Acoustic heartbreak in the Colorado San Juans with John Statz
Songs about heartbreak should resinate. And with John Statz they do. They’re equally soft and striking.
His new full-length album “Darkness on the San Juans,” available May 11, takes an acoustic turn from his other recent work. Then, he had full bands in studios. With this project, he gathered a few friends in his living room to record.
Like heartbreak itself, the album is more personal, more raw and more intimate. The Wisconsin native who now calls Denver home said he hasn’t done something quite as stripped down in a while, and when it came to get back into songwriting after the release of his last album last summer, there was also a reason to write.
It was the aftermath of a breakup.
“We retrace our steps. We look at what we thought we knew. We ultimately discover and face the truth under the stories we told ourselves along the way,” he says of the album.
In addition to the post-love songs, the album features a few songs Statz previously worked on but didn’t have a place on an album, and songs that are meant to be more acoustic. “Presidential Valet” is the story of Armistead, President John Tyler’s valet, or slave, who died alongside seven others in an explosion after Tyler and members of cabinet were watching the firing of the “peacemaker” in 1844.
So, this album is about heartbreak. Did that change how you wrote or approached the album at all?
Yeah. It just kind of comes out more — I don’t know — when you’re writing about heartbreak it’s just seems like the easiest type of writing. It’s just pouring out of you. You don’t have to come up with a concept or a story or any of that.
In the bio you released ahead of this album, it references a pretty famous Ernest Hemingway quotation: “Write hard and clear about what hurts.” Maybe as a writer I hear about this all of the time, but there’s definitely a writing style associated with Hemingway — to write very concise and clear. Did you take any of that with you into the songwriting or was it all about the emotion?
You know, it was the emotion part. I didn’t think about that, but the songs are fairly concise and short. So I appreciate that might also be relevant there even though I didn’t intend that.
The title of this album is “Darkness on the San Juans.” Explain that a little bit.
It’s a line in the song “Highways.” Geographical references are all over my songwriting. On every album I’ve ever written. So it’s a song about driving places with someone and either ending up back at those places later and having other memories being their previously. The San Juans was one of those locations that was important.
Why do you think you end up writing about places so much?
I mean, an obvious answer is that I spend a lot of time driving around to gigs, and I’ve been a lot of places because of that. And just for fun. I love roadtripping around Colorado, and camping and that sort of thing. So it’s not a planned thing. I’m living and breathing this lifestyle from A to B to C and that infiltrates the writing. But also, it’s a convenient rhyming scheme. Sometimes it can be hard to find a word, but there’s usually a city that will fill in.
How long did it take you to finish this album, being that the concept is fairly raw?
It all happened pretty fast. The two non-heartbreak songs, “Presidential Valet” and “Old Men Drinking Seagrem’s,” were older. They’re social commentary tunes. But I just hadn’t recorded them to yet and I was waiting for an acoustic album to do that. I started writing in the summer. I decided in December to record them. I called my friend Nate, flew him out in January. And we recorded it in three days in my living room.
Had you recorded like that before?
It’s been a while, but yeah. My first couple albums that I made when I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, were like that: recorded at home and more stripped down with the production and just making use of what we had. The last three albums were full bands or went to a really professional studio. This is how I made records way back.
Why did you decide to do it this way?
The songs mostly had an acoustic feel, and I sing in my living room a lot. I have this open, high ceiling. So I play my guitar and sing in my living room a lot. I think it sounds cool in there. I thought we could make a cool recording there. I liked the idea of making this intimate album in my home. It was a comfortable, cozy way to make an album.
So everything about this album seems more intimate that what you’ve done in the last few years.
Yeah. Definitely. Everything is. There’s only four musicians on this album, and one of those is my roommate who did knee slaps.
I also noticed on the album credits was an oatmeal container.
So I bought a plastic egg shaker because I thought I maybe wanted to some percussion. But it just didn’t sound that cool. I was like, well we have oatmeal around the house. There wasn’t much left in one container and so we shook it and it was a way better shaker sound, you know?
The inspiration for these songs were the feelings that linger after a break-up. Was there a cut-off point there since emotions always evolve, especially in these instances?
It’s a process. A relationship ends and we all go through the phases. Months go by and you change how you feel. The me that wrote those songs and recorded them months back is a different person. I’ve evolved in the process.
Did you have to simmer to write these songs or was it immediate?
I wrote the first song like a month after. I was trying to write again because I write in cycles. I had just put out an album at the beginning of last summer and when I’m in album release mode I’m not writing as much. But when that’s over I want to write. This time I wanted to write again and I had a fresh reason. I find it a little uncontrollable. I’ve never not written about any breakup I’ve ever had. It’s just part of the territory of being writer. I haven’t written anymore since I wrote those. I’m in album-release mode. I think I decided I’m done with these songs on this album. That’s part of the reason why I wanted to get it out. This part of my life is completed and now I will write a bunch of songs about U.S. presidents or something like that.
I noticed on your social media you like presidential biographies.
Yeah, I do. My friend Jeffrey Foucault is a songwriter and he gave me a LBJ biography. I really liked it, so I thought I’d give George Washington a try and I just kept going.
How many are you up to?
I’m almost done with Grant, so 18.
So far do you have a favorite based off of biographies?
Grant has been really interesting. Lincoln was fascinating. Martin Van Buren. Great sideburns.
Back to the album. Do you think the listener can hear an evolution throughout the album?
Yeah, those songs were written at different times, so probably. I’d say it’s a snapshot of what somebody goes through, or at least what I went through. But I think what most of us go through after a breakup.I just think most people have been through it so I hope they can identify.
I just think most people have been through it so I hope they can identify.
You can purchase Darkness in the San Juans at johnstatz.com.
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