What Does Optimism Look Like? — A Conversation with Jerry David DeCicca

Last fall, Jerry David DeCicca delivered a country-kissed jewel of a folk rock record that celebrated the melancholia and quiet joys in life. The Unlikely Optimist & His Domestic Adventures is colored by subtle emotions and the sharpness of unflinching reality, while sonically, it’s a melting pot of Texas’ diverse musical heritage. Throughout the album’s ten tracks, electric blues licks intermingle with barfly sax solos while mountain fiddles square dance with some Germanic squeezebox drones. It’s a remarkable record that contains a multitude of layers that reveal themselves the more you hear it.

Due to the pandemic and the entire kerfuffle that was 2020, a physical release seemed to not be in the cards. Yet, the good folks at the helm of England’s Worried Songs have pressed TUM&HDA onto vinyl, and preorders for its October 1st release are now live.

Around a month ago, I spoke with DeCicca about the album, his views on optimism and this creative process. Check out our conversation below:

Record Crates United: What do you find inspires you to write the most?

Jerry David DeCicca: I don’t think about it in terms of where things come from. I just have a very set schedule where it’s like songs always occupy my head when I’m driving around or I spend a lot of time on my front porch with my guitar. Just talking on the phone, playing with my puppy and the feral cats [and] picking up the guitar. So I’ve never really searched or tried to figure out sourced inspiration. It’s just kind of something that I do when a guitar is in my hand or when a word or an idea captures my imagination. Usually a couplet of some sort where I come up with two words and they rhyme and it feels good and it feels special. Sometimes I write around the guitar, sometimes I write around the voice. So I don’t know. I mean, when I get jammed up I don’t listen to many contemporary white guys with acoustic guitars. That’s not really what I’m into. I mean, I’m into those records from like the sixties and seventies and even, and especially the early nineties, which is kind of the great heyday of singer songwriters. In general, though, when I get jammed up, I kind of go to poetry or to jazz that uses literary devices, history and language in a way that connects with me.

RCU: I have definitely felt a strong literary quality to your work. Who are some of your favorite non-musical writers?

JDD: Yeah, there’s tons. I mean, being the great American novelist is still my fallback plan, you know. I’ve been working on a book for a while. I choose not to write poetry and to focus that on my songwriting, but I love poetry because it’s kind of a reminder for what songs can be. Not that I have anything against, like, songs about love or love lost or anything like that, but I don’t really have the voice for that. I wish I sounded like Ben E. King or Rod Stewart or something, but I’ve never wanted to sound like a diary entry. So I’ve always wanted my songs to feel musical. And I think that part of lyric writing is like internal rhyme. It’s in jamming different words; it’s creating rhythms by language and the sound of the human voice. So I definitely look towards poetry—like I’m a huge Mark Strand fan. I’m right now reading this poet named Forrest Gander’s new book called Twice Alive. [He] is a great poet and an essayist and was friends with Vic Chestnut. My poetry teacher in college, Kathy Fagan—I still read her books all the time. Besides just the enjoyment and what you take from those books, it’s also a reminder of images and a world that a song can create other than what I think people associate with people that stand up on stage with an acoustic guitar. Of which I love at different points in history, but that sort of stuff that’s being made today doesn’t really interest me so much, you know?

RCU: Do you view yourself as a storyteller?

JDD: Yeah for sure in my shows when they’re good and when I’m in a seated room, like a listening room of some sort, you know? What I say between songs sometimes. . . like my song on the new record, “Texas Toad,” is two and a half minutes long, but a touring partner of mine, Adam Ostrar, likes to remind me that the story before it is 18 minutes, but that’s part of the performance. Whether it’s like Lightnin’ Hopkins or Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, it’s performative and it’s part of the story. I’ve always been kind of a graphic songwriter. So I feel like if you’re a graphic songwriter, you’re a storyteller in some way,

RCU: Who are some of your favorite storytellers in music?

