Singer-songwriter Lachlan Bryan seems to be almost always on tour with his band, The Wildes, so it’s appropriate that their latest single – from their forthcoming album – is ‘The Road’. Bryan is an outstanding lyricist, so there is more to the song than it being simply about the touring life, but recently I asked him about that, about his relationship with longtime collaborator Damian Cafarella and his songwriting process.
The single is a great song, but I have to confess that I’m not shocked because you can’t write a bad song, I think.
I can. I can send them all to you if you want, I’ve got some shockers. I’m really fond of this one. I guess I’m attached to it because it feels very honest and truthful, and normally I write pretty honest and truthful, but as you know, I often write characters or whatever, whereas this is pretty autobiographical and I just thought it sounded nice too, so that’s part of it.
It is autobiographical and I was listening to it quite closely ̶ you do make it easy to listen closely to your songs because you enunciate clearly, which I always think is a great compliment to the listener. But also it’s always worth listening to your songs because the lyrics are so rich, and you do sing about a restless spirit. But what struck me listening to that was that you write about being on the road, being away from people yet you perhaps more than most in the country music community have a lot of sustained connections with other artists, I’ve noticed. So do you think that makes you a bit of a paradox?
Maybe. It can be pretty lonely in a crowd sometimes, I guess. I do have a lot of friends in the community and outside of country music as well, just in the music community in general. And I think I’m finding more and more that I need that and I rely on that a lot more than I probably used to. Particularly lately. As you know, it’s been a pretty sad time in the country music world over the past couple of weeks [Lachlan is referring to the death of Glen Hannah]. We’ve probably all realised how connected we all are to each other. But in terms of what I’m writing about, the thing that I’ve learned is that … look, it seems a little bit crass at the moment to talk about depression and anxiety and all that kind of stuff, because I don’t have it badly. But I do find that I’m only really kind of contented and happy if I’m playing. And I hate to think what would ever happen if I stopped enjoying getting in front of an audience and playing, because I really live for it. I spend a lot of time in the studio and I produce records, and I love all that, but if a period of time goes past where I don’t actually go somewhere and play, or go somewhere different and meet different people, I really think I start to go a bit insane. And I know that it’s probably not a very sensible thing. I know that I should probably learn to be happy with day-to-day life, but I’m not. I really need it. I’m just someone who really needs to keep moving. And I think it’s probably very frustrating for people around me. I’ve definitely ended up hurting people that I would rather not have hurt. Getting back to the song, I think that’s kind of the point I’m making. But maybe I fought it more in the past and now I’m just accepting it.
There is a lot of wisdom in accepting your own nature, unless you’re a psychopath, which you’re not, I don’t believe.
Well, the jury’s out, probably [laughs].
You write and perform with a lot of empathy, and that would suggest not. I think it is difficult if you fight your own nature because, yes, for one thing the rest of life is pretty colourless, I would imagine. If you can’t do the thing that makes you feel most like you.
I think so. And I think you’re not as nice to be around if you fight your own nature. You can do it for a while, but if you try and fit into whatever everyone else does around you ̶ and I don’t mean the immediate people necessarily but the wider world around you ̶ I find personally that I just get a bit bitter. I’m just not as relaxed to be around and that’s probably worse than being myself.
Well, there’s a quote I remember reading many years ago, from the Flying Wallendas, who were a high-wire act and the quote was: ‘Life is on the wire. The rest is just waiting.’
You know, actually, that’s the case. I completely agree with that.
In terms of wanting to be in front of an audience and needing to perform, does the size of the audience matter? Or is it something that is that exchange between whoever is in the room and you,
Look, I play Americana music so the size of the audience is never really massive. We played a festival last night but we play rooms that usually fit 100 or 200 people. That’s probably the audience I’m most comfortable in front of, to be honest. Last night we played to a lot more than that, but because I’m always looking for an individual connection with people, on a festival stage, if there’s a thousand people or more there, sometimes find myself looking around going, Who can I make a direct connection with here? Almost like I want to perform to one section of the audience. Maybe if I’d gone to some kind of stagecraft school or something they’d have beaten that out of me [laughs]. But I probably like it a bit more intimate.
Do you find in a festival crowd that you can make that connection? That you can always find someone to sing to?
I think so. Sometimes it’s just the first person that yells out, whether they yell out something positive or negative. It’s not like we’re doing stand-up comedy, so we don’t really get hecklers very often, but sometimes you’ll get a borderline heckler or just someone who wants to take some attention for themselves. When someone does that I feel like I really get something to work off, which I love. But I do look for who I can connect to quickly. And I think if you can connect with a few people it’s a little bit contagious and other people start to want to get in on that relationship.
Still on the theme of the song, which is called ‘The Road’: how far has your road taken you?
Right now I live about 15 minutes from where I grew up [laughs] so I should be saying ‘nowhere’. Or you could say ‘all over the world’, because we do go to a lot of places regularly. In fact, within a week and a half we’re going to be in Port Hedland in Western Australia, and then in England, Scotland, Switzerland, Netherlands, Germany, Italy. All these places in a really short time. Speaking literally, my road keeps taking me long distances. In terms of whether I’ve grown up at all, or how my thought process has changed, the only thing I’ve learned is to be a bit more accepting of myself and maybe that I haven’t actually changed that much despite a lot of people strongly encouraging it.
