Carson McHone :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Carson McHone has been singing on the barroom stages of Austin, Texas since she was 16 years old. She’s a rare contemporary country artist who was born and raised in the Lone Star State, rather than moving to the rootsy music mecca to try and make it. Following her 2018 album Carousel, recorded in Nashville with longtime Spoon producer Mike McCarthy, McHone linked up with Merge Records for the release of her latest LP, Still Life. Fleshing out its songs with E Street Band sax swagger, moody strings, and wistful accordion, the album was produced and recorded by Daniel Romano. As I learned during our interview, the musical collaborators are also a married couple splitting their time between Texas and Ontario when they’re not on the road together. Read on for our chat, which taught me the expression “fingernail moon.” | j locke

Aquarium Drunkard: Hi, how’s it going?

Carson McHone: I’m well! I’m down in Texas right now, and the weather has been chillier than I anticipated, but it’s warmed into a very sunny evening.

AD: I noticed you worked with Daniel Romano and his bandmate Dave Nardi on your new album. How did you connect with them? 

Carson McHone: I was turned onto Daniel’s music years and years ago, and have always respected and admired the work that he does. We played a show together probably six or seven years ago now and stayed in touch. We lost touch for a while and kind of kept tabs on each other, and then we got married in 2020! 

AD: Oh, you’re married! I had no idea.

Carson McHone: Yeah! [laughs] When everybody was in isolation, that was when we made this record. I had met David but hadn’t done any work with him musically. Daniel and I were working in the living room and there were only two other people involved. We would set up a mic and ask someone to come over, because we weren’t getting together with large groups of people. It was really intimate but I think it yielded something appropriate and immediate. David is wonderful, and he played sax on the record, which is really cool. Now we’ve been playing together quite a bit recently getting ready for these upcoming shows.

It was a treat to work with David, and also Mark Lalama, whose work I had only heard on Daniel’s records. Years ago when Daniel and I were in touch initially, he sent me a really sparse song recorded with just piano and vocals. It was really powerful, and that was Mark! Then years later, he was willing to contribute to my album, which was really an honour. It’s a beautiful thing that I got to meet these new people and work with them. I love the results.

AD: How does that work for you and Daniel to be together long distance?

Carson McHone: It’s been interesting because this has all been going on during this time. It felt pretty sketchy to cross the border, and for the first five months he was unable to get here because the border was closed. When we initially went up to Ontario, the reason I was able to go is because we were married. It’s now been nine months that I’ve been up there, and I’m just back here for a short visit before these shows start.

It’s been an even split. Going forward, I’d like to figure out how to spend the winter months in Texas when we’re not on the road. We’ve been in Canada for the past two years, so I’ve got a big dose of the cold weather and I’m adjusting slowly but surely. I have family here, but the band is up there, so I imagine we’ll keep splitting our time. I love both places very much and the spaces we’re lucky enough to spend time in are conducive to the creative side of things.

Everybody has been through a lot of things in these last two years, but at least collectively we’ve all been through something. Whether or not that’s a positive change, it’s probably pretty drastic for everyone. Going through major life changes during this time puts a beautiful and bizarre focus on it. I’m lucky and privileged enough to be able to give my attention to that, which has been nice. I’ve tried to cultivate some personal things during that time.

AD: I love the instrumentation you used on these songs like accordion, sax, and strings. Did you have an orchestrated sound like that in mind when you started writing the album, or did it come together in later stages?

Carson McHone: There were a handful of the tunes that I had reference points for, as far as other songs that got passed back and forth. Of course Daniel knew all of those, because he’s a walking, talking, playing library of music. That was lovely because if there was something like, for example, a Scott Walker song where I really liked the dissonance of strings under this part in this bridge, and I really liked the tension it created, I would ask if we could do something like that. We ended up playing off a lot of that sort of stuff. I’ve never done that before. 

I think it was beautiful timing because my ears were opening up as a listener and I had someone who wanted to apply that stuff that I was picking up on for the first time. I was working side by side with Daniel and he was able to help facilitate that in lots of different ways. Whether it was string arrangements or playing rock instruments, I feel extremely lucky. I wanted to do that with this batch of songs, so it was great to feel that we could.

AD: What do you like about the accordion in particular?

Carson McHone: I’ve always loved it. It’s very human because it breathes. I guess there’s something about that texture that brings a natural element into a tune. I always wanted “Fingernail Moon” to have an ethereal sound. There were a few times that I played it live before everything screamed to a halt, and a buddy of mine would play harmonica on the outro. When we recorded it, the accordion felt like a perfect fit.

We drove out to Wimberley today, which is just outside of Austin in a place we call the hill country. I wrote that song pretty much on that same drive, so I was reminded of it again today. A fingernail moon is one that’s barely there, like the tiniest sliver of a fingernail. I’m not funny and I can’t tell jokes, but I used to introduce that song with a story. My mom writes poetry, so she said ‘it’s a good thing you write songs, because I would have called it a toenail moon, and that just wouldn’t sound so nice.’ I’m probably getting away with murder singing about a fingernail and having people not cringe because it’s gross, but that’s what I call it. I thought everyone called it that!

AD: A lot of your lyrics seem to focus on the act of creativity, and how it can affect our relationship with the world. Is that something you think about a lot?

That’s how we all move through the day. We create the space that we want to exist in. There are obviously outside elements that affect that, but it’s how you situate yourself and where you draw the frame. That’s definitely at the forefront of my mind, and probably a lot of people’s, even if they don’t think about it that way. We all create because we’re all figuring out how to approach the day. Some people just lean into it, in different ways, more than others.

AD: I noticed you use the word “babe” multiple times in your lyrics. Are these songs addressed to someone specifically, or is it used in a more general sense?

Carson McHone: I’m not necessarily writing my stories. Anything I do is part of my own experience, so I’m liking addressing myself or other people directly, but that can also shift and change. When you write a song and then perform it, there’s space and time between those things. Even the way you choose to sing a single word, phrase, or melody can change. The meanings shift, grow, or diminish. As a performer you want to be able to embody whatever it is you’re singing or playing about, but you can also go into character and approach it from different ways so it still feels relevant to you in that moment.

I didn’t realize that I sing the word “babe” in multiple songs, but it’s probably because I would never sing the word “baby.” That’s just a thing you say in songs, like “oh lord.” It’s a relatable term of endearment, so people can imagine that they’re saying it about someone they know.

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