JDD: In music? I love Michael Hurley. I’ve been going to see Michael for over 20 years at this point in time. I’ve played with him a bunch of times, which is great. I used to see him in a barbecue restaurant in a town called South Bloomfield, OH. He used to do four hour sets and those were the best sets I ever saw him do because he would have a keyboard there and he’d have his violin and his banjo and his guitar, and he had to fill up a whole night. Nobody in that barbecue place. This is not a small town. This is a gas station and a barbecue restaurant and that is the town. Between Columbus, OH, and Athens. He was living in Portsmouth, OH, at the time. This was before the whole freak folk thing brought him to the forefront. They were the best shows ever, and he played for hours cause he’d sit down at the piano and he played George Jones songs, and he played Dwight Yoakam songs, and then he’d do instrumentals on his violin and banjo, and it was beautiful. So he is definitely somebody that I’ve always loved as a storyteller. 

He has a different sense of narrative, different sense of stories that he wants to share, like in terms of his use of literary devices in history. You know, I went to college; I’m self-conscious. I mean, if you go to college, you’re self-conscious. Michael was, like, in the merchant Marines for like five minutes or something, he’s from another place in time, in the same way Augie Myers is from another place in time. And or I got to know Elyse Weinberg a little bit, or Kath Bloom. The storytellers that I like in music are people that sometimes don’t know the stories they’re telling are interesting or boring. Like when I produced an Ed Askew record and a Will Beeley record, I tend to be drawn to like older musicians to produce records for, not because I just like old people, because they’re just more interesting to me. That’s my only way to get to know them.

Will Beeley tells stories in his songs in a way that he doesn’t know that he’s telling stories that people need footnotes for. In the same way Ulysses didn’t have footnotes for its first pressing. It’s like, they just are. You know? Lots of music used to be that way, you know, Creedence Clearwater Revival. And, you know, “I don’t like the way he sings but I love to hear him talk”, talking about Spike Jones on the box. You know, like how many people think about who Spike Jones is, and that in and of itself is a story. So there are so many storytellers in music, like I love Merle Haggard or Ed Askew. Merle Haggard’s obviously mega-famous and Ed Askew is not, but to me they’re the same person. They’re writing the same song from a different point of view. When it comes to songwriters, that’s the type of stuff like that I’m into.

RCU: So did you find making this album at all to be a sort of cathartic or therapeutic exercise at all for yourself?

JDD: Not really, because it was just done in like starts and stops. It started when I called Augie Meyers on the phone to get lunch and then he initiated like, let’s record. Then we recorded with him one day and we kinda made the record backwards, where we added the rhythm section afterwards. So I just played with Eve, my partner, who sings on the record and then Augie overdubbed and that was done in one day. Then my friend Keith Hanlon, who runs Musicol Recordings in Columbus, and was the drummer of The Black Swans recorded my friends Jovan Karcic  and Canaan Faulkner at that studio as a rhythm section. Then Don Cento, who plays guitar with me, overdubbed his guitar. Then we saw Frank ‘The Wild Jalapeño’ Rodarte in a bar one night playing saxophone, just killing it, and so we invited him to record. Then Ralph White. I was kind of doing this over a very long period of time while I was making my records. So this was something that I was just kind of like doing on the side, you know? Whenever I had a little extra money. Then the pandemic hit, and I just decided to put it out myself. So it being called Domestic Adventures just coincided with everybody sitting at home, but my way of life hasn’t changed tremendously during the pandemic because we live in a rural community.

RCU: So how does your day job affect your creativity? And did it have any influence on the writing on this album at all?

JDD: I work in vocational rehabilitation services. I did that back in Ohio. Then when I moved to Texas, I was working for a mental health provider doing community education at different school districts helping teachers better understand the difference between, like, mental health issues and typical adolescence. Then I started working for a vocational rehabilitation provider here, and then I branched out on my own and started my own agency. I work with, like, 15 year olds to 70 year olds, with mostly non-visual disabilities to help them with integrated employment in the community. So how that affects my songwriting is that I’m not writing songs about my job by any stretch of the imagination, but what it does help me with is that it’s a very positive job, you know? I’m working with a population of people that has been historically marginalized, and I am working with a population of people that is working to 110% of their ability to be successful. 

