Sad Daddy’s muscle and bone rhythms evoke hickory smoke and blue sky above the branches on their new album Way Up In The Hills. Coming together in Greers Ferry, Arkansas during the COVID heavy summer of 2020, the band was less escaping and more embracing fresh collaborations with an opportunity to write and record in a capacity rarely afforded to the scattered and usually– under normal circumstances– busy group of friends and musicians.
Native Arkansawyers Brian Martin and Melissa Carper started Sad Daddy as a side project in 2010 (the name comes from a colloquialism regarding any large and potentially ancient critter) after meeting at a show. Carper, who hangs her hat outside of Austin, TX, enlisted banjoist singer/songwriter Joe Sundell (also from The Natural State) to join the outfit along with her partner and Buffalo Gals bandmate Rebecca Patek on fiddle. Arriving at Martin’s cabin near Greers Ferry Lake stocked with necessaries, originals, and ideas, Sad Daddy completed arrangements and for the first time wrote together, laying down principle tracks for their third album over a series of weekends.
Layered with jug band wit, boot heels, and the thrill of bacon, Way Up In The Hills eschews the madness and concrete of modernity for hardwood, harmony, and fine songs.
AI- Melissa, you and I spoke back in March and at that point in time, you had shared a few details about the new Sad Daddy album. A big part of this record is that it marks the first time that as a group, the four of you have written songs together. It’s album number three, so I’m sure there were no surprises on how to perform or record together– but what about the writing? What did you learn from each other this time around?
BM- I think they learned some of the nuances of just how much I analyze (laughs) parts of songs that they didn’t know before! But I think we knew how everybody wrote by this point. We’ve always brought it together separately. I can’t say there’s any surprises in anyone else’s writing from my point of view, but just the idea of seeing somethin’ at the beginning of an idea that can become something else. That front end of a process is somethin’ that you don’t normally see from any artist. You always see the finished product. I think bein’ there in that moment where we’re all sort of figuring it out together was new, but it’s interesting to see how different artists will take an idea and just let it snowball. I don’t know if that really answers the question, but I don’t feel like I learned anything new about ’em. I just saw the processes a little bit more.
MC- We learned that we could do it in a way ’cause we hadn’t really tried it. I think that now that we know that we can do that together pretty successfully, we’ll probably wanna do that again for the next album and maybe even take more time with that process. We really only gave ourselves a weekend to write some songs together, and then actually what happened is that we recorded the very next weekend. So in the week in between, we were all tryin’ to finish what we’d started. We were all individually finishing up some lyrics. Mostly missing lyrics is what we were tryin’ to get together before the next weekend. I think if we gave ourselves even more time, we could come up with even cooler stuff next time!
Brian, you talked about your analyzing of lyrics and putting together a song. Do you frequently write with other people? Melissa, I know that you spend a great deal of time doing that with various songwriters and artists. What about you, Brian? Do you have an opportunity to do that a lot?
I’ve tried it, but it really just feels pretty unnatural for me for the most part. Just because when I have a song that’s pretty close to me, if it becomes something that’s a shared vision, to me, it loses the impact. I would love to be able to do more co-writing, but it’s gotta be something to where we start it from the beginning together and we weave it into whatever it is, which is sorta what we started doin’ here. I live in the middle of nowhere and I don’t really have many connections to bein’ around artists like if you were livin’ in Nashville and could go see your songwriter friends or somethin’ more than anything.
You talk about bein’ out in the middle of nowhere, which is another huge component of Way Up In The Hills. You have your cabin out in the Arkansas woods– is that your regular retreat where you go to write?
BM- This is my regular place to live right now. I live out there and it’s peaceful. It’s an ideal setting if you just need to get away from it all and just get in your head and work on music compared to a lot of other places. It works for my style.
That was the summer of 2020, right? When you guys went down there to record? How much pretending was goin’ on? And by that, I mean, how easy was it for you to consider yourselves not only away from the pandemic, but really out of the era? All acoustic instruments, it sounds idyllic, it sounds primitive, and it sounds like you were able to really create your own little world.
BM- As far as like the acoustic instruments and the boots on the floor, I think that’s just naturally what we gravitate to anyway. For me personally, once we all hit quarantine, I was built for that (laughs)! I’m a professional hermit, so that wasn’t a problem for me. I don’t know how it was for the rest of the gang. I felt right at home in that regards!
