Catching Up With... Jakob Dylan

Music Features Jakob Dylan
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In the late 1960’s, Bob Dylan evolved musically from a folk singer playing simple, but lyrically-loaded tunes to a plugged-in rock star. Just about 40 years later, his son did the opposite. Jakob Dylan released his second solo album, Women and Country, on April 6; it’s a largely-acoustic collection of stripped-down, bluesy folk songs about—well, you can guess. The album marks real growth from Dylan’s first solo outing, 2008's acoustic, Rick Rubin-helmed folk offering Seeing Things, but it takes the same simplistic approach; the big choruses and guitar rips of his old band The Wallflowers are replaced with whispered melodies and darker shades of middle-America folk. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, Women and Country has the same hushed intimacy and gorgeous vocal interplay of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Grammy-winning Raising Sand, with Neko Case and Kelly Hogan taking over Dylan's higher register harmonies. Paste recently caught up with Dylan to talk about the new album, working with Burnett and the headless horse on his album’s cover.

Paste : The songs on Women and Country feel pretty timeless—like it could’ve been made now or 50 years ago. Were you inspired by more classic or contemporary music?
Dylan: I’m inspired by exactly what you just said—that’s the way my ear is drawn to music. I like songs that are relevant today, but hopefully could’ve been written 100 years ago. I am a huge fan of traditionalism, but I don't wave a flag for any particular era. You can get into a mode or a groove with the lyrics that, hopefully, make them timeless. It has to do with word choice, I think.

Paste : Women and Country reminds me of last year’s Raising Sand. Was that album a model at all, in terms of working with T-Bone?
Dylan: On a simple level, it’s some of the same players. He’s got a stable of players that he works with, and through his experience he can rely on. I knew that going in. I’m well aware of the records he makes these days, and I saw myself sitting in there very finely. T-Bone’s trying to cast a situation for artists that puts them in a stage that allows their style to come through. That’s a relief for some of us that are used to spending a lot of time talking just about sounds—he takes care of that for us.

Paste : So he comes as a whole package?
Dylan: That’s a wily word there. It’s hard to say what everyone does, but if you want to know how artists feel about a producer, just look at who goes back to who, and how often. T-Bone is somebody in the musical community who’s left a lasting impression on anybody who he’s worked with, just solidifying and helping them get to the core of what they want.

Paste : How does he go about doing that?
Dylan: Oh, I don’t know. I’d do it myself for other people if I could. From my experience, there’s something he brings out of everyone in that room together. He’s a musical historian. Any version of what a producer might be, he is. He can work the equipment, he can help you write the song, he can tune your guitar or finish your lyric. He’s very rare in that sense. But there’s an ability he has to clear out the muck in the room and get your mind back on what you’re there to do. You spend a tremendous amount of time being misled—with a lot of people in the room, things can get very confusing.

Paste : So does he just focus you as a songwriter and a musician?
Dylan: Yeah, he’s got great trust in everybody he works with. He chooses to work with people who he knows will have good ideas. As complicated as it can become to make records, he makes it much simpler.

Paste : You worked with T-Bone before. He produced Bringing Down the Horse [The Wallflowers' 1996 breakthrough]. Was it a welcome reunion?
Dylan: Yeah, he’s always been a beacon in my life musically. I always planned on working with him again, and looked forward to it.

Paste : Rick Rubin produced your last solo album. Both are superstar producers. How are they similar and different?
Dylan: I can only speak highly of both, but I enjoy the spirit more of this situation, which is very much musical and collaborative. Seeing Things was very much an exercise in restrictions. Part of that was my own doing, and part of that was how the recording unfolded. There wasn’t necessarily a lot to explore aside from the actual songwriting process. If you’re looking for two examples of different ways to look at the job of producer, you couldn’t find two more opposite personalities. There’s a good spot for all of that. But considering the big, full sound I had in mind, [Burnett] was the route to take, for sure.

Paste : You’ve made an interesting transition from a singer in a pop-rock band to basically a folk singer. A lot of times it works the opposite way—from stripped down to working with a band. What’s drawn you to strip everything down?
Dylan: I always felt like the Wallflowers were simple in spirit, but it was a big rock ’n’ roll band sound. And when you’re in a band, you have a big collective thought in mind. It’s necessary for everyone to get his vision in there. That’s what a band is built on—if not, what’s the point in having one? The Wallflowers changed throughout the years, some for the better and some maybe not, but I thought that sound was getting compromised. I’d never said The Wallflowers was all I was going to do—it was just one thing. The last record, Seeing Things, was another thing I’d always wanted to do. But I never said I wanted, from here on out, to pick up an acoustic guitar and become a folk singer. I just wanted to do that also. But this isn’t as methodical as it may appear. There’s no great statement involved [in making solo records]. I wish other songwriters would take the time to do it as well.

