The Relentless Jarrod Dickenson

Photo by Josh Wool

Jarrod Dickenson is ready to ride. Deeply aware of his Lone Star Legacy, the songwriter left his Central Texas home to find an audience and prove his voice on the road. Dickenson began his odyssey in the live music capital of Austin before traveling the West Coast, eventually crossing the country to find a spiritual home in Brooklyn, NY. His greatest success to date has been in the United Kingdom where Dickenson’s troubadour outlook and soul-laden storytelling have earned him admirers while changing his world in even more profound ways. Jarrod met Claire Ward while performing for a festival in Ireland and today, the two are married and performing together as husband and wife. The Dickensons currently call Nashville home and are preparing for multiple projects– in addition to new music, the album Ready the Horses (available on May 22nd) and an EP, Under a Texas Sky, have already been released in the UK but are set to receive distribution in the United States. Jarrod and Claire will land in Macon with The Bones of JR Jones on March 4th.

AI- You got started playing guitar… I won’t say late ’cause it’s never really too late, but 18 seems a little long in the tooth for a lot of folks. What brought that on for you?

JD- I grew up in Texas and like any good Texan, and I spent most of my youth outdoors playing sports. Music was always a big presence in our household but as far as actually playing anything, it just wasn’t something I had done. My parents never really pushed it. So I kinda came to it a little later, like you said, when I was 18, just about to graduate high school. Just picked it up for fun really, just to see if I could make anything come out of it. And it very quickly took over everything (laughs)!

Your playing style, man, it’s clean and it’s great. It looks like you just picked it up and ran with it. When did you start writing?

Pretty shortly thereafter, to be honest. It was one of those things that… It was a pretty crude version of songwriting but I think, like a lot of people, whenever you learn a few chords or a few little tricks, it’s pretty natural to sort of jumble up what you know and see if you can make something that, at least at the time, you think is unique. You know it never actually is (laughs) but you learn a few chords like, “Ohhh, well, what if I put them in this configuration?” And then, “Maybe I could make up some words!” Like everyone, I assume, my early songs were pretty bad– but it gets in you and it’s addicting. Like I say, it just kinda took over.

You mentioned being from Texas and specifically, you cut your musical teeth in Austin. There are folks that’ll say you don’t have to even leave the state of Texas much less the city of Austin to make a livin’ playin’ music. But what made you want to hit the road and go ply your trade other places?

That’s absolutely true. There are a lot of people that make their living just playing the Texas circuit, and I know people who make a livin’ just playing Austin alone. For me, that was actually part of why I left. Not to put that down in any way but for me, I didn’t want to feel that comfortable. I didn’t want to think, “Oh, well, I can just play within a three or four-hour radius of where I live and that’s that!” I wanted to get out on the road and see if other people would connect to my music, and I wanted to see other places and experience other cultures. That was the driving force for me, to get out there on the road and experience something different.

You’ve experienced a great deal of success overseas in Europe and the UK. What initially got you over there playing?

A couple of things kinda kickstarted that. The first being there was a songwriting competition for a festival that took place in Belfast in Northern Ireland. I entered the competition back in 2011. And not trying to be humble or anything, I don’t think many people knew about it (laughs), and I don’t think many people entered. So I ended up winning the competition which meant that I got to go over and perform in the festival. That was my first experience, and they invited me to come back the next year. The second factor was I played a show in Philadelphia in 2012 opening for a guy called David Ford, who’s a brilliant songwriter from England. We hit it off at that show and kept in touch. He was doing a UK tour a few months later… I kinda hounded him until he agreed to let me come and open up that whole tour! And that was it! We were playing small clubs, 200 cap rooms for the most part– but after that tour, I immediately booked myself a run of dates playing the smallest room I could find in all of those cities. I had a small following just from the fans that I made on that run. From that point, it was just about being relentless and going back every chance I could. It meant going over three or four times a year and losing money ’cause it costs a lot to fly overseas and do a run of dates. But I knew that there was the potential there and wanted to see if it was something we could build. Thankfully, in the last seven, eight years, we’ve been able to build up a nice following over there.

Not to mention you met your wife over there, correct?

I sure did, yeah! The second year that I played that festival in Belfast, I happened to meet my wife. She was volunteering at the festival and we just happened to meet and hit it off and ended up dating long distance. I was in New York at the time– so New York to Belfast for three and a half years. We’ve been married for almost five now.

