Front Page Reviews & AIR
Feature Interview - Cory Chisel
Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons are from Appleton, Wisconsin. This is notable because—even though I have a lot of family and a few friends who live in Appleton—in all my years of booking and reviewing bands, I’ve never encountered a band from Appleton before. Appleton is not New York or L.A., which are home to thousands and thousands of original bands, nor is it one of the hip smaller cities like Austin, Seattle, Portland, or Athens, which seem to produce nationally known bands at clips disproportionate to their populations. Appleton is like many cities across the Midwest (not unlike my own hometown of Rockford, Illinois): full of friendly people, but not exactly what you’d call hip when it comes to music. And so it was fun for me to sit down with Cory Chisel and talk with him about what it’s been like to be an artist coming out of that kind of environment, an environment which exists largely outside the influence of virtual blogosphere hype and the increasingly manufactured world of hip buzz-bands. Like many musicians throughout the country, Cory Chisel was shaped and formed by a real community made up of real people—friends, family, local fans—who took an interest in his career and helped him get to where he is today: touring internationally and making the music he wants to make. For someone like me who works with bands from around the country on a regular basis, Chisel’s story is a refreshing one, proof that it’s still possible to make a living playing good music outside the increasingly ridiculous buzz-band culture of hipness and hype.
Me: Now, I’ve got a lot of family in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Cory: Oh, you do?
Me: In fact, I was just out there a few weeks ago for a wedding. And I love the people in Appleton, but it doesn’t necessarily seem like the first place you’d choose to launch a career in original music. From what I’ve seen it seems more like a cover band town. What’s it been like being an original artist coming out of the Fox River Valley?
Cory: Well, it’s had the same obstacles as a lot of mid-size towns. You’ve got a lot of really great people, it’s a safe place to grow up—you know, all the kinds of things that people look for in those towns—but usually it’s the edgier places that breed a more cutting-edge art scene. And what we were doing, I’m not sure people understood it at first, because when people here go out to see music, they usually think it’s going to be music that they know. So there was a challenge. We weren’t exactly what people thought they were going to get, at first. But the other part is, Appleton’s not a pretentious town in the way other places can be. And so when it does strike a chord with people, they’re really apt to support it, as opposed to the big cities that can sort of have their arms folded to something initially. It doesn’t necessarily know how to be cool; it just knows how to be what it is, which is pretty genuine. It’s a mill-working town, and I don’t think people have the time to get involved with the petty bullshit of music scenes and that kind of stuff. They’re just informed by what they hear, and if they like it they’ll really get on board with it. If we were more of an avant band, I think it would have been harder for us, but I think our music, purposefully, is music that’s meant to be understood by a wide majority of people.
Me: Well, it looks like Appleton has really embraced you. I was just looking at the Appleton Post-Crescent’s “Cory Chisel Retrospective” series of articles, and it’s incredible the way they’ve embraced and supported you for the last 10+ years, since way back when you were playing music in high school! It seems like you’ve been Appleton’s hometown hero for a long time…
Cory: Yeah, I think, again, that’s something positive I can say about my hometown. I could go into all the things I didn’t like about it as a punk rock kid growing up. But the older I get, I’m just really, really grateful. I wouldn’t have a career without that sort of support, and I openly acknowledge that. And I think that, to some degree, our successes are enjoyed by anyone who supported me from the ground up. I think people enjoy seeing something before other people do, and there’s a pride in that. We were making a living as musicians well before we were involved with the music industry, and that was just through the support of local people coming to see us. And so, when it came time for us to sign a record contract, we were able to have a different set of rules because we were being supported by our hometown, the tavern scene, etc. We didn’t set out to make it big on a national scale. We were just trying to make people happy right around us.
Me: Based on that experience, is there something to be said, in your opinion, for being a working artist in a relatively small town as opposed to getting lost in the shuffle in New York or L.A. or Nashville?
Cory: Well, those are all great cities, but coming from where we did, we really had a blank canvas on which to create a real world of our own. For instance, our friends who owned the bars would let us come in and reorganize the bar to make it look the way we wanted it to look. We were able to make deals with them so that we could buy wine wholesale and build it into the ticket price so that drinks would be free, stuff like that. We had it aesthetically the way that we wanted—we were big Tom Waits fans—and I think the environment has a lot to do with people’s experience. We played this Mongolian restaurant—which is now a law firm, sadly—which had originally been a funeral home; we played in these really strange places. We were bored, so we tried to have events that made our lives more interesting. And I think that there are a lot of people who work a hard job and make an honest living and when they spent their money to see us they wanted to step outside of themselves and have this experience with us. So we were selling a lot of tickets, making money doing our own thing. And when the idea to expand it came along, it really allowed us to decide if we wanted to step out or to just keep building where we were.
