As Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons strode on the stage of Milwaukee's historic Turner Hall, the audience—comprised of both well-dressed suburban folks out for a night of musical entertainment and flannel-clad hipsters from the city—applauded enthusiastically. In Chisel and his band, it seemed, these two discrete populations had found common ground. The sepia-colored walls and candle-lit ambience of the room provided the perfect backdrop for Chisel's brand of robust folk-rock, complete with heartfelt lyrics that ache with themes of religion, mortality, nature, and, of course, love.
Cory Chisel and his band have surprised Appleton residents and captured the attention of fans and critics alike. From his days of playing Fox Valley taverns (Cranky Pat's Pizza in Neenah is one of his favorite venues) to recent performances at Carnegie Hall and the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon show, Chisel has grown into his dual role as musical missionary and emissary for Midwestern authenticity. Tonight, even after months of non-stop touring around the U.S. and Europe in support of his major label debut album, Death Won't Send a Letter, Chisel gives it his all. "We're gonna try to move you like a church sermon," he says before launching into a soulful, aggressive version of "Angel of Mine."
As far as church sermons go, Chisel has certainly listened to his fair share. The son of a Baptist minister, the twenty five-year-old Chisel grew up hearing his father preach and sing in equal measure. Chisel's unique combination of Baptist gospel melodies and highly personal, spiritual verse in Death Won't Send a Letter is a direct descendant of the church hymns he grew up loving-even though his pensive lyrics often question the institution of religion itself.
Church wasn't the only influence in the young Chisel's life. Introduced to the blues by one of his many uncles, he embraced the raw, hip-shaking sound of artists like Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, and Otis Redding. Later he discovered the anthemic and socially conscious music of the legendary punk band The Clash. Somewhere in between blues and punk, between the existential and the sensual, Chisel's musical identity was formed.
After a 2008 live album entitled Cabin Ghosts, Chisel and his band released Death Won't Send a Letterin September of 2009 on the Black Seal label (a subsidiary of Sony BMG). Certainly the biggest musical artist to come from the Fox Valley area since 1980s prog-metal guitarist Jeff Loomis, Chisel is finding that collaboration with more established artists—most notably Grammy-winning producer Joe Chiccarelli, Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket, and "Little Jack" Lawrence, Patrick Keeler and Brendon Benson of the Raconteurs—helps him craft better songs. While Broemel, Lawrence, and Keeler enriched Death Won't Send a Letter with gritty rock 'n' roll instrumentation, Benson lent a hand with lyrics. While co-writing "Born Again," the lead single from the album, Chisel found a friend and tour-mate in Benson, and their partnership has yielded critical acclaim and many fans for the band.
Chisel refuses to settle into this newfound success, however, knowing how fleeting it can be. The force and potency he puts into his performance at Turner Hall, playing to a thin crowd on a rainy Milwaukee night, is a testament to his conviction in his music. Together since they were eighteen years old, Chisel and his band, the Wandering Sons, exude familial comfort both on and off stage. In a highlight of the show, Chisel and vocalist/keyboardist Adriel Harris share a microphone for the heart-wrenching ballad, "So Wrong For Me." Despite her marriage to fellow Wandering Son Noah Harris, she and Chisel create the perfect illusion of the musically entrenched, romantically flawed couple from the song, with her gorgeous, fragile harmonies complementing Chisel's rich huskiness. Think Robert Plant and Allison Krauss, only a generation younger.
After banging out their two hardest-rocking tunes, "Born Again" and "Longer Time At Sea," Chisel, the Harrises, and band mates Dan McMahon, Rick Setser, and Adam Plamann thanked the audience and then began to disassemble and pack their own equipment, without the help of roadies. This is a good indicator that, while they may be standing on the brink of stardom, Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons have yet to leap (or fall) into the abyss.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Chisel after the Turner Hall show, where he shared his love of the woods and the Wisconsin winter, his spiritual skepticism, and the best tattoo story I've ever heard:
LB: Traditional Christian choral songs, especially Baptist hymns, are undeniably powerful, eliciting strong feelings in all but the most-jaded listener. I'm a Jew who sang in gospel choir in high school, and the harmonies we sang made even me believe in Jesus. As the son of a Baptist preacher, how did growing up in such a musically and spiritually rich environment affect you?