I saw that you didn’t know that she sang? It was a surprise, but now she’s a part of the Jarrod Dickenson show. How’d you guys decide to put that together as a husband and wife duo?

It was one of those things that kinda snuck up on me. We were dating for about a year before I knew that she could sing. I guess that’s part of when you’re dating someone long distance– it takes a while to get to know all the ins and the outs. On one of the trips where she came to visit New York, I was sittin’ in my apartment and playin’ a tune and all of a sudden, she started singing a harmony to what I was playing! I stopped and said, “Whoa, where you been hiding that?” It took a bit of convincing, but I slowly convinced her to come up on stage and sing one song. Then that turned into three songs and then before long, she’s up there the whole set! Yeah, these days it’s very much a team effort. She’s an integral part of the show.

Let’s talk about some of your recorded music. Your last full-length, Ready the Horses… You recorded that over in England. Tell me about that process. As I understand it, that was pretty much a straight live cut for everything, right?

Yeah. We had just been on a month-long tour in the UK supporting a band called The Waterboys and the day after the tour ended, we went into a studio down on the Southeast coast in Eastbourne. And, yeah, cut the whole thing live, straight to two-inch tape– you know, the band and playing and singing, and then we’d overdub some background vocals and that kind of thing. But the core of it was all just a live take, no edits, no fixes, none of that. It was a blast! We had such a great time making a record that way. I think there’s an energy and a spirit that you capture when you just get a bunch of people in a room together and play it live that you just can’t achieve doing it any other way. That was a fun one. That record is actually about to come out in the US. It was released in the UK a couple of years ago and for a variety of reasons, we’ve been trying to get it released over here. But it’s finally gonna come out in May on these shores. So we’re excited about that!

You get to do the release all over again, man. That’s cool. What’s the solid date for that?

The solid date is to be determined (laughs)! Yeah, I think it’s actually a date that we’re coming up with later on today. We’re going to chat with the press team and all of that. So I can let you know.

Well then let’s talk about Under a Texas Sky EP– goin’ back to the Lone Star State– five songs on there and… There is no way, no way I could have narrowed down a selection of Texas songs or Texas artists to just five. Everyone that you’ve got on there is a great choice– Roy Orbison, who I think lots of folks forget is from Texas at times, the Sir Douglas Quintet, one of my favorites, Willie Nelson, Little Esther, Guy Clark… You got Ray Charles in there too…

He’s not a Texan, but I figured anytime you can tip your hat to Ray, you should. So we wanted to slip that one in there.

How did you select those songs and where did you record those at?

That project, it’s another one, actually, that isn’t out in the States yet but will be soon. Like you said, trying to narrow it down to five tunes was nearly impossible. We pretty quickly said, “Well, we’ll probably do several installments of this project over the years.” But for the first run anyway, I wanted to pick a few tunes or a few artists rather that people would immediately think of as Texas, like Willie Nelson. But I also wanted to show that Texas music doesn’t necessarily just mean country music. There’s a rich history of blues and rock n’ roll and jazz and R&B… I wanted to just show a little bit of all of those sides with who we chose and maybe pick a few names that music heads would definitely know, but maybe your average listener wouldn’t be as familiar with– like Esther Phillips or like Doug Sahm. It was a lot of fun doing that project. Tried to steer clear of the really obvious choices from each of those artists. You know, we weren’t going to do “Oh, Pretty Woman” or anything like that. [We] wanted to reach a little deeper and it was a blast doing it. It was another one where we recorded it all live. We did it here in Nashville at a friend’s studio. I had an absolute blast tryin’ to kind of inject ourselves into those songs.

That’s exciting that you’re going to be able to release those records and give ’em a whole new life in the United States– which my next question was going to be what you’re currently working on? If there was any new projects that you and Claire have been writing together?

I’ve definitely been writing. We definitely got another record pretty much ready to go. Once these are released and we find a pile of cash to go into the studio (laughs), we’re itchin’ to do it. We haven’t really written together yet– though I will say that she’s very much a sounding board. Whenever I come up with a new idea or a snippet of a new song, it kinda has to pass the test of her listening to it. And if she says, “Yeah, that’s cool,” then I keep going. And if she hesitates… Well, maybe I should go back to the drawing board on this one.

See Jarrod and Claire Dickenson LIVE alongside The Bones of JR Jones on The Creek Stage @ The Rookery, Wednesday, March 4th! Tickets are available now!