Brett Detar’s debut solo album, Bird In The Tangle, is an authentic roots record that takes its listeners on a sweeping journey across both coasts and five cities, into fleeting highs and empty houses, bleak street lights and closed eyes, the darkest depths of wanderlust and loneliness. Paying homage to the legacy of story-telling found within America’s own art form of country music—in all its weepy, pedal-steel steeped, Yes-Hank-woulda-done-it-this-way glory—Detar lays bare his soul in every song.
Singing with the disarming clarity and candid delivery of Johnny Cash, Detar transforms his love of classic American music into a sound completely his own, blending Gram Parson’s long-haired cosmic California dusty denim country-rock with the raucous, raw rock ‘n’ roll of Outlaw country greats such as Waylon Jennings and Billy Joe Shaver and even the poetically depressive writing of Townes van Zandt.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with this amazing artist (and near and dear friend) to talk about this brilliant record.
You spent ten years touring around the world and releasing five studio albums on both indie and major labels with your previous band, The Juliana Theory. After the band broke up, you said you decided to “quit” music.
Can you talk about that experience? It’s funny, because in all the years I’ve known you, I feel like music was such a huge part of your being, from your western country night jams to just having records around and playing. What led to you feeling like you were no longer a musician?
I just became heavily disillusioned with the business side of music. I literally went straight from high school at the age of 18 to full-time touring and recording for 12 years, and certain parts of that took a toll on me. Writing and recording and touring were things I always loved, but I got beat-up a good bit by the industry. I signed a handful of bad deals and ended up wasting a few years that I could never get back on a major label record that was considered dead before it was released, you know, the classic behind-the-music stories everyone tells about bad deals, shelved records, fired A&R guys, contracts as bad as ‘50s R&B artists, all of that.
That deep-seated love of music was always in me, but when I broke up my old band and tried to start up something new, I was damaged goods in my own mind. I stopped believing in myself as a writer and as a singer. I stopped believing that I had anything to offer anyone musically. I guess what you saw in me—the music always being around, as you said—was me being constantly pulled back to what I love. They say you can’t fight fate, right? I’m not gonna’ say that it’s my destiny to play music or anything that heavy, but it’s about the only thing I’ve ever really felt at home doing. I just lost my way for a while there.
During this time of doubt, you actually ended up amassing a sizable collection of songs written with an acoustic guitar and captured on a hand-held recorder. That collection of songs went on to become your current album, Bird In The Tangle. Can you talk a little bit about your writing process for this album or your inspiration? Did it differ from your creative approach in the past with your other musical projects? How so?
It was pretty simple, really. I carried around this little digital Dictaphone thing, and if I ever got an idea, I’d hurriedly record it. All of the songs were written with me just sitting somewhere by myself with an acoustic guitar. My inspiration, more than anything else, was just that feeling of being somewhat lost. I wrote most of the songs when I was pretty unsure of myself and uncertain about my future.
The songs came from an almost alarmingly honest place. I’ve always put myself out there lyrically, but this felt like taking that to an even deeper place. Writing an album like this and letting people hear it is really exposing them to my vulnerability. I didn’t really ever think the songs would see the light of day, so I didn’t have to deal with the expectation of what people would think. I just wrote what was in my heart, for better or for worse.
I think in my old band days it was a lot different. There were more rules. They might have been unwritten or unspoken, but they were still there. We had to be concerned with alienating our fans by changing our sound too much. There was that give-and-take thing that happens when you are writing as a band with multiple writers. This record was just me trusting my own gut, which again was slightly frightening but it was freeing at the same time. Sometimes you just gotta’ let go and let the music take you where it wants to. More than ever that’s what I did with the writing of this record.
You recently played a string of sold-out Juliana Theory reunion shows with some fans traveling from around the world to attend. Your Los Angeles show was insane. The venue was completely packed, and the crowd just ate it up. Can you talk about these shows?
Yeah, that El Rey show was one of my favorites. That crowd was amazing. Truthfully I think we were taken by surprise by the shows. They went better than we ever could’ve expected. When the band broke up 5 years ago, we never did any farewell shows. We just quit without a goodbye, and it seems that our fans were always bummed about that.
We finally decided that on the 10-year anniversary of our second record, we’d get back together to play that record from top to bottom as well as a separate set of fan favorites, including a lot of songs we never really played live. We ended up with 27-song setlists, but the shows were a blast. It was a lot of fun to hang with my old buddies, especially since we haven’t lived anywhere near each other for years now. I’m glad we did it. It was a great way to shut the door on that chapter of our lives.
