm at now. I miss playing live with other people, as most of the shows over the last few years have been solo, but I don't miss everyone reaching for their volume knob in the studio.

Solo gigs can be a bit lonely, but in some way they are more personal and rewarding. I've worked at this so long now that I'm pretty comfortable being the focus. Not so offstage, though.

I don't worry about becoming a product. There hasn't been much interest from labels which is where that danger lies. I'm my own label, so I tell myself to just be honest or I'll be dropped - just the opposite of a record deal.

During one of your live shows, you talked about how “For 25 years I hung sheet rock, plasterboard, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be doing what I’m doing now.” Talk about making that jump from someone who wanted to make music while working a day job, to taking the chance of recording and performing full-time. Was it a scary decision to make, and have the rewards been what you expected?

All that time I was doing construction I was working towards today. I have an unusual voice, so some of the things most singers do to make ends meet were out of reach for me. You wouldn't want to hear me singing Buddy Holly songs from the corner of the sports bar. So I couldn't do those kinds of gigs to get by. It was a bit of a leap to make in my mind, but I just slowly just kept weeding the drywall work from my life.

I can say that I have very little tolerance for whining musicians. If you are able to make a living playing music, you are fortunate - I do know this much having been on both sides of that fence. It's hard work and tiring, but it's the best job out there.

You’ve gotten quite a bit of positive press during several tours of England and the Netherlands. How did you start to build your audience overseas, and why do you think the British and Dutch have responded so well to a Nashville songwriter from Maine? It’s been discussed many times, but do you feel that it’s easier for a singer/songwriter to build an audience overseas, rather than here in the United States?

I think they just like the rougher stuff over there. They have a different view of what "country" or "roots" music is. They are more accepting of music on the fringe of a genre. The fact that radio is national in England changes the whole game. There are still DJ's in England and the Netherlands that play whatever they want. Bob Harris, brave guy that he is, gave me a few spins on his show and things have just gone from there. It's a little easier to tour over there only because you can cover the whole of the UK in three weeks. In the states, it takes months to cover everything.

Sticking on the topic of touring overseas, are audiences pretty much the same everywhere you go, or is there anything that stands out as different on one side of the Atlantic or the other? You’re currently touring in the U.S., but are there plans to go back to Europe?

At the Borderline in London

I go back to The Netherlands in October and one show in Denmark on that tour. The audiences I've encountered overseas are more focused on the music itself. They're really listening and taking it in. I'm still surprised in the States when someone talks through a show. I think that in the States sometimes the show is just part of a general social event for some people. Less so overseas.

You learned a lot of your songwriting skills in Nashville, which is considered one of the toughest areas for new musicians to break in and get noticed. Has your Nashville experience been a positive for your career, and do you feel there are things about the business you learned there that you might not have anywhere else?

Absolutely. Nashville gets slagged a lot because of all the commercial country stuff, but it's a great town to learn your craft in. When I moved here, John Prine, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, and Gillian Welch lived here. I think that's telling. The competition is fierce so you really find out where you're at when you start playing here. I basically started over for the third time when I arrived.

You handle the booking and other business aspects of your career, along with your partner Alicia Bequette. As your career develops, do you feel it’s advantageous to handle as much of the business side yourself, or do you worry that it prevents you from focusing on songwriting and recording as much as you might need to in order to further your career? Would you advise anyone starting on a musical career to get to know the business of music, at least in the beginning, even though so many musicians are pretty bad at it and find it distasteful?

It's good to know how things work and how the pieces fit together. I really only know the way it works for us. It's true that all the business stuff is distracting and I don't think I would be where I am without Alicia's hand, but I also think that you do what work is needed.

When nobody wanted to book us we picked up the phone and booked shows. When we couldn't afford to hire the radio promoter we sat up until 2:00 in the morning stuffing those bubble packs and scouring the internet for radio station addresses.

I made the first album in my basement. You should have seen the wires going everywhere. We had Chris Cottros' guitar in a closet upstairs and drilled right down through the hardwood floor to run the mic cable.

All the things that aren't playing and writing are difficult and distracting. However, I don't expect someone else to work harder on my career than I'm willing to.

You’re also handling your own distribution for the albums. What’s been your experience on how easy or difficult it is to find stores and other outlets to distribute your CDs? Do you feel that there is still a healthy network of independent record stores in this country, and that musicians overestimate the importance of having a label with distribution channels to get their music out there?