I’m also working with people that are far removed from knowing anything about things that people talk about in my peer group. And that’s awesome. That’s the best part. I’m working with a lot of people of color. I’m working with a lot of people of various economic and social backgrounds. I’ve always done that in Ohio. I was working with a lot more people who were felons that were getting services because of mental health issues. A lot of veterans. Now I’m working with a lot of young adults, and it’s awesome. I love my job. It’s great. I get to meet people that are very unlike myself. And that is the greatest benefit to me, to anybody that’s a writer. There are very few jobs in life where you get to meet people from all different backgrounds. I love that about my job. It’s super exciting. It keeps me on my toes. I learn a lot.

RCU: That’s amazing. So I like that you call the album an anti-hallmark ode to positivity, and yet there are still plenty of moments of melancholia and some woe tucked in there. Could you explain what you were trying to say by mixing these two opposite moods together into a single album?

JDD: You can be an optimistic person and still be depressed. I think you can be an optimistic person and still not like people or you can be an optimistic person and not procreate, you know? So I think that optimism in general, like so many things, has a face. Maybe now more than ever. What does optimism look like? And people like to say don’t be a hater or something like that. Well, you know, being a hater might also be code for being a critical thinker or for analytical thinking. The most important question we can always ask ourselves is why. So the optimism to me is like, I mean I have a fairly flat affectation, I have a deep voice, I write very slow songs, does that mean I’m not optimistic? Does optimism always have to sound like Katrina and The Waves? It can and I like a lot of things that are like that, but I also think that optimism is just kind of getting out of bed and trying to find your own way.

RCU: Yeah. I have always believed that it’s okay to be sad when you’re sad. You’re real, you’re human. It doesn’t make you one type of person or the other. You can’t experience the good without the bad…

JDD: And why would you not capture that? Why would you not acknowledge this as part of like the human experience in that that can still be optimistic? Even with The Black Swans, all my songs have always tried to capture the sort of gray areas of human emotions. You know, I’ve never been an emo guy. I’ve never been a sad sack, but the gray areas of human emotions to me are the most interesting.

RCU: Oh yeah, I absolutely agree with that.

JDD: So I tried to acknowledge that in the songs and I also thought it was just a funny album title.

RCU: How much of the song “West Texas Trilogy” was based on real life?

JDD: Well, that’s all real life. Unlike my neighbors with guitars in Texas, I don’t think songwriting should necessarily be three chords and the truth. I don’t think that anything needs to be autobiographical. I think that’s total bullshit, but that song is very autobiographical in that, those are the people that I’m drawn to. I became obsessed with Texas musicians in the landscape here. The second time I saw Bob Dylan, I was 17 and he had Jimmie Dale Gilmore open up for him. Jimmie Dale Gilmore, he’s still beautiful, but I mean, he was at peak beauty in 1991 or 1992 when this show was, and his record After Awhile had just come out. I didn’t know who he was. He came out, he was the second opener and it was amazing, you know, it was completely amazing. So, you know, I went, went to the record store or maybe I actually got it in my stocking for Christmas that year. That led me into that world of the Flatlanders, and that world of the Flatlanders, you open up that book of the Flatlanders in that point in time, when records were still the narrative that you had to explore versus an algorithm. That’s what led me into Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark and Terry Allen.

Then you can spin off into Joe Ely and to Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmour, and then you connect the dots to Lyle Lovett and people that were doing homages to those individuals and then all those people who were on the road at the time and you could go see them. I got to see all those people when I was still in my teens and it was awesome. I didn’t always understand it all, but I knew from that, that Texas was different. Then later I got into like Joe Tex and Percy Mayfield and Ornette Coleman, and other Texans that are not white guys with acoustic guitars, and you realize how those things connect to things that were going on in the Village, with like either Tim Buckley or Richard Pryor, or whoever else was up there at the time. Jackson Pollock, and in all those kinds of things. Then it somehow trickles back down to Texas, right? You get your Roky Erickson and your ZZ Top and your Townes Van Zandt, and it’s all the same stuff, you know? So that “West Texas Trilogy,” it was something that I always wanted to write musically from producing Larry Jon Wilson, and from seeing Eric Taylor, I always wanted to do something that was going to be longer and have different guitar parts. It’s like the downbeat version of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” or something, where the guitar is still important and there’s a sense of travel in motion. So everything in that song is real, except for the fact that there is no Elephant Mountain. I just misheard Eve when she was talking to me. So I just thought a mountain in front of us was Elephant Mountain that we never quite got to.

