Will records made during the pandemic carry their context with them into the future? Seems pretty likely Jason Weinheimer’s new record will. “Faded,” out Feb. 26 under Weinheimer’s solo project The Libras, was concocted in a handful of home studios across the country — makeshift and otherwise — and features work from some heavy-hitting touring musicians who found themselves decommissioned and stuck at home for the last year or so. Among them, from The Libras’ album notes: Paul Griffith (John Prine, Amanda Shires), Al Gamble (St. Paul and the Broken Bones), Paddy Ryan (John Fullbright, Parker Milsap), Jesse Aycock (Hard Working Americans, Elizabeth Cook), Arnold Kim (Yellow Hope Project), Ambrosia Parsley (Shivaree), Chris Michaels, Charles Wyrick, Dylan Turner, Shawn Stroope, Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), Mark Franklin (Greg Allman, Cyndi Lauper) and Kirk Smothers (Bo Keys, Buddy Guy).
As someone who adores Weinheimer’s solo project Love Ghost, and who spent much of the ’90s listening to harmony-obsessed records from That Dog and Matthew Sweet, the pop sensibilities Weinheimer weaves into “Faded” are rewarding stuff. The keynote mood on “Faded,” though, is mellower and more sanguine, if optimistically so. Perhaps, as Weinheimer told us while reflecting on the brilliance of Jim Dickinson, that’s a mood that tends to dominate when you’ve got a couple decades of making music in Little Rock behind you.
Weinheimer, along with bassist Chris Michaels and guitarist Charles Wyrick, will play a set on the front porch of Control Records in the Hillcrest area of Little Rock, 6 p.m. Thursday, March 4, for the neighborhood’s monthly Shop and Sip happy hour hang. (Wear a mask, buy a record and, as Weinheimer put it on Instagram, “Bring it, but keep your distance.”) Meanwhile, we’re happy to premiere the video for Weinheimer’s “Been Away Too Long.”
Can you talk first about your musical partnership with Arnold Kim, with whom you collaborated on “Faded”?
Yeah! Arnold and I met in high school. We both moved to Shreveport at the same time, right before our freshman year of high school which is a strange time to move to a new city. And we both started playing guitar around the same time, so we immediately hit it off. So we had a band and played all through high school together — mostly R.E.M. covers, to be honest. R.E.M. covers, and the BoDeans and I don’t know what else. That was our thing, and we played parties — like, I tell my kids now about how much money we made in high school. It was crazy. Making the same gig money then as we do now, but we were 16, 17 years old.
And in more recent times, I’ve helped to make his records, under the name The Yellow Hope Project, and we’ve done those here in Little Rock.
So he comes from California to Arkansas to record? I think most people would assume that if you were recording in California, you’d have pretty much everything at your disposal, and that a studio like Fellowship Music Hall, tucked away in the middle of Arkansas might not. But in fact, it seems to work the opposite way with Fellowship. I don’t know if you’d call what you have there, in terms of gear, specialized?
Specific, maybe? It’s somewhat specialized. I think that I have managed to kind of carve out a little world for myself here. Obviously, we have all this gear and this analog tape and tube preamps and old microphones and all the stuff we collect and love. But at this point, that doesn’t really attract people. It’s fun, and it’s fun to get to use that stuff, but the reason people would come here is more because of the vibe of hanging out in Hillcrest and getting together in this room with a bunch of people, playing music live together. Hopefully I’ve carved out a niche for myself making those kinds of records, drawing people from out of town who want to work here.
Well, it’s very modest and gracious of you to say the studio’s not the thing that’s attracted people, but it has attracted John Moreland. And Pallbearer.
I think you do this long enough and you kind of make friends all over. You figure out who’s like-minded. Part of it is that people like to get away from their routine to make a record. Sometimes that means getting out of Nashville or getting out of Los Angeles or getting out of Tulsa or wherever, and come hide out here and immerse themselves in this world we’ve created.
Hearing you talk about this makes me wonder where you send people locally who are in from out of town, places you know they’ll dig.
The White Water [Tavern] is iconic for everybody. In its various iterations, lunch at H.A.M. is kind of the studio tradition for sure, A lot of these guys from out of town count on having sandwiches from H.A.M. for lunch. And then kBird is the other must-have. I made a record here when Richard [Glasgow, of kBird] was taking a month off to go to Thailand, like he does every year, and these guys got in for a week when he was out of town and they were devastated.
Hopefully it wasn’t a dealbreaker.
We made do. We pivoted.
So it kinda seems like in order for these musical relationships that worked remotely for “Faded” during the pandemic, they needed to be relationships that had already been developed. Like, I can’t imagine you creating this with musicians you didn’t know before.