Which leads me to my next question: How does it feel to be a “solo” artist now, as opposed to being in a band?
In some ways it still feels weird. I’ve been rehearsing my live set lately, and I’ve never played a show with just me by myself. In ten years of full-time touring, I’ve never even played one single song completely by myself, so when I hear Johnny Cash talking in old interviews about how nervous he was to play completely solo shows after the first American record came out, that makes me feel a bit better.
Speaking of Johnny Cash, you’ve mentioned him being your “gateway drug” into country and within your album there are references to a wide range of country, from Gram Parson to Townes van Zandt. There are even hints of the Outlaw country bravado of Merle Haggard. It’s clear there’s a pretty extensive country musical library you draw influence from. How did your love affair with country music begin? Who are some of your favorite artists and why?
At this point I feel like if it’s got a weepy pedal steel or a banjo in it, I probably love it. (LAUGHS) I was in a 15-passenger tour van, and a buddy put on Live at San Quentin by Cash. It must’ve been about 9 years ago now, and it was one of those surreal moments where you feel the earth stop moving. I was mesmerized by the stark instrumentation and the complete power of his voice.
I went from Cash straight to Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings, and then from there I just went on an old country binge for easily 5 years. I didn’t listen to anything new and nothing rock. It was all Kristofferson, The Louvin Brothers, Ernest Tubb, George & Tammy, Dylan’s Nashville stuff, Guy Clark, Willis Alan Ramsey, The Band, Gillian & Dave, Porter Wagoner, Gram and Emmylou, and all of the stuff on the fringes of that. You ever just hear something and know that you have to have more of it in your life? That’s how it was for me when I discovered old country and bluegrass. There’s no music on earth that moves me more.
You traveled down to Nashville to record with Pete Young, who is known for his work with legendary country great Loretta Lynn. The album apparently was recorded entirely live. Can you talk about what the recording process is like for you?
That’s one of the things that made this record so enjoyable to me. Coming from the rock-band-with-your-high-school-buddies world, we would literally rehearse songs until we could all play each other’s parts. We’d know the songs so well by the time we went into the studio that we could play them blindfolded and drunk, but when I went to Nashville to record what became Bird In The Tangle, it was the exact opposite. I didn’t know any of my songs. I had to print all of the lyrics and read them as I played. I had to write down the chords for a lot of them too.
I made a decision not to work the songs to death, not to know them inside and out. The version you hear of every single song on the record is the first or second time I had ever played it with another living person. It’s totally off the cuff and real. The band was absolutely amazing, and they played so tastefully. Making a record like that after the way I always used to make albums was so refreshing. Each time we’d walk into the little control room to listen back to the playback, I was hearing the song for the first time. I’d almost say it changed my life.
In the era of auto-tune, you chose instead to record your album entirely live. Why did you choose to record in this fashion?
When you are fortunate enough to have players like I was blessed to have on this record, there is no other way to record!
Some of the best session players in the industry contributed to the record. What was it like working with these guys?
Literally, it was an honor just being in the room with these guys and hearing these crazy stories about playing with Levon Helm and the Band, touring with Loretta, sharing busses with Conway Twitty, getting drunk and no-showing with George Jones. Everyone was easy to work with, genuinely inspiring, and a great time to play with. I couldn’t have asked for anything more really.
You’ve said that this record features the most natural singing voice you’ve ever used. What makes you say that? How do you think your new vocal approach compares to the one you’ve used in the past?
It’s not even that it’s new to me; it’s just that it’s new to everyone else. I sing in the voice that I sang with in my bedroom when I was first learning to write songs growing up. It’s my natural voice, not the one I developed from having to project over top of two Les Pauls and an SG playing at the same time. You can develop a lot of bad vocal habits when you’re singing in a rock band, and I think it took a lot of work to get my voice to sound the way it used to sound, contrived even. Now I am just singing in a way that to me feels and sounds unforced, natural, and—dare I say—somewhat soulful.
Speaking of singing, one of my favorite tracks off the album is “This City Dies Tonight,” which features your wife Shae Acopian Detar contributing the female lead. It’s gorgeous, and belongs in line with all the great country duets, from Porter & Dolly to June Carter & Johnny Cash.
