Artist Interview: 1-on-1 with Evan Watson

Artist Interview: 1-on-1 with Evan WatsonWorking for Live Nation has allowed me the chance to see a TON of great bands. From Kid Rock to Elton John, this season has been packed with talent. But it’s not always the headliner that grabs my attention. In this case, it was the opening act. He started early… very early, and no one had ever heard of him. Regardless, I had a photo pass so I went out to take a few shots before the big guys took the stage. I would later learn that he has written songs for Meatloaf and is on the road with Heart! and Def Leppard all summer long. What a great way to get your feet wet! He has a band too, but at Verizon Wireless Music Center he was rocking solo. I was blown away, and just had to chat with him. I’ll stop talking so we can hear from the artist… it’s my absolute pleasure to introduce you to Evan Watson.

So I hadn’t heard of you until I saw you open for Heart and Def Leppard. I must say, your set was incredible. You have an amazing voice. Has your voice always been that good?

(Laughs) Thanks… Good? Definitely not, but my singing voice has always come from a strangely guttural place. I guess I grew up subconsciously emulating the soulful inflections of blues and soul men. People always are surprised, mostly because I’m a relatively soft-spoken person. It’s the only way I know how to sing. The higher I get in my vocal register, the raspier it becomes. My mother was an actress and constantly reiterated the concept of “projection”… I guessed I listened.

I was sitting backstage (I run the iPhone app for Live Nation here in Indianapolis) and I hear your fiancée talking about you. I couldn’t help but turn around and introduce myself. She was very nice in setting this up. Is that tough having your lady so close while you are on the road?

Tough? NO. It’s truly been amazing. Many people questioned her choice to come along, saying things like, “This will be the true test of your relationship.” I kind of brushed that stuff off. I know we were going to have a good time and survive the summer, I love her… That’s why we are getting married. Plus, she has become an integral part of the business side of my music. Which, I must admit is not my strong suit.

Wait a second… you are from Indiana? That’s awesome! Where are you originally from? Besides out of a van, where are you living these days?

Originally, I’m from Crawfordsville, Indiana. Was born and raised there, graduated from Crawfordsville High School in 2003, and went to College in Ohio at the College of Wooster. My dad was, and still is, a professor of theatre at Wabash College in Crawfordsville.

He recently built a little cabin in the rustic woods outside of Spencer, Indiana. A true slice of “Hoosier Heaven”. Emily and I have been spending any down-time at that cabin. We are quasi-homeless since we moved out of our apartment in Tarrytown, New York at the beginning of the tour. I moved to New York City after I graduated from college in 2007. The Big Apple… I lived in Harlem for the better part of two years and then moved outside the city to a nice little town called Tarrytown. I miss it. I miss New York. It’s crazy, but addictive.

You are only 26 years old… how long have you been performing at such an impressive level?

This is my first national tour. I did a handful of shows as an opener for Meatloaf in the spring. I’ve been an opener for a fair amount of national acts coming through the New York metro area. However, I spend most of my stage time in the smaller clubs in New York City with my band. I like those venues, we’ve built a great community of musicians.

I notice that on your Facebook page, you take a photo of each venue before the show… that’s a really cool concept. What’s been the most impressive venue you have performed in to date?

I like the venues that are integrated into natural surroundings. SPAC Saratoga Springs, New York is great. It’s right in the middle of the woods and on the grounds of a natural spa/spring. I’ve yet to play Red Rocks amphitheatre in Colorado, but that’s a dream of mine… Honestly, I’ve played in Madison Square Garden and Jones Beach in New York, but  prefer the smaller venues like Rockwood Music Hall off E. Houston Street in NYC & the Tarrytown Music Hall. Bigger isn’t always better.

Tell me a little bit more about “A Town Called Blue”.

“A Town Called Blue” was my debut album. When I graduated from school in 2007 and moved to NYC I began working with a producer named Peter Zizzo. Peter is amazingly talented and a pretty good businessman as well. He landed us a large investment from a hedge fund stockbroker within a year of our collaboration. With solid financial support and handful of good songs we called upon some of the best studio musicians in New York to help us create the first release for Club Road Records.

T-Bone (Tommy) Wolk was so instrumental (no pun intended) in the creation of that record. He played bass for Hall & Oates and was the musical director for SNL for a while. He played mandolin, bass, 12-string, B3 hammond organ, banjo, and piano on the record. I joke that it was a T-Bone Wolk record featuring Evan Watson. (Laughs) T-Bone became a mentor of mine, but sadly passed away over a year ago. I miss him. Joe Bonadio was another driving force on the album. He is my favorite drummer in the world and has taught me more about music than any other musician I’ve come across to date.

