A Conversation with Craig Manning

Craig-Manning_avatar_1459290104-240x240.jpgCraig Manning is a journalist writing for Chorus.FM and Modern Vinyl, among others. He is also a singer/songwriter himself, as well as just a genuinely kind, well-versed dude. His album reviews have gotten me into a number of bands I otherwise would not have discovered. It’s his style of writing that alleviates any reservations one may have with a certain genre or an artist; all that matters are the songs and how they resonate. Plain and simple. As a big fan of Craig’s writing (from both a journalistic and musical standpoint), this conversation was an absolute delight. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.

The following is an unedited conversation that took place through the wonders of Gmail. If you are interested in being interviewed like this for a future installment, reach out to digitalwheatpaste@gmail.com and we will be in touch. –TJ Foster

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DWP: Craig,

I have to gush for a minute. I’ve been a huge fan of your writing for a while now – you’re easily my favorite modern-day music journalist. Since the AbsolutePunk days, you’ve turned me on to a lot of incredible music that might otherwise be outside my comfort zone, and I’m so grateful for that. That’s really what it’s all about – there’s a beauty in discovering a new artist or record that not much else can rival. I know you know that already. So, all that said, thank you so much for agreeing to chat with me! Let’s dive in…

For those that don’t already know, you write for a handful of different publications (chorus.fm, Modern Vinyl, to name a few) covering a wide variety of genres, artists and topics. As alluded to above, I first discovered you on the now-defunct-but-only-sort-of AbsolutePunk.Net, a site that was an important staple for a lot of people, myself included. It’s hard to imagine it’s been almost exactly two years since Jason transitioned that to the new Chorus model. What’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed in writing for Chorus as opposed to AbsolutePunk? Is it essentially the same behind the curtain, and we readers just get a prettier view?

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CM: Thanks so much for the kind words. I really appreciate that. I’ve definitely made a concentrated effort in the past few years to shine a light on artists that maybe aren’t getting talked about on other sites, so I’m glad it’s having the intended effect.

I still remember when Jason told me he was going to be sunsetting AbsolutePunk and starting Chorus. The actual transition went down in April 2016, but I think I saw the mostly finished version of the site in January. At the time, he wasn’t planning on having a staff or any contributors, so I was basically thinking that my writing platform was going to disappear. That’s when I jumped aboard at Modern Vinyl, sort of trying to keep opportunities open while I figured out what to do next. Ultimately, Jason decided to keep the content side of things rolling with a few contributors, and I got to be one of them. We ported some content over from AP, but I wrote the first “new” review for Chorus, about Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.

I think the shift has been pretty positive. It’s not all the same. AbsolutePunk was more of a free-for-all. Contributors could pretty much post whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Now, Jason edits and approves everything, so I feel like there’s a little more quality control. AP was kind of chaotic because there was so much content and the quality varied pretty widely. I think that side of things got better, even in our staff features which have always had more oversight.

As far as the stuff I write about is concerned, I’d say the transition from AbsolutePunk to Chorus was serendipitous in terms of when it happened. 2015 was the year I really started gravitating toward country music, which didn’t always get a kind reception from readers at AP. I think once we eliminated the clear “punk” tie, the community and readership became more open-minded and accepting of other genres. The official country thread on Chorus is like 60 pages long, which shows pretty clearly how much things have changed. I think it’s similar for other genres, and frankly, I think a lot of us have sort of seen our music tastes growing and going in new directions as of late. It’s nice to have a platform where that makes sense.

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DWP: It definitely seems like a smart move for Jason to take on the QC himself – it hasn’t gone unnoticed, for the record. I agree, the “punk” aspect of the old name was almost limiting in a sense. I started getting a feel for the desire (and need) to branch out to different genres near the end of the site’s run, and I always hated seeing how people griped about it solely because of the domain name. For me personally, I loved that site to discover new music and my tastes have evolved a lot since I started my avid AP following as a teenager. You hit the nail on the head with your experience with country music. I have to be honest, and I’m sure you get this a lot, but country music was always such a “dirty” word for me, in a similar way that pop is for a lot of other people. But you’ve really turned me on to the fact that it’s not just the trucks and beers and American flags that’s all over the radio. I’m so grateful for you opening my mind to artists like Natalie Hemby and John Moreland that, if you strip the genre title aside, are really just amazing songwriters. That’s what music’s all about – good storytelling. At the same time, you also still have a soft spot for classic AP.Net artists like Yellowcard and The Dangerous Summer. Can you pinpoint what exactly it was that got you to expand your horizons into a genre like country, that doesn’t exactly have a ton in common with the likes of pop-punk? Was there a specific moment or artist or record that pulled on your heartstrings in the same way that, for example, Jimmy Eat World is able to do with songs like “23?” And does your eclectic taste expand into other genres that people might be surprised to hear about? (I for one have always been able to get behind a good jazz record…)

