Published Oct. 26, 2009
Do you ever busk anymore just for fun?
I haven’t done that in a long time. It was tough work. Thank God for yodeling. I think that was the only thing that got me money.
What’s the weirdest part about going on five national TV shows in a week?
It’s gotten a lot less weird. When I started out I was in complete culture shock. I’m a pretty shy person to this day. I like to watch people; I don’t want them to watch me. But it’s a job that I love, and it’s just part of the job. The nice part is to be able to walk away and just go home.
How does it feel to be “Rock’s Sexiest Poet,” according to Blender magazine?
Take compliments where you get them. It’s been a really interesting social experiment. I wasn’t popular in school. I was barely in the same school longer than six months. So being in the public light has been very interesting. Whether it’s good or bad.
What prompted you to found the Clean Water Project?
When I was young I had bad kidneys and I had to drink about a gallon of bottled water a day. I told myself that if it’s this bad for me I can’t imagine what it’s like for people in Africa. I told myself if I was ever in the position to help I wanted to do something for people. So as soon as I was, I did.
How did you get involved in the Give a Drop campaign?
I met Richard [Branson] and we started talking about the Clean Water Project and what Virgin Unite was doing and he put me in touch with some people who wanted to do some bigger things. It took some time to make everything work but I just love the whole idea of the project. You just send a text and it donates $5 automatically to water projects in sub-Saharan Africa.
Why did you decide to release Lullaby independently?
Just because it wasn’t something labels would look at and say, “That’s gonna be a hit.” But I think labels miss the boat on a lot of stuff. They know how to sell songs on the radio, but they’re scared to try something that’s a bit different. I think people are going to love it. It’s been really spreading through word of mouth. … Fisher-Price has been putting it in the toy isles. They heard I was doing a “lullaby” album and they wanted to be a part of it.
Was Lullaby written as a kids’ album?
It’s an album for adults. I’ve been writing lullabies since I was a kid to help me calm down and relax. I kind of use them as a prayer and meditation and trying to give myself hope. It’s not a very traditional commercial album. There’s nothing that will get on the radio. It was nice not to have to think about hits or styles. It’s a mood album. I just tried to create a mood and the reactions I’ve had from fans have been really great.
Not too many people can pull off the pop-to-country crossover. How did you do it?
It’s nothing you can fake. I grew up listening to Loretta Lynn, Kris Kristofferson and Dolly Parton. I think Joni Mitchell and Loretta Lynn have a similar style. I’ve always written country songs so it wasn’t new for me. I’ve always tried to push my labels toward country radio. Most styles are kind of intertwined, but country has a whole separate industry. So it meant actually having to switch labels. It was more about having to change the machinery to get the music out. The music took care of itself.
Did you always think of yourself as a country singer?
I really didn’t know there was such a difference. It’s my sole personality. I couldn’t imagine limiting my music to one style. I love the storytelling of country music. I just find it all really genuine. I love the fact that my career has lasted long enough to be able to do this. Solo acoustic shows have been a big part of my longevity. I play solo shows when I come off tour. I talk and tell stories and take requests. It’s kind of like VH1 Storytellers.
As a native Alaskan, what do you think of Sarah Palin?
Her and I don’t necessarily agree politically on a lot of things, but I’m glad people have responded to her down-homey-ness. I felt like Alaska gave me a really rootsy nature, just very grounded and practical. I love it up there. I love the people. It’s hard to get up there but I took my cousin up there last year and we played some shows. It was great to get up there. It’s so beautiful.
Any more concept albums down the pipe after Lullaby?
I just cut 60 songs, just solo acoustic out here at the ranch. I’m thinking next I’d like to do something up-tempo: more along the lines of This Way. And then I’d like to do sort of a dark acoustic alt-folk record. And then I’d like to do what I’ve been waiting years and years to do which is the Great American Songbook, like Cole Porter and old jazz music. The art is the easy part. Getting it out takes a little wrangling.
Photo courtesy Jessica Erskine