Paste : Which band leaders could benefit from a solo record?
Dylan: Oh, I don’t want to name names. I’ve nothing but kudos for people who can keep a band together over long periods of time, but that’s a challenge. That’s a lot of work. When a singer of a band makes a solo record, it can certainly be hard on other people. But your songwriting adapts, it changes. And when I wrote Seeing Things, I knew that’s all that would be there—the songwriting. It wasn’t going to be about a bassline or a vocal sound.

Paste : So initially were those tracks intended for a Wallflowers album?
Dylan: I don’t remember exactly how the timeline come about, but a solo record was something I’d always planned on doing. I just wanted to do something different.

Paste : Will we see a Wallflowers record sometime in the future?
Dylan: Yeah, of course. That’s something for us to address. It’s a big rock ’n’ roll band sound, and it takes a lot of people to make that happen. I never wanted to do it unless we could do it in an uncompromised way, and we all agreed on that. We started to feel a little bit of floating. I mean, I started that group when I was 19 or 20 years old. It’s a lot of work to keep that going, and interesting, for so many years. You’re asking multiple people to be inspired all the time, at the same time.

Paste : Will taking time off to do other projects reinvigorate the group?
Dylan: Absolutely. I’ve never understood the purpose of breaking up unless you’re actually choking each other. There’s no sense in being all done with it—I’ve spent the majority of my adult life in The Wallflowers, and that’s not something I take lightly. But you have to be inspired.

Paste : There’s a pretty hopeful tone on the whole album, especially on the first track. What are you hopeful about?
Dylan: I demand to put hope forward. I think there’s always been hope in my songs. Even if it was just a sliver. I wouldn’t know how to write otherwise—there’d just be too much darkness. It’d be too daunting. I think that’s the interesting stuff—I don’t overthink it, it’s music. But I do want hope in my music—when I’m talking to you or to myself, I don’t want to hear that there isn’t any hope. You talk to people all the time, you’re probably overwhelmed with how positive some people are, seeing brightness in everything. There are very few opportunities where you couldn’t find hope.

Paste : Like the title of the record, you sing a lot about both women and country. In real life, which do you think are more frustrating—women or country?
Dylan: Thematically, what presented itself are these two things—they encompass everything that we care about, that we strive for. Not just here in America, it’s universal. That’s the human spirit. You’re constantly fighting for those things, women and country. Wars are fought over women and country. Whether it’s our possessions or desires or comforts or futures, it’s in those two things. They drive us completely. They drive us insane and hopefully to the promised land.

Paste : Interesting you said they’re not just American topics. But when the record comes out, one word that’ll be used to describe it is Americana. Do you feel like this is an American record?
Dylan: If it’s just about instrumentation, then yeah, people associate these sounds with the heartland of America. That’s what I’m steeped in because I’m here. But I think these things are completely universal. Most of the hot water we’ve gotten ourselves into is over the same feeling. These things that I’m talking about are more about the common person, what we see on the news daily. We see the most drastic, the harshest of these things.

Paste : Album cover’s got you on a horse. Where did that idea come from? It’s a pretty American image.
Dylan: There’s a sense of humor to it—you’ve got me sitting on this incredible beast of a white horse with a model, but you can’t see either of their faces. It’s an outstanding image in its makeup—it’s red, white and blue. It sums up thematically what’s being sung about.

Paste : You’re playing [some shows] as Jakob Dylan and Three Legs. With everyone included, there’ll be 14 legs. Why the name?
Dylan: That’s Neko Case and Kelly Hogan’s band. Why the name? I never found out. I’m just borrowing their band.

Paste : They lent their vocals to some of the tracks. I can’t imagine that one just, on a whim, gets them to sing on a record. So how did that come about?
Dylan: I felt the same way. Especially this year, Neko’s been very busy. T-Bone and I discussed how important it was to find a personality who really knocked us out, and would also have the time and interest to do all the songs and not just one or two. I thought he was a little hopeful when he suggested Neko. I wasn’t being quite that ambitious. But we sent them the songs and they seemed excited to do it. They have such experience in being both lead vocalists and backgrounds, they came at the songs from a perspective I never would have.

Paste : You haven’t had a massive blockbuster album like Bringing Down the Horse since then, but a lot of people would say you’ve only gotten better as a songwriter. Is that schism ever frustrating?
Dylan: I don’t think it’s frustrating, but I am aware of it. I’m also very comfortable in this position. My ambitions have always been fairly realistic. The Wallflowers got to the top of the mountain, it would seem, very quickly. There was a lot of skepticism involved. I’m not sure who achieved that kind of thing and didn’t retain some baggage, or even who can do it a second time. Or who is supposed to? There’s none of that that I’d want as part of my daily life now anyhow. You’re applying for a different job. There were great things about [that level of fame] no doubt, but what I do now is more creative, more interesting. I hope that I am getting better. I wouldn’t be the one to say my stuff always got the correct look. You’re the guy with the keyboard in front of you.

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