Texas native Carson McHone is making waves in the county music scene. Years before she was identified as one of the ’10 New Country Artists You Need to Know’ by Rolling Stone (the publication also called her last record one of the ‘best Country and Americana albums of 2018’), the singer-songwriter had already laid claim to residencies in some of Austin’s legendary honky tonk bars – before she was even old enough to drink in them. Dark, driving and evocative, Carson’s rule-breaking roots music wears its eclecticism proudly: combining medieval swells of harmonium with late-night, jazz-club melancholia, defiantly switching tempos mid-song, and tackling tricky subjects without losing its bright melodies. We caught up with the Telecaster-twanging trailblazer ahead of her next tour of the UK in January
How would you describe your music?
I would say that when it’s just me playing, it’s in more of the folk or songwriter realm, as opposed to more straightforward honky tonk or country music. But it’s all over the place! Some of the stuff I’m writing more recently has a completely different feel. I’m not really going for a certain ‘sound’, I just write songs!
There was a time when you wanted to champion ‘traditional country’ music, because you weren’t hearing that in what was being called ‘country’. Could you clarify that?
I think the music that turned into honky tonk from folk and traditional country was just really straightforward, honest, lyrical material. What I was hearing be called ‘country’ was just what was able to come to the surface on the mainstream, but what was around me when I would play in Austin seemed so much more authentic than anything I was seeing being written about or hearing being played on the radio. It seemed a funny situation. Then I gradually saw this battle going on where different people were like: “oh this is what country is!” “No, this is what it is!” And I just completely lost interest! I mean, we could sit down and talk about country music all day – that would be interesting – but that’s not why I write songs.
What first attracted you to traditional country music?
I think it’s a really beautiful thing to be able to write a song that can make an entire dance hall move, while being totally devastating. How do you get away with that?! How can you have the saddest song and put it into this honky tonk context, and everybody knows that darkness is there still, but they’re just dancing through it. It’s really impressive.
There are a few of your tracks from Goodluck Man which you’ve revised for Carousel – what was your thinking behind that?
For my very first album, we went into a home studio and just cut this live record with the honky tonk band I’d been playing with at this joint in Austin. A couple years down the line, when I started thinking about recording the next album, I was working with different people and I met Mike McCarthy (who ended up producing Carousel). He asked me to come in and play every single song that I’d ever written, just by myself with a guitar. He wanted to hear who I was. So I did these acoustic demos and it became more apparent that I felt like I needed to do more with those tunes I’d already cut – like maybe I hadn’t done them justice or I needed closure. Mike was also a big fan of the new stuff that I was writing and thought all those new songs deserved to be heard, so didn’t want to cut them all straight away because he knew I didn’t really have an audience for them yet. So we chose the songs that are bridging the gap between where I’ve come from, who I am, how I know myself and where I’m going.
Who or what most inspires you when you’re writing?
Definitely whatever I’m reading or listening to or looking at, at any given time. I’m very affected by my surroundings: I have a desk in my room and I have art on the walls, pieces of paper with lots of scribbles on them pasted all around me, photographs that I’ve taken, other people’s photographs, postcards… I just surround myself with stuff. I guess I need that, when I’ve been on the road for a while, to have that space to be able to stretch out and try to make some sense of it all.
You’ve cited American novelist Thomas Wolfe among your influences for Carousel. In what way did his writing inspire you?
Look Homeward Angel, specifically. I think it was just that melancholy mindset that maybe wasn’t always such a positive influence! But that book is epic. I mean, his sentences are incredible, but also just the emotion he conveys. It’s pretty bleak! But it’s beautiful stuff. I mean: ‘The minute-winning days, like flies, buzz home to death, and every moment is a window on all time. ‘ You know? But everybody that I’m reading right now influences me. I’ve been super-obsessed with this American artist, Andrew Wyeth, and I have like five of his books lying around. I’m like: ‘I want this painting to influence this song!” I just feel that way about stuff.
Do you have a favourite song to perform live?
I like the challenge of playing Drugs live, because people don’t know what to do about it! It’s funny how people expect certain things of you, whether it’s how you look when you walk onto the stage, or what they’ve read or whatever. So songs like that are interesting. But it tends to be the songs that I’ve just written that are the most exciting to play. Although How ‘Bout It is just a song I can relax into, it’s one of my favourites. I don’t really know yet what I’m going to play [on tour] and it’ll probably change night to night, but I’ll definitely do some of the tunes off Carousel. But I’m actually about to be on my way into the studio, I’m cutting some new demos, so I’ll definitely have new songs to play too.
What’s your first memory of music?
Oh my gosh! That’s a good question. Well, neither of my folks are musicians, but they’ve had music around me all of the time, and I took violin lessons from a young age. My Dad was a huge fan of bluegrass. We live in Texas, so to get anywhere you have to drive a long time, and so we would go on road trips a lot and there would always be music playing in the car. I can only assume that some of my first musical experiences were listening to artists like Ralph Stanley, Allison Krauss or Bob Dylan.
Who are you enjoying listening to right now?
I’m listening to a lot of Bob Dylan, and I think I always will! Randy Newman too. I’m also listening to the new Angel Olson record actually, that’s been interesting. And I’ve also been listening to a bunch of Laura Marling songs too. I’m a big fan of Blake Mills and I saw that he produced one of her records, so I just dove in – I don’t know how I hadn’t listened to her before!
What’s one of your favourite albums of all time?
I really love Blonde On Blonde and Blood On The Tracks. There are so many! I love that self-titled Lucinda Williams record too.
If you were to host a dinner party, who would be your ideal guests?
At the moment, just looking at my bedside table, I’d invite Henry Miller, Edith Piaf, and Leonard Cohen. I don’t know how much fun he would’ve been, but I would invite Andrew Wyeth too. Gosh, I need some more women at my party! Carson McCullers. She probably wouldn’t have been fun either, but I love her very much.
How would you spend your ideal Sunday?
I like to drink coffee, I like to sit at my desk and I like to go for a walk. Then I’d probably go into a studio with some friends and make music.
After the tour, what’s next for you?
I’m very eager to get another record done, so I’m going to see where these demos lead and then try to get something out next year.
Carson will be playing in support of The Felice Brothers at Newcastle University’s Student Union on 25th January, Café #9 in Sheffield on 26th January, and at the Brduenell Social Club in Leeds on 27th January.
For more information, visit www.carsonmchonemusic.com