I actually still remember an older version of this song I was lucky enough to hear from maybe a couple years ago. It was so beautiful that it always stayed with me, plus it was one of the few tunes you wrote you actually let me hear! I interpreted it to be almost a sad love song about loving, leaving, and living in such a strange town as Los Angeles. Can you talk about the theme of this song, your inspiration, and what it was like to work with Shae?
Thanks a lot, Sasha. Yeah, we were just trying to pay tribute to the great AM radio country duets of the ‘50s and ‘60s. I just wanted to make George Jones and Melba Montgomery proud. That’s actually the very first time Shae had ever sung on anything, and I think she did a beautiful job. Since then I’ve put her to work on a few other things. She’s even the singing ghost voice on a movie I just scored that’s coming out soon on Paramount called The Devil Inside. Just listen for the scary, eerie female vocals and that’s Shae. (LAUGHS)
As for the story behind it, I wrote the lyrics to that song the very night that my old band officially decided to break up, but we hadn’t told anyone yet. I was sitting at this show in Pittsburgh where my friend’s band was playing, and it was supposed to be this happy night. There was all this madness on the streets because the Steelers were going to be in the Super Bowl, and drunk frat guys were all going crazy. I was sitting there amidst all of the chaos not knowing what I was going to do next, knowing that I had spent every waking minute of my life from the age of 18 to 28 doing the same thing and now knowing I wouldn’t be doing that any longer. I guess I just became overwhelmed with suddenly feeling lost and like I let myself and even my town and my friends down.
So then onto your current city of Los Angeles. This idea of place, movement, and its relation to self and identity seems to be woven throughout the album. Wanderlust, loneliness, coming, going—there’s a huge sense of being lost and found. Can you talk about these themes in relation to the songs? I know you’ve physically moved a lot over the last few years, but it seems there’s been a lot of change mentally also.
Pretty much everything about the album relates to searching: searching for home, searching for vision, searching for direction, inspiration, and myself. I lived in 5 different cities in 4 different states and in 9 separate dwelling places—apartments or houses or whatever—during the writing of the album. That physical displacement mirrors what was going on inside me I think. There are some obvious songs like “Coasts,” which I wrote for the very short time that I was living in Nashville and felt completely torn between multiple places.
On a bigger level, there’s the closing track, “This World Ain’t Got Nothing,” which might be the strongest sentiment in that vein, even on a spiritual level. That one, in my head, is like a civil war gospel song or something. The album opener, “Empty House on a Famous Hill,” I wrote about some of the isolation that one can feel from time to time in LA. Let me preface that by saying that I love LA. The song makes it sound like I don’t like it here, but to the contrary this is my favorite place in America. Not all of the songs on the record reference physical locations, but the majority of them are tied into that feeling of seeking and uncertainty.
The music industry being in a bit of a state of turmoil these days seems like a blessing and a curse. In some ways, the power of autonomy is back in the hands of the musicians themselves. In others, it opens up so many options and ways to approach releasing and promoting an album. You decided to give your album away for free and release a limited edition vinyl. Can you talk about why you chose to go that route?
Well, Lord knows I didn’t do it to get rich. (LAUGHS) I look at the distribution of this record at the moment like I would be if I were dealing drugs. This is the freebie that I try to get you hooked on. Maybe you’ll pass it along to your friends, and then they’ll get hooked too. Then later down the road, I’ll see you at a show or maybe you’ll buy a vinyl LP later. I believe in this record, so I hoped that it would resonate with some people. Since I paid to record it with money that I saved up, I didn’t want to wait around to find a label to release it. I figured I’d just take the horse by the reigns and get it out there myself.
There’s been talk of you performing live, perhaps with just an acoustic guitar. What are your plans for live performances, tours, etc? Where can we see you play these beautiful songs?
It needs to be soon, that’s for sure. I am itching to start playing. It looks like it will be both full band and me just playing by myself depending on the time and place. It’s looking like the first shows will just be me completely solo, feeling mildly lonely on a stage with nobody to share it with me. (LAUGHS)
You’ve also been involved in some other musical projects as of late, such as scoring the soundtrack for that film. Can you talk about some of your other musical endeavors?
I scored The Devil Inside with a good friend of mine, Ben Romans. That was a lot of fun. I try to keep busy with music. I’ve been writing with a lot of other artists and collaborating with different people. Ben and I are also working on a completely different project. I guess you could call it a band. It’s too early to talk about that yet, but there’s stuff in the pipelines, and I’ve written half or so of the next Brett Detar record so, you know, sharks keep moving.
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