Virginia-based band Carbon Leaf has been going strong for more than twenty years. The founding members met while attending Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia before relocating to Richmond, Virginia. Current members Barry Privett (lead vocals), Terry Clark (guitar/vocals), Carter Gravatt (guitar/vocals/various instruments), Jon Markel (bass), and Jason Neal (drums) are known for their energetic live shows and a sound that blends elements of folk, Celtic, and other musical styles. In August 2014, Carbon Leaf released Indian Summer Revisited, a tenth anniversary re-recording of their 2004 major label debut, Indian Summer.
On March 20, 2015, the band played an excellent set at the Cat’s Cradle, which included a beautiful, completely unplugged performance of “One Prairie Outpost.” A few hours before the show, I sat down with Barry Privett to discuss the band’s decision to leave a major label, songwriting process, and contributions to save Sweet Briar College, among other things.
Tori: Your most recent release is Indian Summer Revisited. How has the response from fans been to that album?
Barry Privett: Good! People were really on board with it and liked the idea that we were celebrating ten years, but also re-recording it for a reason of regaining ownership of the recorded work. The label that we are no longer associated with owned the master recording of the original album [Indian Summer], but we still owned the songs. We had to have their permission to use the songs if we wanted to license it or this or that. By re-recording it, we’re able to still retain ownership of the songs, but now have ownership of a recorded master that we could use. It worked out well for a couple of reasons, and fans loved it.
Tori: That’s what I wanted to get into – your choice to become independent again. Was re-recording Indian Summer a way of regaining ownership of your material so you could be your own band again instead of being controlled by a label?
BP: Yeah. You know, we were never really controlled by the label, but the more people you put into the mix, the greater the chances are that things are going to be a little out of your control or [not on] your own timeline. When you’re dealing with intellectual property rights, when you’re working a system that’s basically going to have a stake in that element, that’s ongoing. There’s just too much of a chance for things to fall through, and yet, the deal that was in place still continues and doesn’t really pay dividends.
We’ve been independent for most of our career. There were three albums that we weren’t – that were on the label. The first album, Indian Summer, was a success. That was recorded independently before we licensed a deal with the record label. That, in a way, was kind of an independent record, as it wasn’t recorded under the label system. Then, Love, Loss, Hope, Repeat and Nothing Rhymes with Woman were both recorded under the label system. It just became diminishing returns – not that everything is their fault. For example, we went into Love, Loss, Hope, Repeat really unprepared to record because we didn’t have the material really written, fleshed out. And yet everybody’s on this schedule, this, “Let’s keep up the momentum we had with Indian Summer. Let’s get in the studio and get another record out.” That was certainly our part, our responsibility for going in prematurely.
But things like that, where you stop thinking about the art and what you’re trying to say and create and more about maintaining a schedule, this “momentum” can take a hold, especially when there’s other people involved. I wouldn’t be opposed to doing a smart deal with another distributor or record label if it made sense and didn’t have this big, long tail attached to it. We certainly learned a lot of lessons about being able to have your own voice and say, “No,” or say, “Stop,” that we didn’t really have at that point.
Tori: That’s interesting. If I’m correct, Indian Summer Revisited is the second album you’ve crowdfunded through PledgeMusic.
BP: Yes, the second one. Constellation Prize was the first.
Tori: Do you have plans to use PledgeMusic or another crowdfunding service for future albums?
BP: Yeah, I think we’ll do it again. It seems to be a pretty convenient way for fans to pick and choose what they want to support or have in terms of items or offers that we come up with and think are cool or have value, and experiences that might be cool. It seems like a good forum for an independent band versus, “Hey, here’s a new album. Buy it.”
Tori: Yeah, it really lets them be involved in some of the creation and then they get incentives along the way.
BP: Exactly. We’re still learning and trying to experiment with things. Some things work, some things don’t. Have you ever done one as a fan? Have you been involved with any pledge sites?
Tori: I have. Unfortunately, I’m usually on the lower end of the pledges as a college student.
BP: And that’s what’s brilliant about it, you know? You can just get the download, and a lot of students, that’s kind of where they are. They don’t have to go and get the five hundred dollar thing.
Tori: Speaking of students, I read the message that the band posted in support of Sweet Briar College. I thought it was awesome that you guys extended your support to the school. Do you have any plans to try to save Sweet Briar?
BP: Yeah, I was reading the updates actually on the way here, where they’ve set up a nonprofit, basically, to raise the first wave of funds to just have a legal counsel to fight the closing, so I think that’s where their first wave of donations is needed. We’ve been in talk with some students about possibly doing a concert fundraiser. We’re definitely going to support them. If we can make that date work, we’ll do that. We’ve pledged our support in the form of a check. The beginning of our band is deeply rooted in our experiences working with some of those colleges. We spring from a liberal arts school, ourselves, so these kinds of colleges are important.
Tori: I agree. Getting into some other recent events, the US Department of Veterans Affairs recently featured “The War Was in Color” in its Living History: Battle of the Bulge series. What was that like?
BP: It was cool. A fan of ours works for the Department of Veterans Affairs, and she approached us one night at a show and said they were working on this series and [asked] if they could use the song, and of course, we said yeah. In fact, we’re re-recording it. We’re announcing this in a few weeks, so maybe you’ll get the exclusive. We’re going to be re-recording Love, Loss, Hope, Repeat to the similar fashion like we’ve done with Indian Summer, just to kind of move things off the label. In doing that, we were re-recording it anyway, so we bumped that up on the priority list and got it done early, and sent them a copy. The copy they’re using is actually the new version.
Tori: So, we will get to hear it?
