Singer-Songwriter Elijah Newman Heads For Sonic Glory on Fifth Album (INTERVIEW)

Singer-songwriter Elijah Newman is in the process of preparing his fifth record for release and if the first single/video is any indication, it’s going to continue to jump down the rabbit hole of Newman’s emotions except this time with a heavier beat. With “Free Born,” he has upped the sonics and the fervor and stitched them together with a punk-infused sewing kit. And this may very well end up being his best record to date.

Hailing from Tennessee, Newman has lived in Nashville since 2012. The home of country music, it has more and more become the landing dock for some pretty cool young rockers (ie Lzzy Hale and Tyler Bryant) and with the exception of Johnny Cash, Newman leans more towards that rock & roll side of his city than the music that made it legendary. Playing in bands since his teens in the Knoxville area, Newman plays guitar, writes the lyrics and even mixes his own records. For #5, he has again enlisted his band, the SideEffects, who played on his last two releases, 2016’s eponymous EP and 2017’s All I Found Was A Ghost. His song “Distance” from 2013’s Against The Tide appeared on the TV series Elementary.

Glide spoke with the young singer-songwriter last week about his upcoming EP and being true to himself without bogging down in the darker regions of his feelings.

You have a new record coming up. So what’s been on your mind and how does that reflect into these new songs you have coming out?

I guess I’d have to say it’s no secret that everything in the world is getting a little crazy for everybody right now and I’ve seen a lot of musicians that are putting out, I wouldn’t necessarily say political records, but definitely things kind of touching on current political things. And I really wanted to avoid that because I think a lot of the issues that are going on really come down to that personal level. So a lot of the songs, they are more in getting down to personal relationships, how we treat one another and how that kind of reflects on my own experience. It’s hard to say if there’s a theme behind the whole collection of songs, cause we’re still building them out, but I would say in general that it’s a lot of personal experience and dealing with some heart things, some personal loss of people. Hopefully, people can relate and maybe take a break from all the crazy things they are seeing in their newsfeeds.

Not every artist is comfortable with being personal in their songwriting but you tend to lean towards the personal – and you can make the personal fun and not all moody and gloomy – but you like that one-on-one connection in a song.

Yes, very much. I know there are a large group of people that like to listen to music just to have something kind of in the background. But I’ve always viewed music as something I want to sit down and engage with. So the music I try to make, if it’s not something to be consumed necessarily while you’re driving your car to a football game or anything like that, it’s for the listener to be able to engage and to reflect and hopefully find something in the messaging of it that they can relate to. You know, music has provided such an escape for me and also made sense of a lot of things that didn’t make sense to me. And that’s always been kind of my aim as well, cause the songs, they’re personal in one part because they are about my life and very true. However, I also view music as, it’s a service industry and I try to write music for other people to consume. I like to draw in the listener and hopefully land on something, that maybe I’m not alone in the things I think.

You’re still a pretty young guy – do you sense a maturity in yourself on these new songs that you’ve written?

Yes, certainly. You know, this will be my fifth release since 2011/2012, and as time has gone I’ve always tried to do something different. I guess when I walk away from making a record, all I want to be able to say is that I feel like it was the best one I could make at the time. I don’t really like to compare releases so much cause I feel like they’re snapshots of what I was feeling and what I was influenced by at those times. As far as maturity goes, yeah, certainly I would like to think that and that this is one of the better pieces of music I’ve embarked on.

And you’ve enlisted your band, the SideEffects, to play on this record

Yeah, this album specifically has some musicians playing on it that are a real treat to have with me: Chris Potocik is the drummer and he has played drums on every single piece of recorded music I have and he is just great. He’s in a band called Backup Planet and they’re touring and doing really great things. The guitar player, Aaron Porter, is a worship music guy, works a lot in churches and things like that, so he’s got a really different ear. I kind of grew up in a Christian household, going to church and things like that, so we really connected on that aspect of music. Then the bass player, Jeremy Smith, is a guy out of Charlotte, North Carolina, and is a good friend of mine. He plays for big artists like John Mark McMillan and he came down to Nashville and played the bass on the record. All the musicians I got to bring in were super great friends and fantastic musicians. Maybe some of that maturity you’re hearing is certainly coming from those guys.

This record is much more of a team effort, which is nice. Typically, the way I write songs is I write the song lyrics and the bones of the music and then kind of integrate the other parts in as the instrumentalists come in. But with this one, Chris Potocik was a big help in arranging some of my scatterbrain thoughts. He’s been a great partner on this record. But the thing about our band is, we all tour for other bands. We’re all working musicians and when I can get them all together in one place it’s a pretty big treat.

