Courtesy of Calabro Music
Singer-songwriter Gill Landry met the guys in the Americana string band Old Crow Medicine Show some 15 years ago. At the time, he was busking on the streets of New Orleans. The two started working the New Orleans streets together and formed a lasting bond. Landry officially joined the group in 2007 and then left the group last year to devote more time to his successful solo career.
“Those were the most free and liberated human experiences I’ve ever had,” Landry says via phone from a peninsula in Washington state where he was “writing songs and just hanging out.” “We were doing fine and making enough cash to get down the road and pay our rent or do whatever we were doing. We didn’t have to book through anybody. We were accountable to no one but ourselves and the street itself. There’s no substitute for performance. It was good to get chops going in that way. It was also good to not get too hung up about anything. We would just play and play.”
During that time, Landry played guitar, pedal steel and banjo. He also wrote the songs.
“It was great,” he says. “We would play for five hours a day. You did it because you loved it. It was a good adventure. [Old Crow Medicine Show and I] just hit it off as pals because we were coming from the same place. We were all studying every old recording we could get our hands on. There weren’t a whole lot of guys our age at that moment who were doing whatever the fuck it was that we were doing. It was slow and steady. It was a long, slow climb, at least it felt that way. For me, you watched the crowds grow a little bit year by year. There was no glittery bullshit at the time. We felt like working-class heroes in a way. It was fun.”
With his new self-titled studio release, Landry delivers a somber collection of introspective tunes that show just what a sharp songwriter he’s become. Laura Marling duets on “Take This Body” and trumpeter Nick Etwell of Mumford & Sons plays on a handful of songs. Odessa also lends harmonies and violin to a number of tunes, including “Emily.” Robert Ellis plays guitar on “Fennario” and “Bad Love.”
Landry recalls receiving his first guitar when he was only 5. His uncle played guitar and that made him want to play too.
“My grandparents bought me one — just a little junky parlor guitar,” he says. “I started with a songbook for ‘Camptown Ladies’ and moved forward from there. This whole mission I’m on now was never a mission. It never started as one. It’s just one thing after another. I didn’t think I’d be playing music for a living for as long as I have. Now, I’m in the game. Back then, it was just the love of playing music.”
He says the songs on the new album center on a theme of "moving forward."
“What I would say more than anything after this year of touring and leaving the band and finding my own feet, I know so much more than when I started a year ago,” he says. “And I’ve been doing this for 20 years, so it’s rather ridiculous. The whole idea was that I wanted to self-produce it. I spent tremendous amounts of money on my earlier works for which I didn’t get the results that I wanted. With the current climate, nobody is throwing money around like it’s water. I didn’t want to see how cheap I could make it, but if I could get a real quality product exactly like I wanted at a low cost. I recorded it at my apartment. I did it in the shittiest room you can picture. Total dump. Mice crawling under the floor. I feel like a champion, just for that alone. There was nothing modern going on in that scenario.”
He didn’t intend the ballad “Take This Body” to be a duet, but it evolved into one as the song starts with his baritone vocals before Marling provides a nice counterbalance with a quietly emotional performance that evokes indie rocker Cat Power.
“I sent Laura Marling two songs,” he says. “I love her voice and her spirit and everything. That was the one she chose. It could have gone either way. The song was keyed a little low for her. I don’t remember if she was completely comfortable with where the key was. It was almost like a whisper. It was not very forcibly loud but really wonderful. She’s great. Her singing carried a lot of emotion.”
“Lost Love” features strings and horns and really swings. It’s one of the looser songs on the album.
“That’s the first one where I wrote the music before I wrote the words,” Landry explains. “I can’t tell you what the song’s about, but it’s really sincere. I want to protect the innocent, or the guilty. Which one is it? The approach was purely fun, which is what I always like to do in the beginning. My first record is all about fun. The label gave me a substantial amount of money. I thought it might be the last time I got that amount of money. We could have gotten weirder, but we did whatever we wanted. We had fun putting the horns on it and fucking around with shakers and things like that. There’s lots of space and we worked with dynamics and letting things die. That one is really just a fun experiment. I really like that song.”
Touring in January, a time when ice and snow often descends upon Northeast Ohio, can be tough. Landry says he’s up for the challenge.
“No worries,” he says. “Live by the sword, die by the sword, as they say. I’m up for the adventure. Worst-case scenario, you don’t make it. I love the challenge. I got a full band, so it’ll be nice. They’re not afraid either.”
Sonic Session: Gill Landry with Honeybucket, 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, 1100 Rock and Roll Blvd., 216-781-ROCK. Tickets: $5.50,
free for Rock Hall members and a guest with a membership card, rockhall.com.