RCU: Being close to a full year since its official release, do you feel anything different about maybe the tone of the record or what you’re trying to say at the time, looking back on it now? Does anything jump out at you now that maybe it wasn’t present to you at the time?

JDD: Man? I think it’s an awesome record.

RCU: I agree!

JDD: [Laughs] I like it. I like it way more, you know, when you put out a record, you’re self-conscious about it, wondering what people think. I listened to it the other day because I had to write down all the lyrics. I hadn’t created a lyrics page, and I had to submit it for something, and, you know, I was listening to the record all the way through for the first time in quite a while, and I was like, “I think this is good.” I really, I really liked it. You start being kind of forgiving about the little things you wish were better. I mean, it’s not fashionable music, you know? But I really like it. I love hearing Eve’s voice, and that makes me happy. Hearing a song about my pet toads makes me happy and hearing like, like Don Cento, the guitar player, he’s got this lick on “Coffee Black,” like right after the bridge, and I love the bridge on that song, all that makes me happy. I just. . . I love the record and I think that most musicians are like that when you get far enough back from your own record after you’ve created it. You’re like, man, did I do that? That doesn’t mean that I would recommend it to a lot of people, because I don’t think a lot of people would like it, but I like it. I feel like I’ve always kinda made records that I want to hear. I’ve shot myself in the foot many, many times for when I’ve had the opportunity to be more popular. So I kind of got past that a few years ago and yeah, I think it’s a cool record.

RCU: Did anything about your view on positivity change for you after writing this album?

JDD: I don’t think it changed because I never really know how the songs…I know how they connect when I’m making a record, but I don’t know how they digest until much later. So I don’t think anything has changed to me about positivity, only that I think that a lot of people, when they talk about being positive, it’s shallow. I think that shortchanges positivity as a human emotion. Whenever you short change human emotions, then you get into things that are like cliches or you get yourself into trouble, or you live more shallow lives. Or you’re alienating people that you love and that you’re close to, because your expectations for what somebody should be are different from reality. I mean, my own records don’t really impact my own views or outlook on life. They’re a reflection of my outlook on life, they don’t impact them.

RCU: So then what’s next for you?

JDD: Well, I’ve got two records that I produced right before the pandemic. One is a songwriter named Garrett T. Capps who is pretty popular down this way. Then the Ralph White stuff that I did, Worried Songs is going to put out. I mean, I love Ralph, but unlike Ralph’s other stuff, which has a lot of overdubs, we just captured him live on two different types of accordion and banjos, guitar and singing. It’s a beautiful portrait of Ralph White, who is to me, one of the great American musicians in the world right now. Very uncommercial. Ralph makes music in his own time. So he’s like Pops Staples. Sometimes he adds, like an extra two beats to something, There’s a reason why Pops Staples doesn’t play guitar on any of the hits. Ralph is in his own time. 

Then I’m working on my own record and we’re actually working with a producer and some project managers on actually developing a movie script called The Unlikely Optimist. So the script is finished and we’re workshopping it now. We’re kind of trying to turn it into something that’s somewhere between I don’t know, Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia and David Byrne’s True Stories.

RCU: Wow. That’s cool. So a full length?

JDD: Yeah. I think it’s going to be like probably a 90 minute film if it ever launches. We’re still in the early phases, but the script’s done. We’re working with some producers that are very smart that have done some films in the past. I’m also working on the next JDD record, I’m trying to move forward.

Huge thanks to Jerry David DeCicca for taking so much time out of his day to chat with me! Click here to preorder The Unlikely Optimist & His Domestic Adventures on vinyl from Worried Songs ahead of its UK debut. American readers can preorder their copy from Forced Exposure, instead.

You can follow DeCicca on Instagram @jerrydaviddecicca or on Twitter @blackswansband.

-KH


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Published by Record Crates United

Keith Hadad, the creator and manager of RCU, has been a contributing writer to Elmore Magazine and Thewaster.com and maintains a regular column, “Keith Hadad’s Choice,” in Blicker magazine. His writing has also appeared in the Smithsonian Folkways' Guest Blog and the Optical Sounds Fanzine. Also, please check out the blog's super-active Instagram account, @recordcratesunited for daily blurb-styled music reviews.

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