1. Travis Cyr
Stockholm, Maine // February 2017
I thought a good place to start with these might be in Maine’s Aroostook County, one of the most interesting areas that I know about anywhere in America. Aroostook – up there they just call it The County – has more land in it than any other county east of the Mississippi River. It is huge, it is overwhelmingly rural, and it bears no resemblance whatsoever to the carnival of lobster-and-lighthouse Maine iconography that you might associate with the state. Most of the non-forested part of Aroostook is dedicated to potato farming -- so dedicated, in fact, that school lets out for a couple weeks every fall so all the kids can help out with the potato harvest. For generations, until Idaho's improbably irrigated Magic Valley finally overtook Maine in the mid-20th century, Aroostook County was the #1 producer of potatoes in the US.
It’s also incredibly far away from most of the population of Maine, and its towns are flung pretty far apart from one another. The County is part of New England, but driving from Boston to the place where I interviewed Travis literally took longer than it would have taken to drive from Boston to Baltimore -- and there was still a lot more of the County beyond where we were. I interviewed him in a town called Stockholm, which is north of Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, and most of the entire population of Canada. You should look up the Aroostook War when you get a chance, too – Aroostook’s bizarrely-shaped border with New Brunswick and Quebec is the result of some wild negotiations that were frantically undertaken to avoid war with Canada after a bunch of lumberjacks started threatening each other in the 1830s.
All this is to say that this part of Maine is a very distant place, with a culture all its own, and one of the people at the center of it is this lovely guy, Travis Cyr, one of the warmest people I know in one of the coldest places I’ve ever been. Travis is not only a talented singer-songwriter and a mesmerizing performer – check out his work here – but an absolute pillar of the music community up there. He works hard as a performer, constantly traveling great distances at a shocking rate, but he also books for a couple venues in the County and founded an annual music festival called Arootsakoostic that brings performers to New Sweden, Maine from all over the state. Travis grew up here, moved away, and then moved back, and so we talked a bit about why he did that, what “back” really means in a place that includes so much ground, and what it’s like to cultivate community in an area where the sheer distance between people can make isolation all too easy and regional culture hard to identify from within.
A fun fact about this interview with Travis, which, again, happened in Stockholm last February, is that on the morning of the day it happened, I slipped on ice in the road and cracked my ankle. I iced it in a snowbank until I could get a ride back to the venue to conduct this interview, and then I went to the hospital that evening, after we finished. So if I seem slightly weird during this talk, it may be because I’m just about nauseated with pain. So there’s that.
Anyway, here’s me and the great Travis Cyr, talking in northern Maine last winter.
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Ben Cosgrove: ...yeah, no – I don’t know what it’s ultimately going to be. I just, I drive around all the time -- kind of like you do -- and I found I was having all these interesting conversations with people about where they live, and how those places are different, and how that all comes out in their work and their lives.
Travis Cyr: Yeah.
BC: And then I guess I realized, you know, I should probably be making some kind of document…? (laughs)
TC: No! No, that’s a wonderful idea, and kudos to you for doing it.
BC: Thanks. But to be fair, only half of those kudos are deserved – the problem is that I still don’t know what I’m doing with these things, so I’m just sitting with like, a pile of them on my computer.
TC: Heh! Yeah, the assembling will be something else, I suppose, it’s true.
BC: In a worst-case scenario, some descendent of mine is just going to inherit, like, a terabyte of, you know --
BC: -- people talking about trees or whatever.
TC: Ah, but who knows what we’ll be talking about.
BC: True. But I figured you would be a good person to talk to, about a pretty remarkable region. I mean – certainly within New England, this is one of the more unusual, more exceptional places that I know about. And you know it real well.
TC: You’re talking not just about the establishment here, but the County?
BC: Right, sorry – I’m talking about the County in general.
TC: Right. Yeah, yeah. Hm.
BC: Well, I mean, for one thing, your schedule is crazy, I mean, I see you playing all over the place, and at these places that are all like, hundreds of miles apart. (laughs)
TC: Yep! Yep, but I stick… I mean, as opposed to you, you travel the country. I travel Maine. Northern Maine. But it’s extensive, like you said – it’s vast, there’s a lot of in-between, there’s a lot of driving, but uh… really there’s no place I’d rather be than driving to or from a show.
BC: Is that a decision you made, to primarily work within the state?