CC: I love the poetry of those gospel songs, [yet] I've always been a bad believer. I'm just a skeptic by nature, and I felt like the only time I ever had any connection to a spiritual world was inside of singing those songs, like they held the key to the belief that there might be something bigger out there. It's been that way my whole life: the idea of organized religion—the idea of God or whatever—was always fairly elusive. I can still hear songs like "The Old Rugged Cross" and feel this strong connection to something. But, I'm not exactly sure what that is. I feel that way about Jewish spirituals, too. Any folk song like that.
LB: What was your favorite part of growing up in Wisconsin's Fox Valley area?
CC: Well, I really just love the people. Everyone's really friendly. A lot of times, you travel and the kids hate being from [the cities we visit on tour]; they'll talk about how shitty the town is as much as we'll talk about anything else. I guess I always liked it in Appleton because no one was embarrassed to be where they're from. Everyone had the same amount of money, there wasn't a huge gap between the haves and the have-nots. It was a really peaceful place, safe.
LB: You're the biggest musical artist to come out of Appleton in the past 30 years. Was it a struggle to launch a music career from there?
CC: I think—now—it's aided the process. Being from Appleton, Wisconsin, opens a lot of doors; people really like that you come from somewhere, that you really had to work. And we did. Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons is a working band. Since we were eighteen we never had any jobs, never did anything but play taverns for four or five hours a night, and made whatever money we could make and ate whatever food they would give us. We're skinny now but at that point we were really—I mean, I look at pictures from back then and we did not look well. [Laughs] At some points, being a kind of outsider holds you down because you're not involved with "the scene." But now it tends to be something people really like to hold up. People like to see you work for your art, that's for sure.
LB: What do you miss most about Appleton when you're on the road?
CC: Probably the seasons. I'm one of those weird people who loves winter—I like it for some reason. I have always liked the pace the town takes when it's packed full of snow. I'm not a huge rush-around kind of dude. I'd rather just get to someone's house and hang out for the night, or go to one bar and soak in the night, as opposed to running from place to place.
LB: You cite a musically minded uncle as one of your biggest influences. Who was the one musician that inspired you to make your own music?
CC: I think the first musician that I really, really liked was Howlin' Wolf [the 1950s Chicago blues singer, Chester Arthur Burnett]. I've always had—even when I was younger—a bigger-sounding singing voice, huskier than my speaking voice. I really liked that [bigness] about his sound because it felt like I could sing his songs. I've never really been the greatest guitar player in the whole world, and I could kind of learn those songs, too. I thought it was really cool.
LB: You've been touring extensively in the U.S. and Europe in support of Death Won't Send a Letter. Do you have a favorite venue or town to play?
CC: Actually, I love the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. I really love that place. I like Turner Hall, too. That is just a beautiful venue. And Europe is a whole different thing, I mean, that's a trip. There are so many places that are beautiful. The night we played in Paris, it was an outstanding crowd, an outstanding venue. But I really loved Amsterdam, not just for the reasons [you'd think], but also the town's just beautiful and the people who live there are really unique.
LB: Your album, Death Won't Send a Letter, has a particularly American Midwest, Bible-Belt flavor. How is it received in Europe? Do you think they understand where you are coming from?
CC: It's actually more sought-after over there than it is over here. The music that we make doesn't necessarily mystify people here; I'm more singing our songs than showing [Americans] something brand new. And over [in Europe] it really does seem as if they never really thought of music that way, so it winds up being a little bit more unique. It's funny to go over there and have the hipsters going crazy, like really, really digging things. Over here, the hipsters are sometimes a little more reluctant to partake in our music because they're a little scared their parents might like it or something.
LB: Well, you have drawn comparisons to Heartland bards Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle, both of whom could be considered parent-friendly. So, what was the inspiration for the album title?
CC: It's a line in the song "Longer Time at Sea," from the album. Sometimes it's fun to see what you can push the record label to do. They didn't want me to name the song "Death Won't Send A Letter," so when I turned in the album I said, "this is what the album's called." It seemed to me that at the time when we were writing the album—a really chaotic time—a lot of great people were leaving. Things were urgent and timely. The whole [recording] process for us seems that way; you never know how many albums you get to make, you never know how long you get to do this. The title sounds a little morbid, but it was meant to be sort of a call to live life.
LB: In an interview with Huffington Post, you said " 'So Wrong For Me' is such an important song for me in particular." Why is that?
