Interview with Tall Pines

When singer Connie Lynn Petruk left Edmonton Alberta to go to New York City so she could follow her dreams of becoming a musician, little did she know that it would be performing in Brooklyn coffeehouses and Manhattan nightclubs that would be the ticket to the success she was always searching for. It was while singing at these venues that she met Christmas Davis, a songwriter/composer with similar musical ambitions. Together, they formed Tall Pines, a new-wave country band that blurs the lines that define the genre by incorporating various sounds and influences not often associated with country music. Their debut album, released in 2007, received critical praise and ended up on National Public Radio’s Top Ten Best Records of the year list. Connie Petruk’s “honeyed alto will melt the frost off your windshield, and the band’s confident backing matches her attitude flawlessly,” they said of the record. In June, the band released their much-awaited sophomore album, “Campfire Songs,” a 12-track compilation that takes their sophisticated June Carter-meets-Janis Joplin sound to the next level. I caught up with the band about their new record, how their childhoods inspire their music, and their opinions on the state of the country music industry.

Where does the album title Campfire Songs come from? Were the songs written by an actual campfire or just with one in mind as a setting for inspiration?

Ha ha, yes some of the songs could have definitely been written by an actual campfire. All of them were tried out that way on our friends and families before we decided to include them on the record. There’s a cabin we go to in West Virginia that we like to visit with our family and some of the songs were written there, some were written at a beach shack in north Florida, and sometimes there was a campfire near by. The name comes from the loose feeling that people have hanging out around a campfire, telling stories, singing songs, having a few drinks, and just feeling both free and connected to each other. There’s something about a campfire that does that, and we wanted to capture those feelings on this record. That’s where the name comes from.

What makes your music stand out is that it doesn’t fit underneath one label. You manage to blend elements of classic country with Motown-esque soul and a twang of Debbie Harry like rock ‘n roll. NPR, while reviewing your first record, stated that you sing like the “lost sister of Dusty Springfield.” Who would you say are your biggest musical influences and what words would you use to describe your distinctive sound?

Although there are a lot of great singers, songwriters and producers that we look up to, our biggest musical influence isn’t any one specific person. It’s more of a time period, and a genre that came from that period. In the late ‘60s and early ’70s there was a lot of cross-pollination between Nashville Country and Memphis Soul. It was common during this time to hear Country musicians laying down soul-style rhythm sections. Think of Tony Joe White, or Joe South, or even some of Elvis live Vegas shows from that period with The Sweet Inspirations singing back up. At the same time you had soul singers doing more country and Americana themed stuff. Listen to Bobby Womack’s BW Goes CW or Aretha Franklins version of “The Weight” and you’ll get an idea of what we’re talking about. There was a whole genre of “Country-Soul” that was just getting off the ground when it suddenly disappeared. We wanted to create something new out of this style. To be a rock band that takes “Country-Soul” as a starting point and sees where it could have gone, and where it still can go if it hadn’t ended so quickly. Some folks blame disco, but we’re not looking to blame anything. We just want to figure out how we can take a great idea from the past, make it our own, and build on it to make something new.

Christmas, as a man writing lyrics that will ultimately be performed by a woman, do you find yourself trying to write from a woman’s perspective? Or do you feel that the message of your music transcends gender boundaries and it doesn’t matter whether a male or female is singing it?

I really don’t think about that too much. Usually I write a song from my own perspective and then we change the gender to a female perspective for Connie Lynn to sing it. There are exceptions, like “Good Woman” which I actually did try to write from a male perspective about a strong and good-hearted woman making a bad guy into a better guy, but it just wasn’t working out. Then it hit me that since Connie Lynn would be singing it anyway it just made sense to re-approach it as a song from a female perspective. “Love You Better” is also written from a woman’s perspective, because over the course of one week I had had two different female friends telling me sad stories about how they were in relationships with guys who couldn’t seem to let go of their feelings for their former girlfriends. I did try to write that from a woman’s perspective, to tell their side of things in the song, but Connie Lynn originally hated the lyrics because she thought that they were too sexiest. So much for writing songs from a woman’s point of view.

You had a very traditional Southern upbringing, which you often cite as the inspiration for many of your songs. What exactly is it about that classic American growing up that motivates you to create music about it?

There’s something about those first impressions that you have as a young person which really last, and this is what effects the perspective of a lot of songwriters. My earliest experiences are the ones that I go back to when I try to make sense of my feelings from their roots. Many of these experiences come from a specific time and from a specific group of people that I knew who all happened to be in the American South in the 1970s. Many of them were my relatives who have now passed on. So, this is where I go in my mind to try to turn my feelings and memories into songs. I don’t know that being American is requisite. That’s just a part of it for me because this is where I grew up, and being American incorporates a certain kind of experience and a certain mythology that I try to live up to. Connie Lynn is from Canada and her childhood experience is similar in a lot of ways. But if we were from another culture our childhood experiences would still have a strong bearing on how we create music, and where our ideas come from. I think that to some extent people are just wired that way.

