All Heart: An Interview with Andrew Bryant

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Andrew Bryant is all heart. A songwriter and musician from Bruce, Mississippi, Andrew’s music captures the joy and hard-time struggle of the working-class musician. . A husband and father of two, the former sawmill worker’s songs carry a wisdom and a warmth that can only come from real life. He’s also got a hell of a new solo album coming out in January called This Is The Life. I spoke to Andrew while he was on tour playing drums with his other band, Water Liars. He called me from a Burger King parking lot in Reno, Nevada, the closest coffee spot to his hotel.

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Jimmy Cajoleas: A lot of people who know you as the drummer for Water Liars might not be familiar with your solo output. You’ve been making solo records for what, ten years now?

Andrew Bryant: Well, yeah. My first record was The Story Never Told in 2004. In 2006 I released The Magnolia State. I did two albums in 2007 and 2008, one called The Cowboy and one called Bad Man Blues, which I think are both terrible. And then in 2009 I released Galilee, so that’s five proper albums. I also did a cassette tape EP in 2011.

JC: I remember The Cowboy and Bad Man Blues a little bit more fondly than you do. Especially The Cowboy. But I do remember Galilee coming out and everyone being so surprised, seeing how it was just a massive step forward.

AB: I don’t remember anybody freaking out about it, but if you say so.

JC: I do! It was a big record for a lot of people I knew.

AW: I’m glad that people love Galilee. It’s funny because now when I’m on the road with Water Liars, I meet somebody who says, “That record is fucking amazing.” And I’m like, “Cool. How did you get that?” That’s my question, always. How the hell did you find that record?

JC: It seems like the kind of record that goes out and finds people. It sounds kind of corny to say that, but Galilee is a record that’s waiting on you. It finds the people who need it.

AB: Around the time that I made Galilee, I was going through some shit. I wasn’t even able to realize that people were listening to it. I didn’t sell hardly any copies of it, you know? I had a buddy of mine from Memphis who helped me press it on vinyl. I didn’t pay anything for that. In fact, I still owe him money. But I felt like it was a real release and I had some good shows around it. I sold a handful of copies around Oxford and Memphis, and I did a long tour with Justin (Kinkel-Schuster, from Water Liars) and his old band Theodore for that record.

JC: Is that tour with Theodore how you met Justin?

AB: No, I had met him before that, in St. Louis. I was touring with my friend Matt, who plays under the name The Gunshy. We were playing this really small art space right next to the Lemp Brewery. Theodore had just started, and they opened the show we were playing. I remember the first song that he played, called “Back From The War.” Justin played it sitting down in a chair, on an old Harmony guitar, and I was like, goddammit, that dude can write a fucking song. Because on tour, you play with all these bands, and none of them are any good. It was one of those moments in the tour where I was like, oh man, finally, a band that’s great.

JC: How did the Theodore tour go?

AB: It was terrible. It was the worst tour of my life. We did the whole country in a van for six weeks, me and Justin and three other dudes. We were so broke. We didn’t make any money and nobody came to those shows. I mean, I don’t think I sold thirty records in six weeks, and that’s really bad.

You know, I still had boxes and boxes of those records in my attic. CDs for days. I started to wonder what in the hell I was still doing this for. All the records you made are sitting in boxes, cluttering up the house. They’re just clutter.

That’s the point I was at after Galilee. I tried to make a record as quickly as I could when I got home from tour. It was supposed to be called Love Standards, but I hated everything I was doing. I re-tracked it four times. I was just really burnt out on the whole fucking thing.

Luckily, that was when Justin came along and said, “Hey I’ve got these songs, and I like the way you record. Let’s get together and make something.” And that something turned out to be Water Liars.

JC: Kind of amazing that Water Liars came out of the worst tour of your life.

AB: That tends to be how things happen.

JC: So then you made those three amazing Water Liars records, and things started happening for you guys. Why did you decide to release a solo record now?

AB: Because I had something to say, and that’s what it’s always been about for me. After Galilee, I was working on an album called Love Standards. It was loosely based on Big Bad Love by Larry Brown. It had a bunch of super-weird shit in it. I can’t even listen to it now. It’s all super-depressing, oh my woman left me, blah blah blah type of songs. I was drinking so heavily and I was so into that literature.

And I felt like I was stuck. I shouldn’t be writing these songs, because I was forcing it. I just decided I didn’t want to do that kind of thing anymore.

When Water Liars started and we went on tour, I consciously took a break from songwriting. I figured it was a good opportunity for me to be in a band and just play instruments and let Justin handle the songwriting. It was a different way for me to be creative. I love being in that band, too, because I don’t have to write the songs. It’s a heavy burden, and I don’t envy Justin, not at all. That pressure to write good songs, consistently, when people love your songs so much. That’s hard shit to deal with. He deals with it extremely well and is consistently murdering it, writing amazing things.

