Country-folk-rock singer-songwriter Rebecca Turner is a serious music junkie. Her new album, The New Wrong Way – her first in 10 years – is essentially a love letter to records and music.
“It’s a record about records. I didn’t set out to do it that way at all, but it’s sort of the history of the past 10 years told in songs – music is always there for me,” she tells Say It With Garage Flowers.
“I’ve been embracing my musician-ness as well as my obsessive fandom more and more as I get older. It always seems to be what’s left at the end of the day.”
The New Wrong Way kicks off with the ’70s-rock of, er, Living Rock, which was written about a trip she made to Nashville – it describes how rock music has the ability to pull Rebecca through pretty much anything life throws at her.
The Cat That Can Be Alone was inspired by jazz singer Anita O’Day – Rebecca also covers O’Day’s Tenderly on the album, as well as an obscure, late ’60s Bee Gees B-side, Sun In My Morning, which she reinvents as a psych-tinged, country-rock song, with some lovely, haunting electric guitar.
Cassandra is about a Miranda Lambert gig that Rebecca saw in New York, What If Music? deals with how you can become obsessed with a song so much that you can’t get it out of your head, and Tom Tom recounts how a friend got through an alienating trip to Japan by watching a VHS compilation tape of XTC videos.
Rebecca, who lives in Maplewood, New Jersey, but has also resided in New York and L.A, was first influenced by ’70s FM radio and ’80s-era record stores. She says her musical allegiances have ranged over the years from Emmylou Harris to Liz Phair, from Doris Day to Tom Petty, from Goldfrapp to The Go-Gos.
The New Wrong Way is her third album and was partly recorded at Storybook Sound, the home-based studio which she runs with her husband and bassist Scott Anthony (Fond Farewells, Nu-Sonics). Two cover tracks were laid-down at the famous Ardent Studios in Memphis (Big Star, Al Green). Other musicians on the album include guitarist Rich Feridun (Tammy Faye Starlite, Jimmy LaFave, Amelia White) and drummer Sim Cain (Rollins Band, Chris Harford, Marc Ribot).
We asked Rebecca to tell us more about her musical obsessions and some of the stories behind the songs on her new album…
The New Wrong Way is your first album in 10 years. Why did you have a hiatus and how does it feel to be back with a new record?
Rebecca Turner: There was a long hiatus, but I hardly noticed it. Lots of things happened – normal adult life things. I’ve always had a full-time non-music job – I’m an e-commerce copywriter. My mom needed taking care of – she had Alzheimer’s. Plus my stepson was living with us, and went through his teens and off to college. But during that time I kept playing out and writing songs.
Why did the time feel right to bring it out?
RT: Around three years ago I started to get panicky that I might not ever make another album, so I stepped up my efforts with a goal of 2019, since that was 10 years since the last one. Also, because I am squarely in my fifties now, and it is a weird and scary time in this world, it felt important and positive to celebrate music, and my identity as a person who loves it and makes it.
As Scott, my husband, bass player and co-producer – says, these days making music feels like resistance – to awfulness, and other things. And most of the songs on the record are about music and what it does for people.
‘Around three years ago I started to get panicky that I might not ever make another album, so I stepped up my efforts…’
Was it a difficult record to make? What were the studio sessions like and how was it getting the songs together for it? Do all of the songs date from over the past 10 years? When were they written and how did you approach the recording of this album?
RT: Recording went insanely smoothly. All the songs had been written over the past 10 years. Music begets music, and I actually wrote a bunch right after finishing the last record.
I wanted it to be mostly live and unfussy, and there were a lot of vocals where we kept the first takes. That is unheard of for me. On my last records I felt like I did 900 takes of everything. I think I can put this down to experience, and also just the laziness of old age…I just didn’t want to labour over it. Plus, all the musicians were just amazing and had the perfect vibe right out of the gate. I’m really proud of it.
Were you apprehensive about making a record after so long away?
RT: I was apprehensive. The musical part turned out fine. Better than “just like riding a bicycle,” as recording went smoother than it ever had before. But the thing I was scared about, and that is always really hard, is the interpersonal part.
I really wonder how other people who are not full-time musicians or artists – and maybe even the full-timers – deal with the fact that when you put forth your art on even a small public level, you risk sort of turning into another person…it is inherently, I think, a narcissistic act.