There are many themes strung throughout the record, with religion being a major one. Would you classify your music as spiritual?

All music is spiritual, and I sincerely hope that ours is included in that. Actually, just to be clear, all music is spiritual except for American Idol. That’s a game show. I’m not knockin’ it. I appreciate the hard work that those performers put into what they do, and I’m glad that it makes folks happy. I also hope that it turns people on to music who might not otherwise give it any thought. I guess that that makes it kind of a “gate-way drug” for music. But, I just wanted to explain myself because there is a difference between music – which is spiritual – and game shows. People seem to get confused about this all the time.

You were raised in an incredibly religious family. Your great-grandmother ran a Bible Camp and had her own gospel radio show, while you attended a fundamentalist Christian junior high. Exactly how much of an impact did religion have when it came to writing and recording this album and is there any specific message about religion that your music is trying to convey? Are there any other particular messages found in your music that you want your listeners to come away with after listening to this record?

Wow, you’ve done your research. Yes religion has had a very strong influence in my life. As a kid my mom would drag me to tent revivals, Bible schools, churches and a lot of events that shaped my way of looking at things. What we are trying to do with The Tall Pines is to create music, ideas and feelings that will help people to step out of their day to day world and into some place that they can enjoy and feel free. Whether it’s for the length of one of our songs, or for a whole night at one of our shows, we want to give people an interesting and unusual place to escape to. The thing about both music and religion that is so important to people is that it does just that. It takes them out of their day to day life and makes them feel like they are having a different experience, even if it only lasts for a short while. We didn’t get into music to preach a particular polarizing message, but we do want to create something special that people can enjoy and use to step out of their everyday lives. That’s what would mean the most to us if people could enjoy our music and be uplifted by it. We’d love it if people could take that away with them, and return to it whenever they’d like.

Connie, you’ve recorded and performed with such musical juggernauts as David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Perry Farrell, Moby, Joan Jett, Ian Hunter, and Ronnie Spector. If you could collaborate with any artist, alive or dead, who would it be and why?

There are so many people that I would love to work with, but the two who really stand out are Arif Mardin, rest his soul, because he worked with so many great artists and he really knew how to bring out the best performances in everyone he worked with. He made The Bee Gees sing in falsetto for heaven sake. They didn’t want to do it, but he made them, and whoa, he was right. Who would have thought of that? The other person that I would like to work with is fortunately still alive and that’s Jack White, because he has such a great melodic sensibility, but he’s so rough around the edges and can create such skewed and unexpected sounds and stylistic combinations. Christmas and I always enjoy checking out whatever Jack White is up to. We also like the way he records everything quickly. We do that too. Nothing should take more than a week. After that, you get too comfortable.

Country music sells more than most genres in the United States, but it is seldom that a country musician has a Top 40 single. With the exception of certain artists such as Taylor Swift or Carrie Underwood, why do you feel that mainstream audiences haven’t really embraced the genre enough to give it national radio credibility?

It’s true that we have a lot of Country music influences, and we do play shows with a lot of country artists. We played CMJ last year with Charlie Louvin. But The Tall Pines are just as much of a Country band as we are a rock band, or a classic-soul band. Our live shows are much more of a soul dance party than a country tear-in-my-beer line-dance. We don’t really pay attention to the politics of contemporary Country music, so we may not be the best qualified folks to answer this question. If you want us to hazard a guess, maybe it has more to do with the overly-tight formats at radio, rather than the demand that’s out there.

Since the release of your first album in 2007, how do you feel your music has evolved and what do you believe is the biggest change between this new record and your previous one?

When we recorded our first record “The Tall Pines,” it was like having a wild party in the studio. We had the songs together, but it was definitely controlled mayhem and a bit of a free-for-all. That makes it special to us because it’s the sound of our friends and us slapping down sounds off the cuff. When it was time to record “Campfire Songs” we had a better idea of which of our friends were going to be in the band, and we had had the opportunity to play the songs live for quite a while before we went in to record them. We still had a great time making “Campfire Songs.” Working with Joel Hamilton will make any recording session feel like a party, but the difference for us between the two records is the difference between methodically building a campfire to celebrate something special with your friends, and accidentally starting a forest fire.

*** Campfire Songs is currently digitally available on iTunes