Thursday, March 22, 2012

Songwriter Joe Fletcher Discusses His Wrong Reasons And Offers "White Lighter"

Joe Fletcher is a Providence, Rhode Island-based singer-songwriter. He paid his dues and honed his craft as a guitarist with a number of garage rock bands until he began to dig deeper into the history blues, roots, and country. As his influences began to broaden, Mr. Fletcher funneled them into his own musical arrangements and lyrical content, and quickly began penning his own county-tinged tunes inspired by the increasingly diverse record collection he was amassing.

As Mr. Fletcher began writing and developing his style, he began owning up to the hard truth that rather than try to find someone else sing to his words the way he wanted them to, he needed to take a bold jump beyond being a guitarist. Joe Fletcher realized that he had to fully embrace his own ambition as a songwriter by becoming the frontman and vocalist for his band, The Wrong Reasons.

As a staple of the Providence scene over the years, Mr. Fletcher has released two albums, Bury Your Problems and last year's excellent White Lighter. The songwriter has collaborated and performed with other Providence-based artists such as Brown Bird, The Low Anthem, and Deer Tick. The man has a work ethic and touring schedule that is nothing short of impressive, and undeniably unstoppable. In addition to his recent appearances at South By Southwest, Mr. Fletcher will continue to perform throughout the Spring, up to and including his debut at this year's Newport Folk Festival (and beyond). 

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Joe about his trajectory up to the release of White Lighter, as well as what lies ahead for the artist. Here's how it all played out: 

I've known you primarily as a guitar player. Can you describe your earliest musical experiences, including what compelled you to begin learning and playing, as well as some of your earliest musical influences?

Joe Fletcher: I remember beginning to feel very affected by music when I was living in South Carolina during the 2nd and 3rd grade. I was obsessed with The Dukes of Hazzard theme song which, of course, I did not know was Waylon Jennings, and I remember getting a few Men At Work 45's that I would play endlessly on a little Fisher Price record player. We'd come back to Rhode Island to visit relatives and I couldn't tear myself away from this brand new MTV. Prince was the king of Rock N' Roll to me back then.

By seventh grade I was fully obsessed with The Beatles. I had always wanted to play the guitar and messed around with it a little through grade school but I was just too unfocused. It was during the 8th grade when I fell firmly under the under the spell of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, and Guns N' Roses.

I had just moved to a new town and one of my classmates, Brian Ayers, had a real Fender Stratocaster. Silver. He also had a band. I couldn't believe this guy. One day after school he took me down to the stage in the cafeteria and showed me how he played "Walk This Way" and "Talk Dirty To Me." Seeing someone my age do that note for note really knocked me out. Skateboarding and baseball began to fall away, and I started getting serious about the guitar and have been playing every day since. 

When and how did you decide to go from a guitar player to a singer/ guitarist/ songwriter?

Before The Wrong Reasons, I played electric guitar in a series of garage rock bands. Towards the end of the last one, I was just anxious to do something else. I was getting deeper into American Roots Music and wanting to play something that reflected that.

So, I was trying to write songs and I was auditioning singers for a side project. I always thought of singing as something I just couldn't do. I was auditioning one guy, trying to show him how to sing something when he just looked at me and said, "You know, you should really be the singer. You sound good." It honestly had not occurred to me before that.

So, I quit the band I was in and took about a year off from playing gigs and taught myself to sing by singing the same five songs countless times every day until I felt good enough to take them to open mikes and sing in front of people. It was just a natural thing. I had these songs I wrote and I was looking for people to play them with me. It was never out of any burning need to be up there and in the middle. Now it's been a while, and I quite enjoy it.

When you began writing your own material, what were you listening to and how did those artists and albums influence your own evolution and artistic direction?

I was listening to a lot of Bob Dylan and Nick Cave, which was nothing new, but I was really getting deep into all of these roots musicians that I was aware of but never devoted all that much time to. These were The Carter Family, Blind Willie McTell, Woody Guthrie, Fred McDowell, Dock Boggs, and countless others.