Me: At that time, before you signed with a label, were you guys already able to support yourselves with your music? Did you have day-jobs?
Cory: No, we didn’t have day-jobs. But when you say “support ourselves,” we might have only eaten once a day, but in our minds we were supporting ourselves. We weren’t “comfortable.” We were willing to suffer for it. But of course “suffering” in a nice town like Appleton isn’t like suffering on the streets of New York, where you might have to work three jobs just to pay for a one-bedroom shithole. It’s all sort of relative. We didn’t have any money, but we didn’t have anything to spend money on anyway. We could get a few people together in a small space that was still pretty nice, and it was a rehearsal space, a home, a headquarters. And we’d play three nights a week, all our own music, lots of time doing three-hour sets, just really learning how to write songs, holding our own in a place that wasn’t necessarily built to support original art. But I’m really grateful for all that. I think it made us who we are, and we’re able to maintain our own terms because we didn’t start like everybody else. We were in this to make our own little world, and outside of that, I don’t really care about successes.
Me: Your story reads like an old-school record industry story from the pre-millennial days: after years of grinding it out in the bars you got “discovered” by a manager who got you auditions with some record labels, you signed a major label deal with RCA, and then—the way that the Appleton Post-Crescent tells it, anyway—it was Norah Jones, Carnegie Hall, Letterman, etc. That kind of thing seems so rare nowadays. It seems like, by and large, major record labels have gotten out of the business of signing and nurturing artistically credible acts. Your story seems like kind of a throwback.
Cory: We were. And honestly, it fits the sort of music that we make. That’s not to say there aren’t still people inside the major label system who are interested in music, but we were—literally, in my mind—one of the last acts to be “developed,” where the label took the risk to take the time to develop an artist. For instance, Bruce Springsteen’s first record isn’t the one we remember him for, but he came up in a time where someone could see something in him and sort of let him become who he was going to be over the next three records. And I think the way we’re doing it is a little bit old-school; we’re playing Carnegie Hall and we’re out on tour right now with Norah Jones, but we’re still relatively no-names. We’re building slowly over time, and we have no ambitions to be, I don’t know, making millions of dollars in our 30s. I just want to be able to have the money to retire when I’m old. I’m patient to wait and do it the way we’re doing it. You know, I took three years between records. Nowadays that’s unheard of—it’s way too long. But I didn’t feel like I had the quality of songs, so I waited until I felt like I did. We’re going to take the long way most often, just because it suits us as people.
Me: Was the label supportive of that? I know, due to their financial model, major labels tend to have a hit record mentality.
Cory: Well, we kind of knew what was going to happen. The RCA thing was a house of cards, to some degree. We had some really supportive people there behind the scenes who fought for us to be on that label, who really believed in that old-school Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty model where you buy a catalog, you don’t just sign an artist for one record and then find a new one. And those people have all since been let go. And then we were, well, allowed to leave our record deal under really, really great terms. We left RCA with no debt. Basically, they put half a million dollars into helping spread the word about us, then they let us walk away from it and said, “Good luck.” Now I’m on a label with one of my best friends, Brendan Benson, and now we’re in the indie model, but we still have the same distribution we had with RCA and Sony. So we have the same arm of distribution as the majors, but with no bureaucracy. It’s just me and my friend deciding what our records are going to look and sound like. So we just used what we could from that whole experience. Ultimately, we don’t want to work for anyone as we’re making art. And so we’ve landed in a much better spot: control of our publishing, full artistic control. We don’t have a horror story about the majors. We felt really respected, and we were let go when it was obvious that we didn’t have our supporters there at the label anymore. It’s funny, the major labels are about hit records, but the people who work there are still the people who love music, and they would really love to see it work another way. There’s no bigger band in the world right now than The Black Keys, but The Black Keys are on their seventh record, or eighth record. If they were started in the major label system they probably wouldn’t have survived. And, you know, we may go back someday if we find a person that we really agree with who’s working at one of those labels. I have no governing philosophy of “fuck the big guy.” I’ve been screwed by small people and big.