MC- It was nice to record in that setting and also to get together and write in that setting because we have gone to studios in the past. We’ve recorded in Austin actually a couple times at different places, and I think just having the luxury of being at one of our own homes and taking extra time with it. We had our friend Jordan Trotter bring in his equipment rather than going to a studio. We didn’t have the finest equipment, he had good equipment, but it wasn’t like goin’ into an amazing studio where you have access to really good equipment. So that might be a little more raw in that way, but I think the tones and everything are still really nice. It’s just nice and live. The main track are live. We’re all playing our instruments in a circle. And then of course we did a bunch of overdubs– harmony and bacon sizzlin’ (laughs)! We actually overdubbed those stomps, and I don’t think we knew we were gonna do it that way, but it just worked out really cool where Jordan mic’d this outdoor porch. He mic’d it from above and beneath, and then we all got together and stomped on the porch. The sound for that is really cool. It’s better than most stomp sounds you hear on recordings.
BM- She did say that was her favorite part!
Who does the best hambone?
MC- Well, I was doin’, I guess, most of the hamboning on there…
BM- The only hambone!
MC- (Laughs) Was I? I was the only hambone! I laid down my bass on “Back In Arkansas”, and I was like, “I don’t like the way it sounds with the bass! I’m just gonna slap my body!” (Laughs) Anyway, that was experimental for sure. We’ve never done that.
BM- Did you overdub hambones? I can’t remember.
MC- On “Back In Arkansas”, it was live. And then I think we had a little bit of what was more soundin’ like patty cakes or somethin’ on “Hangin’ Them Clothes On The Line”. That was live, and then I think we overdubbed another one to make it a little more full in some spots.
BM- You know, some bands when they get in studios, like rock bands, they might start experimentin’ with different strings or weird instruments. I guess Sad Daddy’s version is we just do weird things like stomp our feet and hambone and make interesting noises! Primitive experimentation!
At this very moment, I’m considering the fact that it’s been well over a year since you guys made this album. So now with the rollout for the promotion, are you kinda rediscovering it?
BM- We actually have to learn it (laughs)!
MC- (Laughs) Yeah, we have to relearn all the new songs in order to perform them! Joe took some time with the album doin’ some overdubs at his house after the fact. I don’t know what took so long for us to get it together for a release. The whole process, I think living separately in different states and the communication of how we wanted everything mixed, it just rolled along at a slow pace.
BM- But from the front end of it, I remember Rebecca talkin’ about, “Let’s record it now, and then just take our time gettin’ it all together when the world opens up again.”
MC- Yeah, we weren’t in a hurry.
Way Up In The Hills also comes across as a tribute, a bit of a love letter to Arkansas. Melissa, your song “Arkansas Bound” has been around a little bit, gets the whole album started, and I believe that’s a staple of the Sad Daddy show even before you laid it down for this album. We’ve talked about the cabin and that surrounding, but when you put everything in the context of Arkansas, the “Natural State”, do you feel like that gives the album a sense of place?
MC- For sure! Yeah, definitely! Yeah. I got two Arkansas songs on there. Brian’s written a song about Arkansas too, but he’s saving that for his own album (laughs)! I’ve already recorded both of those songs, “Arkansas Bound” and “Back In Arkansas”, but we decided to rerecord them because like you said, “Arkansas Bound”, we’ve been playin’ in Sad Daddy for a while. I just really like the Sad Daddy version of it. We felt like those songs belonged on this album once we chose the theme of it bein’ like a back in the woods sorta thing.
Let’s talk about that video for “Charlie Pickle”, which after I heard the song, I wanted a video– and it was everything I wanted it to be! Tell me how that came together with all the different folks dancing!
MC- That was Rebecca’s idea to do that, to get clips of our friends dancing. I knew it was a great idea, so we just had to get everybody together on it. We just tried to contact as many friends as we could that we thought would be interested in doin’ something like that. We were actually kinda worried because hardly anyone had submitted anything by what we had said was the deadline. Halloween was the deadline, and then all of a sudden we got everybody’s videos!
That explains all the costumes (laughs)!
MC- Yeah! It was pretty cool. We got some real cloggers on there, people that had learned or been performing at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View.
“Up In The Hills”, with that song, the real war kind of encroaches. You have the news bites, the sound clips there at the beginning of the song. Was that a direct response to the pandemic or just society in general?