I became very drawn to the power and beauty of this kind of music. It was haunting and sometimes violent without bullying you with volume or overt rage. It was all very subtle and intuitive and it agreed with what was happening in my life at the time. I'd battled with addictions pretty severely leading up to this point and in that year I was learning to sing, I was also learning a new way of life without all of that. It was right time to really absorb and channel this new, very old stuff I was hearing for the first time. 

Can you discuss writing and recording your first record, Bury Your Problems?

We did that one from January to June of 2007 in my friend Jay Berndt's attic on Smith Hill in Providence. He had some old tape machines and he got some really good sounds up there. I didn't have much in the way of a steady band at the time, so I got a bunch of friends to help me out. That same thing happened three years later with White Lighter.

Due to the limitations of the space we had to track everything separately which is not something I'd like to do again. I don't think it serves what I am after very well. Overall, it was an amazing experience. My good friend Matt Oliva engineered it along with Jay.

It is a tremendously rewarding thing to look back and listen to and know that you and your friends made the whole damn thing alone and unencumbered in a Smith Hill attic. That's beautiful and despite some bumps along the way, I wouldn't change a thing about it. I'm still very grateful to those boys.

Early on, before working on what would become White Lighter, did you have a direction that you knew you wanted to move into from the last record?

Joe: All I knew is that I wanted to record the next one as live as possible. We did several tracks with no overdubs all all. Just the live band playing and singing together in the room. The rest have minimal overdubs. Other than that, there was no particular theme in mind for the material, though I knew that I was writing songs that were a little more hopeful that the last batch. I really just wanted a strong, live sounding record.

What was different for you when writing the new tunes?

Joe: It was written over a few years, so it's hard to say. Some of them we'd been playing live for two years and some were written the week they were recorded. I think I was a little closer to what I am after as a writer. What that is I've never had much luck describing.

Can you describe your lyrical inspiration and influences?

Joe: My best writing occurs when I am just soaking up my surroundings which is harder for me than it sounds like it should be. I can hit a certain point where I am in tune with the music I am hearing and the things I am reading and the conversations I am having and the things I'm overhearing in line at the bank.

I take things from all sorts of places and to me this is what creates a nice blend of things you hopefully have never heard that way before. If I write a song well, it means a lot of different things to me on a lot of different levels. It's a blend of the actual and the imagined. I also try to be aware that it needs to have some accessibility to others, but it's never been my leading concern. I like writing songs that tell a story but that story can be interpreted completely differently by any given person. I don't see the fun in us all arriving at the same conclusion all the time.

What comes first, lyrics or music? Can you discuss the interplay between these and how it all comes together for you?

Joe: I usually get a lyrical idea and then try to creating an appropriate mood with the music, but this is not always the case. I welcome it whichever way it wishes to come. Most of them come over a little bit of time for me. I'm not a quick writer and I tend to revise for a while. Like so many others I know, I do not always love in the morning what I was so thrilled about last night.

You brought in a lot of guests for White Lighter. Can you discuss how you connected with some of these artists, and some of your most memorable experiences recording with them?

Joe: Everyone on the record lived in Providence or very nearby at the time. I knew them all from playing shows and hanging out over the years. The only new face to me was Lily Costner (of Tig and Bean). I was looking for a female vocalist and Bryan Minto, who plays harmonica on the record, suggested his co-worker Lily. He knew my stuff and he was confident she was the one. We got together once a few days before she came in the studio to run through some stuff and I knew he was right. I love her contributions to the record as much as any others. She elevates each song she's on to a new place. It adds a complexity I can't quite describe.

"Too Many Doors" was another fun day. We did that one live with John and Chris from Deer Tick, Dave and MorganEve from Brown Bird, and Alec K. Redfearn. It was a tricky group of people to wrangle together, so we never had rehearsed it all. I think we played it about five times in the studio and I think we kept the third one. I just remember looking around the room before we started and feeling very lucky to count these people among my friends. I love the way that one came out.

What were you listening to during this time of writing and recording?