You ask a lot of the musicians and your friends, too, and it’s easy to get caught up in the process and the emotions. One minute I’m ‘Divas Live’ and the next I’m super-down on myself, and I can lose myself and not see everything clearly. – especially at my age, when everyone has so much going on. I’m trying to figure out a better approach for next time.
Let’s talk about some of the musical styles on the album. Living Rock, which kicks off the record, has a ’70s rock feel. What can you tell me about that song?
RT: Living Rock is probably the hardest I ever rocked, and it started with just a fun chord change that Scott added a rocking bassline to, and then Rich Feridun’s guitar riff and Sim Cain’s drums just took it to the next level.
Sim played with the Rollins Band, so he has owned this stuff for decades, and Rich has this way of somehow delving on the spot into my past musical obsessions and coming up with the perfect guitar sound, whether it’s rock or country or whatever.
The song is really fun to sing and in creating it, I felt like I had turned into someone who could rock. It kind of changed me! And it’s about rock, too, so that helped.
‘Sonically, the songs dictated what they wanted to sound like – we just knew we wanted the album to sound real and as live as possible’
The album has a jazz moment – you cover Tenderly by Anita O’Day – and there are songs that are country and indie-rock. How did you approach this album from a musical point of view? Did you have a definite idea of the sounds and styles you wanted on the record? What was your starting point?
RT: Sonically, the songs dictated what they wanted to sound like – we just knew we wanted it to sound real and as live as possible. There is a big range of styles on this record and that was not by design, it just reflects 10 years of song accumulation and different genres that I’ve always loved.
I’m like a little kid – when I’m listening to country, I think “OMG, I love country music more than anything”…and when I listen to ‘40s big band stuff, I think “Why do I not listen to this all the time? It just sends me flying…” This veering intensely between styles I like is just getting more intense as I get older.
There are songs on the album inspired by female performers. The Cat That Can Be Alone was influenced by Anita O’Day, and Cassandra is about a Miranda Lambert show you saw. What’s so inspiring about those two artists?
RT: Yeah, The Cat That Can Be Alone is about Anita, and Tenderly, the old jazz tune, is tacked on to the end, as I learned it off of her record Anita Sings the Most. I read her autobiography and was really knocked out by it.
She had a rough childhood, rough relationships, and a heroin addiction, but music kept her going, as well as her own persistence. She talked about having to rely on herself and not get lonely, and said “The cat that can be alone is one up on the cat that can’t,” which I put into the song.
Cassandra was inspired by seeing an early Miranda Lambert show at Terminal 5 in New York, in 2010. She was just a force of country-rock nature, and still is, even with all the tabloid coverage.
I have a pic on my phone I will never delete, of her at this show, just being a dancing blonde blur. OMG, and she covered Rock and Roll, Hoochie Coo! And killed it 100%! I have a video of that I will likewise never delete. And like Anita’s story, Miranda’s music has given me a lot of confidence. So the song I wrote was an attempt to capture the feeling of the show.
Sun In My Morning is a cover of a Bee Gees song – it’s a great track and one I wasn’t familiar with. What’s the story behind choosing that song? I love the guitar solo on it…
RT: I am not usually an early Bee Gees fan…I’m more of a Jive Talkin’ person, with maybe with a little How Deep is Your Love thrown in, but somehow, among our pooled 45s was this record…. It was Scott’s and he’s not sure how it got into his collection.
We covered it once a long time ago, and Rich Feridun, who’d been playing guitar with us for a while, kept asking us to do it on this record. So we did, and he plays that absolutely stunning solo on it, on a beautiful vintage Gibson lent to us by beloved Memphian guitarist Robert Maché.
You recorded the song at the legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis, which is managed by Jody Stephens, who was the drummer in Big Star. How was that? Are you a Big Star fan?
RT: Memphis came about because we were down South to see family, and yes, we are huge Big Star fans and wanted to see the studio, so we asked for a tour, not really thinking we’d ever record there. We made the appointment and the woman who answered the phone said, “Oh, Jody might be here to give you the tour himself!” Gulp! And he was and did…
Jody was so generous and spent hours taking us around and telling amazing stories, and everyone was so nice and the cost was really reasonable. So we came back exactly a year later with Rich and Sue Raffman, who sings beautiful harmonies on the record, and did the two cover songs and some overdubs on stuff we had started at home.