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CM: It’s always cool to hear people say things like that: that they read a review of a record I loved, or saw me repping an artist and fell in love with the music. That’s really what the job is supposed to be, and I feel like I sort of “found my purpose” as a music writer when I started going deeper with those genres.

I’ve always had a soft spot for country. Growing up in the ’90s, a lot of the rock artists that were on the radio–The Wallflowers, Counting Crows, Sister Hazel, etc.–had a fair amount of country and Americana in their DNA. The way genre lines are drawn these days, and the way the mainstream has shifted away from rock ‘n’ roll, I feel like something like that first Counting Crows album or Bringing Down the Horse by The Wallflowers would be classified as country nowadays. There’s not such a big gulf between what’s on those records and what someone like Jason Isbell is doing.

So I always loved that stuff, and I grew up with it, and eventually I noticed that a lot of those sounds were cropping up on folk and roots rock records that I loved. Around 2011 or so, I feel like every album I was recommending to people had that RIYL of those ’90s bands. Dawes, The Damnwells, Augustana, Fleet Foxes, Ryan Adams, The Civil Wars, etc. I started asking myself why that was, and it was usually some combination of the instrumentation (B3 organ, pedal steel, slide, mandolin, ripping guitar solos) and the storytelling in the songwriting. Those elements were straight country.

I think Jason Isbell was ultimately the game-changer for me, though. 2013, when he released Southeastern, was probably the most varied my end-of-the-year albums list ever was. There were indie records and country records and pop punk records and rap records and R&B records and folk records and it was just all over the place. But that year also kind of burned me out on a lot of the types of music that were getting a lot of hype on Pitchfork and even on the AbsolutePunk boards at the time. I made a list of 50 records at the end of the year, and I probably still listen to 10 of them regularly. So I was kind of adrift, and the record I kept going back to was Southeastern. I was just blown away by how honest it was, and how unique the stories were, and at the same time it had these sounds that reminded me of the records I loved growing up.

By 2015, Isbell was kind of a big name, and his producer, Dave Cobb, was working with everyone. I heard Chris Stapleton early that spring, before Traveller came out, and that blew me away too. I didn’t know there was someone who could sing like that, but it made sense that it would happen in country, which is a genre that has always valued great voices. And then I was using Rdio for discovery one day and it recommended me of a record by this band A Thousand Horses, which was also a Cobb production. I loved that, too. They’re sort of a mix of southern rock and more mainstream-leaning country, and they really sounded like a ’90s radio rock band. I started Googling both those artists, trying to learn more, and they both cropped up on this 10 New Country Artists You Need to Know list that Rolling Stone Country did.

So I started digging into the rest of the list, and into other lists that RS Country was making, and the rest is really history. By the end of the year, I think two-thirds of my Best of 2015 list were country artists. That’s still my favorite music year of the decade, just because I discovered so much. And it felt so good to find so many records that I honestly loved after that 2013 burnout year. I think in 2013, I was kind of pushing myself to like and appreciate stuff that was critically acclaimed, even if it didn’t really resonate with me personally. Since I found that country music niche, there’s not been an album I’ve put on an end of the year list that I wouldn’t stand behind. What I would say is that my taste in music has narrowed in the last five years, but the amount of music I love each year has increased dramatically. It’s a good place to be.

As far as other things I love that might be surprising, not a ton of people know that my background is really heavily choral music based. I was in choirs for a solid decade, all the way up to the most elite ensembles at my university, so I still have a big soft spot for that music. It never makes an end of the year list. I consider choral albums to be sort of a completely different beast than a singer-songwriter record. But I can always appreciate a great choir.