When will the tour start?

We’re going to be putting out an email to all of our fans to try and gauge the waters and see where people want to hear us and if enough people say they want to see us in their town, we will come. The word will be going out in the next couple of weeks but the shows will likely happen mid-late July going through the end of August, before I actually have to go to Europe and tour with a band called Wolves & Wolves & Wolves & Wolves. They are on Wiretap Records as well and I play guitar for them, kind of their road guy. It’s a good time. They are super-punk so it’s super-fun for me.

You mentioned you had a background in religion. Do you think that gives you kind of a different perspective on the world and some of the personal things you write about then maybe other people who don’t have that?

You know, I think we’re all molded by what we grew up in. I have since separated from religion in large. Some of the things just didn’t vibe with what I believe to be important to me. You mentioned earlier that my songs are very personal and there are some dark themes in my music; however, they are kind of painted with a bit of a positive outlook, which is funny cause I’m typically a not super-positive person (laughs). But I don’t want to hear somebody singing about how terrible everything is ALL the time. I definitely like to put down on paper the things that I struggle with but at the same time I like to remind myself too that there’s always a better way and a way out. I’m a big believer in hope and I think a lot of that probably came from my religious upbringing. And also, I had some really great, great parents who were always supportive.

What did they say when you said, Hey, I’m going to be a musician!

(laughs) It’s funny, my dad actually went out and bought me a guitar because he wanted me to start playing to have something to do and I picked it up really quickly. I was always out playing shows. I think I started playing in bars at age like fourteen/fifteen, getting snuck in by the band so I could be onstage. So my parents were supportive of it and then it came around to graduating high school and going to college and I was like, “Oh yeah, I want to do music.” And they put their head in their hands and were like, “Okay.” (laughs) I got a scholarship to a music school, Belmont in Nashville, and then started to make a living off the music. They’re terrified constantly but they were also like, “He’s proved us kind of wrong so that’s okay.” (laughs) They’ve always been super supportive, certainly devil’s advocate. They love to make sure I’m making good decisions but I couldn’t say they’ve been anything less than crazy supportive.

Going to university for Songwriting and Music Business, what was the most important thing you learned there and how have you applied it in terms of your own music?

A large part of that curriculum was to kind of teach students how to turn out Top 40 singles, cause that’s a big thing here in Nashville. You’ve got people sitting in offices and cubicles just writing and writing and writing for that radio hit. But I never fell in line with that too much so I was always kind of the outcast. But what I did get from it really was how to navigate the music business, because you can get screwed very easily and people certainly take advantage of you. It was How Not To Get Screwed 101, pretty much (laughs). But it was also learning how to approach certain people in the music industry and certain companies and industries and how to come at that properly. I had a song on my 2013 record, Against The Tide, that got used on a show called Elementary on CBS and up until I had gone to school I would have had no idea how to properly license that song and make sure everything was squared away as far as like what I get out of that and how to navigate contracts and licensing and stuff like that. So it was a lot of helpful business information.

As far as the actual songwriting teaching, I can’t say that I took much away from that, cause it’s not the type of music that I write. I will say that what they really focused on, cause as a writer you’re not always going to be inspired. Some people walk around and look at a tree and suddenly become inspired and that’s great but that’s not me. It’s typically feast or famine with me. There will be spells where I’ve got nothing and then all of a sudden I’ve got a record that I put together in a day. So they did kind of teach how to tap into your inspiration and use it as a muscle rather than something, this ethereal thing you can’t capture, something you can sort of awaken in yourself and that, honestly, came through a lot by just writing every day, whether it meant sitting down for ten minutes a day, even if it was crap you wrote. Repetition and practice does make a difference, no matter what you do, playing basketball or writing songs. Showing up is the most important thing I guess I learned. You’ve got to show up to the desk to write or the song is never going to be born. That’s probably what I took away mostly from that.

To you, who are some of the songwriters that amaze you by how they put their emotions into melodies?

Oh gosh, I am a huge seventies and eighties rock & roll freak. Great bands like Def Leppard and Queen, I just thought their productions were so over the top and so rock & roll and cool and that blew my mind as a young kid. As I’ve gotten older and of the bands that are out now, I’d say Frank Turner is a huge influence. That guy is writing some of the most honest, authentic music I’ve heard in a long time. I’m a big fan of the Gaslight Anthem and Brian Fallon, his solo career that he has embarked on. Jason Isbell is a big one for me and Tom Waits. I think Jason Isbell is kind of considered, at least from the press that I read, as one of the great American songwriters, and in my opinion, he totally is. But there are not many bands that I hate. I’m not a big hater of music. I don’t get into Top 40 what they’re calling country anymore but older country still gets me pretty good – the quintessential Johnny Cash. I am on that bandwagon and it’s a good bandwagon to be on. Woody Guthrie, any kind of storytelling-based songwriting has always been so interesting to me. And Thrice is also a huge band. I love that band.