TC: Yeah? Yeah, I’d say these days it’s all conscious. I mean, I’m a certain age, and I’ve got family responsibilities, and things I’m involved in up here. I enjoy traveling, but I guess out of convenience and necessity, and efficiency…
BC: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, frankly, it’s a considerably more reasonable model than what I do.
TC: (laughs) Yeah, but I don’t know, I’ve accepted – you’re not as tied down as I am, probably, with life things.
BC: No... no, I certainly do not have many life things.
TC: And I guess I just resigned myself years ago to the fact that the only aspiration I have, musically, is to be a vital working musician. I just want to work. And if I just play the restaurants, and I fall on dead ears, I know it’s hard on the creative soul, but I’m owning my craft every night, I’m reaching the three people or the twenty people or whatever it may be that I’m needing to reach, I’m constantly changing the songs I’m writing, the songs I’m playing, how I’m playing each show to each crowd… just the creative aspect of it, and the organic aspect of it all. So I have no desire to release the new album and have it, you know, reach millions of people. If I do go on tour, when I have gone on tour, it’s not about playing, you know, Boston, New York… it’s about going to these Stockholms and playing these Eureka Halls of Vermont and New Hampshire, and what have you. I, I don’t want to fight it out, in a city – it’s not about that, that competition. It’s about reaching the people that are working hard each week and getting out to these small places.
BC: Yeah, absolutely. I feel like we probably play similar spots, in that case.
TC: Yeah, yeah, I think we do.
BC: Where do you play in Vermont?
TC: Ah – I’ve only played a few places, but my favorite is Hatch 31? It’s in… ah jeez, south of Burlington.
BC: Weird, I don't know it. Near like, Shelburne? Charlotte?
TC: No, but I lived in Charlotte for a while, too – it’ll…
BC: You did?! Ah, wait – we should do this, sorry; I skipped right over the part where we go through your geographical biography.
TC: Ha yeah, let’s get talking, yeah, go for it.
BC: You’re from here, right? You grew up in Aroostook County?
TC: I did. Yep, I grew up on Long Lake. Went to the Van Buren school district, which is about 20 miles northeast of here.
BC: On the border.
TC: That’s right, on the border. On the border. Yep. I did the high school thing there, and then I took a few years off after that and just worked a few different jobs, you know, around. Went to school in Farmington for a while.
BC: Mm. Which, to most people, is, you know… "north."
TC: (laughs) Yeah. Right! And it’s about four and a half hours south of here. Anyway, I realized that I wasn’t going to be giving school the attention and commitment that the money warranted, so I withdrew and I got a job and moved to Portland. Worked in Portland briefly, then I headed out to Vermont. I got a job at a plant nursery in Charlotte.
BC: Yeah! I have a good friend who grew up in Charlotte, VT.
TC: It’s an awesome area. I worked there for a summer… rents were incredibly expensive, so I ended up kicking around here and there for a bit, and ultimately came back to Portland.
BC: Where rents were… not expensive?
TC: Not like now. But at the time, I knew – this was like fifteen years ago, so it was, you know, definitely a better time to be there.
BC: Burlington and Portland both –
BC: -- they’re crazy. Like... I don't know, Burlington especially has absolutely no business being that expensive… (laughs)
TC: Yeah, it’s been a little bit since I’ve been out there again, to Burlington. I last played in Vermont a couple years ago. But yeah! And then… then I came back up to the County, where I just figured I was going to stay this time. If I go anywhere else, it’s north. (laughs)
BC: Well, it does seem like in the time since then you’ve done important… I mean, whenever I meet anyone, anywhere, who has ever played in northern Maine, they all know… you.
TC: Yeah, that’s… that’s humbling, that’s…
BC: Yeah but is that – do you think that – it would seem to me that by committing to this area and working it so diligently, you’ve come to know this area and the people who move through it uniquely well.
TC: I kinda figured, when I moved back up here… I was at that point just starting to write music. I was playing open mics and stuff in Portland and Burlington, but I wasn’t, you know, actively writing. And I knew that by moving up here, I would be sacrificing the things I enjoyed most about Burlington and Portland, which was being able to, you know, go out and see live music seven nights a week. I enjoyed that sense of culture, which is… which is hard to come by up here. And there’s not a lot of – the people who seek that generally get out and do not usually return.
So knowing what I was giving up by coming back here, even if it was not an initial goal, somewhere along the line I decided that rather than just not have it and long for it, I would try and bring some of it up here and share it. I guess that was the whole goal with Arootsakoostik; that’s why I started that.
BC: What year was that? Or rather, when did it start?