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TJ: Oh yeah, there’s a lot of country sensibilities in the 90s rock we grew up and fell in love with. Fast forward to artists and albums that have been highly praised in the last 10 years or so and yes, to your point, there are a ton of country elements in them. It’s a fine line between what’s considered country and what’s considered Americana or folk. I think a lot of people would find a lot to love in those records that lean hard into country territory, but don’t have the almost-manufactured-sounding twangy southern accent and cowboy hats that dominate the radio. It took me a while to come around, but I’m so happy I did. And yes, Dave Cobb is a brilliant producer. Most big producers have a certain span of time where everything they touch just seems to turn into gold. Jerry Finn, Neal Avron, Butch Walker, Pharrell, etc. etc. This is definitely Cobb’s hot streak.

That’s really interesting your background is choral-based! Growing up in high school, I had friends in a cappella groups and I was always so awestruck by the discipline needed to sing in a group setting like that. Still am. It’s a great background to have, from a production and songwriting standpoint. Which is a great segue into something a lot of people may not know about you, in that you’re also a songwriter yourself. Your first record came out almost exactly two years ago, and was a great display of storytelling, in the rawest, purest form. Then Life in the Rearview Mirror came out and your sound expanded quite a bit into broader instrumentation, and in some cases, longer song lengths. Both have a ton of heart and soul. Was there a conscious decision to expand your sound in those ways? What was the biggest thing you learned from making A Way to Get Back Home? And do you ever have a tough time balancing all the different genre influences in your blood, or does it just come naturally?

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CM: To me, country and Americana are basically the same thing at this point. I genuinely can’t see where the distinction is anymore. Country is such a big genre, in that it can contain something super poppy and modern like Maren Morris but also someone like Colter Wall, who sounds like he strolled out of Johnny Cash’s band in the 1950s. Especially now that more and more rock music is melting into country (like, Butch Walker premiered a track from his last record on Rolling Stone Country) I think the stigmas people have always had against the genre are going to start fading away. I hope so, at least.

Thanks for the kind words on my albums! Yep, A Way to Get Back Home is actually two years old today, which is a trip. It does not feel like it’s been that long. There was absolutely a conscious decision to expand the sound between that record and Life in the Rearview Mirror, which I put out last August. It’s funny: I’ve read so many interviews with musicians over the years where they’re discussing their (beloved) debut records, years after the fact. And a common refrain is “We had no idea what we were doing on that album.” I never knew how true those claims were until I decided to make my own record. Because shit, I definitely did not know what I was doing on A Way to Get Back Home.

By the time I made that record, I’d been involved in music for ages. I even majored in vocal performance in college, so I’d performed a lot and spent a lot of time honing my craft, but I’d never really written songs. There was always sort of this mental block there. I wanted to write originals, but I’d spent so much time listening to and singing things that other people had written that I sort of felt like everything had already been written. What did I have to add to the conversation? What did I have to say? I would try writing something and it would end of sounding like a derivative copy of what someone else was doing way better then I could. Then my grandpa died. The day we lost him, I sat down with a guitar because I needed something to focus on or I was just going to lose it. And I wrote “Carry It Forth,” which is the penultimate track on A Way to Get Back Home. That sort of broke the dam, and suddenly I was writing a new song every week or so.

As it turned out, it was a lot easier to get the writing part down than the recording part! Listening back, I still love those songs, but I don’t necessarily love the way they sound on the record. They’re very raw and bare bones. There’s no bass or drums or piano. The guitar sound is wrong because I only had a classical guitar, instead of a standard acoustic. And there were so many things I didn’t know about GarageBand that I ended up recording most of the songs live, in one take, rather than recording individual tracks and layering from there. I think nine of the 12 songs on that record have vocals and guitar on the same track.

So what I learned from recording that record was that I wanted to make something that sounded better. I wanted to really work on fleshing out and layering the songs, and I wanted to get a guitar that made more sense for the songs I was writing. The classical guitar still sounds gorgeous on anything with finger-picking (I used it on the new album, on the song “Making Movies”) but it’s not right for chords. That first album was also my crash course in mixing and mastering, which I feel like you can only get better at by doing it over and over again and learning to hear those subtle differences in your song. So I carried that all over Life in the Rearview Mirror, which I’m still super proud of. Both of these albums were made with zero budget, but that one sounds pretty great to my ears, at least for being a home recording project. Something like “Bon Voyage,” which builds to this big, epic guitar solo section with layered vocals, I never could have done on A Way to Get Back Home. At some point, I’d like to revisit a few of the songs from that first record and re-do them with more proper full-band arrangements. Songs like “Two Lane Road” and “The Last Gasp of Summer” could really benefit from that, I think.