Yeah, with the exception of Steve Berlin, who played saxophone on a couple of songs, everyone has made records here in this space with me, whether it was my record or their record or somebody else’s. The whole thing came about when, I guess around April 1, I got a text from Arnold saying, “Hey, you’re stuck at home. I’m stuck at home. Why don’t we send some demos back and forth?” And the next day, he said, “Hey, I just talked to Paul [Griffith], and he just got flown home from his tour with Amanda Shires, and he’s going stir crazy. He’s got drums in his garage and he thinks maybe he can record.” So that turned into Arnold and I sending demos back and forth just about every day, cut to a click track, and then sent to Paul. Then I sent a box of microphones to Paul, ‘cause he was kind of getting more and more elaborate with his recording setup. He started out with two mikes and now he’s got a full studio in his garage. Then, Al Gamble — who played organ on the whole record, and kinda splits time between Memphis and Muscle Shoals — he plays with St. Paul and The Broken Bones, and his tour got canceled, so I hit him up a couple weeks into this process, and he was, like, “Please, send me what you got.” It was fun, just a crazy fun way to pass the time while we were all stuck at home for weeks on end.
It’s a weird recipe, because it seems like on the one hand, you have this wealth of expertise that you honed in your work at Fellowship Hall Sound and Lucky Dog Audio for so long, and then you had access to these musicians you knew, like Paul Griffith, who were suddenly available because the pandemic kept them from their touring gigs. But on the other hand, you couldn’t do exactly the thing that you do so well, which is get really great live tracks from ensembles in the studio.
Right. It definitely turned my normal process on its head. But with these guys, it was so easy. Paul is such a sympathetic drummer, and I loved his ideas. I’m pretty sure that every time I sent him a track, the drum tracks he sent back are what’s on the record. No notes, no suggestions, no revisions. What was his first instinct to do was appropriate, and that shaped the song.
About those horns: When I heard the record, I thought, “These are either actual horns, or they’re the best non-actual horns ever.”
Yeah. So there’s two different things going on there. So Steve [Berlin, of Los Lobos] plays on two songs. I met him because I’d been going to see Los Lobos for 25 years, and he probably recognized me, like “Oh, there’s that guy who’s here every time we’re within six hours of Little Rock.” We ended up meeting on a couple different occasions, and the last time I saw him, I was playing with Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, and he was in the audience, so we connected again then and exchanged numbers. So I was working on these songs and it just kind of hit me: “I wonder what Steve’s doing.” So I reached out to him, and sure enough, he was at home in Portland with a home studio, also going stir crazy. So he jumped at the chance to be able to work on something. Then the other horns on the record were done in Memphis. Mark Franklin, who’s actually from North Little Rock originally, has kind of become the guy in Memphis. Really great trumpet player and arranger.
I thought about Jim Dickinson a little bit when I heard the horns and arrangements for some of these tracks, especially “Can’t Lose Everything.”
Yeah. Yeah, he’s clearly a continual influence on me, so that makes sense.
I love the video for this song that Zach Reeves did for it, too, and, no spoilers, I burst into laughter at the part with the banjo. How did this come about? It’s sort of half-staged, but then there’s clearly this dynamic going on in the room where it’s being filmed, too.
Well, my son was there, so there was that. It started out with Zach and I brainstorming about it, and we actually had some time scheduled to do a full band video, and twice, COVID fucked that up. And we started kicking this idea around, like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if, in the video, I played every guitar in the studio?” And then it became, “Well, what if you played every guitar that’s downstairs?” Because playing every guitar in the studio, there was just no way. My daughter used to come over and inventory, and she’s given up. In the end, I think we only got through about one-third of the guitars downstairs. And I was lip syncing, but what I failed to do was learn the lyrics to the song. I think what you see there is Take 3, and we were like, “That’ll do. Close enough.”
It fits the mood of the song.
Yeah. We weren’t going for perfection. Or too much earnestness.
I wanna ask about the song “Giving Up the Ghost.” This song in particular appealed to me because it seems to be, lyrically at least, told from a standpoint I feel pretty empathetic to, sort of being stubbornly hopeful, despite also feeling a lot of malaise — and sometimes, despair. Like, “The highest highs and the lowest lows, You know, I feel much more than most/It’s a give and take/Beauty and the least,” instead of “beauty and the beast?” Is that right?
Uh-huh. Clever, right?
I like it. I mean, was that your pandemic mood?
Yeah. I mean, it’s just … I’m an eternal optimist. The glass is not only half full for me, it’s continually being refilled. That being said, I tend to take on the feelings of others. You know what I mean? Maybe I’m a moody optimist.