And you know, especially as a kid, getting turned onto KISS’ live show. These guys were like flying through the air and fire coming out of their guitars. It was bonkers, man, it was the coolest shit I’d ever seen. I was hooked from that point and as much as I respect and think a lot of music is cool, I will never think a dude looks supercool standing behind a DJ booth. It’s very difficult, I’ve tried it and I’m terrible at it so I respect those guys totally, but I like seeing a bunch of people get up and throw their guitars around and shake some walls. That’s kind of what I’m about.

But you know, I draw influences from a lot of places but also at the same time I’d say like melodically I find a lot of my music is very hymnal-esque, because a lot of the music I grew up listening to the most was church music; and so kind of pairing that with the rock & roll sensibility that I’m into, it’s just four chords and the truth, as I like to put it.

You said you are still working out the songs to go on the upcoming record. Will it be an EP or a full-length?

It will be an EP and the reason I suppose the press isn’t getting more of a taste is that a lot of the songs aren’t done; they are still kind of in the mixing and mastering stages now. I am also an engineer here in town so I am very involved in that process. I mix and master my own records so I am a big stickler when it comes to that stuff so that is probably the longest part of it. But I found that after releasing four records, that people’s attention spans are so short these days because of social media and how everything is just flying on a screen past us. So the way we’re kind of going about it is, let’s put out this EP and singles and just give everybody some time to actually chew on the songs; cause I found as much press as you can do, you’ll put out a record and for two or three weeks things will be looking great, a lot of people are listening to it and there’s a buzz about it and then suddenly it just kind of trickles off and you’re like, oh man, I just spent a year working on that.

I’ve always liked artists that are kind of changing the roles when it comes to their album releases and cycles, like Childish Gambino is a great example of that. That guy will like out of nowhere he’ll drop a single that’s killer; or Beyonce, who will put out a record quietly and just destroys the world with it. So we’re really trying to explore this. We’re reaching out to our fans directly and saying like, how do you want this music, when do you want it and where do you want it? I’m finding that, I keep putting things out and trying to make it like I want it, but it’s not for me, it’s for the people that I want to hear it. So we’re kind of reaching out to those folks to see what they want, and at least for this release, to put songs out every few months. That’s the tentative plan. Can’t go super-deep into that cause I don’t want to reveal everything, but in general, I’d say, there will be more songs to come before too long here.

Since you are an engineer, did you have something different in mind that you really wanted to do with this record?

Yes, very much so actually. You mentioned you had heard some of the other music and at the end of the day it’s all rock & roll, in my opinion, but I feel like a lot of the mixes didn’t quite capture some of that. So I really wanted something that sounded big. Like on the single that is out now, “Free Born,” there are 3-part harmonies, there are organs and pianos, there are probably like sixteen guitar tracks in there. It’s the closest thing to “Bohemian Rhapsody” that I’ll ever have in terms of just musical (laughs).

My band spends so much time touring for other artists so I do a lot of solo touring. So I write songs that can be broken down to an acoustic guitar or can be brought up to full band and when I bring them to a full band I want them to be super rock & roll and as loud as possible (laughs). And that was kind of the goal with this one, to make things a little bit more on the punchy side and I feel like we’ve accomplished that. But I will say that some of the other songs that will be coming out are much more reminiscent of, I’d say, some of the songs off the Against The Tide record. This record is going to be super-dynamic in that sense. There is a lot of high energy stuff and then some very low energy and slow ballady type stuff going on.

Tell us about the “Free Born” song. When and how did that come to you?

It always changes for me but that one was kind of a two-fold thing. The melody had popped into my head at some point when I was sitting down with the guitar. I was on a solo tour and I was on a sixteen hour drive alone from Austin, Texas to Phoenix, and I drove it straight. I ended up pulling off in a parking lot and I just started writing and those were the words that finally synched up with that melody that had been hiding in my head for a while. The song is sort of an allegory but it really reflects the imagery of what I was actually like staring at. I was in the middle of the desert and all I’d seen for miles was blacktop and desert (laughs). I had kind of gotten this feeling of, when you’re touring across the country, thousands of miles by yourself and all you’ve got is a radio to entertain yourself, you get a lot of thinking done.