MC- “Up In The Hills” developed in an interesting way because it had started as a different song. I had written a song with Brennen Leigh and she was like, “Let’s write a song about somebody who’s been livin’ way out in the woods, and they haven’t seen anybody in a really long time.” But her idea was then they’re ready to go out on the town and they’re ready to have a like fling or something. So I ended up writin’ that with Brennen. It was called “Ready For Some Lovin'”, it was actually funny! It was not a dark song so much, but the first verse was kinda dark.
The first verse [of “Up In The Hills”] is about the same as “Ready For Some Lovin'”, and when I was playing it that first weekend, when we all got together and we were offerin’ up songs that we thought might work, Brian said that I lost him once it started gettin’ funny. He was like, “I want you to try keepin’ on that dark track.” And also we had written “Ready For Some Lovin'” before COVID, so that was pre-everything that happened. I just took it from that and tried to make it dark like Brian wanted.
I guess once I was changin’ the lyrics, of course, I was thinkin’ about the pandemic, so there’s a lot of that in there, but honestly, it’s crazier than it was when we were writing it. I feel like personally, for me, getting away into nature and havin’ a garden and being self-sustaining is still something I really would like to be able to do. Although, I can’t seem to do it! But we do live on a farm in Texas!
BM- But we’ve had these conversations for a decade now, so that mentality’s not new to you.
MC- No, exactly. It’s not a new mentality. In fact, I wonder if Brennen suggested that song for us to write because she knows me too, and she knew that I’d be able to write from that perspective.
So any political over or undertone that I might glean from it is just purely a byproduct of because it’s written now?
MC- Except for I really was thinking of [the pandemic]. In the verse about when they come back, they sorta spy on what’s goin’ on in town, and they’re like, “Nobody would look me in the eye and everyone’s wearing some strange disguise.” I don’t know if I would call it political, but it’s just like, what if somebody was up in the woods and they came down and saw everyone wearin’ masks, and everybody was terrified to even get close to each other. It would seem pretty strange.
Melissa, you’ve told me how proud you were to put that album together, and we’ve touched on that throughout the conversation. I asked about the writing, but what about the recording and the performance part? We talked about the different kinds of experimentation. What will you carry forward to the next project? What do you want to take from the recording process of Way Up In The Hills and use with what you’re doing next?
BM- I think you touched on it earlier, the idea that we realized we’ve always been more of a collection of songwriters coming together and adding sound to each other’s music, which makes it Sad Daddy. This is the first time that it felt like we were testin’ the waters of seein’ if we can come up with a collective sound from the beginning. Not everything on the album’s that way, but some of it is, which is a big step forward. So I think for me, like we talked about a minute ago was the idea that it opens up a new ground to say, “Hey, let’s just come in together with a blank slate and see what happens.” That’s the new territory that I think we’re all curious about as far as I’m concerned with how Sad Daddy moves forward.
MC- Definitely. I agree that’s probably the most important thing for when we record again is doin’ that same sort of collective writing process. I do think it worked well to record in the woods and in a home studio atmosphere. We might do that again as well. We’ve always like the idea of recording live, and we’ve pretty much recorded all our albums that way, just standin’ around microphones live. So I’m sure we would do that again.
Tell me what’s comin’ next. Brian, Melissa mentioned you have your own Arkansas song. It’s been a little bit for you. What have you got coming down the pike after Sad Daddy gets the album rolled out?
BM- I am perpetually working on my sophomore effort. It should be out another 30 or 40 years from now! No, actually, I’ve cleared up a little hole in January that if life doesn’t get in the way, then I’m gonna really try to do some writing for this. I’m helpin’ a buddy produce his album comin’ up about the same time. I’m just really focusing on writing more than anything ’cause that’s my little fun world, but it’s definitely a different trajectory than what Melissa’s been on lately ’cause she’s been all over the place!
It’s been a pleasure watching her pop up on different albums and see her name in songwriting credits. That’s been cool to watch and pay attention to.
BM- Yeah, I agree! It’s fun to say, “I know her!” (Laughs) We’re just tryin’ to ride her coattail the best we can and see where it gets us!
What have you got in the works, Melissa?
MC- Well, I just finished tourin’ and openin’ for Sierra Ferrell and Rebecca was with me. We opened for her as a duo and that was really fun. That was two weeks of travel, like pretty much one show after the other and lots of travelin’, so I’m kinda tired. Actually, after doin’ that, I realize that’s not really what I wanna do too often. I don’t think I could be a heavy tourin’ kind of person. That’s not quite for me, but I’ve got some cool festivals and cool shows and another solo album lined up!