Unfortunately, the stock market crashed and hedge funds became legally restricted, so we lost our capital, Club Road Records dissolved, and the record never quite got the distribution and airplay it might have deserved.

You recently toured with Meatloaf. He is also recording one of your tracks. How do you stay so humble out there on the road with these legendary performers?

I stay grounded by honestly feeling blessed for the opportunities. I literally try to make the best out of each note. I know so many artists that would kill for these opportunities and they deserve them too. I feel like I would be doing them and myself a terrible injustice if took anything for granted.

I opened for Meatloaf once at Irving Plaza NYC and he personally asked me to come on the road with him and to write a song for his next record. I was completely humbled… I mean these legends owe me nothing… yet they have been so helpful and kind. In my mind, I’ve got a lot to learn from these people and I’m endlessly grateful that they’re willing to share it with me.

I stay humble by watching Meatloaf tear the roof of a venue nightly (at 63)… By listening to Ann and Nancy Wilson create art and rock n’ roll history every time they step on the stage. They sound better than they did 30 years ago. It’s baffling. I’m deeply humbled every night by sharing a song from my set with guitar legend Vivian Campbell (of Def Leppard)… He plays circles around me and I love it. I’m floored by the stage presence and impact of the force that is Def Leppard.

“South” is your latest release. You did more than just sing on that album. Tell me a little bit more about your role with “South”, and how that varied from your debut release.

“South” is a functional counterpoint to “A Town Called Blue”. It truly comes from the opposite end of the creative spectrum. After I lost my initial investment I became much more self-reliant (for better or worse). I got a credit card with 0% APR for 6 months and purchased the basic equipment/resources required to build a simple home studio. I constructed and floated a floor for an isolation/drum booth. I researched simple recording techniques. I idolize the sound of Stax, Chess, and Mowton records. Those principle recordings that changed the world were all recorded in small restrictive rooms with basic recording technology. I love the sound of those rooms. So with simplicity in mind I made the “South EP”. I played every instrument; I engineered, mixed, and mastered every second of it without any exterior influence (also for better or worse). It’s the transcendental recording technique. (Laughs)

Wilspro Management recently signed you… (Tell Kate I said hello… she should recognize my name!) What benefit do you have being managed by a third party?

Kate’s great. Wilspro is a different kind of third party than I’ve dealt with before. The people I initially surrounded myself with were too focused on the “ends” and not the “means”. Doug Shaw, Debbie Wilson, and Julian Rapp (Wilspro) are people who believe in me as a person and an artist. They’re not worried about imaging and sculpting a star and all that superficiality that often comes with a management component. They simply want to get me in front of as many people as possible and they want me to do “my thing’”exactly how I want to do it. They already believe in me and they just want to get me out there so others can share their passion. With the help of AGI booking agency I think they’ve done a pretty darn good job so far.

The Def Leppard fans are crazy! And I love it… got any good stories from this tour?

They are avid, some times rabid. (Laughs) I have a lot of people that try to use me as a vessel to get backstage to meet the Def Leppard fellas. I have to be careful, people cook up some pretty intricate stories. I know they would steal my credentials in a nano-second if I wasn’t careful. I don’t think they would hurt anything backstage, but I don’t feel like getting kicked off the tour because I let in an underwear thief.

Gibson guitars huh… those are pretty good. Do you use the same guitar every night, or switch it up from show to show?

I rotate one of two Gibsons every night. I have a vintage cherry red Es-339 (small semi-hollow body) and a Split Headstock mahogany reissue Explorer that is on-loan from the NYC Gibson show room. I love the Explorer; it’s super-rare and super rock n’ roll. Gibson makes the best modern electric instruments in my opinion.

You have a show pretty much every night. Do you ever get tired of being on the road all the time?

I’m splitting the driving with Emily (what a trooper), and we are going to log in about 30,000 miles this summer. It’s a little crazy. I feel like a truck driver. BUT believe it or not, I don’t get sick of it. I love it. It’s exactly what I should be doing and what I want to be doing. I get to see the whole country with my best friend, we aren’t losing money, and I show up and play a rock show almost nightly in front of thousands of people. I can’t complain.

You recently played at the Iowa State Fair. I assume that you heard what happened during the Sugarland concert here at the Indiana State Fair. How does an artist react to something like that… I mean, imagine you are Sugarland. What sort of emotions are you feeling from that tragedy?

It saddens me to even try to answer this question. It’s tough to put myself in that place. I’ve grown to respect the production of these shows immensely. When I saw that footage (literally after I stepped off stage in Iowa), I was shaken and disturbed. It’s a nomadic way of life and sometimes that stage feels like it’s home. The tech and production crew have become my family and friends on this tour. I can’t even imagine how psychologically damaging it has to be for all the people surrounding that tragedy. My heart goes out to every person affected.