Accepting oneself can be the work of a lifetime and a lot of people don’t get there, so I think that’s a good road to have taken.
Well, good, I’ll take that. I’ll take that as encouragement to stay on the road [laughs].
But going back to the literal road of going to Europe, and I know you’ve also played a bit in the USA, is it slightly surreal to be in a different hemisphere and have people knowing your songs?
We’re not one of those acts that have been played on the radio heaps so that people know it before we get there. So I feel like the people that do know our music when we travel, it’s because of either me going myself solo or the band have reached them individually, usually a show or something to start with and then they’ll come back with their friends, which is ultimately what you want. So in some ways it is [surreal], and I think what is probably most surreal about it is to think that I still get to do this, like this has become a career at a time when possibly the music industry is a harder thing to get a career in than ever now, so I feel very lucky. All my life is music. And even when I’m busy and stressed out about things, I do remind myself that the thing I’m stressed out about is getting some kind of musical thing done on time or getting somewhere so I can do it on time or whatever. So I don’t know if it’s surreal, but I feel very fortunate that this thing that I love doing is pretty much everything I do all the time. And travel is a big part of that. Most people seem to want to travel in one way or another and the fact that travelling helps me pay my rent rather than the opposite is very fortunate.
Talking about other things related to music, you mentioned that you’re doing some producing, which doesn’t surprise me ̶ I think you’ve always had really clear visions of the music you’re creating so it makes sense that you could apply that skill to others. So how much producing are you doing and how many albums are you doing?
Maybe five or so records a year, which doesn’t sound like much but there’s a lot of preparation and you do little things in between. You do preproduction and demos and all that kind of stuff. But it’s a good thing. I really enjoy it. When you’re producing someone’s music, when you’ve agreed to get on board with it, you end up caring about it as much as your own, which is a nice feeling. And I get very inspired by it as well. People come in and make a song totally differently to how I would write it and I find that interesting. So I’m doing a fair bit of it, pretty much all of it with Damian Cafarella, who plays in our band and produced our record. We produce a lot of records together. We kind of produce our own band’s records together as well. I like to take my name off it because if it goes badly I want him to get the blame. But it’s definitely something that I’m doing more out than ever and we’ll probably keep doing it. There’s a cap to how many you can do a year. We say no to stuff as well. I like to think I’m pretty discerning, particularly if it’s a full-length album. I think there’s a lot of mediocre music in the world and I don’t really want to contribute to it [laughs]. I definitely think it’s pressure [to produce] and it’s a different kind of pressure that you put on yourself for your own music but I care about it just as much, so it’s definitely something I love doing.
Your relationship with Damian is a longstanding collaborative relationship, and it appears to be getting not necessarily closer ̶ because I don’t know how close you are ̶ but certainly a richer creative relationship, or that’s what it looks like.
We are really close and we’re sort of opposites as people. We’re best friends. But like a lot of good relationships we are really, really different people. The road is his nightmare. He’s a homebody. And we almost argue about it. The studio we work out of is in his house and I can’t believe that he can stay in his house. It’s great for me because I leave my house and go to his house. But I couldn’t be in my house all day and then have dinner in my house then sleep in my house and work in my house. That sounds like my nightmare. I’d have cabin fever. But our relationship is really close. We call each other every day. If we’re not working in the studio together, we’ll probably talk for an hour on the phone every day. And we talk about everything to do with music and not that much not to do with music. There is enough music to talk about for long periods of time, and we’ll be in the studio all day and artists will come in who are working with us and they’ll say, wow, these guys can really talk. But it’s fantastic. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a collaboration like that, that you just feel works so strongly and easily and comfortably. It’s a great thing. You really feel like you have each other’s back, professionally and personally.
Do you consider yourself to be a musician or a storyteller first and foremost?
Probably a storyteller. I’d love to consider myself to be a musician first and foremost, but I think that the strength of what I do comes from storytelling. And all the music that I’ve learned how to articulate this is really to serve the story.
So, therefore, in your creative process, does the germ of the story come to you first and then you expand from that or sometimes a whole story is there and it’s your job to document it.
I think that’s it. I don’t know where it comes from. For me, the ideas seem to emerge. I don’t necessarily write quickly, particularly not now because I think I’ve set my standards a bit higher and I’m being more critical. But I don’t have a great method or anything. It just tends to be [that] the idea comes and I follow it and I try to not be too conscious of what I’m doing. And then the song-slash-story emerges.
I’m circling back to pretty much where we started, which was you talking about having bad songs. I’m wondering about your editing process. How do you look at that brace of songs and what criteria do you use to decide what’s bad and what’s good?
If I have a hundred ideas I’ll generally assume that about 96 of them are terrible. So that’s really my starting point. I will look at everything I’ve come up with and be ready to draw a big red line through it. And I’ve probably lost some things by doing that were better than I thought they were, but that’s pretty much my editing process. I probably have a few people in mind that I know and I think to myself, Would I proudly play this to that person? And if I wouldn’t, I think, Does that mean I’m trying to sneak a sub par song through and do I not really believe in it? Because if I don’t really believe in it as a song, I can’t really get up and sing it with any conviction or record it. So I would say my editing process is just brutal.
Listen to ‘The Road’ on: