Wielding music to slay the Dragons
“I’m feeling as good as I’ve ever felt about new music,” singer-songwriter Drew Holcomb says. He’s sitting at a coffee shop on Dickerson Pike, reflecting on his time making the new Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors album, Dragons. It’s a couple weeks before the album’s release in mid-August via Thirty Tigers.
Dragons follows Holcomb’s 2017 album Souvenir, a critically acclaimed LP that came out just after Holcomb was hospitalized for eight days with a dangerous bout of meningitis. That experience cast a pall over the release of Souvenir.
“I didn’t even have the physical or emotional capacity to be excited about the release [of Souvenir],” he says. “It feels really good to be healthy, honestly. I feel really grateful for that.”
On first listen, fans of Holcomb’s will note that Dragons is a major step forward sonically, as the album’s 10 tracks infuse the acoustic Americana of his earlier releases with electric flourishes, unexpected arrangements, and sonic touchpoints that connect the dots between bare-bones folk and anthemic arena rock. The record also boasts a murderer’s row of co-writers and collaborators, including Lori McKenna, Natalie Hemby, and the Lone Bellow, as well as Holcomb’s wife, Ellie Holcomb.
In April, Holcomb announced Dragons with a single release of its opening track, “Family.” Opening with infectious vocal harmonies and a handclap beat, it’s just one of just several songs on the LP that could easily inspire a sing-along. As such, it sounds tailor-made for the live stage, preferably one situated outside on a warm summer night.
“Some of these songs I’ve been playing live for a little while, specifically ‘Dragons’ and ‘Family,’” Holcomb says. “Probably more than ever in my career I’ve felt like people are connecting to songs more before a release than I’ve ever experienced. It feels good. I’m getting older. It’s not my first rodeo. I think it would be easy for me to be cynical by this point but honestly I feel as ambitious and hopeful and excited about the release and tour as I’ve ever felt.”
Part of the joy Holcomb feels comes from the album’s collaborative approach. Despite his roots in Nashville, he’d resisted co-writing for years, finding that the process often felt “like a bad blind date” instead of a wellspring for creativity. Once he found a handful of trusted collaborators, though, he realized that co-writing could indeed be another essential tool in his creative repertoire.
“I wanted to get in a room with people I already trust, like Lori McKenna,” he says of writing Dragons. “We did a songwriter in the round event in Memphis three or four years ago. She didn’t really know my music going into that and afterwards she pulled me aside like, ‘Hey Drew I really love your songs and if it ever makes sense, I’d love to write with you.’ I’m not a fool. She’s a respectable artist, not just a good songwriter. When she said that, that was sort of what spurred me on, in terms of co-writing. If people like that want to write with me then I should take them up on it and see what happens.”
Holcomb spent three days with McKenna in Boston, and their collaboration “You Want What You Can’t Have” made it onto the final tracklist for Dragons. McKenna sings harmony vocals on the track, which, with its pedal steel and twangy licks, veers more closely to country than any other track on the LP.
“Writing for this record was a really different experience than I’ve ever had before,” Holcomb says. “I usually write as many songs as I can in a three-to-five month period of time. Then I start recording the record and preparing for the tour. I don’t write again until like a year and a half later when I have time to do it again. This time, I decided I was going to start writing with a lot more regularity. I wrote two or three times a week for almost 18 months.”
Accordingly, there are still several solo writes on Dragons, including the album’s emotional centerpiece and its penultimate track, “You Never Leave My Heart,” which was the final song written for the record. Holcomb wrote the song about his late brother, who died when he was a teenager. “Almost 20 years since the last time we spoke / We were eating at the airport, I was laughing at your jokes,” Holcomb sings, as spare piano gives way to a gentle, swelling rhythm section.
“When my brother died, the only thing that helped me make sense of life was music,” Holcomb says. “I grew up in a religious, Christian background. A lot of the canned answers about heaven didn’t make my grief any better. In some ways, it actually made it more complicated. So, driving around in my car listening to David Gray or Van Morrison or U2, those songs made me feel less alone. That was what initially made me want to make music.”
“You Never Leave My Heart” isn’t Holcomb’s first attempt at writing about the grief he feels for his late brother, but he feels it’s his most honest and, therefore, potent. As on the rest of Dragons’ tracks, he tried to chart his grief using specific details, like “joy in the kitchen / sadness in the eyes” and “the reverend held court in the corner / Mom cried with all who came.”
“I actually wrote one and put it on a record, but it was too universal, too melodramatic,” Holcomb explains. “Then 15 years later I’ve never written another one about him. I was looking over the songs one night — my kids were asleep; I love to write in the kitchen because the reverb in there is really great — and I just started letting myself go there. I’d had this moment with the first verse. I remember I was walking home from the post office right by Five Points and walking down the sidewalk and the grief and the memories started hitting me in waves. It took me back to a specific time and place. It doesn’t necessarily encompass my whole experience of being a brother or losing a brother, but it does take me back to that moment. There’s intense beauty and intense pain.”
A couple days after that moment, Holcomb sat down to write about his experience, finishing the entire song in less than an hour. He told producer Cason Cooley he wanted to record the track at night and in just a few takes, hoping to capture his raw emotion in what would be the final recording.
“The band played through my emotion,” he says. “They could feel it, I think, when they were recording. Nathan [Dugger] played probably what is my favorite solo I’ve ever heard him play. We had this really beautiful moment where they were with me in grief, even though nobody in the room knew him.”
Holcomb plans to play the song live, saying, “I’ve done the grief. I’ve let this song sort of take me down multiple times now and I’ve hopefully gotten to a point where I can perform it. The first try will probably be at the Ryman, so wish me luck.”
Holcomb will begin a headlining trek with a September 14 show at the Ryman. He’ll also headline AmericanaFest and has plans to appear on Austin City Limits in October and on the next voyage of the Cayamo Cruise in February of next year.
Releasing music with the Neighbors is just one of Holcomb’s many projects. He heads up Magnolia Record Club, a curated vinyl subscription service that has, in the past, offered releases from artists like Judah and the Lion, Maggie Rogers, and Better Oblivion Community Center. He’s also the founder of Moon River Music Festival, which takes place each year in Chattanooga, Tennessee. This year’s lineup, taking place Sept. 7 and 8, boasts Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones, to name just a few participating artists.
“With Moon River, my basic responsibilities are curating the lineup and hosting and playing our shows,” he says. “More than anything, I’m just preparing for the shows. Ellie and I are doing our acoustic show one day, then the next we’re doing a big set… It’s always about improving and changing. I’m spending the vast majority of my time preparing for the tour. I’ve realized over the last few years that a lot of these things I’m involved with are great, but they’ve taken time away from the things I really love — writing songs, recording records, and touring.”
Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors’ Dragons is available at drewholcomb.com.
They’ll be playing Ryman Auditorium during AMERICANAFEST Tuesday, Sept. 14.