Twenty-five years ago, Jeff Black left his hometown of Kansas City for Nashville, determined to make a living at songwriting. It has been a rewarding and challenging road.
By the mid-1990s he had made a name for himself in Nashville, appearing on recordings by fellow songwriter Iris DeMent and Sam Bush, among others.
Black released his inaugural album, “Birmingham Road,” in 1998. It included studio performances by DeMent and three musicians who were then members of Wilco.
He has since released four studio albums and two B-side collections. In April, he released “Folklore,” a sparse, introspective album that includes “Lemonade,” a song he co-wrote with his children, Emerson and Zuzu.
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Black will be back in Kansas City for a show Friday night at Knuckleheads. From his home in Nashville, he spoke with The Star recently about the life of a full-time songwriter.
How often to you come back to Kansas City?
I come back at least once a year, if not twice. I still have family and lots of great friends there.
How has the process of songwriting changed for you over the past 25 years?
It’s gotten to where there seems to be a comfort that comes with being on the planet for a little bit longer. So there’s not so much angst about the words and the music you want to put together as much as there’s hope that their messages connect, because that is the ultimate goal.
For the most part they take on a life of their own. You have to be careful about getting in your own way. That’s the case no matter what you do for a living. If you stay out of your own way, things seem to work out.
But the process changed very little in the physical sense. I still write with a pencil and in a journal on guitar or piano. There’s something definite and intentional about the physical act of laying that lead to paper and having the words live together in a way you can’t really delete them.
You can draw a line through them, but on a computer you shift and delete words and they’re gone forever. With a paper and pencil, sometimes if you don’t mark them out, they’re always there, letting you know, “I still have a chance here.”
Does getting older make songwriting easier because you have more experience and perspective or does it make it more complicated?
I think it definitely makes it easier and I think it’s more inspiring. Like you said, it’s perspective, constantly getting perspective on everything that’s basically been said and done over and over since before any of us was alive.
I’ve always been concerned about not letting the measure of success get in the way of being creative. I’m really fortunate to have this job. A guy asked me once, “Do you make a living doing this?” I said, “Sometimes I do.”
If you don’t become a giant pop star or country music star or any kind of star, the most important thing is that what you create is lasting and maintains some relevance and integrity. (The songs) will certainly outlast any of us.
Compare the components of your job: songwriting, recording and performing.
All three are forms of documenting moments. Writing is slinging paint all over a blank canvas. It’s beautiful, cathartic and therapeutic.
The next work is the documentation. I learned a lot from Susan Rogers, who produced my first record: It’s easier to go in and record as soon as you accept the fact that it’s a document in time. It doesn’t necessarily define the song, it defines the time and place where it happened.
If the song is worthy, it will take on a life of its own. That really brought me great comfort when I started taking recording seriously and realized I might be able to make a living at it.
The other favorite part is when I pick up a guitar … and throw the songs into the universe and have an exchange with people. That’s why I do the rest of it. If you’re lucky, you’re putting yourself in front of people that really want to travel with you for 90 minutes or a couple of hours. So many things divide and isolate us. I believe music is there to bring us together. Maybe I’m too much of a social romantic, but I truly believe it.
How much do you tour, and does it become a grind?
I took a hiatus after “Tin Lily” came out in 2005 because my children were very young and I didn’t want to miss that. But they’re older now and they understand what dad does so it’s a tiny bit easier to go.
We’ve all got bills to pay, and since Spotify and Pandora I’ve learned over the past three years that I have to go out and get the money because they’re not going to send it to me anymore.
I just started with a new booking agency, and I’ve already got shows booked for next year. It won’t surprise me to be doing a couple hundred dates next year. My mantra is: I love to go out but I hate to be gone.
You’re touring on “Folklore,” your latest album. What about this record are you the most proud?
I’m really proud of not forgetting about the urgency of the music and the things people feel like they need to say. I’m proud of the fact that I wanted to sit down for a couple of days and basically accept these songs as they came through. We kept it all nice and close to the ground, rough and tumble. I feel proud about that.
Jeff Black performs at 9 p.m. Friday in the Retro Lounge at Knuckleheads, 2715 Rochester Ave. Tickets are $25.