Casey Black, the Nashville-born, Columbia-University-educated, gravel-voiced, literary singer-songwriting son of Charlie Black (NSAI Hall of Fame songwriter of more than a dozen #1 country hits) is Ireland bound.
Despite his relatively young years Casey is a consummate music veteran, having started out yonng (hardly a surprise given his heritage). Casey wrote his first song at twelve years old, released his first “record” three years later (a cassette of songs he recorded in his basement on his father’s hand-me-down equipment), and signed with EMI Music Publishing Nashville at nineteen, making him one of the youngest staff songwriters on Music Row. His most recent record, Lay You In The Loam was released in the summer of 2013.
Casey is set to headline Couglans in Cork on May 19, before joining up with Mick Flannery for shows at Debaras (May 27), The Lodge in Mallow (May 28) and the Pavilion (May 29 / 30).
We Are Noise caught up with Casey recently to talk careers, college and Irish musical acquaintances.
We understand that you were brought into the world of professional songwriting at a pretty young age. Can you tell us how that happened and whether it was something that you enjoyed doing?
My dad is a professional songwriter. Just before I got out of high school my band made a record and he took a copy of it up to his publisher to make some free CDs (CD burners were the hot new technology). The record got passed around the place and all of a sudden I was being offered a publishing deal, which I signed a few months later. It’s hard to say whether I liked it or not. At that point I had a pretty bad spell of depression ramping up, so it’s tough to see through that to know if I liked anything at that time or not. The job was basically to write songs with other people for country artists. I liked saying I was a professional songwriter. That made me feel like a big shot. I liked the feeling that I might be on my way, destined for big things, perhaps like my father. And I liked all the songwriters I wrote with, and the exposure to how other people wrote songs. But to tell the truth I really did’t like any of the songs I was writing with them. Three years in I was torn between committing to it and just saying fuck it, I’ll do my own thing. There was one year left on the contract that the publisher could give to me, under the condition that I write and demo more country songs. I was so depressed at the time, and so out of love with songwriting that I told them I didn’t want to do it any more. My depression had come to a peak at that time, and I decided that maybe writing songs that I hated had something to do with it. So I told them not to give me that year. A few months later I left Nashville for LA.
At what point did you decide that you wanted to embark on your own solo career?
Most of my moving to LA when I was 21 was about needing a place to change that was out of sight from the people who knew me. I believed I need to be a different person and I wanted space to try things out. But I also moved there thinking that I’d get back to writing songs that I liked, and that’s what happened. As soon as I was out there writing and singing songs solo, I guess that’s when I became solo Casey Black.
You took some time out to go to college. What did you study and can you see that as something that you might return to?
Yeah, I started at a community college in Santa Monica and finished at Columbia, in New York. I went to college for a couple reasons, one healthy and one cowardly. The healthy reason for going was that I was reading a lot and thinking about a lot of big things. None of my pals were really doing that at the time, and I wanted to be around people who were. I wanted to talk with smart people and be smart myself. The cowardly reason for going was that I was essentially running away from the music business because I’d been let down a few too many times. (And, because I’m not very good at it on my own, I suppose.) I went to school to be a therapist initially, because I was very interested in psychology and I thought that my own experience with depression could serve a purpose that way. But two years into that path I discovered that Columbia has a program for “nontraditional” students, and that they also had a new creative writing degree. I had just written a short story for a class and it had felt good. And so, the romance of studying writing in New York at an Ivy League school trumped my practical plans. I suppose you could say that studying creative writing there makes sense for me, and that I might use that degree in my songwriting. I don’t think I do though. I write like I’ve always written. The difference is that Columbia exposed me to so many great artists and thinkers, and so while I may write the same, I don’t write about the same things any more.
You became involved with a bunch of songwriters in New York a few years back, one of whom was Cork’s Niall Connolly. Did this put you back on the performing path?