Joe: I know that was in the early days of my ongoing obsession with Jimmy Martin though I'm not sure where that comes out on the record. The guys at Machines with Magnets (White Lighter studio) asked me to make them a CD of studio songs I liked to give them an idea what I was looking for. I know that Exile on Main St. and The Basement Tapes were well represented.

Can you describe your experiences using Kickstarter to produce the album?

Joe: It worked out really well for us. We'd mixed the record, but needed help to master and package it. Our fans really rose to the occasion. It was a positive experience all around.

What would you say is most similar between your two records, and what are the biggest differences?

Joe: The differences are in the overall sound which I think is closer to what we do live. I also like the variety of instrumentation on White Lighter, especially the use of two distinctly different drummers, Scott Boutier and Dave Lamb. I think I came a long way as a singer in between the two, as well. The two records only have two musicians in common, me and bassist Jack Hanlon, but I think you can still tell it's the same spirit chasing the same thing.

You have touring almost constantly since the release of White Lighter, and you have even been offering the record for free via some online sources. You really are an artist who walks the talk, regarding the idea of getting your music out there and bringing it to the people. Can you discuss your own artistic philosophy?

Joe: There is no shortage of music around these days. I know the world is not in great need of new material from me. However, I am very proud of the songs I sing and I like singing them. I think these are the facts of the situation and I try to act accordingly.

I really want you to hear my new record and if you like it I really want you to tell your sister and your best friend about it. You burn your friend a CD and if they don't like it then the game ends there. If they do like it, maybe they come see a show or tell another person and the chain lives another day. By giving the record away on the internet and by regularly playing shows I just feel like I am doing my part for the chain. If I don't do that, I have no right to look for results.

You have performed with quite an impressive roster of artists. Can you describe some of your most memorable and inspirational experiences?

Joe: I love opening for big acts, but the most pleasure and inspiration I get comes from playing shows with my friends. We recently did a four show run with Brown Bird and D. Charles Speer & the Helix in Boston, New Haven, Providence, and Brooklyn. It seemed to me that everybody had a ball everyday. First of all, you're with our friends. Second, you're watching your friends dazzle people. You're noticing how far they've come as artists and performers since you met them. I cannot think of anything better.

The Devil Makes Three is one of our favorite bands to open for. They couldn't be cooler people, and their crowd arrives so ready to party it's incredible. Not too long ago we opened for a "legend." He stayed on his bus while we played, and after the show when word was sent to him that I hoped to meet him, he declined. You can't trade in the exposure a gig like that offers, but, if you're looking for a good time, play shows with your friends.

What's next for you in 2012?

Joe: This year is off to an unbelievable start. We released a surprisingly successful video for the song "Flat Tire" and then the followup "Every Heartbroken Man" came out on March 7. We just launched a brand new website

Radio stations around the world are playing White Lighter like crazy all of a sudden, and we were just asked to play the Newport Folk Festival. I'm heading to Austin for SXSW in just a few days for a bunch of shows. I think it's safe to say that this is the best year we've year had, and it is early yet.

I've been playing with the same rhythm section of Joe Principe and Dave Hemingway since I finished recording White Lighter. We are looking forward to getting into the studio together for the first time. We will make the time for that very soon.

And you're playing the Newport Folk Festival this year.

Joe: It is a real dream come true. Having grown up in Rhode Island, you can't help but notice that this is a worldwide event held right in your own backyard. It just so happens that I am huge fan of the music it brings and a regular attendee. It had been a dream of mine to play there for a long time. It's one of those things that seems well out of reach just until it gets within reach. I couldn't be more proud to be a part of it this year and hopefully for a very long time.

What are some of your favorite tunes to cover live?

Joe: "Jack on Fire" by The Gun Club. "Crash on the Levee" by Bob Dylan. "Bottom of the World" by Tom Waits. "Four Until Late" by Robert Johnson. There are so many. We usually throw a few in every set.

Where can listeners buy a copy of Bury Your Problems and White Lighter?

Joe: You can get White Lighter at, but you can find both of them on iTunes.

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