As far as balancing influences in my writing, that’s not really something I spend a lot of time dwelling on. I think at a certain point, those things just start to come through naturally in your songwriting. Like, when I released the lead single from this last album, “Money Down,” I got a bunch of comments about how much more obvious the country influence was than on the first record. That wasn’t necessarily intentional (though I could point to the song that got me inspired to write “Money Down,” and it definitely is a country song), but I just think what you’re listening to the most is always going to come out in what you’re writing. It is interesting, though, because now that I’m thinking about it, I wouldn’t really call Life in the Rearview Mirror a country record. There’s still a lot of rock influence in there, from Springsteen to Butch Walker to Jimmy Eat World to U2 to 90s radio rock.

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DWP: As a fellow songwriter, I can say I’ve spent way too much time wondering if everything’s been done already, and what I could possibly have to add to the conversation. I always come back to that old Kevin Devine tune, “Ballgame”, and that lyric “I know the kid with the guitar so drunk and anxious has been done to death – so tell me what hasn’t and I’ll try it” –  it’s oddly comforting to know it’s universal. At the end of the day, what you and I and everyone else like us have to add to the conversation is our individual perspective and experiences that no one else has gone through in the exact same way that we have.  It’s tough to wrap your head around, but helpful to remember. You clearly went through something profound that inspired A Way To Get Back Home – and it’s funny you specifically mentioned “Carry It Forth” as that was one of the standout tracks for me when I first heard that record of yours. You can tell in the performance that you felt like you captured something special and knowing now that it was essentially the catalyst for everything that followed makes a lot of sense.

So, you’ve got this unique position in this chaotic industry of ours where you’re on both the journalistic and the creative side of the proverbial coin – as a critic (I hate that term, so I use it loosely), what’s the most frustrating thing young artists do when trying to get coverage? And as a musician, what’s the most frustrating thing you’ve run into from writers when trying to pitch your own stuff?

And let’s take it one step further – since we’re a pretty young music blog, focused heavily on the DIY spirit, what advice can you give both up-and-coming artists and aspiring journalists?

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CM: It’s funny, because I think the key that made songwriting click for me was something that had been staring at me for years. As a music “journalist,” I’ve always loved sharing the personal, intimate details of being a music fan. I don’t think people want to read reviews that recount what an album sounds like. I think people want to read about music in a way that reminds them of why they love music. So I’ve always tried to weave personal stories into reviews, because I think that’s something that resonates with people. Music is such a personal thing that I almost feel like you can’t really write about music without writing about yourself, to some degree. Your biases are always there, and a lot of them are informed by your history with music and your personal experiences with it. So I’ve always tried to be honest about that side of things, because I think it’s super relatable to people. And so, when I finally started writing songs that I liked, I guess it wasn’t super surprising that they were very personal. I think Jason Isbell has said something at some point about how some writers shy away from putting those little details into their writing, because they feel like it hurts the universality of a song’s message. But really, it’s those little details that make people feel like you’re speaking directly to them, or that you somehow know something about their life that they thought was unique to them. Recognizing that I could just tell the truth was the best thing that ever happened to me as a songwriter.

As a “critic” and songwriter, I can honestly say that I think I know too much. Being on the receiving end of all the annoying thing that artists or their publicists do to try to get coverage has probably hurt me in terms of getting press for my own music, because I just don’t want to do those things. I don’t want to pester people, because 1) I think self-promotion is kind of a shameless, super awkward thing anyway, and 2) I just don’t think it really works. I can’t tell you how many emails I get from publicists that I will never open. I probably read less than 1 percent of them. The only pitches that really work on me are either ones about artists I’m already interested in or ones that come from people I have existing relationships with. If there’s an element of trust there, I’m definitely more likely to check it out. If I feel like I owe someone a favor, that helps in terms of pushing me to review something. But I have such limited time to do reviews anymore that it’s mostly just governed by my own tastes and whims. Publicists and artist pitches rarely do anything.

