Interview: The Mastersons

The Mastersons are a husband and wife duo in demand in more ways than one.

As well as being a superb duo who have got two excellent albums of their own under their belts - 2012's Birds Fly South and this year's Good Luck Charm (set for physical release July 25 and digital release July 4) - they're also staple members of country rock legend Steve Earle's band.

This combination of having their own group and working full-time touring/recording with Earle means they're also one of the busiest duos in music. In fact they had to write the majority of their new record on the road with Steve and the result is a beautiful record influenced by the travel, looming deadlines and spending 24/7 with the person you love.

CMC writer Nathan Wood spoke with the band while they were in Australia on tour with Earle ahead of the release of Good Luck Charm, where they discussed the process of wiring on tour, the influence of geography on an album, and their evolution as a husband and wife duo as well as a band.

CMC: You wrote most of this record on the road while touring with Steve Earle. What’s it like to write while touring – was it something difficult to achieve because I talk to a lot of bands and they all seem to really struggle to write on the road.

C: Well the process – the deadline was the big motivator.

E: We were on the road for most of last year and there just wasn’t any other time to do it besides our days off with a Steve. So we had a deadline. We had to write 20 songs at the request of our producer Jim Scott.

C: We have a long day out when we have the Steve Earle tour because have of the time we have the support slot as well, so it’s a really long day, but we just had to get to a venue, hide out in the dressing room and get to work until sound check – we’d do Steve’s sound check and then ours and then play our show and Steve’s show and get up and do it again the next day.

E: I do have to say it’s a little easier on the road with Steve because he’s got a driver and a bus, so at least we’ll be more rested than if we were out on our own in our minivan doing all the driving ourselves.

Did you feel like that deadline and that sense of urgency found its way onto the record in timing or sound?

C: I think so. I think when you have that kind of deadline – we had to make that record at the end of the year to be on schedule to come out now – I don’t know. You tend to make decisions quick and sometimes those quick and distinctive decisions are the right ones. It’s just like making a record – we made the record in 15 days and I think when some people are allotted too much time, it’s easy to mess it up, you know? If you think about it too much.

You wrote this record on the road and recorded this record in LA as opposed to your first record where you wrote in Brooklyn. Do you think you can feel the different coasts’ influence on the records at all?

C: The first record, listening back I can hear the snow. It sounds like winter to me. We recorded it in Austin, we drove down to Austin and made that record. When we decided to work with Jim Scott out in LA, it definitely – I guess geography plays into it somehow, you know? It feels lighter to us.

E: Sunnier, happier.

C: When we chose Jim, I love some of the pop rock records – the stuff with Tom Petty – and this batch of songs seemed to lend itself to that.

Obviously Jim’s got a lot of credibility. What was it like to work with him and what do you think he brought out in your music?

E: It was pretty amazing working with him. He has a real knack for encouraging the best performance out of you. If he doesn’t hear what he wants to hear he’ll definitely let you know. He’s hard on you but not… how would you describe it?

C: He’s always looking for the “big note”. What he calls the “Big Notes”. It’s not a perfect chord it’s just a…

E: Perfect thing.

C: It could be something that he’s asking out of the drummer or to lift a chorus. He’s just like, “No, that’s not it. I’m looking for the big note.” And sometimes it can seem nebulous but when you hit it, you kind of know. It’s like, “Oh, okay.” And when you’ve given him what he wants, he’s like, “I got it, go to the bar. I’ll see you in a bit.”

How do you think you’ve evolved as a band between albums? Do you feel you’ve honed your sound to something that’s much more quintessentially The Mastersons?

C: I think so. I think when we got out and started touring Birds Fly South we played hundreds of shows and radio appearances and just singing together, it’s amazing how things just tightened up. So when we wrote this record, from its conception we wrote every word together as opposed to Eleanor bringing a pile of songs and me bringing a pile of songs. You know there’s two of us but it’s an incredibly unified thing.

E: Yeah this record’s a lot more crafted, I think, specifically for the Mastersons.

Are there any songs on the album you’re particularly proud of that you’re really excited for people to hear? I really, really enjoyed ‘I Found You’ in particular.

E: The title track, I’m excited for people to hear the story behind it. I don’t know how it would translate over there but there were a few interesting things going on politically in Texas and I felt inspired in the middle of that. But I think politics aside the song is supposed to be very galvanising and to bring people together, so we really liked that song. I think ‘Cautionary Tale’ is another one, just because I think it’s probably the most unique song on the record.

C: But the record has a wide swing. There’s some stuff that’s political and observational and then there is, you mentioned ‘I Found You’, there are some love songs on the record too. It feels like a balanced group of songs to me. It’s not 12 sunny love songs but it’s not 11 bummer songs either. I feel like it has a pretty good balance to it.

Your bio for the last record made a big deal about you two being husband and wife, but every time you were quoted in the bio, you seemed to want to make the point that you were a band first, a couple later. A few years and a few hundred shows down the road, do you feel like you guys have made more of a name for yourself as a band, rather than a husband and wife act?

C: I think it’s just naturally evolved. When we set out to do it, it was never, like, “Oh we’ll be George and Tammy and it will be this cute thing.” I don’t think we hide from that as much, I think it’s definitely more apparent on the new record. It’s a good question actually – you’re one of the early interviews on this record so we’re just starting the ramp up on this stuff, so it’s a good question.

E: I think it’s definitely part of our story but we don’t really play it up on stage. We’re not like gazing lovingly at each other while we’re signing our songs.

C: It’s just funny – we love doing this together and I feel like the luckiest guy on the planet. But, sometimes if you gettoo lovey dovey about it it can turn some people off.

Well, I’ve interviewed other musician couples and other bands that are made up of entire families and sometimes there’s an almost spiritual connection between their music, like it’s in their DNA or something. Do you guys experience that feeling at all?

C: Oh we certainly are but I think that’s part of what we do. We wake up together in the morning and we’re side-by-side 24/7, without missing a beat and when it goes right it’s always going to be tighter than say a band with a bunch of dudes that came together. There’s something that happens when we’re on stage where if I’m jagging left she knows where I’m going and there’s an unspoken thing, for sure.

Words: Nathan Wood

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