BP: Yeah, you’ll get to hear it if you click on the series. It’s kind of cool because Terry’s grandfather was in The Battle of the Bulge, which the series is commemorating the 70th anniversary. He submitted his grandfather’s picture, which actually makes it into the opening credits of the series.
Tori: I know that must have meant a lot to him.
BP: Yeah, it’s a neat way everything came together.
Tori: Getting into Carbon Leaf’s music, a lot of your songs reference locations, like “Blue Ridge Laughing” or “Midwestern Girl.” Do locations ever influence your songwriting?
BP: All the time. I like songs that have a sense of place; those “slice of life” moments [when] you can get into that space and paint the scene a little bit and at the same time, get your point across. To me, that’s very important. I like that cinematic tie [between] a song and whatever emotions you’re trying to express. I think a sense of physical place is really important. Sometimes, you know.
Tori: When you all are writing songs, do you write together or separately?
BP: We used to do a lot more “band together” jamming in the rehearsal space when we weren’t touring as much, but now, everybody kind of works on their own thing. If they’re writing on something musically, they’ll either record it, or they’ll get in groups of twos or threes, record it, and send me the music. I have a ranking file system in my iTunes where I’ll put things in certain playlists and work on it lyrically and vocally on my own. Then, when I feel like it’s at a spot where I need to go back to the band, we’ll get together, give them the rundown, and change some things up. Maybe I’ve written a new piece to insert somewhere or change some chords around. From there, we get everything cobbled into place, play it a few times, and start refining from there.
Tori: I always like to hear how different musicians’ processes work.
BP: Yeah, there’s some stuff that we’ve written as a group, kind of on the fly. Generally, though, at some point I’ll have to take it and go away and come back with the lyrics. I don’t just sit in a room with the guys and spill out lyrics. Maybe once or twice.
BP: A little bit of both. I’m trying to think of examples of each, but generally, there’s something that’s going on in my life or an observation that’s at least a jumping-off point. I think there’s some stuff that’s not personal. There’s some stuff that’s more metaphorical or maybe a composite character. “Cinnamindy” would be a composite character of people that I’ve known and pulled into a narrative framework. “The War Was in Color” would be another one where it’s a mix of a composite soldier experience. Some of the references are from people I know, and some are not.
Tori: I do want to ask about the song, “What About Everything.” The lyrics, “What about when buildings fall? What about that midnight phone call?” I’ve always wondered if that was a 9/11 reference.
BP: That was written very shortly after 9/11. The song was written around the Christmas holiday, so I’m trying to think if it was that same year, December… it might have been. It might have been the year after. I can’t remember. But yeah, that was definitely a reference.
Tori: You guys have a pretty busy year ahead. You have tour dates booked down to November, I think.
BP: December. The whole year is pretty much ninety-five percent booked. The rest of the stuff that’ll come in will just be kind of accidents. But we’ve blocked our tour out. Our goal this year was to get everything done in advance so that we could post all the dates and give fans plenty of time to plan and hear about the show. No matter how far out you book, it seems people are always like, “Aw, I didn’t know you were coming to town.” People are busy. It’s good for us because we can plan further in advance and not always be booked just three, four months out. These days, you’ve got to plan a little further in advance. It’s been good so far. I hope it works. I hope people don’t forget about the shows we’ve booked by the time they’re actually happening.
Tori: I guess that ties into staying on top of social media to make sure people know when you’ll be in town.
BP: Right, and now that the shows are booked and our big US tour happens at the end of the year, we can relax with social media a little bit more. We can figure out interesting ways of having more of a dialogue with people as opposed to just posting ads for the shows all the time.
Tori: Maybe that could tie into being independent. You’re able to reach fans more directly.
BP: We’ve always been pretty accessible. We come out after the shows and we try to answer the emails that come in; try to be engaged on the Twitter and Facebook feeds. That all makes it easy. It’s a pretty full-time operation, even running the business side, so we try to make the fan connection a priority because you don’t have whole lot else as an independent band. You don’t have a lot of people fronting you money and things like that, so you’ve got to focus on who’s paying attention.
Tori: About your setlists – do you typically write them right before a show or do you plan what you’re going to play in advance?
BP: A little bit of both. What I always do – whether it’s the day of the show or a couple of days before – I’ll go back and look at our records. I have a database that has all the setlists from all the shows we’ve played. For example, the Cat’s Cradle, I’ll go back and look at the last two or three shows we’ve played here and try to pick songs that we didn’t play last time. There’s certain core songs that we’ll usually play, but there’s also a lot of songs that you can rotate in and out. I mean, we’ve been together for a long time. We’ve got 170 songs. You can try to fashion something so that your fans are hearing a different show.
Tori: Do you and the band have any pre-show rituals or traditions?
BP: No, not really. It’s pretty active up until doors start. We load in, it takes three to four hours to load in, get everything set up and soundchecked, and clear the stage. By that time, it’s close to doors, and you go and grab a quick bite if you’re lucky, and from there, it’s show time. You warm up, however much you think you need to. There’s not a whole lot of leisure time.
Tori: Is there anything you couldn’t go on tour without, other than your instruments?
BP: A good pillow and blanket, I guess. (laughs) We just got a new RV that we’re driving in now, and this is actually our maiden voyage with it. It’ll allow for some more rest and a place to stretch out a bit. It’s a big deal for us because it gets us out of the hotels. Checking in and out of hotels each night and each morning gets really tedious, and you lose sleep. We’ll probably have a little bit more rest time now, so you’ll have to ask some of those questions next year. I might have a new hobby or something that I bring with me. I don’t know.
Tori: Maybe take up knitting?
BP: (laughs) I was going to say, maybe take up knitting. That seems like the “indie” thing to do, right?
If you would like to learn more about Carbon Leaf, you can visit the following links:
Photos c/o Carbon Leaf & Elmo Thamm