Me: Anytime you’re making financial arrangements around art, there’s going to be tension there, whether it’s a big label or a small label.
Cory: Right. So we’re just not worrying about it now. We just keep our heads down and make records that we like, and try to figure out how we stay alive in the game. In that sense, it’s like anyone else working a job.
Me: One of the themes running through the articles in the Appleton press has been “Cory Chisel: About to Become a Big Star.” Has that kind of hometown expectation added pressure to what you do?
Cory: No, no pressure. I don’t feel it. I understand why they have to print that stuff. That’s just to sell newspapers. I think most people there believe that I’ve already achieve what I need to achieve for my hometown to be proud that it fostered something.
Me: It all seems really well-intentioned…
Cory: And in small towns there’s the desire to say words like “big star.”
Me: Well, they sent a local reporter with you the first time you went to New York to play a showcase for labels.
Cory: Yeah, they were really interested in getting a first-hand look at what this world looks like. We do take steps to stay out of the press sometimes. I mean there are ways to be big stars that have nothing to do with creating good art, and there are certainly things we could do to work that angle more if we wanted, just being known for the sake of being known. But my favorite artists of all time have always been people like Townes Van Zandt, Tom Waits, Kris Kristofferson… Are these people even big stars? It’s kind of arguable. But they are to me. They’re legends to me.
Me: Right, Townes Van Zandt barely made it out of the trailer while he was alive…
Cory: And his art, to me, is as big as it could be. Norah and I have been covering some Gram Parsons songs on tour, and he’s another big star to me, a giant in the world of songwriting, but he died somewhat misunderstood and certainly not at the popularity level his hometown would have liked, either. Basically, we just try to write a good song. We don’t worry too much about the other stuff. And ultimately, I don’t think people in Appleton are that worried about whether we become big stars or not. That kind of thing is just something you say.
Me: How has it been for you guys, though? I mean, you signed with a major label and probably had expectations of your own. What’s it been like confronting the realities of the 21st century music industry—with its far more modest notions of what it means to “make it?”
Cory: Well, in our internal meetings, we just try to have our own expectations. We just really cannot be driven by expectations of money. If you want to screw up art, start talking about money.
Me: It’s funny, I’m writing a book right now with the subtitle: the struggle between art and money for the soul of rock music. And it follows the history of that struggle. It ebbs and flows, but it’s always been there. But it was interesting to see, like you were saying, how major record labels used to give artists more time and invest in them…
Cory: I think what happened, in my humble opinion, is that everyone was cool to support artists, but once you make real money, the only thing you want to do is make more of it faster. The minute they started making real money, they abandoned the model that built the money in the first place. And I think that’s a real change. There was a time when the record industry really wasn’t making that much money—not to the tune they made eventually, anyway. I mean it got to the point where 4,000 people at a label were making six-figure salaries, where it used to be that if anyone at a label was making a lot of money it was just one or two people. It’s not that you need to be afraid of money, but you have to understand how it changes things in order to keep a healthy relationship with it.
Me: I don’t think it necessarily hurts to be a little afraid of money…
Cory: You have to understand what it changes, and what it can change about you. And we’ve experienced a little of that. We’ve, in truth, made more money than most people my age, at least where I’m from. And once you have it, it gets hard to go the other way, harder to make decisions based on your creative process. I mean, we had the option to get back in the major label system for this last record, to get an advance similar to what we got from RCA, and we had to take a long look at each other and say, “What is the goal here? Is the goal to make money?” Because, if the goal is to make money, there are plenty of other jobs you can do to make more of it. We’re all smart enough people. It’s not like this is the only thing we could do. But we had to look at each other and say, “That’s not why we’re here.” And so we have to make decisions. I would love to take a vacation, I would love to save money, and all of that kind of stuff. But ultimately I’d trade all that for the life of an artist.
Me: You’re just finishing up an international tour opening for Norah Jones—what has that been like?
Cory: This has been the most fun I’ve ever had touring. Not only playing to rooms of this size, but artistically, to watch Norah work every night has been like taking a master class. I can feel myself growing and learning a whole new facet of performing. This last record we made was good, but I can’t wait to absorb these experiences we’ve had and make something better. I think when you feel full of ideas and inspired, that’s about as happy as you ever are as an artist.