So the first line in the description of the record is “Jason Weinheimer spends most of his time making other musicians sound great.” Do you think of yourself as a person who naturally leans away from the spotlight?
Oh, yeah. I ran into Isaac [Alexander] yesterday, ‘cause you know, he’s got a space here in the building, and he was like, “Congratulations on the record coming out,” and I said, “I’m so ready to just be a bass player again.”
I’d say I’m a reluctant frontman at this point. I mean, I enjoy it. I enjoy crafting the songs. But I am also quite content to be standing back next to the hi-hat with a cap pulled down over my eyes.
Right. But then in the videos that accompany the record, you’re quite literally in the spotlight. Does that feel weird, or are you pretty resigned to it?
At this point, I’d say, having done this stuff for so long in various different roles, I’m committed to not doing anything half-ass, and not doing anything that doesn’t count. So when I decided to call this a record and put it out, I knew I was committed to, you know, making the video. And playing what gigs we can play, which is very little, of course. And trying to take it seriously from the standpoint of “Hey, I’m gonna make Instagram posts.” I’m somewhere between resigned and committed about my role.
For so many of us — me, especially — it’s one thing to make a record, and it’s like, “OK, I made a record, the audience is gonna come to me,” or “I made a record. Now what?” Which is a question I get asked a lot because I make records a lot. And I don’t know. That’s a question that everyone wants to know the answer to.
But I’ve been fortunate with this one to have it be put out by an old friend of mine named Steve Howell, who does a good job of putting the promotional push behind these things. It’s what so many of us are lacking. He really got behind it, and if he hadn’t, it probably would have stayed as just a fun project. It’s one thing to create, but it’s another thing to then lean into the commerce side of it. I know you know what I’m talking about.
Sure. It’s striking the balance between knowing that you must communicate with a potential audience, but also not wanting to seem disingenuous about it.
Exactly. You know, you brought up Jim Dickinson. He had this thing he called “the Little Rock thing.” He laughed about it. “Aw, you guys got that Little Rock thing goin’.” And the first time he said it, I was like, “What are you talking about?” We were in a meeting with, like, label people, and after we got out of the meeting, he said, “You guys totally did that Little Rock thing. I find it hilarious. I love it.” He described it as “the Little Rock” … it’s a lack of ambition. It’s being content with, “Hey, I create, therefore I am” kind of position. “It’s not my job to self-promote and I’m not going to do any of that.” I think he’s right. I mean, I don’t know that it’s uniquely Little Rock. In Jim’s mind it was. But, you know, we are a very insulated community over here and quite content to do our own thing.
Yeah, and almost hyper-averse to the PR mechanism.
Exactly. I think that’s what I’m getting at. Don’t you agree that it’s kind of a thing?
That makes a lot of sense to me. I wonder if part of it is because it’s Little Rock, so rent is pretty affordable. Odds are you can live here and make a little music, work a little, and make it work.
Indy [Grotto, Weinheimer’s wife and fellow musician] and I almost moved to an industry town. Like, it was a decision. We were doin’ it. We didn’t know if it would be Austin, or at the time Portland was a big contender. And then we realized, you know what? We love it here. The cost of living is nothing. And like you said, it’s kind of easy to create and satisfy that creative impulse without having to pay New York City rent. Why would we leave?
The other thing: I’ve always said that Little Rock has a disproportionate amount of talent for the size of the city. Here, just about everybody’s creative.
So I wore out the Dire Straits record “Brothers in Arms” when I was in college, but hearing it again now, in the context of this album, I hear it as a pandemic song, like all about distance and detachment.
Yeah. I absolutely love that song, and have done it live for a few years, and subjected my various band members to it. So in the middle of this process sending songs back and forth to California, Isaac texted me and was like, “Hey, you should cut ‘So Far Away’ and put it out right now. So I blame Isaac for that. That night I recorded it to a click track and sent it to Paul without warning. I didn’t know if he’d be game, but everyone was into it. And I challenged Arnold, I was like, “OK, we’re gonna do this, but don’t play the iconic guitar part.” So he played slide, and played around it. And I’d met Ambrosia [Parsley], who sings on it, when she was here and we played a Chris Maxwell show.
At Ron Robinson! I loved that show so much.
Yeah. Remember they made her an “Arkansas Ambassador” award at that show?
She carried that plaque in front of her on the flight home. Like, “Everyone, look, I am an Arkansas Traveler, I’m an ambassador for the state of Arkansas.” She was very proud. But anyway, now we just call her The Ambassador. She was happy to sing on it, and I love that song, and I love it on the record.
Order The Libras’ “Faded” here.