CC: "So Wrong for Me" was kind of a transition song. I started writing poetry differently after that song. Some songs just come fully formed and that was one of them. I just sat down from the very first line and went all the way through and finished it with the music and everything. It was really important because the way songwriting works for me is that it comes and goes. I'm not a craftsman in the way that some people try to sit down and write a song a day. I really have to wait for them. They just sort of show up at my door. And once I wrote "So Wrong for Me" it was like I had moved through something. It was as if that one came out and there were just others behind it; lots and lots kept quickly coming out. So that song I look at as a pivotal point of a really fruitful time of art-making, which is always my favorite. I'm in the best mood during that time period, more than touring, more than anything. When you feel like you're being handed something, it's a haunted type of feeling, I'm really fond of it.
LB: In a recent Rolling Stone article you made some comments about the connection between the natural world and your creative process. "If you're in a superficial environment," you said, "music tends to lean that way." Would you say your natural surroundings are your biggest influence, over love, over God?
CC: They all mean the same thing to me. When you're in a setting like that, the way in which you hear thoughts … I simply like the way I think when I'm in those natural places. It's not as involved in temporary things, in the comings and goings and average relationships. Any time that I'm in some place that's sort of savage I think more existentially, I'm able to tap into things better.
LB: Another Rolling Stone article called you part of the "new crop" of country rock alongside the Avett Brothers, Dawes, J. Tillman, the Duke and the King, and Phosphorescent. Do you see yourself as a country artist?
CC: No. They're trying to do something: Rolling Stone is trying to create a movement. They always are, the publications and record label people. I do feel like I'm a part of something with bands like Dawes [a twangy, California folk-rock outfit] and with the bands that [the media] surrounds us with. I do feel closeness, a movement … but I don't think it has much to do with country music necessarily.
LB: You don't really look like a typical country artist, and it looks like you have a lot of tattoos. Is there a particular symbolic value to them?
CC: They're all images from a book that I had when I was a little kid, a Jesse James book. It was like, The Outlaw Jesse James. Throughout this book he's going through this journey and he receives these symbols the whole time. When he first sets out to live the life he's going to live, this Native American man gives him a feather. So when I first really decided to [become] an artist and pursue that life, I got the feather tattoo. And when Jesse James puts his first gang together, he starts with two horses. When the band really started going … I put the horses on my chest. I think there are fifteen total tattoos, so I kind of look at them like badges that I've earned. I have little ideas of what they represent. At some point at the end of life, they'll be like Boy Scout badges I can keep forever.
LB: The strong male voice harmonizing with ethereal, soft female vocals is not a new concept, but in recent years there's been an upswell of this dynamic. There's Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova from Once, and Canadian folk singers Great Lake Swimmers with Tony Dekker and Julie Fader. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss won five Grammy Awards for their collaboration. How do you and Adriel Harris contribute to this folk tradition?
CC: Like you said, it's not a new trick. Sometimes it creates a more balanced message. My voice doesn't express the feminine side of every subject, and there certainly is one. There's one that I can feel. But I'm not often able to paint with that color. Adriel's voice … it just adds tenderness to even some really harsh things. If there is any country influence in us, it would be Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. I just love the sound of their music; it sounds like a more complete picture of an emotion.
LB: What was the process of co-writing "Born Again" with Detroit pop-rocker Brendan Benson like? It seems like the two of you have pretty similar musical sensibilities, but you never know what can happen when writing with someone …
CC: It's just a natural thing. We both really like to drink wine a lot and like to shoot our mouths off for long periods of time. [Laughs] And, usually, at some point you've talked enough. It was just one of those nights where we'd been out to dinner, had hung out, and I had this song that I thought was going to be really important—but I just couldn't finish it. Sometimes, with songs that you think are going be really good, you can get a little scared of just not knowing what to do with it exactly, or how to finish it. You like something about the song, but you're worried that what you like will get lost when you're done. And Brendan was just like, "You gotta […] finish this song! This is one of my favorite ones I've heard you do." Sometimes you just have to go through something with someone else to finish it. I kept wanting to make the song be more and more veiled and just a little less of an open protest. I was really nervous about it, and I was worried my parents and people I grew up with would hear the song [and] take it the wrong way. Brendan said, "I think it's a really important thing for you to say for yourself, to get off your chest." He had some really great ideas as to how to make the song more direct.
LB: You had a pretty strict, religious upbringing, and the lyrics for "Born Again" revolve around the themes of sin and redemption. But the song is also about independence. What did you father think when he heard the song?
CC: It's actually been a really beautiful thing. It's definitely opened up a lot of conversation. We've always related to each other through my music really well, like he could take ideas or strong words from me [in this way]. I've listened to him give sermons my whole life and I have some of my own, so we can relate to each other in that way. My dad's one of my best friends. Where we differ does not shatter what we have in common.