SONG PREMIERE: Korby Lenker Readies 'Thousand Springs'; Premieres "Friend And A Friend"
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For many artists, stepping into a studio to record an album can be challenging enough. But when East Nashvillian Korby Lenker began working on his seventh album, Thousand Springs, he decided to skip the studio altogether and head to his home state of Idaho to record in places that held particular meaning for him. Venturing forth with his guitar, some recording gear and a tent, he captured his vocal and guitar parts in more than a dozen locales, including the edge of the Snake River Canyon, a cabin north of Sun Valley and his undertaker father’s mortuary.
Then he spent months driving around the country to collect vocal and instrumental contributions from nearly 30 of today’s finest folk talents, among them Nora Jane Struthers, Anthony Da Costa, Carrie Elkin, Amy Speace, Molly Tuttle, Kai Welch, Angel Snow, Becky Warren and the Punch Brothers’ Chris “Critter” Eldridge. In Madison, Wisconsin, Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, Austin and Nashville, he recorded their work in backyards, hotel rooms and even a bookstore, then went home to edit them into Thousand Springs. The self-produced album releases July 14, 2017, on Soundly Music (via RED distribution).
Lenker plotted his plan for Thousand Springs after Nashville-based Turner Publishing Co. released his first collection of short stories, Medium Hero, in December 2015 — an experience that, he says, helped him find his “true voice” (and earned him high praise not only from book-world luminaries including Kirkus Reviews and National Book Award winner Tim O’Brien, but Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak).
“For me, the two most important qualities of good art are originality and meaning,” Lenker explains. “You’ve got to tell your own story and not try to borrow someone else’s.”
When he moved to Nashville, he quickly discovered singer-songwriters were about as common as pickup trucks. And most of them were about as original.
“It forced me to really dig in and figure out what I did that was different than what everyone else was doing,” he says. “I spent my first three years in town parking cars at a hotel and taking a bunch of chances, creatively speaking. No one really cared about me, which turned out to be very freeing.”
During that period, he wrote many of the stories in Medium Hero, and focused on writing songs that meant something to him rather than worrying about hit potential.
“Along the way, I discovered there was an audience for this approach to telling my story,” he says. It was a thrilling, and empowering, revelation.
In the years since, he’s played everywhere from small listening rooms to Seattle’s world-renowned Bumbershoot festival, delivering what American Songwriter magazine called “huggable folk-pop” on stages shared with artists from Willie Nelson, Keith Urban and Chris Isaak to Susan Tedeschi, Amy Grant and Nickel Creek. Along the way, he’s earned nearly a dozen songwriting awards, including first-place wins at the 2016 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, 2012’s Kerrville Folk Festival and 2006’s Merlefest. He also placed second in the 2017 Hazel Dickens Songwriting Contest for “Friend and A Friend,” a beguiling Thousand Springs track co-written with Tuttle, who sings harmony. Allowing life to imitate art, Lenker also has been conducting a one-man campaign of sorts, engaging strangers for conversation and shared selfies in an Instagram-hosted exercise he calls #MakeAmericaFriendsAgain. (He also touches on that subject in a new song titled “Let’s Just Have Supper.” Written and performed with Struthers, it’s not on this album, but the NPR-premiered video, linked below, is worth checking out.)
Ironically, while recording Thousand Springs (and making friends), Lenker lost his voice for nearly two months.
“The doctors were unsure as to the cause, but said it was most likely due to my being in a severe depression at the time,” he says.
That had to do with his then-girlfriend’s decision to abort their child, a subject he addresses in the closing song, “Wherever You Are.” It examines the issue from an uncommon perspective: that of a father who wants the baby even though the mother does not.
“I don’t have any desire to change someone’s opinion or lend weight to one side or another,” he explains. “It’s just, that kid is a part of my personal story. I love her and miss her every day … I feel like part of this record’s purpose is to allow her to be in the world — in my world — in some way, for longer than she was physically.”
Lenker wrote the affecting song while his voice was gone. He also visited the Vanderbilt Voice Center, where doctors immediately started him on physical therapy. Soon, he was recording again. He did “Wherever You Are” solo, in one take. It’s one of five songs he penned alone; the other seven are collaborations with a variety of musical friends including Speace, Tuttle, Robby Hecht, Jon Weisberger and Liz Longley.
Coincidentally, the song that precedes it, “Mermaids,” has an understated lightheartedness, almost a softer “Magical Mystery Tour”/”Yellow Submarine” vibe, that would easily appeal to kids. Throughout the album, Lenker deftly shifts through a wide range of moods. He captures his love of literature with charming playfulness in “Book Nerd,” which would make a perfect NPR-segment theme song. The opener, “Northern Lights,” is a spare, contemplative tune containing just a couple of verses, but Lenker’s vivid imagery and forlorn voice are all he needs to speak volumes about lost love.
There’s a delicacy to most of these songs, due in part to Lenker’s gentle delivery; in “Nothing Really Matters,” he sounds as if he’s whispering in your ear — in a voice that somehow suggests both James Taylor and Michael Franks, delivered in a Afro-bluegrass style. Driven by Jon Reischman’s outstanding mandolin, it’s reminiscent of Paul Simon’s Graceland; Lenker cites both the artist and the album as major influences.
