"The Cracks Are There But the Light Shines Through": An Interview with Langhorne Slim
Langhorne Slim has been touring and recording his entire adult life, but sobriety, surviving a rough breakup, and living in a big pink house have informed what may be his most acclaimed album yet.
"For me, when I started drinking as a kid in the basement of my high school sweetheart's parent's house, the first time I got drunk off of a six pack, I was like 'Some day this shit is gonna fuck me or I'm gonna have to not do it' -- and that was the first time!
"I enjoyed it and I didn't enjoy it," continues Sean Scolnick, the scruffy traveler of a man who is perhaps better known by his oft-hatted singer/songwriter moniker Langhorne Slim, here talking to PopMatters backstage prior to playing Thalia Hall in Chicago. "There was a lot of fun and a lot of great pains and great challenges to existing with that. It's one thing if you go out and you're drinking with your friends in a way that's social [and there's] a lightness to it. Then there's other people, and I'm one of those people, where there's a darkness to that behavior, and that darkness puts a fucking cloud on the light that should be shining through us all. So for me to confront that finally at 33 and to put it aside was like me stepping into my new skin, and I was very ready for it, so I'd say of the past 15 years, the last five of being drunk or high was way more challenging than having to step into a new suit for a new party."
The thing about talking with Slim is that he is a man who has no filter and no need for pretenses: he will tell the full-bore truth to even the most casual of strangers, as if he was born incapable of lying. Then again, Slim and his band the Law have a habit of being social creatures, rivaling perhaps only Bob Dylan in terms of having never-ending tour dates, sometimes hitting major markets twice in one year, maybe one time as a full band and the other as a solo acoustic act. Slim's music adapts to any setting, but he seems to feel most comfortable when he's with his band, dancing while furiously strumming his acoustic guitar while singing at full-howl each and every show. He kick steps at the lip of the stage (and sometimes even in the crowd), drops his hat to the floor and tries kicking it back onto his head (he's gotten pretty good at it), and spends just the right amount of time between songs either cracking jokes with the audience or spinning yarns from his many travels and travails. He's the life of every party, born to be on stage, and easily the man you single out in a room as the person you most want to have drinks with.
Yet that latter facet is an impossibility, as Slim has been stone-cold sober for two years, and it's just one of many changes in his life which has informed The Spirit Moves, his latest album. After going through a rough breakup, Slim, defying the perception that he is perpetually-traveling troubadour, finally found something close to a more permanent home in Nashville, purchasing a giant pink house of which he has done numerous recording projects in.
So why a pink house specifically?
"Let me put it to you like this," he starts, "I read at one point that [Henry David] Thoreau was in prison 'cos he wasn't paying his taxes. And he believed so strongly in his conviction that a friend of his came and said 'Brother, why do you choose to be in this jail?' And he said 'No, the question is: why do you choose to be out there?'So when you ask me 'Why the pink house?' -- I would say to anybody who lives in anything but a pink house, 'Why don't you live in a pink house?'
"But the pink house and Nashville both had a similar kind of cosmic-y energetic pull," he continues. "I turn 35 in two days and I've been touring since I was 20 (so all my adult life), and I was bouncing around to Portland after I was in California, and then I left Portland and came to Nashville just to visit people, and I was just traveling then, recently single, and I was busy with the band and looking for a room to rent or a town to call home. So Nashville, I showed up there, not expecting to move there but just to visit, and I felt a warm embrace, a kiss to the forehead, which is a nice way to be kissed. And I felt at home; more at home and kind of understood. It felt easy. It wasn't a feeling I was used to as far as sticking around in a place; I always felt more at ease in motion than in transition. So that's it, man: it called to me and I decided not to dispute the call."
Instinctively reacting to those callings, those otherworldly forces in the universe that just seem to guide your fate in a direction you weren't expecting, is what Slim is all about, and in part why his audience is as fervent as it is. His evocative, personal, and profoundly-relatable lyrics have always made Slim and his gang stand out, even as the band will always have "underdog status" dog-eared on their discography, which itself is chock full of Slim's words set to barn-burning songs that work as a sun-kissed blend of country, rock, and folk, but never truly belonging to any of those genres wholesale. The song "Changes" off the new record seems like an easy thesis statement, which Slim doesn't agree with but understand why people may find it that way, "I think that it seems to simple to say yes [to it being the thesis] 'cos the song is called 'Changes', and there's been all these drastic changes in my life and there's a bio that gets written [that talks about that]. But I feel there's a lot more to it than that."
That bio he refers to is what went out with the album's press release, where a mention is made of The Spirit Moves being the first album he's ever recorded sober ("I promote my own sobriety 'cos it works for me," he tells us). When asked if he felt a notable difference in the recording process because of this, he pushes back noting that "There's a notable difference in just my existence entirely," going on to tell of just how hard it became to simply trust himself without the aid of liquor:
"There is a truth that exists in unassailable things; it's more like an energetic, spiritual kind of plane that exists that I don't know how to put into words like 'This is how it feels differently!' I didn't have a different vision of what the record should sound like; I had a need to prove something to myself that I was able to do it. A lot of artists and musicians and just anybody I'm sure wonders that if they stop doing this thing that they've been leaning on for so long, 'How the fuck will I feel with myself? How will I deal with my relationships? How will I deal with my job?' For me, it was 'How do I deal with my creative process? Is it gonna still be there? I don't fuckin' know.' It was there when I was a little kid, so I should've just known, but I didn't. I was freaked out. A really good friend who has been sober for a long time said 'You shouldn't worry so much. There are some people that are born as strange, freak motherfuckers and you are one of them. You dream a song: that's not something that drugs or alcohol is doing, that's just another means of how to see it.'
"For me," he continues, "as soon as I stepped out of that, I entered the world more strange, I guess. I had a certain kind of swagger I didn't have before because I was taking care of something that I needed to. That immediately put me in a position of power that I hadn't have before. Not over anybody but something within myself."
When it came to actually penning songs for The Spirit Moves, Slim mentions how with this and his last album, 2012's The Way We Move, he dealt with a surplus of songs for the first time ever, a big change from his previous process of just recording every new thing he had at the time.
"I never hold anything back," he explains, "so as soon as I have a new song, I'm excited to play it. It's not like 'Oh I got four new songs! I'll save it for the next record.' I had done some videos for different websites and instead of playing some older things, which maybe they would've preferred, I was just playing [a song] I was developing. If you listen to some shit like that and then you hear it six months after the record came out, there's probably some differences in how it was played.
"I never feel like I have enough and in the last two records I've had more than could fit on the record and there were decisions of [making a] cohesive record." This is getting into the glorious nitty gritty. "So the song, 'Meet Again' which ends The Spirit Moves, I wrote for The Way We Move but didn't find a home there [so] we re-entered into this one. There are songs that I thought would be some of the best songs on the last one and this one that never made it on to either."
When it comes to the always-fascinating subject of favorite songs, however, Slim is quick to pick out two new standbys: "There's different ones that stand out. I'm very proud of a song called 'Airplane' and a song called 'Wolves', and I fought really hard for this tune 'Airplane'; it took a lot of work on my part to put it together, 'cos it wasn't one that just appeared. I feel like that's a really true song where I'm saying the shit I want to be saying and it makes sense to me. And then there's a song called 'Wolves' that I feel very similarly to, and at the time I felt like that was kind of the truest and and vulnerable but strong -- like I'm saying exactly what the fuck I needed to say and it made sense. With this help of this poet James Kavanaugh who wrote this book, There Are Men Too Gentle to Live Amongst Wolves, which I read and was deeply moved by, I felt like on this record not drinking ... and let me preface this for an interview that I promote my own sobriety 'cos it works for me. It's not my 'I'm clean' record (although I am), but it plays into it. There's a lot of other stuff going on."
Yet even as he describes this, Slim gets off on a loose tangential point, all still tying to those same themes but venturing off into his more philosophical, self-exploratory musings: "But a theme I was trying to embrace was to not be scared of being scared and to do things that were scary, and to embrace that to find strength in the shit that hurts. So those two songs try to deal with that and were ... I don't want to say 'attempt' 'cos I didn't sit down and say 'This is what I'm gonna do!' but it moved through me and thankfully my head didn't shut it down and I remained open enough to have it come out, so I feel like they're accurate descriptions of that."
While we wrap up our chat with casual talk on what the album's title means ("I can never tell you!") and inspirations ("There's a guy named Ted Hawkins who passed away but he was a street musician in Venice Beach in the '80s and '90s, and it was some of the most soulful, incredible stuff!"), what particularly strikes home is when Slim is asked what his biggest regret is, and conversely, what he feels is his proudest accomplishment.
"Biggest regret?" he asks aloud to himself. "I regret times in my life that I had my head up my ass so much and was consumed with other things that I was cold and distant to wonderful people and hurt some great friends. You don't get second chances to necessarily go back. Maybe you can continue those relationships or re-find something in those people again, make amends or something like that, but it's important for me to be a very honest and connected guy, and there have been a lot of times in my life where I thought I let some people down, so I regret that."
Yet when it comes to his proudest accomplishment, Langhorne Slim ends up providing less of a simple answer and more an outlook on everything he is as a person and performer:
"Look, my proudest accomplishment isn't a 'one thing.' It is that I truly at almost 35 years old have been playing music this long [and] have a fire that burns within my being and has never diminished even slightly and if anything has grown. That fire gets me in trouble sometimes: it's a hot-ass fire! But it keeps me so revved up and so wanting to be better in all of my loves, which is for music and for my friends and my family and my band. That I'm proud of. I don't have a jaded bone in my body. It ain't always fun for me: I'm not always walkin' around whistling a happy tune, but I'm proud striving to try and be a better man."