TC: Ah well, it was…
BC: I guess we should say this is the festival you started. Like ten or twelve years ago, right?
TC: That’s right. Twelve years ago this year. We did an event called GardenStock… for lack of a better name that year. And it had three local folks playing and there was like 25 people that showed up, and we donated like, the $75 we took in in donations back to the town, and there was a guy selling local organic potatoes, and you know, it was a nice afternoon. But that’s all we set out to do, and it’s all it was, but that became Aroots.
BC: And it’s in New Sweden, right? I’ve never actually been – every year when this happens, I’m in, like, Wyoming.
TC: Second week of July, yeah, is what it’s come to be, and it’s at Thomas Park in New Sweden, just about seven miles down the road from where we are now.
BC: I once made a wrong turn coming up here and went to New Sweden.
TC: Ah, so if you really committed to that wrong turn you would’ve gone by it – it’s got a big wooden bandshell on the top of the hill…
BC: Oh yeah – sharp curve, with a big field?
TC: Yep. That’s the venue. Yeah, so what it was, was I had some friends from the surrounding towns growing up – Fort Kent, Madawaska – that had since transported to Portland and were playing in bands. Dominic Loveworth from Dominic and the Lucid –
TC: Frank Hopkins… all those guys. Matt Lajoie, who went on to play in Herbcraft and a couple others. So many people – John Clavette and Strange Pleasure was an early jam band back in the early 90s. And it was all these people I knew in high school and they’re doing all these great things, and you know, it’s…. wow, man, I want to share this with the people that are still up here. Those guys wanted to come and play up home, but you know, there were no venues – everything up here is karaoke, or classic rock cover bands. There were no venues for any kind of alternative music, original music…
BC: Even that recently? That’s surprising – it seems like you’ve got…
TC: Not until Aroots! Not until Aroots. And then this place -- Eureka Hall -- came along, about five, six years into the festival – we didn’t know what we were doing; we were just having a party each year, and trying to celebrate original Maine music. That was always the goal. And you know, in the meantime, I’m playing in all the surrounding communities, and developing working relationships with all the people in all the towns up here, and I know a bunch of folks, so we’ve slowly building a base of support for this music, this Maine-made music, and we’re growing. But in my head, I’m thinking, like… god, where am I going to book these bands up here? I can’t put them here, or there, because they won’t be appreciated. And then eventually Eureka came along and was immediately really supportive – they loved the bands we were bringing to Aroots, and it was just a natural fit. And it allowed this sense of community – this musical community that we’d been building with Aroots – it just allowed us to sustain it throughout the year, not just once in the summer. Now we can have bands come up all year round, and do stuff together… it gave us a home.
BC: Yeah, I mean, it’s funny – I run into people all over the place, other musicians, and, you know, one of us mention that we’ve once played at the very top of Maine, and the other person will inevitably go, “…Eureka Hall?”
TC: Yeah, it’s unreal. The opportunity – I mean, you talk about community – in the truest sense, this was a grassroots, organic thing. I mean, Arootsakoostik built at the perfect pace – it was me, my buddy Matt, and my dad, and a few friends that put it on. If we’d exploded, we would’ve gotten swamped, and it would have been a disaster. It allowed us to grow incrementally, organically, each year, to a point where it ended up. I mean, we did ten of them and never had any sort of incident – no law enforcement, no drunken buffoonery – and there are regularly newborn babies and 90-year-olds all sitting there watching the show together. And you know, dogs… and, and, it’s just been too good. And I think that in part it’s all because it was only ever done with the best of intentions.
BC: I mean, as an outside observer, I do feel like this area does have a strongly familial kind of feel to it, despite its gigantic size…
TC: Oh, absolutely. So yeah, I don’t know, just the whole sense of the community, the way everything happened, even leading us to talk about it here, now, in this room, with you and Max coming up to play this weekend, or Tigerman last weekend, and everything that we’ve had, it just feels – I feel blessed to be able to do that, as a conduit, as an instigator.
BC: Well it seems, it seems like hard and important work too, right? I mean, it’s neat that – it would be easy to feel like northern Maine and southern Maine are two different worlds, and it’s neat that you have helped bridge that by helping to create this ecosystem in which people badly want to be driving up here all the time.