It's complicated. No one wants to help you sell your album until it's selling. The internet outlets are great because they reaching out to the real music lovers who are searching for music to fall in love with. I do miss the great independent brick and mortar shops that are disappearing. I grew up two towns over from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which had two great record stores. You could find bootlegs (not that I'm condoning) and imports and the owners knew everything that was out there.

Distribution is very difficult by yourself and is one of the things the majors excel at, but at a cost. The label thing is changing. We'll see what happens. I know people who have sold tens of thousands of albums who have never seen a penny from the deal, so it's not the answer to all the questions.

Is it true that your songs are starting to get recorded by other performers? Is it rewarding for you to be asked for permission to use your music by other musicians, and do you feel that you can earn a living strictly as a songwriter if you needed to?

The way I write is not commercial enough for me to get a gig strictly writing for, say, a publishing company.

I did the rounds a few years ago. My favorite meeting was with a major publishing company here in Nashville. The guy kept having me play more songs until I was pretty excited and thinking maybe I'd got the gig. When I finished, he said," Well, Rod, what we do here is write bullshit all day long and you can probably learn how to do it if you want to. I don't think you should, though. I think you should go find a way to make records." So, I took him at his word.

The songs that I'm getting cut are mostly co-writes where the other person puts the song on their record. Fine with me.

You wrote all of the songs on “Stray Dogs” on your own, except for “River Runs” and “Not Going Down”, which you penned with Slaid Cleaves, and “Up All Night”, which you co-wrote with Alicia Bequette. Slaid and Alicia are close friends of yours, so I assume you enjoyed working with them on those songs. Do you enjoy the idea of collaborative songwriting, and would you ever be open to writing music with others who you didn’t have a personal relationship with? Do you find that writing with other people gives you a different perspective on the idea you’re trying to put to paper?

Co-writing works best for me when I need help finishing something or the other person needs an editor. I've done a lot of co-writes over the years but have pulled away from it recently. It's like dancing - both people have to give in the process and go with it. If you are too attached to your ideas it won't work.

Slaid is my favorite collaborator. We've known each other so long we don't need to be polite.

Have you begun to write new material in anticipation of a follow-up to Stray Dogs? How long does it usually take you to develop a song idea, and work it into something that you’re comfortable bringing to an audience? Have you ever had a song that you thought was great, and just didn’t work with the crowd, or a tune that was just thrown together and yet got a positive reaction that surprised you?

I've been writing for the next album for a few months and I've got four new songs. There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the process. It does take me awhile to finish things sometimes. I have songs from five years ago I'm still working on. Others seem to come in one piece. "Haunted Man" was written in one sitting, as was "Angels and Acrobats."

I'm admittedly slow to bring them into the live setting. I suppose that's because I've fallen a few times trying to bring a song forward when it wasn't ready. Risky business there.

One interview you did mentioned that “Circus Girl” took nearly two years for you to finish, which sounds like a very long time to work on a single song. What’s the story behind the evolution of that track, and why it was such a long process before you were happy with it?

Well, I would work on it and put it down, come back to it and put back down. I felt like the opening lines were really strong and I wanted the whole lyric to be as good as the first few lines, so it took a lot of experimenting with different combinations to get it to feel the way I wanted in my head.

Finish off with an idea of your plans moving forward. Where do you anticipate touring in the next few months, and are there any plans for a follow-up to Stray Dogs or any other projects that fans should watch out for?

I hope to have the next album ready in the spring which means recording this winter. That sounds great to me right now but, of course, I need another six songs that I'm happy with. Six songs is not a problem, it's the fact that I need to like them that puts a monkey wrench in the works. Over the next few months I'll be touring up through New Jersey, Boston, New York, and swinging down through North Carolina just sort of careening up and down the east coast before I go off to The Netherlands again.

I've had a few weeks off. I've mowed the lawn. I put a new starter in the car. The dog is fed. I'm ready to go out again.

[ Website: www.rodpicott.com ]

Matt Mrowicki
Matt Mrowicki [publisher@chorusandverse.com], is an Internet entrepreneur and owner of Chorus and Verse. In 2002, he founded Impression Technologies LLC (www.imprtech.com) a digital design company offering website development, graphic design, online marketing, social media and technology consulting. He has been interviewed on topics ranging from how bands can best use their websites for promoting their music to current trends in social media. He has successfully launched over 100 websites and branding projects for clients and continues to develop new online opportunities and promote effective uses of technology and online media.
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