Q & A with Travis Shallow
By Brian Tucker
Travis Shallow has a recently released new, self-titled, album out. He’ll be performing a solo show Friday night at The Palm Room on Wrightsville Beach. Its good timing for Shallow, he played his first show in town there thirteen years ago.
The solo acoustic driven show will be fitting for the new material, as much of it was written with that atmosphere in mind. Shallow’s singer-songwriter and Americana material is carried further by his soulful, memorable voice. The new album was recorded in the way of the albums he loved growing up – on analog tape, not digitally. To do so he traveled to Oxford, Mississippi to record with Andrew Ratcliffe at his Tweed Recording Studios.
Ratcliffe had recently purchased a 2-inch analog tape recorder from a studio in Jamaica that is believed to have ties to albums recorded there by famous acts like The Rolling Stones (Goat’s Head Soup). The result is an intimate album of personal material that sounds timeless. Below, Shallow discusses the new material, recording old-school, the power of music in the face of tragedy and loss and another new album.
The new album, did you write with your band The Deep End in mind or did it originate as solo material? Is it wholly new songs or a mix of old and new?
Shallow: I wrote this batch of songs with an acoustic album in mind. I wasn’t planning on doing too much full band production on the recordings either, until shortly before heading to Oxford, Mississippi to start tracking. The initial vision of these songs being extremely stripped down and recorded live with minimal production and overdubbing changed to more of an acoustic album with an accompanying band. Because of literally random phone calls – just before heading down south, from super talented musician friends scattered across the country, that had the window of recording time open and were eager to jump on board.
The first was Shane Griffis, who spent a big chunk of time in Wilmington in my band and others, but had moved to Mississippi and was living in Greenville at the time. He was working at a restaurant that he had opened with his father and just needed a break, so he packed up a car and met me in Oxford and played all of the slide guitar parts on the album, and a lot of electric lead parts too. Shane is an incredible slide player that has a tone that he gets from finger picking and from his hands that’s super unique. He also plays slide in standard tuning, which is not the most common way of playing slide, but I don’t question his magic.
Then Zack Brindisi called, just off tour with Nashville country outfit, Gloriana, and had that recording window open and drove from Nashville and met us in Oxford. I love Zack’s playing. He played bass on my last album with my acoustic trio, A Few Good Liars. So I had total faith in what Zack was going to bring to the table. I knew once he was on board, the trajectory of the initial vision was going to change to more of a band album which I was open to.
I try not to be close minded to spontaneous changes like that, I think if you try to grasp on to the initial vision too hard, you can miss out on some real magic that’s right in front of you begging to be tapped into. The drums and keys are played by Ryan Rogers and Eric Carlton, who play with Jimbo Mathus (Squirrel Nut Zippers) in his new outfit, Jimbo Mathus & the Tri-State Coalition.
How did you decide to record the new album on analog tape? The warmth comes through but did that add to production costs?
The decision to record fully analog to 2-inch was an easy one. Andrew Ratcliffe who owns and engineers at Tweed Recording Studio in Oxford had just recently purchased that 2-inch tape machine out of a studio in Jamaica. The waiting list for working 2-inch tape machines for studios to purchase is a pretty serious one from what Andrew told me.
He said when a 2-inch tape machine surfaces for sale, whoever is at the top of that list has first dibs on it, which is luck of the draw because certain tape machines have hundreds of hours on them. They can be cumbersome and fickle to get calibrated and to function like they should. So it’s a different recording process for sure with unforeseen hang-ups but you know, all of my favorite records were tracked on 2-inch and there is definitely a sound that you can’t get in the digital world. It’s a difference that I always believed and coveted, but being in the studio and really hearing the difference in warmth and dimension first hand, through the studio monitors, was a religious experience for me.
There was also some talk about this particular tape machine having ties to The Rolling Stones recording of Goat’s Head Soup in Jamaica in ’72 or ’73, which just pumped up the musicianship even more, at least it did to me, cause when your singing through a mic that The Mamas & the Papas recorded with, through a 2-inch tape machine the Stones recorded one of your Top 10 records with, you step your game up.
The production costs were a little bit more because you have to purchase the reels, but it was well worth it. It’s nice to have the masters of your album on 2-inch tape reels, even if they do just sit in your closet. I would love to record every album I do on tape from here on out, but it seems to be a luxury now in a downward diving digital world.
Can you share the story behind “Strawberry Jam”?
“Strawberry Jam” has kind of taken on a life of its own. I wrote it a few years back and just kept it in my pocket awhile and didn’t play it to my band or out live. Then one day I played it for my old Dobro player, Richard Welsh, that was in my old band A Few good Liars. He said “Man, that’s a great song, you have to record that, and, do you have more of those in your pocket because if you do, that’s ridiculous that you’re keeping those to yourself.” So, I recorded it.
The story behind the writing of it is simple; it’s based on my grandmother that lives in Asheville, N.C. When I was younger, we used to go visit her in the summer and one of my earliest memories is watching her make homemade strawberry jam and put it in mason jars for us to take back home and eat through out the winter. She was an unbelievably loving and nurturing grandmother, and I mean every word of the song when I say, “Watching her can strawberry jam in the morning, was like watching the light, through a stained-glass window hit the pew.” The song is also about just getting older, and dealing with the grief of losing people close to you while trying to understand “why” along the way.
It seems like that song has been an anchor for me and takes on a new dimension every time I lose somebody in my life or get blindsided with loss. We’ve definitely had a heavy dose of tragic loss just in Wilmington lately, with the beloved and talented Ben Privott and Charles “Chuck” Hudson leaving us all way too soon. When I play that song live, I can instantly channel those recent losses through it. Even though it can get heavy while singing it live, it’s a way to process some of that instead of carrying that weight around. Life is a struggle and can be tricky to navigate; thank god we have music to help keep us between the ditches.
The album is a balance of intimate and up-tempo numbers. Was that conscious or do songs just ask to be more intimate or larger sonically based on their lyrics?
I think the lyrics can have something to do with it, but kind of in an opposite way. A song with big lyrics and a big message with that big chorus tend to hit harder to me personally on an emotional level when the music is minimalist and precise. I personally love when other bands and songwriters do that, and I take notes.
Overproduction on sonic fluff that doesn’t let songs breathe naturally and be dynamic just stomps on lyrics in my opinion. So many bands do that now and I can’t even finish listening to one song all the way through these days because there’s no drastic dynamic anymore, just mid-range electric guitars barreling obnoxiously through a pop song.
The show on Friday, its solo acoustic, are your shows primarily solo or 50/50 with the band?
The show this Friday is solo acoustic, which I love doing. The freedom and range of songs in my catalog I can do solo is always refreshing for me and the ‘no set-list’ approach to a solo gig has its perks too. Also, I am definitely going to be playing this material with The Deep End this summer, as well as doing duo shows with Bob Russell on lap-steel, electric guitar, and dobro. I’m primarily doing solo and duo shows with Bob Russell in Wilmington, and we will be traveling and touring this summer with the duo and The Deep End.
What’s coming up for you?
I’m already writing for another record. I’m studio shopping now and lining up recording time this summer with the band, and planning a release in the fall. I’m writing with a band in mind and pleasantly surprised with the direction, its going to be heavier than my solo album, more amplification, and a bit more abrasive. I love the studio setting and I’m itching to get into one with The Deep End, and tracking with a well-oiled and rehearsed band. What’s better than that, right?