I can’t figure out what happened exactly, but last winter Water Liars were on a break, and I was at the house all day. I would go out on the porch and play guitar, and I started writing these songs. Within a week or two I had an album together.

I’m definitely not trying to leave Water Liars, or anything like that. Water Liars is my band, you know? I love it. But I’ve always approached music this way. You get to a point in life and you just have something to say, and the way I say it is to write songs. I’ll lock myself in a house for a week or two, whatever it takes, and just make a record. So that’s what happened.

JC: It seems that, in the time between Galilee and this new one, This Is The Life, the jump between the albums is remarkable. The growth artistically, but also the tone. There’s an optimism to this record. It’s a hopeful record. Especially the first song, “Do What You Love.”

AB: Starting with that song was extremely intentional. That song and the sentiment of that song all come from the years surrounding Galilee, the failures that I considered it to be. Going back and forth between whether or not to play music at all, or if I should just be a dad and husband and work at the sawmill. Or maybe go to school, which I did, briefly, trying to get a real job. I mean, we couldn’t pay our fucking bills.

But then the success of Water Liars made me see what it takes to do this thing. Justin says it all the time: “If everybody could do this, everybody would do this.” It’s a really hard thing to do. You always hear people say, “You got to cut your teeth. You got to pay your dues. Eventually it’ll pay off.” What they don’t tell you is that it’s damn near suicide, going through the whole process of it.

Writing that song was me coming to the realization that I can do this thing, as long as I treat it like work, and work really hard at it, and just keep going and don’t stop. Yeah, you’re going to fuck up, and yeah you’ve done work that’s subpar, but never judge anything by the past and just keep going forward. I grew up a little bit.

I always knew I wanted the record to start with “Do What You Love.” I mean, the title is very clichéd, it’s like a greeting card title. But I couldn’t get that thought out of my head. Because I do love what I do. And I want to keep doing it. I wanted to start the record off with the most positive thing I could say. You know, I get down on myself, and I can be real negative about the music business, and every fucking other thing on the planet. I decided I wasn’t going to be negative anymore. I was going to be positive. I was going to figure out what works and what doesn’t, and that’s what I needed to express. This is what I’ve learned over the past three years, and here it is.

JC: It’s also got a sing-a-longable, catchy chorus.

AB: Yeah, that’s something I picked up better from Justin. A good chorus is important. I’ve done it in the past, sure, but not to this extent, writing something deliberately catchy. Also, there’s a reference to a song off The Cowboy in there: “Sing a song of love.” That’s a song off that old record. I knew this was the kind of song I wanted to write, and I knew I wanted to reference something old that I’d done, that I’d paid my dues and I was leaving it behind and moving forward.

JC: Talking about paying your dues, you have a lot of road songs on here. “Lose My Shit” stands out.

AB: You play music and you want to make a living off of it, it’s art, sure, but it also has to be business. And then it becomes the music business. If you think of it like that, then you start to wonder what in the hell you’ve done wrong, what have you done right. Something that I’ve always had in me was that you treat it like any other job. All the jobs I’ve ever had, at the factory or at the sawmill—all I’ve ever done is labor work—you come to work every day, keep your mouth shut, and work hard, and eventually you’ll move up the ladder. That whole American dream thing. Put in the man hours, and it’ll all work out. There’s a lot of that sentiment in there, because I like that idea.

But I also know that it’s bullshit. Especially in the music business. There have been so many bands that worked harder than a lot of bands that have been way more successful. It’s not fair, you know? But I don’t feel like I’ve been treated unfairly. Because there’s more stuff on this record about what I need to do to make my shit work more than blaming other people. Sometimes I feel it though. Like what the fuck? I paid my fucking dues, what’s going on? I’ve been doing this for ten years. And then you say, okay, this is how it is. The chorus of “Losing My Shit” is about how if you love what you do, and you want to make good art and do it for the right reasons, then you have to be smart and figure out how to move forward.

JC: That reminds me of the line at the end of “My Saving Grace,” one of my favorite tracks on the record. You say, “I have become my own saving grace.” Can you tell me a little bit about that?

AB: I had a little bit of a religious thought in my mind when I was writing that, for sure. But not in the way that someone like David Bazan will write a break-up letter to God. It wasn’t something like that. I was raised to make my own way, to pull my own weight.

But that didn’t apply to music. My parents and grandparents and uncles don’t know anything about the music world. They don’t consider it work, they don’t consider it something you can do for a living. They’ve never seen that happen. They live in a small town where people get up early, go to work, come home dirty, are tired and go to bed. To them, that’s work.

But to me, that song is saying that I’m going to be my own saving grace, and I’m going to do it my way. It’s all encompassing. I’m not going to do my religion the way you do it. I’m not going to do my work the way you do it. I’m going to do it my own way.

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