Fred Eaglesmith says he's at a certain point as an artist that might confuse fans.
"I can't write any more Fred Eaglesmith songs," he says in a phone call. "I can't write any more Fred Eaglesmith songs about 'I want to buy your truck' or the gas station or the train. Not that I won't write a song about a train, but I won't become a caricature of myself."
For savvy music fans, Eaglesmith has been one of the true singer-songwriters. His work is gritty, sometimes funny, but always real — even if he's writing in character. He says it does make fans who have begun listening in the past five years or so unhappy because they simply want him to write more of what they first heard.
"My fans who came on 15 years ago understand the change — or they walk away from it. I would be really much more popular and have much more money if I didn't change all the time – and much more unhappy!"
Eaglesmith, now 55, grew up in an extremely religious household on a family farm in Ontario. Times were hard. He saw his home go into foreclosure twice.
Hearing John Prine when Eaglesmith was 14 proved pivotal for a young aspiring songwriter.
"The first couple John Prine albums were such points of light that you could just sort of look through this window box and see his world," says Eaglesmith. "That was the '70s and there were a lot of wishy-washy folky songs being written and John just came out of nowhere. Mickey Newbury was another one. I just took those guys and said, 'I can do this.' But you have to have a life to be able to do that. Or you have to have a great imagination."
Eaglesmith had both.
He says part of the way he writes is to totally immerse himself in an idea. He approaches them like he's writing a book.
"I am the luckiest creative person in the world ... I get this little idea and slowly it starts developing and as it turns and twists it starts to be this world. And eventually I'm living in this world. When I wrote 'Tinderbox' (his 2008 album that explored Christianity) I was in the church. I would open the door to my studio at 5 in the morning and the birds would be singing and I would be in the studio by myself recording this album using old tape recorders and office speakers, anything that would sound terrible. Anything that would sound like a bad church in a clearing, because in my mind I was in that clearing ready to drink the Kool-Aid ... "
He says he's read that sometimes authors who are on their deathbeds ask for the doctors they created in fiction rather than real doctors.
"I totally understand that. I get so caught up in my own work."
But there's still a lot of Eaglesmith's own experiences in his work. In "Tinderbox" he says he was psychoanalyzing himself.
"That record was really finally breaking away from how I was raised. That was finally the record that made me understand in my own mind that Christianity was a myth like all religions are a myth. Human beings like to create a character ... They create the story, they take a branch, they create an icon and they worship the icon."
Eaglesmith says he's always writing and he lives a lifestyle that keeps him grounded.
"I'm out here 150 days, 200 days a year, playing it, starving for it, making lots of money sometimes, and having horrible times sometimes, changing my own transmissions on the side of the road, checking the oil, doing whatever I have to do to stay honest to rock 'n' roll, and it consequently keeps me creative.
"The worst thing is watching someone my age or older becoming a caricature of themselves trying to revive the old magic that was really gone 10 years ago anyway. It's embarrassing. Some of my old rocker friends from the early '60s, I just have to turn off the TV. I just think, 'Go home now. You've got nothing new. You're done like dinner.' I don't have a bunch of yes people around me. I have a bunch of no people. If (I'm bad), they're gonna tell me!"
Fred Eaglesmith's Traveling Steam Show
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19
Where: The Shed, 1820 W. Lamar Alexander Pkwy.
Tickets: $20, available at http://smh-d.com/
© 2013, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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