These productions are so large, there’s so much invested in them that it’s hard to cancel anything for the promoters. However, we need to be a little more conscious of the priority of human life in the future and know when throw in the towel. Mother Nature has been trying to teach us that lesson for a long time now. I hope we grow the capacity to learn from these incidents.

Tell me a little bit more about your band, The Headless Horsemen.

They’re the best. New York based. Mostly New Yorkers. Greg Mayo is the son of music legend Bob Mayo (Peter Frampton, Hall & Oates, Aerosmith). He is beyond talented. He plays every instrument masterfully (including trombone) but mainly guitar, lap-steel, and keys with me. He has a beautifully smooth voice.  Chris Anderson plays bass. He is a tonal genius and provides so much texture. He understands music as well as any person I’ve ever met. Greg and Chris currently play 3 or even 4 gigs a night in the NYC music scene they are so sought after. Rebecca Haviland is basically a secondary lead singer who plays keys, guitar, mandolin. Rebecca along with Greg have their own projects that are also fantastic. I don’t know a person with a better tone of voice. She sounds like Bonnie Raitt when she’s singing sweetly and Robert Plant when she digs in. She’s unstoppable. Jonny Cragg plays drums with me. He played in a popular band called Space Hog. I’ve dubbed Jon “the British Bulldog”. He’s from Leeds, England and though he is small in stature, he hits the drums like a sledge hammer… which I love. He’s a true rocker, and a beautiful person. I’ve learned a ton from him.

Who are you listening to these days? What’s on your iPod?

I tend to fall back on the staples (not literally, well I actually do listen to the staple singers)… The Band, Little Feat, Clapton, Derek Trucks, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Zepplin, J.J. Cale, B.B. King, Taj Mahal, Ray Lamontagne, Paul Simon… Martin Sexton… The true musical masters.

Some call you folk… some call you blues. I would just call you rock! How would you describe your sound… what do you call yourself?

A good plagiarizer! (Laughs) I’ve always learned through osmosis. I am a sponge, constantly trying to soak in the good stuff. I try to play music that makes you think, smile, dance, and cry, but hopefully not at the same time. I try to sing from my gut and I hope that it hits you right in the gut too. Communal roots music, I guess. Bred from the American tradition of having a good time.

You play a ton of shows… what’s the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you on stage?

We didn’t have the most graceful falling out with our hedgefund investor. One night, months after we lost our investment, we were playing down at the Historic Bitter End on Bleecker Street. I looked over to the bar to see that investor had randomly decided to attend the show. I wanted to prove to him, so badly, that he had made a terrible mistake. I knew I was destined to play the greatest show ever. So what happened? I broke two strings, my amp crapped out mid-set, I borrowed the house amp, that broke within a song, and I was left to play the rest of my set without a guitar. I’m not exactly Robert Plant, I can’t rock the hand-held mic thing that well… I felt pretty embarrassed.  That was an interesting lesson learned.

Who are some of your biggest influences… in both life and in music?

I love Levon Helm. He is my favorite. Over 70 years old and still rocking. He got throat cancer for God’s sake, fought it, recovered, re-learned how to sing, then put out two Grammy nominated records in his late 60’s. One of which beat out Wilco (arguably the most relevant contemporary musical act in the nation) for Best Americana Album a year or two back. My dad & mom are amazing artists as well. They taught me about courage and commitment. Josh Dion, Martin Rivas, and Caleb Hawley, a few NYC based artists with unparalleled talents. They physically embody the spirit of music. Josh is so talented he needs to play multiple instruments simultaneously to satisfy his musical inclinations. Those three men are committed to such a high artistic ideal, that they inspire me daily even when I’m not around them. You should check them out.

What’s next for you? After you get off this massive tour, coming off a tour with Meatloaf, Heart, and Def Leppard… where do you go from here?

Down? (Laughs) I don’t know… We are lining some more touring options up for the fall, but I truly miss my band. I know that there is a certain appeal for a musician that can hold his own as a solo act on a big stage. I’m maximum sound with minimal production. It’s a pretty easy set-up and that’s what has gotten me these gigs, but nothing compares to the sound of rock n’ roll band clicking, vibing, and firing on all cylinders. A solo artist can survive, maybe even thrive, but I band can take over the world. Also, I wouldn’t mind an opportunity to make a definitive record and to work with a producer I truly admire. That would be pretty ideal. I’ve got a ton of songs that are ready for wax.

I could ask you questions all day… but in all of the interviews I do, I always give the artist the last word. Go.

Thanks for the opportunity to answer such thoughtful questions. I hope to see you and your readers at a show in the near future. Peace… and love.

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