Yes. Again I’d almost given up on song singing as a career, but decided maybe I should go out and see some music in New York. I’d been so busy studying that I hadn’t ever made time to do it. One night I went with a girl to hear her boyfriend play bass with someone. To tell the truth I fancied the girl and was glad when, after his set, he went to get high behind the venue. While I was trying to chat her up I heard a dude singing behind me. He was singing, “We are skin and bones, and blood, without love,” and he was singing it sincerely and it really got to me. I turned around in my chair to listen, and after his set I introduced myself. When I told him I was a singer songwriter it was probably the first time I’d introduced myself that way in two years. He listened to my stuff and invited me to play a few shows that he curated. I was suddenly playing again, a lot, and it felt good and right. I’ll always look on that night as a magic one. I made a record maybe a year later with EW Harris, the fella who was playing guitar with Niall that night. I dedicated the record to Niall, EW, and that girl I was with, who happens to be my wife now.
How did your meeting and subsequent friendship with Mick Flannery come about?
Mick was visiting Nashville and Niall Connolly told us to meet each other. He came to one of my shows and I went to see a couple of his, and he came over to the house one Sunday. We were supposed to try and write a song together but that didn’t happen. We may have gotten into my Evan Williams. But I’m glad it went that way. I think I respect Mick’s writing too much to wanna insert my writing into it. Seems impure or something. I don’t know. Anyway, we hung out one last time a few days later and he asked if I’d like to come to Ireland to open up for him on a short tour. I said yes, and there ya go.
Where did the inspiration for your song ‘The Sarge’ come from?
When I wrote the song the US was still in Iraq and I wished we weren’t there. I’d considered writing a protest song, but the protest songs I know of are so simple, so naive. They aren’t complex enough. Yeah, war is bad, we all know that…And so I was trying to think of a way to write a protest song that reflected the complexity of it all. At the same time, here in the US, there was all this ridiculous rhetoric being thrown about regarding the war. Angry people would say, “Well you either support the troops or you don’t,” or, “You either wanna win the war or you don’t.” Nothing riles me up more than this type of simple, idiotic “thinking.” Anyway, it was in this atmosphere and headspace that I was sitting in front of the TV one night strumming my guitar. I used to turn the TV down real low when I was playing, just to distract the dumb parts of my brain and hopefully encourage the stuff underneath to emerge. That night there was a special on that focused on brain injured veterans of the Iraq war. (I must also say that i was very obsessed with neuroscience at the time as well.) I turned it up and stopped playing and there was a fella who’d lost the ability to make memories due to a brain injury sustained after hitting an IED on a road in Iraq. I was moved to tears by the story, and later I thought, well, there’s the story there. The fella’s a hero, but also a tragic figure. I felt like I could maybe “honor the troops” but question the war with his story. It spoke for itself, so I wrote it basically as I’d heard it.
You live and work in Nashville – how competitive is it for a country songwriter to ‘make it’ there?
I’ve a friend who moved from Louisiana to try and write country songs. He’s from the country, loves country music, and is a hard working fella. He writes with whoever he gets a chance to when he isn’t bar tending. He went into ASCAP and shook hands with people there and they gave him so cowriter introductions. He’s a talented dude. Slowly but surely his name is being seen by publishers because he’s writing with published writers. He’s taking some meetings now, but nobody’s biting. He’s got people saying they love his songs, but there’s just no room on the roster now. I believe he will get a publishing deal soon. But then…then you’ve gotta write your ass off and hope that your publisher is good at their job. Otherwise you’ve got a very small paycheck from them, but no other money, and not no job security. It’s a crazy profession. I’d say that “making it” means you get yourself a publishing deal and perhaps some artist releases your song as a single. That’s pretty rare stuff right there. I don’t like the game at all myself.
Your music seems to be going down well in Ireland from your previous shows here with Mick Flannery – do you think the Irish have a particular love for the solo songwriter?
Well, I won’t pretend to know what the Irish love. More than the solo songwriter, from what I’ve seen in my limited adventures there, I’d say the Irish people I’ve met simply love songs. I mean, after at least two shows I’ve played over there a sing-song was started late and went on and on around the circle until the pubs closed down. My heart was broken over and over by these performances from half-drunk strangers closing their eyes and singing old songs. If I’m going down well in Ireland I hope it’s because of my songs.