The Americana singer-songwriter from Brevard, North Carolina, comes out of the gate with something deep and deeply enjoyable.
There must be something musical in the water in Brevard. The town in western North Carolina is a mecca for classical, bluegrass, and folk, with its world-famous Brevard Music Center and nonstop festivals and concerts featuring everything from mountain music to blues.
Grammy-winning bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers hail from Brevard. So does exciting new Americana singer-songwriter Clint Roberts.
His debut single, “Nero’s Waltz,” was a Rolling Stone Country Music Pick when it came out in late September.
Recorded at Ocean Way Nashville Studio, the track enlists A-listers Gordan Mote (keys), Dan Dugmore (guitar, pedal steel, lap steel), Fred Eltringham (drums, percussion), Brian Sutton (acoustic guitar, mandolin), and Mark Hill (bass). Grammy Award-winner Ben Fowler (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Maddie & Tae, Sara Evans, Eric Clapton, Kip Moore, Love and Theft, Rascal Flatts) works his producing magic, too.
But the acoustic version of the tune — we’re premiering the video here — proves that even on his own with just his guitar, Roberts is a distinctive talent with the ability to capture emotion and offer insightful commentary on the human condition and the times we struggle with.
“I wrote ‘Nero’s Waltz’ at a time when I was first discovering tongue-in-cheek songwriting styles of artists such as Loudon Wainwright III and Father John Misty. Their work inspired me to write political satire,” Roberts says. “Once I had the chorus down, the verses felt as if they had written themselves. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the upbeat chord progression and melody against the subject matter of the lyrics. The song is a criticism of corporate and cultural nihilism in America that is so often presented under the guise of higher virtue and God-given right.”
We talked with Roberts about the single, the acoustic video, and his forthcoming album.
Cowboys & Indians: When did you discover your love of music and songwriting?
Clint Roberts: I discovered my love for songwriting and music pretty much simultaneously. When I got to high school, there were upperclassmen I knew that I thought were really cool, and they turned me onto music blogs like Pitchfork and Paste. One of these upperclassmen brought a ukulele to a theater class that we were both in, during the big ukulele craze in 2009. It seemed like a good jumping off point to learn a stringed instrument, which I had always wanted to do. Soon after, I realized I was more interested in writing my own songs rather than playing other people’s. My peers also pointed out that I had a decent voice and it was a lot of positive feedback that I hadn’t experienced prior. So I kept writing and singing for my friends, and haven’t stopped since.
C&I: Besides that positive feedback early on, who encouraged you in your music?
Roberts: My most early music mentor was an industry professional local to Brevard named John Felty of Mountain Song Productions, who was also previously the lead guitarist for Jupiter Coyote. Late in high school John told me that I had a legitimate shot at making a career as an artist if I kept at it. He also helped showcase my work in various projects at many of our local music festivals. His help, along with the help Woody Platt of Steep Canyon Rangers, was crucial in giving me the confidence I needed to feel assured that I could get after this music thing. Soon after, my family became very supportive of me chasing a music career. All three were absolutely essential in getting me to this point.
C&I: How did “Nero’s Waltz” come into being? Where was your head at when you wrote the lyrics?
Roberts: “Nero’s Waltz” was my first attempt at writing a protest song. I wanted to take a satirical approach to addressing the deceit from those in power in the world. Assuming their perspective in a sarcastic way wasn’t very hard once I had written the chorus. The song wasn’t a response to one given event, but was a response to an awakening process I had gone through in college, having been surrounded by people who thought like I did for the first time. It was one of the first songs I wrote when I first began establishing myself as a solo act in 2014.
C&I: Do you have a favorite lyric in the song? Or musical arrangement?
Roberts: My favorite verse is the one that goes after corporate media: “We got some Barbie and Ken chilling you to the bone.” The line is poking fun at the juxtaposition between the highly manicured appearance of your typical news anchors and the horrible things they are telling you about what’s happening in the world.
C&I: How did the song evolve from your head to the studio?
Roberts: I’ve been performing this song for quite some time, so there were verses that were altered or scrapped altogether by the time it got to the studio. I had fine-tuned the arrangement instrumentation-wise so that, by the time we hit record, I knew generally what I wanted it to sound like. The producer, Ben Fowler, and I had told the band what instruments we wanted in the song, but we had given them free rein to play what parts came to them intuitively. It’s also important to note that when you’re working with such established Nashville studio talent as I was, you’re pretty safe to give them a lot of creative freedom.
