Eliot Bronson Breaks Down “River Runs Dry” (COLUMN)

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After Eliot Bronson wrote the songs that would end up on his self-titled third solo album, he emailed a demo of one song, just vocals and guitar, to Dave Cobb, the celebrated Nashville producer who was behind the recent award-winning albums by Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson. It was a long shot, to say the least, but it worked. The demo got Dave Cobb’s attention and Eliot ended up spending a week recording the record in Cobb’s home studio.

The song he sent, unsolicited, to Dave Cobb, was “River Runs Dry,” and that’s the song we talked about.

The lyrics include specific details that make the song sound like it came from a real situation that matters to the writer, but they don’t hand the story on a platter to the listener. It’s open to interpretation. It does more mood-creating than story-telling.

“I like story songs and I like stories but I also think that you can sort of tell a story by painting a picture,” Eliot says.

Waitin’ on a wanin’ moon
Climbin’ up the tall trees
I hope nobody saw me
Sneakin’ in

Shadows from the ladder rungs
Reachin’ ‘cross the concrete
Like so many memories
Wearin’ thin

I don’t give up
I’ve never known why
I’ll be sailing down the river till the river runs dry
Till the river runs dry

I bet I never will forget
Her mirror and her long dress
Hair right down to her breast
Black as coal

Or the lady on the radio
Talkin’ all the way home
Now I don’t feel so all alone
Down this road

Oh street lights pass and shadows cast
Down across your heart
I never knew just what to do
But push on through the dark

Repeated throughout the song are images of light and darkness. The moon, the street lights, the shadows, the mirror. And cutting through the darkness is the image of a river. In the poem-picture one can imagine a solitary figure sailing down the river as the water reflects the moon. I ask Eliot about the imagery.

“I was noticing myself that those images come up a lot in the whole record,” he says. “I didn’t know that. I didn’t realize that until recently. It shows up in a bunch of songs. What I love about writing, what I love about songs, is that you don’t have to know why they work for them to work. It allows me to operate, to create, at a place not where my rational mind is always. So I don’t have to sit down and map out a plan and understand why. All I have to do is fumble around and discover these things, discover these lines, and they feel true or they feel like they’re leading somewhere, and I just sort of follow it. And then plenty of times, most of the time, later on, I go back and look at the song and go ‘Oh yeah, I see where that came from.’ But as I’m writing it I don’t always have access to that, and that’s a good thing.”

“So you get in a flow,” I say.

“I try to, yeah. It doesn’t always happen but you know when you’re there and I know when I finally come upon the right line. It takes a long time. Sometimes they come quickly but it’s very clear to me when the line is right and when it’s not there yet.”

I ask him if this was a song that he wrote quickly or if it took a long time.

“I wrote it pretty quickly. I think I wrote the bulk of it in one sitting. Probably in 20 minutes or something like that. And then sometimes there’s a point at which that flow you mentioned, you kind of get out of it, you fall out of it. And it’s best to just step away. Because I never want any of the songs to feel like I’ve worked them. I don’t like it when I can see the gears turning in the music. I want it to feel natural and organic and like it sprouted out of the ground, and the only way to get those kinds of creations is to be in that place where you’re trusting your intuition more than your rational thinking. So when I feel like I’ve fallen out of it I put the guitar down and come back to it another time.”

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I mention that the word “organic” is one that I had thought of when I listened to this record. Craft went into it, but I don’t hear the craft. The songs sound like they are the only way they could be.

“I think that’s exactly where my head was. And that’s the way I try to write, and I think this is the first record I recorded that way too. But that’s exactly what I want to have happen. I want it to feel completely natural and I don’t want you to listen and see the writer hunched over his pad. I just want it to wash over you.”

Throughout the song, the lyrics paint a picture and set the mood in soft focus, but then the bridge shows up and sharpens the focus. Like the best bridges, it snaps the message of the song into place and says, directly, what it’s really about.