The hardest-rocking track, “Last Man Standing,” was written about Chief Sitting Bull after Lenker read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. He recorded parts of it at Standing Rock, near Sitting Bull’s grave, a month before the Dakota-Access Pipeline protests began. Musically, the song more or less references his own roots; Lenker started studying piano at age 7 and picked up guitar in his early teens, playing a lot of Neil Young and similar artists before joining the obligatory high-school rock band (his was Clockwork Orange). “There weren’t a lot of people around me making music,” he says about growing up in Idaho’s isolation. “I had to go out and find it.”
His search included attending college in Bellingham, Washington, where he studied music theory — and Phish. Reading about jazz led him to Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller — and to an understanding that, as he puts it, “music had a story, a thread that went from musician to musician, through time.” “The idea of finding my place in that timeline has become more and more important to me,” he notes, adding, “Every time I play a show, I think of it as an audition for the next show. Everything for me is a slow build.”
That might explain another of the album’s delights: “Late Bloomers,” in which he sings, Here's to the late bloomers/Holding on till their time arrives/Some people might have gotten there sooner/But for us, it's gonna be right on time … No matter how hard the path was/We always knew/No dream can outlast us/When it's coming true.
For Lenker, as for any of us, some dreams come true and some don’t. That’s just life. But on Thousand Springs, he shares those highs and lows as only an artist with a “true voice” can. And that voice, he’ll never lose.
Lenker relays the story behind "Friend And A Friend, a song where his almost-at-a-whisper vocals draw you into the intimate, detailed narrative that chronicles his often lonely, low, and uncertain travels as a troubadour.
"I wrote "Friend and a Friend" with bluegrass wunderkind Molly Tuttle in her little apartment in East Nashville. It was one of those songs that came easily, even though it was our first write. We spent about an hour drinking coffee, catching up on what had been going on in our lives, found that we were in a similar place. Both of us spend more days on the road than at home, and we both are in a full-tilt pursuit of our dreams.
Molly showed me this 6 5 2 progression she’d been messing around with. I threw out the Friend and a friend idea, and in a few hours, we were done. I had a strong feeling about this song from the very moment it was done. It was personal and risky, even, in this way I’ve been trying to write lately, but it also seemed like something a lot of people could maybe relate to. In some way, none of us knows whats’s going to happen next week or next month or after the next paycheck.
I’ve been on the road for more than 15 years, playing mostly small clubs and house shows. It’s not an exaggeration to say my career has been built a fan at a time - I've been able to do this for a living largely because of the kindness of people who have seen me play and bought a CD or helped me with a show the next time I came to town. That refrain, “Friend and a friend and another friend” is really the refrain of my whole career.
A couple notes about specific lines of the song: Molly and I both had our Martin guitars out when we wrote that day, which inspired my favorite line “I got a big dream, and a worn out D-18”. My main guitar is a Martin D-18V, which I bought new at Dusty Strings in Seattle in 1999. It looks a lot older than its 18 years, because I’ve lovingly beat the shit out of it through about 1800 shows. “Ford Econoline” is an oblique reference to my favorite Neil Young song, “Tonight’s the Night”, and “Walking on the Wild West End" is both a tribute to a great Dire Straits song and a well-known street in Nashville.
As with all the songs on Thousand Springs, I produced "Friend and a Friend" myself. I recorded the guitar parts in the town where I grew up — Twin Falls Idaho — setting up the gear in this mechanical elevator at my dad’s old mortuary. The elevator is a hundred years old, made to transport caskets from the embalming room to the main parlor floor. I have happy memories as a little kid, watching the big pulleys turn and hearing metallic groan of the gears cranking overhead while my dad and I slowly descended into the basement. Here is a photo of me in the mortuary elevator.”
I spent the next week playing shows in Idaho and Oregon, and then I stopped by my friend Anna Tivel's house in Corvallis, Washington. She played fiddle and sang backup vocals, and then her partner Jeffrey Martin added his own husky vocal to the long refrain.
A few weeks later, I was in Austin Texas. I recorded Andrew Pressman on electric bass at his house, and sat down with Anthony da Costa on electric guitar the next day. The spot where we recorded the electric was tight and I remember stacking Anthony’s amp on one of those carpeted cat trees people have. Anthony was a good sport about it.
After Austin, I brought the tracks back to Nashville where Alex Wong added a drum part in his living room. Finally, full circle, Molly came over to my house and sang one more background vocal. I had what I needed.
I took polaroids of everyone involved as a kind of personal souvenir. I didn’t realize it when I was planning it all out, but one of the best things about making my record this way was that I got to spend some one-on-one time with people I love and admire. I’m not that great in groups, and I’m pretty bad at small talk, but putting these songs together, over months and distances, allowed me to create something in a intimate way, with just one person at a time. I was really just making it up as I went along, which made for a pretty bold surprise at every step.