We were nervous, but our engineer, Mic Wilson, was the nicest, funniest person and put everyone at ease. The vibe is just mega-thick at Ardent and in Memphis in general…the food, the people, and the musicians.
Your song What If Music? is about being obsessed with a song. Can you tell me some of the songs you’ve been obsessed with – and why? And, on that note, what music – new and old – are you currently enjoying?
Hah! I’ve basically lived my life from song obsession to song obsession. The first song I was ever nuts about was Lemon Tree by Peter, Paul, and Mary. My teacher played it in our nursery school classroom and I just stopped in my tracks. The harmonies! The rousing chorus!
‘In high school I would blow my ears out listening to Finding Out by Tom Petty on headphones in my ‘80s Los Angeles bedroom’
I’ll pick a random teenage obsession that has lasted forever – Finding Out, by Tom Petty, from Long After Dark. It’s typical of his mind-boggling ability to encompass punk, power-pop, classic rock, and a million other things in one super-fast little song.
In high school I would blow my ears out listening to it on headphones in my ‘80s Los Angeles bedroom. But you know how they say you shouldn’t meet your idols? One shouldn’t always sing your obsessions. I tried this at a recent Petty tribute show and it was fun, but very difficult. Now whenever I hear it, I remember struggling with the sneers and yells. I’m an OK singer, but I’m not sure I should sneer or yell.
One of the cool things about the last couple years is I’ve been going back and getting into music that I missed from oh, the last 50 years or so! The last old song I can think of getting obsessed with is So Begins the Task by Manassas…and also the Judy Collins version.
For a contemporary obsession I’m gonna say the mesmerising rocker Marathon, from the new Chuck Prophet album The Land That Time Forgot, and also the super-fun video they made for it, which Scott just showed me recently, in which he and Stephanie Finch dance and wear great outfits. It’s also one of the best male/female rock duets I’ve heard since John Doe and Kathleen Edwards’s Golden State – another obsession.
Do you collect vinyl? What’s your preferred way of listening to music?
RT: Yes, it’s all about vinyl for us now. Especially used vinyl, which is a cheap and harmless obsession. Unless you’re out of town in someplace like, say, Memphis, living out of a suitcase, and then you have a huge weight to carry home.
If we’re listening in the car, it’s satellite radio, or if I’m at work, I streaming internet radio archives – WFMU. If we’re in Scott’s truck, it’s cassettes! The vinyl obsession meant we had to make vinyl for the new record…and it’s such a colourful cover it looks extra-special nice on vinyl, if I do say so myself.
What are your plans for the rest of the year? Any other projects and gigs? You and Scott run a home-based recording studio – Storybook Sound, in New Jersey. What are you working on?
RT: We have a bunch of smaller gigs lined up for my band this spring, and Scott is a bassist in a band called The Fond Farewells with Megan Reilly, Chris Mills and Steve Goulding – they’re playing around a bunch and recording too.
I run a songwriters’ series out here in New Jersey called the Saturday Afternoon Song Swap with another local artist, Deena Shoshkes. We feature six songwriters in the round, and we’ve been doing it off and on for around 10 years and we have one coming up in April.
I’m singing a Linda Ronstadt song in a voting rights benefit show in April, too. The bumper crop of tribute shows and benefits over the last few years has been a lot of fun to see and be a part of.
Our studio is primarily a mastering studio, but we do some mixing and recording too. Scott has his usual hodgepodge of mastering projects coming up, from The Feelies, to a new Alex Chilton reissue, to a double album of some crazy deep dub, and some classic jazz reissues.
Finally, will we have to wait 10 years for the next album?
RT: Nope, it’s started. I have four songs already. It’s going to primarily be a sort of jazz album. After we recorded Tenderly, all I wanted to do was wander around to bars singing old stuff. So the new one will be mostly a bunch of old covers – a Doris Day medley, for sure – and a new song or two made to sound old, but there will probably be a few rockers on it. Or, I’ll release the rockers separately to keep things thematically intact.
In any case, like I said, music begets music, and since the world’s kind of messed up, I’ll need to make a lot more of it to feel better.
The New Wrong Way by Rebecca Turner is out now on FRED. More info at: https://rebeccaturner.bandcamp.com/album/the-new-wrong-way