For me, the single most annoying thing that artists do is the Twitter follow/unfollow. This is where artists will follow people on Twitter just to fish for follow-backs. Sometimes, they’ll follow you and unfollow you half a dozen times, so you keep getting notifications about them. You can always spot these people from a long way away, because they might have 200k followers, but they’re also following like 300k people. I hate this trend, and I get it so much because people want me to write about their stuff. I have never covered an artist because they used the Twitter follow/unfollow.

As an artist, the biggest pain point is just getting people to pay attention. It’s so hard to get people to listen to any music, let alone music that you created. Even with close friends and family members, getting them to give your album a listen is like pulling teeth. And again, I don’t like nagging people about it. I want people to listen to my music because they want to listen to it, or write about it because they’re passionate about it. Those people are not easy to find, unfortunately.

My advice for both artists and music writers is to do the work because you love it. The best thing you can do is write something that you will be happy with even if no one else ever reads it or listens to it. I’m currently working on this project for my blog where I’m going back and doing a Top 100 albums for 2000-2009. I’m trying to be a bit experimental with the blurbs, focusing on the vibes of the records, the feelings they give me, and the memories I have of them. It’s been a fun writing exercise so far, just something I’ve been doing piece by piece every evening before I go to bed. I’m not sure anyone will ever read it, but it feels good to go back in time and explore those records again. Plus, it’s making me stretch a bit as a music writer, because I’m looking for new ways to talk about albums I’ve been talking about for years.

At the end of the day, you obviously want people to engage with your work and love it, but that shouldn’t be your main motivation. That’s a great bonus, and it’s wonderful when it happens, but there’s also something to be said about doing this work for your own personal satisfaction and growth. Especially when you are just getting started, there is nothing wrong with writing for yourself.

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TJ: Man, you hit the nail on the head in terms of what makes a good review. I only started reviewing records again over the last year or two, and I feel like I’ve adopted a lot of your sensibilities. My favorite reviews are the ones that involve a sense of self. It sounds lame, but the first thing I do when opening a review is scan to see if the reviewer has directly referenced any of the record’s lyrics – if you take the time to cite a lyric, chances are it’s because it connected with you in some way on a personal level and that’s the kind of thing I want to read about. It’s also the kind of record I want to hear. Just the other day, you writing about “Next Year” was what got me to check out Donovan Woods’ new record, and I’m in love.

Self-promotion is awkward as hell, and I feel like it’s only gotten worse in the last few years. It’s so easy (albeit, unreasonably expensive in some cases) to create a presence for yourself online with social media and the like that can make you seem way bigger than you actually are. On the flip side, technology is so good nowadays that you can make a record on your own for next to nothing. So essentially, you could very likely be paying more to create a presence (or the illusion of one) than to actually create the art you’re promoting. And I know that makes me sound super jaded, but so be it, haha. Alas, that’s a topic for another day. I’ve kept you long enough, and I so appreciate you taking the time to chat with me. It’s been really amazing. I like to wrap these up with one final question. They’re usually stupid and silly, but given our chat thus far, I think I’m going to go a different direction with this. You listen to and write a lot about music. So, DIY sensibilities top of mind, who is one artist that all of our readers should be listening to but probably aren’t because they are too far under the radar?

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CM: There’s this guy named Chad Perrone that I think is out-of-this-world great. He’s an independent artist out of Boston, and he’s got a pretty decent-sized following there but has never gotten a ton of exposure in other parts of the country. His old band, Averi, opened up for a lot of pretty big-name acts at tour stops in Boston back in the day, from Matchbox Twenty and Goo Goo Dolls to Backstreet Boys. He’s got this incredible high tenor voice, and his songs are super personal and emotionally charged. He’s also pretty versatile. His last record is synth-heavy 80s-influenced pop, while some of his earlier stuff has a distinct country lean. His 2010 album, Release, is one of my 10 favorite albums of the decade so far. I even got the chance to write the bio/press section for his website a few years ago, which was pretty rad. If there were any justice, he’d be huge. As is, I’ve long considered him the best-kept secret in the music industry.

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