Photo: Ashtin Paige
Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors is an Americana band based in Nashville, which has been performing and recording since 2006. They have now released six very fine albums, choc full of good tunes, good musicianship and good feeling. Along the way, they’ve played on stages with Ryan Adams, the Avett Brothers, John Hiatt, Needtobreathe and others. Last year Holcomb relaunched the Moon River Music Festival in Chattanooga which had sold out crowds and featured artists like Margo Price, the Avett Brothers, Mavis Staples, Jason Isbelland Brandi Carlile.
The new album from the band, Dragons, is an upbeat, infectious affair, with songs co-written by Lori McKenna, Natalie Hemby, Zach Williams of The Lone Bellow, producer Cason Cooley, and Ellie Holcomb. You’ll find yourself humming along, tapping your toes and generally the better for having listened to it. It’s an assured slice of sunny Americana. That’s not to say it’s in any way trivial – Holcomb says he has never worked harder on his song-writing than on this album, and the lyrics are in turn wryly amusing, clever, poignant and serious about themes like grief and getting older.
One of the album highlights is You Want What You Can’t Have, featuring Lori McKenna. It’s got an infectious rhythm and tune, but Holcomb says it deals with the “fight for contentment in a world of comparison, greed and dissatisfaction.” And then there’s the title track, Dragons, an out and out country song with an inspirational message which evokes the spirit of Holcomb’s grandfather – “Go swimming in the ocean on New Year’s Day, Don’t listen to the critics, Stand up and bear witness, Go slay all the dragons that stand in your way.” Good advice – but maybe I’ll not plunge into the north Atlantic just after Christmas!
We talked to Drew about the album:
DATC: Drew, the new album, Dragons, is terrific. One of your best, for me, up there with my own favourite, Good Light. You’ve said it was largely inspired by the quote, “Always be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Drew Holcomb; I think there is a lot despair, apathy, and hopelessness in our world today. There is also too much “othering” and marginalizing. I find empathy and loving the stranger to be a baseline moral value that we must cultivate in our lives. I want my music to be something that brings people together, while also not being escapist. I think telling my own story is the way to do that.
DATC: Can you tell us a bit about, first of all, writing the songs on the album (I gather some were co-written), and then the recording of the album?
Drew: I wrote “Family” and “See the World” first, by myself, then started writing alongside other friends who are artists and songwriters. Lori McKenna, Natalie Hemby, Sean McConnell and others.
DATC: The first song, Family, is a great opener, a joyous celebration of family, even though “it ain’t always pretty, drive you insane.” How important has family been to you?
I have over thirty cousins, dozens of aunts and uncles and I grew up 5 doors down from my maternal grandparents. I am the 2nd of 4 children and we have 3 of our own now. Family is very important to me. Family has been a majority of the cast of characters in my life.
DATC: You’ve got some great collaborators – as well as Ellie, you have Lori McKenna, The Lone Bellow and Natalie Hemby. Can you say a bit about working with these artists and why you had each one on these particular songs?
Drew Holcomb: I usually don’t co-write but decided to give it a try this record, and it was mostly with people who I already love and trust. We had a great time. “Dragons” for instance was written with Zach Williams from the Lone Bellow, and it all started about a conversation about the big personalities of our grandfathers. The writing with these friends was very narrative and personal.
DATC: You Want What You Can’t Have is a jaunty, toe-tapping song, but it’s got a bit of a punch, with “we want the spark, but we don’t want the burn, we want the love, but we don’t want the hurt,” doesn’t it?
Drew Holcombe: Yes it does. “Some people stay up all night, praying for a child of their own…” is also a gut-wrencher. Lori and I wanted to say something unifying and universal and stinging while also looking in the mirror. Saying hard things to the world while preaching them to yourself always makes the medicine go down better!
DATC: And Maybe kind of continues the theme with “everything is never enough…maybe we’re not supposed to try everything.” It’s a pretty explicit comment about the consuming, individualistic society we’ve become. You don’t shy away from making that sort of serious point in your songs. How much is that informed by your faith and how do you tread the line between that and not wanting to be overly explicit?
Drew Holcomb: I honestly don’t think about the “line,” I just write what I want to write and let the chips fall. This song, “Maybe” was written about a conversation about the never-ending pressure to be interesting on social media. Sometimes what we need is less, not more.
DATC: I love the positivity of title track, Dragons – can you say something about the background to that song?
Drew Holcomb: My grandfather was a pretty legendary guy… He was a surgeon during World War Two, took his family to Kenya for a year in the late 60’s to do surgery there, he loved to play golf, tennis, fish, hunt and do taxidermy. He died about 17 years ago and this song is about a dream of him coming back to give me advice.
DATC: You’ve just organized another Moon River festival – tell us something about that and what the festival is all about.
Drew Holcomb: It’s really just about great music, a great location, and community. We have been doing it for 6 years, and it keeps growing and getting better and better. It has sold out in a day for the last two years. This year was especially fun for me because we had Brandi Carlile headlining and we closed the festival with John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” together.
DATC: More generally, Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors have become pretty successful, but I’m sure it’s been a tough ride at times. Did you ever feel like giving up?
Drew Holcomb: All the time… Making your living as a creative person is a roller coaster of self-doubt, high highs and low lows. There have been many times in the last 15 years I have thought about giving up. The travel is brutal, the sleep, eating etc. on the road is hard on your body, and you are opening up your soul on stage every night in hopes that the crowd reciprocates, which is not always the case.
DATC: Finally, Drew, what sort of music does Drew Holcomb like to listen to and who, would you say are your favourite songwriters?
Drew Holcomb: I listen to lots of things. I would say my favorite bands of the last 15 years have been Avett Brothers and Wilco, but I honestly listen to everything.
DATC: Thank you Drew!