“I’ll be completely honest with you man. I don’t really listen to music.”
Of course, Sturgill Simpson is exaggerating. What the 37-year old Kentucky-born Americana singer-songwriter really means is, he doesn’t listen to anything recorded since the Reagan administration.
“I have albums that I listen to as touchstones on a regular basis, at least once a month. Willie Nelson’s ‘Phases and Stages’ is a huge influence. A lot of Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Elton John, Sam Cooke, the Stooges, David Bowie.”
Pretty expansive taste for an artist often heralded as the second coming of outlaw country legend Waylon Jennings. But a close listen to Simpson’s LPs, particularly his latest award-winning album ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’, reveals him to be far more complex and diverse than any ‘retro’ artist.
“I feel like I’ve finally been given this opportunity to express all of my influences that I’ve gathered my entire life and I’m trying to do something original. I feel like if I find somebody modern that I really love and listen to a lot, ultimately that’s going to show up in my writing.
Jason Isbell’s a great friend of mine, he’s an incredible talent, but I still haven’t heard all of ‘Southeastern’. I got about three or four songs into it and went ‘This is too good man, I can’t listen to this.’ It was going to inevitably show up in my work.”
That commitment to originality extends to the subject matter of his lyrics. Eschewing the classic country subject matter of heartbroken barroom tales, in favor of songs about drug experimentation, philosophy and the dangers of living out your fantasies. It’s tempting to read a lot of the songs on ‘Metamodern’ as the self-aware memoir of a misspent youth, but Simpson pushes back against the notion that he’s a recovering addict.
“I think there’s a lot of misconception out there about who I am. I know a lot of people got so hung up in that line in ‘Turtles All The Way Down’ with drug references. I think I was trying to say I tried all those things and didn’t really learn much from it.
I did an interview once and said I spent most of the first time I lived in Nashville in 2005 in the bottom of a bottle, which was true. But it was never waking up with shaky hands going ‘I need a drink’. It was more self-medicating depression. Then I went to work on the railroad and I didn’t have any need to do that anymore. I found a lot of clarity. I haven’t really used drugs or anything like that since my mid-20s. I am sober now.”
With that sobriety has come a focus and direction, spurred on by the encouragement of his wife Sarah. As he tells it, it was her who made the decision that they should move to Nashville a few years ago, so Sturgill could make a serious go at his musical career.
“I know without her encouragement, I never would’ve done it. I’m not an ambitious person, to a fault. I’ve learned, or I guess accepted, that I’m an artist. I never really knew that when I was younger. There were points in my life where I put music down, just because it was always something I did more as a self-therapeutic hobby, but it never brought me much fruition or anything outside the way of direct personal comfort.
But in the times when I wasn’t playing music, I was always very miserable or found myself, without even realising it, very unhappy and even angry and discontent with the world around me.
Looking back now, I realise it’s probably because I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. She thankfully recognised what I was supposed to be doing, even if I didn’t know it, and encouraged me to pursue that. I’m very fortunate to have someone like that in my life, or I don’t think any of that would be happening right now, to be perfectly honest with you.”
Teaming up with affable denim enthusiast and record producer Dave Cobb led to two acclaimed albums, a generous swag of Americana Music Awards and now his first tour of Australia (around next Easter’s Byron Bay Bluesfest). The move seems to have paid off.
Many artists would be bitter about not finding success until their late 30s, but I put it to Simpson that part of what makes him so artistically effective is the maturity and perspective he’s gained, something he wouldn’t have had ten years ago.
“There is an extreme benefit to having the focus and clarity and reflection at 37,” he agrees. “Along with sobriety and focus and knowing I have to support a family and take care of a child. It’s brought what I can only describe as an intense focus.
I might not be ambitious in terms of chasing a commercial career or winning a bunch of trophies or being on TV, but now I’ve been given this opportunity for a reason. I worked very hard but at the same time, there’s a lot of people that would literally kill to be in my position, so I can’t take that for granted.
Signing with Atlantic, I now have the resources available to make the absolute best music I can possibly make. That’s really all I’m concerned and focused on right now, just making sure that I do that, and not just take it for granted.”
There’s a question going forward, as Simpson’s commercial success and acclaim matches his drive, focus and quality of output: Can you be happy and make effective country music?
“More than anything, I enjoyed the challenge of trying to find new avenues to writing country songs. I’m a very happy, content husband and father. I’m looking for new ways to express other emotions we all share in the human experience through the music I make as honestly as I can.”