has been thinking a lot about death lately. Maybe it’s because he recently lost both his father and uncle, but whatever the reason, it’s in his DNA as songwriter. Earle is, after all, the protégé of the late great Townes Van Zandt, a man who supposedly wrote a song called “Waiting Around to Die” on his honeymoon. It shows on Earle’s new album, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, produced by T-Bone Burnett and set for release April 26th. Earle will also release his first novel, of the same name, May 12. And, he is getting ready to shoot the second season of HBO’s Treme, for which he wrote the Grammy-nominated “This City.” He talked to Paste about the new album, the novel and his acting career.
Paste: From what you’ve said, the new album is about death, mortality and God. Is it hard as a songwriter to take on subjects that are so big?
Steve Earle: I think as any kind of artist, your job is to keep practicing your craft until you get good enough to tackle stuff like that. There’s the odd prodigy that’s born able to do it. It took me until I was 31 to make my first record. I don’t think that’s a function of me being a misunderstood genius. I think it just took me a while to get interesting enough as a recording artist, as a singer-songwriter. The reason for taking on that stuff at this point is obvious – I lost my dad a few years ago, and I’m at an age where I’m starting to lose friends. I didn’t know what this record was about. It has the same title as the book because I looked up when I finished it, and I went, “Oh my God, it’s about the same things that the book is about.”
Paste: It seems like naming the book and the album after the last song Hank Williams released before he died has sort of a morbid quality to it. It seems to fit the theme of death.
Earle: It’s definitely about death, but I’m not sure that morbid accurately describes it. Or, at least my attempt was for it not to be morbid. You know, I’m not Hank Williams, and I’m not my dad, and I’m not Townes [Van Zandt], who died on New Year’s Day, the same day that Hank Williams did. It really is an attempt to try to understand death as part of life. I think we constantly trip over the Western concept of death, if that makes any sense.
Paste: I didn’t mean that the music itself is morbid. In fact, it seems like there’s almost a feeling of being at peace with death in a way.
Earle: I think that’s probably true. This record is really weird because I worked longer on the songs than on any album I’ve ever made. “God Is God” and “I Am a Wanderer” were written for the Joan Baez record that I produced three years ago. They were written literally as my dad was dying, the last few weeks of his life. I was working on Joan’s record, and I was in Tennessee, which is where he died, running back and forth literally between the studio and the hospital. And then “This City” I wrote last April because I was asked to write it for the last episode of Treme. The rest of it was done in four days in L.A. with one half-day of overdubs. It’s very much a live record. T-Bone [Burnett] fucked with it off and on for a couple of months after that, but I worked on this record for five days, total. All I knew about this record when I started looking toward it was that I wanted to make a record with T-Bone Burnett. I didn’t want to be a producer at all. I didn’t want to make any demos more elaborate than a guitar and vocal demo. I wanted to concentrate on being a singer and a songwriter.
Paste: You’re kind of a story-telling songwriter, so it is interesting that you also write fiction. How was the process of writing the novel different from writing songs?
Earle: Just trying to not give it up too fast – that’s the challenge when you convert from a short form to a long form. I did it gradually over a period of ten years. I wrote some short stories and published them, and then I started a novel, which because it’s not my day job, it took me seven or eight years to write this book. I wrote a play in there too, and I’m working on another play now. It’s so hard and so much different getting up every day and putting your butt in a seat and working on the same thing – and for me, that process got interrupted several times by a tour or something that I had to go do in order to, you know, support my overheads.
Paste: And, of course, you’re also an actor, appearing in The Wire and Treme, among other things. Has that experience made you a better performer musically?
Earle: Absolutely. The Wire was my very first acting job. I was playing a recovering redneck drug addict. There was no acting really required. I learned to do it a little bit, and I got to go out and say great words. I have the luxury, because it’s not my full-time job, I don’t have to take stuff that isn’t necessarily all that great. All the words I’ve ever said were written by David Simon and his writers, who are incredible, and Tim Blake Nelson, who is kind of a genius. I did a movie that Tim wrote and directed. I’m a better performer than I was. I use skills from playing music – I brought those to acting. But, I’m probably a better performer when I play music now than I was before I was an actor, and I’m a better writer. And, I paint. It’s a recovery thing. Since I got sober, I started branching out and doing other things. But, I’m still a songwriter, first and foremost.