The Inspirations of Ernest Troost

By Terry Roland

Ernest_TroostErnest Troost’s music is a perverse and diverse celebration of American folk music. . It’s a vibrant festival of tragedy and comedy, a wind-blown crossroads of American culture where Piedmont blues meets modern literature in the darkest of themes.

Listening to his latest album, Live at McCabe’s (recently reviewed by Susie Glaze in FolkWorks) it’s not hard to imagine the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Sebastian front-porch harp-jamming with Steinbeck on mandolin while all of it is captured on canvas by Andrew Wyeth. With a voice reminiscent of Paul Simon, his characters and stories can be as dark as the prose of Cormac McCarthy or as inspiring as a Capra film as seen through the eyes of Woody Guthrie. He’s one of those rare songwriters who can gently seduce the listener into the pleasantries of his melodies while his subject matter subtly engages and disturbs with stories that tread closely to the dark-edge of the American dream revealing the nightmares of our hidden history. All of this is wrapped in the skill and craft of acoustic instrumentation with the seemingly magic intricacies of finger-flat-picking that sing of the long lonesome ragtime blues scattered through the musical highway walked by kindred spirits like Geoff Muldaur, Jerry Garcia and David Grissom.

All of this and more is covered in the interview that follows. It is a rare glimpse into the inner workings of a creative and imaginative writer and musician. Ernest Troost will be in concert at McCabe’s Guitar Store in Santa Monica on Friday, January 6 at 8:00pm to celebrate the release of his new CD, Live at McCabe’s.

TR: So, what’s new for your solo career?

ET: I’m getting to work promoting my new album. It was recorded live at McCabe’s in January of 2011. The official release date is January 17, 2012. I have another McCabe’s show coming up on January 6.

TR: You’ve been known for your career scoring films. How did you get into a career as a singer-songwriter?

ET: I had an epiphany. I had always found film scoring to be practical and fulfilling. I use a lot of acoustic instruments. I scored television shows with orchestral instruments. I won an Emmy and was nominated for four more. One Saturday I wandered into McCabe’s Guitar Store. It’s just a great place to be. I saw the music I’d been into before when I was younger. I picked up a music video on how to play the music of Blind Blake. It changed my direction. I always loved Piedmont blues but I’d never played it. Most of the teachers I had studied with looked down on open tunings so I never looked into it. The Blind Blake disc was all in open tuning.

TR: How did that change things for you?

ET: What it did was to place my songs in a vintage context. I loved the way Dylan took old blues and put literate lyrics to them. It was a new beginning. As a singer-songwriter, I keep in touch with the Piedmont style because it doesn’t date itself. When you make a song from it, it becomes timeless.

TR: Where do you get your inspirations for the themes in your songs?

ET: I do a lot of reading. But, I don’t read a book and then turn it into a story-song. I find books where I like the language. William Gay wrote a collection of short stories, I Hate To See The Evening Sun Go Down. Each story is the title of an old blues song. It’s written with really colorful, gothic language. William Gay led me to Cormac McCarthy and Blood Meridian. I fill my head with that kind of language. It’s poetic. That’s what I love about it. And it’s cinematic at the same time. I can draw on that taking the essence of the language for the narrative of the song.

TR: How do you write songs? Is there a process you use?

ET: I don’t know. For me writing songs is going into a dream state. I don’t visualize. Having worked on scoring so many movies and television shows, I do observe when the arc of the story is working right and when it isn’t. That helps me write better songs.

I know a film editor. When he edited movies the good performances would get better and the bad ones would get worse. It’s the same with lyrics. I play a new song many times. Sometimes I’ll get the bones of a song in a couple of days and then I’ll come back to it. It could take a month. Once the song feels done, I record it as a demo. It’s a funny thing. The song, Switchblade Heart, the chorus of that song was a dummy lyric. I just hummed the chorus and hung around for a while, but there was no way I was going to leave that in the song. Once I sketched out the character, Frankie, who is a gangster, there came this vivid contrast between the character and the chorus and the lyrics that emerged worked.

TR: Do you have an experience with personal foreshadows in songs?

ET: Yes, I have. Not that it was my life. My first album, All The Boats Are Gonna Rise, I wrote that song after reading Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Are Watching God. I wrote the song about a flood that was in the book. I finished it a year before Katrina.

TR: Where do you think great songs come from?

ET: I don’t know exactly. Dreams and songs make sense. I have had occasions when a dream triggers a song, but mostly, I don’t remember dreams. I usually start with music and get myself into a place mentally, which allows the words and stories to come through. It’s like putting yourself into a trance. I heard one writer say if he knew where the good stories come from, he’d go there more often. It just takes being receptive to these things coming through. I’ve written songs that happen really quickly. But, I usually end up having to put on my editor’s hat after a week or so and go back and try to fix parts of the song.

TR: You talk about the language in your songs being from the books you read. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

ET: I get the words into my head, the language. I have a new tune called, Harlan County Boys. The sound of the film, Harlan County, evoked a certain mood. I thought I’d write something gritty but instead I wrote a multigenerational story about a grandmother and three generations of lost men in the mines. It’s not something I can really control. I can’t imagine outlining something like that. It would feel so limiting. I think it’s a childhood thing for me. When I was a really young kid, I used to play with little cars on the edge of the lawn and dirt where the trees make these really cool little roads.  There was also a sandbox for my younger brother with clean sand. I wouldn’t get so dirty if I played there. But, I couldn’t build cool roads in that sandbox. Writing songs is no different. There are no limitations.

TR: What’s the difference between film scoring and writing songs?

ET: With scoring you’re given a story and you have to fit your music to scenes. I’ve been doing that for a long time. With songwriting there are certain challenges. A different part of my ability had to be developed. With songwriting I didn’t want to write-on-demand. Whatever comes through makes it fresh for me. So, having done songwriting makes it so when I go to do a film score I approach it in a new way.

TR: What makes songwriting unique for you?

ET: Songs can cover a lot of ground in their three and a half minutes. When I’m working on a song I have specific details I work from.  Once the song and story is working, a little later, I can make the lyrics more universal. It sends ripples out into the world and has a wider impact. It’s about being universal. I try. That’s my life. I didn’t set out to do that, but once I saw it, it’s like being a prophet. I work as hard as I can to get the song to work and once it does and I’ve gone through all of the re-writing and eye-opening to see the connections, then I look at the relationships of the intended and unintended words in the song and nurture it so that it all becomes concentrated and seamless.

TR: Have you picked up any influences along the way?

ET: When I went to Texas in 2009 I was exposed to a bunch of writers who were writing, ‘Texas style.’ It was a lean, economical style. They leave space. You don’t say too much, which contrasts with Dylan and Paul Simon. I tried to do that. Some of the influences for that style are Kevin Welch, Eric Taylor, Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith. Also, Darrell Scott and Julie Miller. Her stuff really knocks me out. Another one is Bo Ramsey. He’s an Iowa songwriter. He does rootsy blues that’s just slow and hypnotic.

TR: Well, thank you for the interview. I look forward to seeing you at McCabe’s.

ET: See you there!

Terry Roland is an English teacher, freelance writer, occasional poet, songwriter and folk and country enthusiast. The music has been in his blood since being raised in Texas. He came to California where he was taught to say ‘dude’ at an early age.