Oh street lights pass and shadows cast
Down across your heart
I never knew just what to do
But push on through the dark

“That’s the heart of the song,” Eliot says, when I ask him about the directness of the bridge. “I don’t know if every bridge does that. I certainly don’t know that every one of my bridges does that. But in that song there is sort of a turning toward the listener and saying it more plainly.

“I love the structure of songs. And you’ll notice that a lot of my songs have a very tight structure. I love working within the box. What can you do in the box? Because you can do anything in the world outside the box but it’s like a haiku. Like you only have these three lines, what are you gonna do? So you get to that bridge and then all bets are off. Do whatever you want. And I love that.”

The star of this song, as with the rest of the record, is Eliot’s voice. A voice is a musical instrument, and his is an especially fine one, rich and warm. But it’s what he does with that instrument that makes his music transcend. He uses every tool in the vocalist’s toolbox. Sometimes he employs a soft approach on a note, easing into a sound so that it seems to melt around the lyric. He varies the dynamics on a single syllable. He slides into a loose vibrato as he drops in volume at the end of a phrase. You’d have to listen to a lot of records before you’ll hear one with a vocal performance as nuanced as this one.

So it doesn’t surprise me that Dave Cobb, who has said that a fantastic singer is the primary thing he looks for, responded favorably to the song demo and wanted to work with Eliot on the project.

We come back again to the idea of the song sounding so organic. What you hear is the song, not the engineering or the elements of the performance. I ask how he and Cobb achieved that.

Eliot says, “I think both Dave and I shared a vision for this record because we both really love records from the 50s and 60s and early 70s. Folk records and blues records and songwriter records from that era. They were all different but they all had a certain vibe you don’t really hear that much these days. And we were deliberately trying to create that same vibe that you might have heard on (Bob Dylan’s) ‘National Skyline’ or (Simon and Garfunkel’s) ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’ Songs from that era have a particular sonic fingerprint. So we were trying to pay homage a little bit to that era and create something that was in the lineage of those kinds of records. So to get there were a bunch of things that were done very deliberately. Like the choice to use analog, the choice to play live in the room, and the choice to mix it with the voice very much up front and leading the song. So what you hear, hopefully, first is the song. Then later on maybe you might go back and think ‘Isn’t that interesting, there’s an upright bass there.’ But that’s not the focus of anything.”

Evidence of the subtlety of the arrangement: when I ask Eliot who sings the high harmonies in the chorus he says, “I believe it’s Kristen Rogers.” He pauses. “Or it’s me.”

You don’t really hear the harmonic line distinctly. It just makes the chorus a little fuller, adds some weight to it. Later Eliot tells me it was Kristen. “She did such a good job of copying my delivery. It almost could be me.”

I ask Eliot if the final result of his work with Cobb was similar to what he expected, or if the result surprised him.

“One of the things I love about Dave is that he serves the song and the arrangement and he doesn’t necessarily want to insert himself into everything. There are people out there who would have changed things just to put their mark on it. He did change a few things here and there, but for the most part if the song was done, if it had a good structure, and the lyric was right, and the melody was right, and even some of the melodic hooks that I had written were right he would just leave it intact completely and just say ‘this is done.’ Then his job would be more in terms of what’s the right mic and what’s the right drum feel, what’s the right tone for the guitar.

“But there were some bigger things overall like he had in mind. Like he insisted that we have drums on everything except for one song. I went into this thinking we were gonna make something really stripped down and naked. And what he managed to do was make it sound like it is, even though it is produced. And so I’ve gotta give him credit for that. I think that was pretty brilliant.”

One Track Mind is a new column by Glide writer Jody Mace in which she’ll conduct interviews with songwriters about just one song, while exploring the inspiration, challenges and evolution of that one song.

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One thought on “Eliot Bronson Breaks Down “River Runs Dry” (COLUMN)

  1. Matt Arnett Reply

    So glad to see Eliot getting so much positive attention for his beautiful music. So long overdue. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer and more humble guy.
    Thanks for shining light on such a deserving songwriter and performer.

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