TC: That’s wonderful; that’s – I’ve always felt like, you know, people talk about the Maine Music Scene and when they get write-ups it’s all this Portland stuff, it’s all this southern stuff. And I mean, I get it: Portland’s the city, it’s the hub, it’s where everybody goes to look for opportunities. But at the same time Belfast has an amazing scene… Bangor has got its... well, its scene for whatever it’s worth…
TC: …and we’ve got our scene, for whatever it’s worth. There are so many good little spots, and they’re all so distinct! You know, Hallowell/Augusta area has got a nice little scene. So, just to be able to say like, “hey, don’t forget about us way up here,” and be some kind of light. And – being a musician and crossing the state as much as I do or as much as I did, I was meeting all these bands and I’d say “man, we’ve gotta get these guys up here.” And I’d find that a lot of them wanted to – “yeah, that’s our state; we want to explore it up there!” – but like I said, there were just no venues, until we started doing this here.
And today, we’re the only venue! The only venue that really dedicatedly does the original music thing up here. I mean, there are one or two others that are trying to pick up on it, but this is really the place. And I just attribute that to the sense that – the scene that we created.
BC: It seems like you guys had to move on that very intentionally, when you and George and Danielle were all kind of establishing this place as a performance space.
TC: I mean yeah, it was – it was just a no-brainer. I don’t even remember how it happened; I probably went to them and said, “hey, can Dark Hollow Bottling Company come play here next weekend?” and they probably just said, “yeah, can --
BC: “Can they physically get here?"
TC: (laughs) Yeah, you know, “we’ll give them some pizza and some beer and see if it works.” And, and somehow it’s worked.
BC: So when you – did you play music out much at all when you were growing up, before you went to Portland and Burlington and back? You did sort of talk about this earlier, but –
TC: I did, but it was just a – just doing some open mic stuff back then. You know, I wasn’t serious about the craft. When I moved back up here in 2000 though, I was bartending, I was renting a camp at a lake up here and I was bartending nights. So during the day, being alone in the woods, I just started writing. I’d always written prose, and lyrics, and I just sort of – I got serious about writing that fall, you know, 2000-2001, and I think I got my first paid gig somewhere in Madawaska or Fort Kent that fall. They were looking for an acoustic solo act, and I called the number, and I got it.
I just remember it being really rough. I had one of those little Fender Passport systems, the P.A. system –
BC: (laughs) Oh yeah, with the colored knobs?
TC: -- the like, Fisher-Price “My First P.A. System” (laughs) – and I just had a little guitar, and I know my voice was really rough. And you know, I knew a bunch of songs, and I could play them decently, but… it was rough! And it was new. And man, god bless the people that liked it and stuck with me. They started having me every Friday, and that led to this and that, and before long I started thinking, “huh, I could maybe make a little money doing this; I’m going to hustle and push.” I haven’t stopped pushing since. And at some point along the line, you know, I guess all my eggs got put in that basket.
BC: Ha, well yeah, I can relate to that one. The discovery of like, “suddenly this is the only thing I remember how to do?”
TC: (laughs) Right, exactly. I mean, I am capable of this and that, but I really am going to be a miserable human being if I can’t do this thing. So how can I do the most good possible -- I can do an event here, and I can bring people together here, and meanwhile just keep pushing at my own craft. I try to play 3-4 nights a week, which is hard up here –
BC: It’s got to be totally nuts. How do you… I mean, maybe we should just say, for anyone listening, if you pull up a map of this area, please note that these places Travis is talking about are like hours and hours away from each other.
TC: Yeah, yeah! And it’s just – they’re all small towns, and in the rare event that one of these towns has more than one establishment that has live music to begin with, chances are they want a certain type of thing, and where do I fit into that?
And that brings us to a whole other topic, like… let’s just say, the song “Wagon Wheel,” which I’m sure some of your viewers are familiar with.
BC: No viewers, you’re safe. They may be listeners, but they might also be readers; we don’t know. But definitely no viewers.
TC: (laughs) Listeners, excuse me.
BC: I mean, there’s always the chance that when someone finally checks out this interview in like fifty years, that song will have been long forgotten.
TC: No way; it’s not going any– it’s the “Freebird” of… of music.
Anyway, so, as a musician – as someone who does the job “Musician” – when that song first came out, the version by Old Crow Medicine Show, we jumped on it, we played the cover all the time. Some people loved it, some people didn’t know what it was. And then the Hootie and the Blowfish guy makes it popular, and then it’s overkill. So as a musician, as a creative guy who goes out there, I said “I’ve got to stop playing this song; it’s killing me.” Great song, but, you know, please, please don’t ask me to play Freebird. (Freebird, sorry – Wagon Wheel. See?)
And I don’t learn popular cover songs; it’s just not one of my strengths. I mean, I learn a few Bob Dylan songs, John Prine songs, whatever.
BC: Yeah, I mean, I find that can be a good exercise even if you don’t play them out; it can be a good self-directed songwriting class to kind of sit with a melody and figure out why it works.
TC: Oh definitely. I mean—yeah, don’t get me wrong, I’ve played acoustic bluegrass versions of like, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” And it works because like it or not, it’s a great song; you can dress it up however you like, and it works. So you have a few of those in your arsenal.
But anyway, the thing is that I strive to be different up here, I strive to play original material, or play songs by my friends… so I shunned Wagon Wheel for years, even as people were asking me for it, and asking me for it. And then it hit me one day, like, “this isn’t about you. You’re privileged to do what you do, as a musician. Your job is to entertain. If that song is entertaining, if it’s getting them to buy another beer and keep the place open, or get them through the door for the night, what’s wrong with playing it? It’s a good song. So change your attitude – you can still satisfy your creative soul and deliver something to make other people happy as well.”
So I’ve just been dealing with kinds of things like that up here.
BC: I had a really interesting conversation a little while ago – and I was going to write an essay about this guy but I never finished it; it’s just like a Word doc on my computer – but I interviewed a guy whose full-time job was being a Rod Stewart impersonator. And he would just go around to the most random – I mean, he would play in nursing homes and senior centers and dive bars and what have you.
TC: But man, he must have been bringing so much joy—
BC: I mean, yeah! That was the thing. He was bringing Rod Stewart concerts to places where Rod Stewart concerts wouldn’t happen otherwise. And he – yeah, we talked for a long time and one of the things he said that really stuck with me was… well, I asked him, you know, “Suppose I’m an alien, from outer space, with no understanding of human culture. How would you explain to me what your job is?”
BC: And he very gamely was like, “Well I’d say to the alien, ‘here on earth we have people called celebrities. People look up to them and admire them and enjoy being in their presence. But they’re only one person, so they can’t necessarily spread all of the joy and wonderment that the market exists for.’” So he sort of thinks of himself as a foot soldier, who’s reaching all these people in places that Rod Stewart simply cannot go. Which I thought was kind of an interesting point.
TC: Yeah it is. It sure is.
BC: That said… I’m sort of just as glad to not be a Rod Stewart impersonator…
TC: Hey, maybe we’re lucky we don’t have that option, but it’s an option for some people. And of course there’s joy and there’s goodness in it, clearly.
BC: Oh yeah. And for what it’s worth, he genuinely seemed to like the gig.
TC: That’s awesome. The way we approach things…
BC: So this is off the—sorry; jumping back from Rod Stewart just a little bit—you said something earlier about… you said you went to high school in Van Buren, and yet you had people going to the same high school from Madawaska and Fort Kent?!
TC: Oh no, no – I just meant I knew those guys from playing sports against them or whatever. Like, “ohh, that’s the guy that has that band in Fort Kent; that’s the guy that has…” So as a musician up here in a place like this, you’re aware of the other guys in the other towns that have a buzz about them. Dom, Frank… I was aware of those guys from other towns.
BC: Yeah, I’m interested in knowing like, how you build a community across such a vast…
TC: --and they were all just doing their high school bands, you know? And I remember at one point there were two or three of us from Van Buren playing with Dom and Tim and a couple of guys from Madawaska, we’d get together and – even though we’re in high school – it’s like “OK, you’re the guys who have the buzz going about this, and we’re the guys here, so let’s get together and…” You know, just those little things. So when everybody ended up in Portland, we all knew about each other already and those connections existed. It’s why that northern Maine community down there can be so tight, because everybody somehow knows each other even though we all grew up so far apart.
[At this point, someone showed up to request a couple chairs from the room we were in, so there’s a brief pause in the recording while we shuffled around all the furniture.]
BC: I’m not editing all this out, either.
TC: Why should you? It’s the best part.
BC: OK, what were we just talking – oh right, I was interested in knowing more about the specifics of your sense of where you were from. Like, did you – I did not grow up in a very rural place, and we had a pretty strong sense, down there, of like, living in this town vs. that town. I wondered if you identified with like, the town of Van Buren or with the broader region. For instance – when you moved back to the County, did you think, like, “I’m going back to Van Buren,” or “I’m going back to northern Maine”?
TC: Mm. That’s a great question. Well, I know that when I did move back up here, I was very aware of what I was heading back to.
BC: Which was what?
TC: Haha – yeah! You know, there’s a whole lot of –
BC: Potato farming.
TC: (laughs) Yeah, but really vastness, emptiness, nothingness. I was aware of that, attracted to it, and that was probably one of the main factors that led me to decide to come back up here, that attraction. The knowledge that this was probably one of the last great wild frontiers, you know, northern Maine?
BC: Yeah. For sure.
TC: I mean, there are probably some spots out west, for sure, but we’re… we’re pretty desolate, up here.
And that was the lore of it, but then, you know, it was also always home to me. I’m thankful, going back, I’m very thankful for having grown up in that small, rural town. And I can say that Van Buren was no different from Fort Kent, or Presque Isle, or Caribou, or Madawaska – they’re all poor little rural towns that had maybe a K-Mart and one pizza place and maybe one summer Tastee-Freeze type of thing. And maybe a drive-in. So kids did the same things, you know, you did the summer recreation programs and you – this is before video games and stuff – we played music and we played in the streams and we rode bikes and we lived childhood.
So growing up in high school, we had friends of all different ages – some of my best friends were four or five years older, or two or three years younger. And as I was getting into music, everybody I knew had an acoustic guitar. So after school we’d run up to the soccer field, or we’d go out to one of the nice hills or fields or waterfalls or streams, and we’d sit around and we’d play Neil Young songs or Pink Floyd songs or Beatles songs or Led Zeppelin songs. It was every man for himself, and you’d just sit there and try to follow the next guys. And I guess that’s really how I learned how to play music.
And to this day, I still see most of those guys. And you know, some of them still strum, some of them haven’t touched an instrument since that last time we all played back then, and then there’s guys like me – one or two who just never let it go. So I’m very thankful to have grown up in that environment – going back, I mean, even when I was born, living at the lake, my parents at night we’d have a fire by the lake, and there’d be a friend or two there with a guitar. So I’d be two or three years old and I’d hear somebody singing “This Land is Your Land,” so music was always right there.
And then to grow up in a small town, and to have access to that type of activity, and then going away and – I’ll be honest, when I was away, I didn’t really consider myself a working or active musician. I was doing other things, trying to find my place in life, if you will – just playing music as a . So when I moved back, it was the same thing – I wasn’t sure what I was going to do when I moved back. I figured you know, I could do this, and like I said, I started bartending, I started writing, as a result of just living in the woods, that solitude – no cable, and just being in the woods with your guitar and a few books, what else are you going to do? There’s nothing better than that.
So yeah – I think over the course of a few weeks, I wrote five or six songs. Like a big batch of songs, and I thought, “wow, these are all right.” And then I wrote a couple of crappy ones. And you know, you work it, and figure things out a little bit… I took that first paying gig, and tried to hustle for another one or two, and that’s what got the ball rolling. Started off maybe 46, 45 shows a year, and these days I’m probably doing about 150 – I max out around maybe 156 shows a year. And I’m thankful for that. And of course it’s not enough. Honestly, I wish I could do four or five nights a week rather than three or four. There are times I get tired, and I feel stagnant in it, but anyone who’s playing four nights a week must feel that, right?
BC: Well, yeah… that’s an interesting – that’s another thing you said earlier that I identified with, and wanted to ask more about. You talked about approaching music with this kind of workmanlike attitude, and I wondered if that was forced on you by the circumstances of being a working musician in a place like this, where venues are small and far apart – where in order to make it work, you’ve got to play as often as you can, and you’ve got to travel far and frequently to do it?
TC: Yeah, it’s interesting – I think that’s the work ethic of the land that I live on, which probably isn’t a coincidence.
BC: It’s a hard place to get stuff done, no matter what you’re doing.
TC: Yeah, the Acadian culture, the Yankee culture, the stubbornness that gets you through the hard winters. The labor is just, you work, you work, you work.
BC: It’s a New England-y thing in general, it seems.
TC: Yeah, you know, anything worth doing is worth doing right. And when it’s hard, it’s… it’s…
BC: (laughs) The harder it is, the more certain you are that it’s the right thing to do?
TC: (laughs) Yeah, when you’re really banging your head against the wall. But yeah, the thing is, you know, I still feel more hungry for that next gig now than I did during that first year playing. Even more so, because I’m older, and my eggs are in that basket. I need to stay vital; I need to keep being strong and reasonably healthy…
BC: Yeah, just be careful of your ankles up here.