I felt sort of like a bandit on the run out in the West. I lived in Los Angeles but hadn’t really spent a lot of time in those kind of empty areas on the way to California that are just desert and highway, so a lot of the imagery in the song was born out of that. And also this sense of feeling quite free. I mean, it was just me and the road and all I had to worry about was getting to the next show. Life is very difficult on the road but it’s also very simple because you have a very clear objective. It’s wake up, feed yourself, get to where you’re supposed to be, play as hard as you can play and then hopefully you can sleep somewhere other than a parking lot. It’s kind of tough on my body being out like this but at the same time it’s super-rewarding and freeing.

You have an older song called “Rosary,” which is quite powerful

Oh I haven’t thought about that song in a long time! I co-wrote that song with a friend of mine when I was living in Los Angeles named Scott Feldman, a great guy. I haven’t talked to him in so long and I couldn’t tell you what he’s up to now but if Scott ever reads this tell him I said “Hey.” (laughs) The inspiration for this song, it kind of came out of left field because it wasn’t an intentional thing but it is indeed a song kind of speaking to God (laughs). If you read the lyrics, it’s not too kind. One of the lyrics says, “If you’re just a ghost who is picking up souls then leave mine where the good grass grows.” It’s like, I see all these people that are getting down on one knee and praying and hoping that their religion or their belief structure is going to change something or save them but I think people really need to start engaging with one another about the things that are actually in front of them, cause we have a lot of problems that we sincerely need to address. And the only way it’s going to happen is if we all get together and work together and find some kind of common ground.

So that song was kind of speaking a little bit to that but I also feel like religion in many ways has started wars, and I don’t want to say it’s held back society or anything like that because there are so many people who believe in whatever they believe in and they are better for it. But I’ve seen the Judeo Christian organization, the industry that lies behind a lot of that, has been a big roadblock for a lot of people and human rights and a lot of acceptance and it still seems to find it’s way into how people base their decision making and can sometimes be problematic when you’re trying to address problems that reach further than people that don’t accept your belief system. So it’s kind of a deconstruction of that and kind of poking holes in that logic, certainly very tongue-in-cheek. That was the one song I hoped my mom never heard (laughs).

When I write songs with that subject matter, I’m always kind of thrust back into that upbringing, especially the musical upbringing around corporate worship music, and I feel like some of those elements are in there. In the verse you have more of that rock & roll, that aggressive thing I would normally do; but then in this refrain, it really breaks down to acoustic guitars and some harmony vocals. Sadly, it’s communicating a really scary thing. It asks the question, essentially when you’re in a dark place, who will answer you if you call out. And it’s a big question to ask and it’s kind of a dark question to ask but it tends to have that pretty melody and sound to it. Like you mentioned earlier, I’ll make really sad songs sound happy and then happy songs sound angry (laughs).

So what to you is rock & roll?

I think especially with the clash of music and technology these days, I view rock & roll now as, if there are any human beings actually transferring physical energy into an instrument, that’s so rock & roll to me. It could be a folk band but if there are guys up there and gals up there actually slamming on some strings and beating on some drums and singing, that’s rock & roll to me. It’s a true, not only self-expression, but it’s an actual physical energy that you release, especially when you’re onstage. Again, I don’t think there is anything cooler than a guy with a really overdriven guitar in a rock & roll band banging it out onstage. I just think that is still just so cool. I still think guitar solos are so cool. That has never been not cool to me.

And also, rock & roll has always been about authenticity and honest art is the hardest art to create. I feel like in rock & roll, that is where you still find those artists, cause there are so many of them that are not well-known, me being one of those (laughs). I think it’s still very important for a group of people to get together and to create something, and especially when you can do that with a physical emotion, then it makes an AC signal go into and out of a speaker and into soundwaves, and it’s a sound pressure, it’s a physical thing that happens, so it’s very real to me. I think it’s drums, guitars and desperate poetry. And I think the world needs it, cause there have been those songs that build walls and tear them right down and I believe in that, I really do.

So when you are out there banging on your guitar, who are you channeling?

You know, honestly, I’d say the most honest and best version of myself is probably what I am channeling. At least I’m trying to. I feel the stage is a very vulnerable place if you’re an honest performer and that’s where the truth about me comes out, is at a show, and the cool thing about our shows is that they’re not going to be what you’re hearing off the record. You know, when I got to a show, I like to see a show. If I were to see Brian Fallon, I definitely like to hear Brian playing his songs cause I love his records but he’s going to do stuff that’s a bit different and you have to be there to see it. And that’s kind of how our shows are as well.

 

Group photo by Steven Webster

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