“Our goal is to write something that’s meaningful, but in a catchy way,” Carbon Leaf front man Barry Privett told Xpress. “That’s the kind of music I like to hear.” That was back in ‘05. The band was recently (finally!) signed to a label — Vanguard — and had just put out sixth album Indian Summer.
Much has changed in the intervening eight years. Perhaps most importantly, in 2010 Carbon Leaf parted ways with Vanguard and opened their own studio (they’re based in Richmond, Va., where the group moved after forming at Randolph Macon College). “It’s a lot of work. We’re doing everything — we’re managing ourselves, and producing and recording ourselves. It’s pretty much just us and a booking agent,” says Privett. “It’s a different way of doing things, but it forces our hand to just focus on our fans and not get too distracted with throwing the net everywhere else.” He points out that the move was a big gamble, but he makes that point from the band’s studio where they’re putting finishing touches on an album due out for digital download on Oct. 1. The release will be Carbon Leaf’s fifth in two-and-a-half years since they struck out on their own, so they’re certainly making the most of their freedom.
“Our output is increasing and the pressure’s off to front-load [albums] with hits, so you can take more risks and come up with different themed projects,” says Privett. “It keeps you writing.” In fact, Carbon Leaf is not a band that’s struggled to come up with a hooky single. Songs like “Life Less Ordinary” and “What About Everything,” from a decade ago, still surface on the radio and in movies. Back in 2002, Carbon Leaf won the first-ever Coca-Cola New Music Award for their song, “The Boxer.” They wrote most of the soundtrack for Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey!, and have played floating music festival The Rock Boat for seven years running.
Two years ago the band celebrated a major milestone: 20 years together. Married couples hope they can make it to that platinum anniversary (not to be confused with the other platinum anniversary, the 70th). Yes, Carbon Leaf has seen some changes (the lineup is currently Privett on vocals, penny whistles, acoustic guitar and bagpipes; Terry Clark on electric guitar, acoustic guitar and vocals; Carter Gravatton on mandolin, guitars, lap steel, bouzouki, bodhran, loops, effects, vocals and fiddle; Jason Neal on percussion and Jon Markel on bass). And yes, it’s maybe not quite as easy now as it was when they musicians were in their 20s and had few obligations. “The thing that gets in the way, after you’ve done it for awhile, is simple logistics,” Privett says. “It’s not like people stop getting along, in our case. I can’t speak for other bands. It’s not like you just stop being creative. People get families and coordinating schedules alone becomes the real challenge.”
He adds, rhetorically, “How many albums does a band really have left in them?” Probably quite a few, in Carbon Leaf’s case. The group has some 600 demos in the vault, just waiting for Privett to write lyrics. “There’s no shortage of ideas,” he says, “just a shortage of time.”
The creation process often consists of Privett listening to instrumentals and then adding words. He keeps a notebook of potential verses and sometimes brings an idea to the table. Last album, Ghost Dragon Attacks Castle, released in February of this year, had a few of those songs. That record also saw a return to Carbon Leaf’s Celtic influences, a sound they’ve steered away from over the years. “When we switch up genres, it gives us a mental break from what we know,” says Privett. “The pressure’s really off when you’re doing it on your own — you have more fun with it.”
Photo from the band’s Facebook page.
He also says that Ghost Dragon (which leads off with the fist-pumping “Bloody Good Bar Fight Song” and wends its way through shanties and reels all tempered with solid rock) is seriously fun to play live. “A lot for the songs you love and record, they’re not barn-burners. Unless you’re Ryan Adams or Ray LaMontagne, you’ve got to build those moments into the set. For us, it was about what’s going to make a really great piece for people to engage? I think the album hits that in a lot of songs.”
Those Irish-flavored numbers will not, however, define Carbon Leaf’s performance at the upcoming Shamboozle Fest, held at Highland Brewery and curated by Calif.-based Celtic rock band Gaelic Storm “We’re not going to lean Celtic or anything like that,” says Privett. “I don’t look at it as a Celtic festival. Gaelic Storm does a good job to pick and choose bands that bring a breadth of what they do the party. We don’t feel like we’ve got to lean to that strength.”
Carbon Leaf will play at least one song from their new, almost-finished album. Privett says the forthcoming record is a good companion to Ghost Dragon, but “a little more Americana/folk-influenced. The two go nicely together and to release them six months apart is exciting to me.”
Shamboozle Fest takes place on Saturday, Sept. 21 at Highland Brewing Company. The lineup includes Gaelic Storm, Carbon Leaf and Seven Nations with local acts Josh Phillips and The Red Wellies. The festival begins at 2 p.m. and runs to midnight. Tickets are $24 in advance or $38 including a copy of Gaelic Storm’s new album, The Boathouse. VIP $54/$68.