I found that during my first couple years of playing full-time and traveling around in this sort of manic way, the best decision I ever made was to accept, you know, any and every show. So I play, you know, instrumental piano music, which –
BC: -- which is like, not necessarily universally beloved. And totally inappropriate for about 40% of the places I was playing. But I was taking gigs in like, gas stations and dive bars and bookstores and just anywhere, and I found that being forced to figure out ways to make my personality and my music fit into each of those spaces as perfectly as possible was the best training imaginable. And after churning it through that grind – did you find this too? – I found that what remained was like, the best possible version of all those songs and a more durable and stable – if not quite bulletproof – way of being consistent and comfortable, and hopefully compelling onstage.
TC: Yeah, yeah! Yeah. I totally get that, but I don’t really consider myself… well, compared to you for instance, I consider you, you know, a very trained and knowledgeable musician, whereas I have zero knowledge of theory. I’m like a three chord type of guy. So like, I’m limited in my ability in that sense – I can’t read music, I would never be the kind of guy who would bring sheets of music to a gig, so I wouldn’t –
BC: To be clear! Me either!
TC: (laughs) No, no, and I’m not bumming anyone who does! It’s just a personal thing; I don’t like plugging my guitar in, I like playing into a condenser because it’s more organic and…
BC: Whoa, really? I don’t think I knew that. That’s a bold decision.
TC: Yeah, I used to plug in and sing, you know, and I was just always stationary. And I figured whenever you mic a guitar, the freedom to move around and lean into that mic gives you so much more control over the sound of the instrument. You learn to work with it.
BC: Yeah, I suppose it allows you to use space as this dynamic tool.
TC: Yeah, totally. And it forces people to maybe be a little more quiet. And it’s a truer sound, and it’s just… as stripped down and organic as possible. And when I play live, I feel like that’s what I need to portray in my music.
Sorry, got a little off-track there…
BC: Oh, no worries at all. It’s all interesting, and there’s not really a track in the first place for these things.
TC: Good, because I don’t really even remember where we were… oh! I do. Yeah, so I do have different songs that I can deploy that better suit different occasions – I might learn more on the bluegrass or classic rock or old country for this one, or I might keep it real slow, quiet, and peaceful for this one, or I may just need to rage for this one – I’ve got different bags to pull from. But I think these days it’s just always most important to keep myself satisfied and happy, and if I’m doing what I do as best as I can, that’s the best thing for me to be putting out into the world. But it’s a fine line you’re walking all the time.
BC: Yeah, for sure. In a way, it’s a good way to learn, you know, who you are in the middle of it.
BC: Whatever you can do that feels honest and correct, that can still be inserted into all of these widely various situations without having its corners trimmed off, that’s you.
TC: If you do it with confidence – if you’re confident in your abilities and you’re confident in what you’re putting out – even if it’s not someone’s cup of tea, they’ll have to acknowledge that at least it’s still a decent cup of tea. I find that even for – so when I was first starting, on that Fisher-Price P.A., I had some tough skin because I knew I was rough and I knew I’d be nervous and I was just sort of calibrated for it. And it was new, and you’re putting yourself out there. But man, at the beginning I heard so many nasty comments, you know: “oh this guy’s horrible…”
BC: Probably good for you though, right? In the long run.
TC: Yeah! It never brought me down, it never bummed me out. It kind of made me smirk and it toughened my skin. And encouraged me to work. Now – I go out to a gig now and it’s always just anticipation and excitement. I feel like I’m at a place where I’m so comfortable in my skin and comfortable in what I’m doing where even if someone doesn’t like it, I feel they’d have to acknowledge that I’m still doing a job well. And I always have that with me.
BC: Yeah, I find that – I find that, well, maybe because I don’t really live anywhere right now, I find that those are the most stable hours of every day, you know? Whatever happens, whatever chaos is swirling around in the rest of my life, I consistently wind up in this situation, several times a week, where I have an interaction with a room full of people. And it’s a thing that I understand and that I have some kind of control over, and it’s kind of a way to plumb for the ground wherever I may happen to be. It’s good, or at least I’ve found it’s good, to be able to set my watch by that.
TC: Interesting. Yeah. Absolutely. No matter what room you’re in, or how bad your day was, or how bad the sound may be that night… that time when you’re just closing your eyes (I close my eyes) and playing that music, that three-hour opportunity when I’m just at work, that’s always… that’s it. I never feel more myself than I do when I’m doing that stuff.
BC: Yeah, this year – the week of the election, that was obviously a Tuesday, and for whatever reason I didn’t have a show until Thursday. And it was just, you know, forty-eight hours of hell and misery until I had that opportunity to kind of work it out.