C&I: Tell us about the acoustic rendition we’re premiering the video for. You seem very relaxed when you’re performing/singing. What’s it like when you’ve got your guitar and you’re singing?
Roberts: I am really excited to see this video premiering with Cowboys & Indians. Though I am only recently debuting to larger audiences as an artist, I’ve been a touring musician for nearly eight years, and a good deal of that touring has taken place in 2018 and 2019. I think all artists owe it to themselves to be a road dog for a while, in order to build the necessary confidence and “spiritual calluses” to perform with ease. You can practice your music in your bedroom all day and get really good, but performing on a stage and to a camera is a different ballgame altogether. Performing to a camera is relatively the least comfortable for me, but it helps to know you can try again as long as it isn’t live to an audience.
I approach playing solo with my guitar vs. playing with a band pretty differently. When I’m performing alone, I’m aware that everything is pretty exposed, so I try to focus on the nuances of my playing and my voice. I try to re-create the dynamic range of my band with just my voice and a guitar. I want to communicate soft subtle lines just as effectively as loud explosive ones. And so performing solo is an attempt to ride that dynamic wave as artfully as I can.
C&I: Satire — is it just commentary/criticism/catharsis? What is the role of modern satire?
Roberts: I think satire can cut to the bone on certain issues where addressing them in more direct ways sometimes fails to, at least for some purposes. Journalism and activism are both massively important, but there are also other important means — a song, a movie, or an SNL skit — that can heighten our societal consciousness. I love seeing when artists use the palatable means of their work to speak truths about the status quo. For obvious reasons, satire might be more important now than ever, or at least in recent memory.
C&I: Nice comment from top brass at Carry On Music management company: “We see Clint as a career artist and an influential songwriter, someone whose creative contributions will be felt, respected and enjoyed for years to come.” Assuming you do achieve lasting impact as a songwriter, what do you hope to do with that influence?
Roberts: I hope to recontextualize what pop music can be — emphasis on hope because breaking into Top 40 is a pretty lofty aspiration. As a writer, I’ve always had a pop sensibility, but I’ve often found myself disappointed in how artistically narrow the ways a pop song can be presented. Sure, you’ll hear the occasional kooky sample that lets some songs stand apart, but so much of music is presented in a predictable format after the repeal of the Telecommunications Act in the ’90s. I always look to the ’90s as a time when, if you had a hook that was enough, it didn’t matter how weird or atypical the presentation was. When’s the last time you heard a song on Top 40 radio with an Hammond B3, a pedal steel, or a mandolin in it?
C&I: Where are you with the new record?
Roberts: I actually just got back from Nashville last week, where I finished up recording the entirety of the album, which has all of the same players on it as “Nero’s Waltz” did — Grammy Award-winning producer Ben Fowler, Gordan Mote (keys), Dan Dugmore (guitar, pedal steel, lap steel), Fred Eltringham (drums, percussion), Brian Sutton (acoustic guitar, mandolin), and Mark Hill (bass). All that’s left is final production and mastering.
C&I: Besides the studio, do you have a favorite place to create?
Roberts: Starting a song is, more often than not, a eureka moment that takes place in the car while driving, at the grocery store, on a run in the woods, etc. That’s where a melody, a lyrical hook, or a compelling concept usually enters my brain and creates the initial spark of a song. It’s very rare that I get a song done in one location start to finish, or in one sitting, but I think that having the additional stimuli of different settings allows more flavors and moods to make their way into my work. I wouldn’t say that I have a favorite place to create, but I would say that there are places where much of my work is written. When I’m driving alone and for long distances, I’m usually relatively productive.
C&I: Gotta ask about the supercool Western shirts you wear, especially that light aqua floral. Where do you find them?
Roberts: I get my pearl snaps from a variety of places! Mostly Goodwill, some vintage stores, Western stores, etc. I prefer the vintage stuff that isn’t overstated. It’s in vogue to be completely Nudie-suited-out right now, but like every other popular phase, I think it will be kicked to the side by the mainstream rather quickly. I love the look of a lot of that clothing, but it’s a bit era-specific for my tastes. In my opinion, you either need to sound like Mel Tillis or Rose Maddox, or be some alternative artist that’s doing it ironically, for it to make sense. I like the shirts that you’re not entirely sure what decade it was made in. Timelessness is key.