TC: Oh god, yeah.
BC: You know, I just remember thinking like, “augh, I just want to talk to people.”
But yeah, it was a show I did with a friend of mine, and it was just this cathartic – we were just able to exhale for the first time, and I remember we could just see the audience kind of doing the same thing.
TC: Jeez, yeah, it was just – I remember the same thing, just having to play and talk and get it out. I mean, still. Still! It’s still resonating, especially up here. I mean, this part of the state…
BC: Oh, I guess before we run out of time, the last thing I wanted to ask you was – and it’s okay if there isn’t an answer to this – but do you find that your writing reflects the influence of what you talked about, you know, doing all this while living in the woods? Like, to what extent has that shown up in your – I don’t write lyrics, so this is all, you know, foreign and mysterious to me.
TC: I spend a lot of time sitting up alone in the trees, or – when I first started – out on the lake in the middle of the night in my kayak, under the stars. I’ve always spent so much time in nature up here. So, I mean, what am I going to write about? I write about the trees and the dirt and the woods and the rock and just – things that people—just the most basic, the most real, the most relatable. So I think yes, there’s a heavy reflection of the land that I’m living on and working on in the lyrics that I write. Or I would hope there is…
BC: Yeah, literally grounding.
TC: Yeah. It’s funny – I don’t listen to my CDs once I make them. Or maybe once a year if I have a long trip, I’ll throw one in. So I’ve got this new album coming out here in a couple weeks – it’s my first one in a while – and I’ve been listening to the mixes, just zoning in and overlistening, overanalyzing, overcriticizing, all that stuff. And I’m super excited and super proud of this one, more so than for the previous records, where there’d be, you know, a bad lyric or a rush or a weird note… there’s just something that irks me on every single one, but I’ve totally devoured this one a hundred times and I haven’t found anything, so I’m really proud of that. I’m proud of the lyrics. And everything on it.
BC: What’s it called?
TC: Stay Glad.
TC: (laughs) Yeah, which is kind of appropriate…
BC: Yeah, I was going to say! …I don’t know if I can do that.
TC: Yeah, it’s hard these days, that’s for sure! But anyway, yeah, I’m listening to these mixes on my way down – oh, so the way I record, since I’m so far up here and all my resources and studios and engineers and session guys are down in Portland, is I’ll pack up –
BC: Oh, did you record it in Portland?
TC: Yeah, everything.
TC: Oh yeah, this last one I did at Domenic’s place, over on Warren Ave?
BC: Yeah! Nice.
TC: So because of the distance, we just went down and recorded everything in two 12-to-14-hour days.
TC: And I had all my guys lined up, like “you’ll be in from 2-4 this afternoon, and then these guys are coming in after that,” and it was all just very meticulously organized.
BC: Not a lot of room for error.
TC: But a lot of room for improvisation. I’d go in and I’d play all my parts, you know, guitar and vocal, and then they’d come in and do their parts kind of live. And we knocked this thing out, man. Unbelievable what work they could do in the time that we had.
But I was listening to a couple albums on my way down, to do a mix for the new one.
BC: Which you had like, 18 hours to fill…
TC: (laughs) Seriously. But what occurred to me is… is that, in a way, it’s really just all one song. It’s allllll – from that first track on the first album to the new song I just wrote last week, it’s all one song and it’s just changing, evolving. Modulates through different keys, different lyrics. It’s just one song you’ve got to write here, and at times it’ll go up and be joyous, and at times it’ll get dark, or it’ll be happy, or it’ll be full, or sparse…
BC: And do you mean like, whatever you’re trying to say in your work gets better articulated the longer the song goes on?
TC: Yeahhhh, sort of. Toward the end, there’s always a little more definition, your vision is a little clearer. The song that you’re writing is always getting a little more interesting, a little better.
BC: Yeah. Yeah, you learn what it isn’t, too.
TC: Yeah! Yeah. And you just learn what you get. Who you are and what you’re best at.
BC: I mostly learn what I’m not good at, and then I don’t do that again.
BC: Well that’s cool! Man, I can’t wait to hear the new record –
TC: Thanks, man.
BC: And thanks so much for doing this. Unless – do you have anything else you want to add?
TC: No, I’ve talked about myself more than I ever have… (laughs)
BC: No, no, that’s what this is for! Thanks so much, Travis.
TC: This was fun; thanks so much for the opportunity.
BC: Of course. Thanks for doing it.
[END OF TAPE]