NoiseTrade One-on-One

Interview with Jon Langford

Welsh punk rocker, alt-folk troubadour, and visual artist Jon Langford (The Mekons, Waco Brothers) has been charming audiences in unpredictable ways for the last four decades, so it’s no surprise that his newest album, Four Lost Souls (out now on Bloodshot Records), continues masterfully in that tradition. We took the opportunity to have a lively chat with Langford about what it was like to travel to the hallowed musical territory of Muscle Shoals to record the day after the U.S. presidential election, how politics and history (both musical and geographical) inspired the album, what it was like recording with legendary Swampers session musicians, and much more!

NoiseTrade: Most albums are recorded simply because an artist has enough new songs to fill a record but the writing and recording of Four Lost Souls has a rich origin story behind it. Tell us what initially inspired and drove the creative process of your new album.

Jon Langford: Usually my solo records are exactly that. They’re made up of songs that I can’t put with The Mekons or Waco Brothers. But this new one kind of blind-sided me. It all started when I was doing the illustration work for of an exhibit at The Country Music Hall of Fame called Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats where I met a man named Norbert Putnam who was one of the famous Nashville session musicians in the 1960s. He also produced Joan Baez and J.J. Cale, played bass for Elvis, and was one of the original bassists in the Muscle Shoals scene that’s at the heart of great American soul music. I played a couple Johnny Cash songs at the exhibit’s opening and Norbert came up to me afterwards and said, “You sing like a pirate! You should come down to Muscle Shoals and make an album.” I didn’t think much more about it until we met up again about six months later and he asked me about it again.

By that time, I had written a few songs about my enjoyment and love of American culture and about the nightmare of the long shadow of Southern American history as well. Those are rich veins with plenty of things to write about. It was also freaky to start recording the day after the election because Trump winning felt like a huge betrayal to me and the things I love about this country. It was an odd time to travel to Alabama and record these songs, but the chemistry we found with my band (John Szymanski, Bethany Thomas, and Tawny Newsome) and the legendary Muscle Shoals session musicians David Hood and Randy McCormick was unbelievable. America’s a really segregated country and its music has been artificially segregated as well, but these guys don’t make those distinctions. It was so exciting and I was just hoping everyone would understand what I was doing with my songs and not be pissed off by some of the lyrics. Those guys couldn’t be nicer and we had a lovely time.

NT: Even though it’s only been a relatively short time since the election, in what ways do you think these songs speak into our current political climate and have their messages already evolved in any way since they were first written?

Langford: The issues with taking down the Civil War statues and what happened in Charlottesville, the shadows of all that make me feel like the Civil War never really ended. Some of my new songs like “Natchez Trace” and “In Oxford Mississippi” really talk about that but they were written before this stuff happened. When I was writing these songs, if you would’ve told me that Donald Trump was going to be president I wouldn’t have believed you. With this election, we saw that the institutions that we thought were pretty solid are really not. It’s pretty scary.

NT: As someone who has never shied away from political and social commentary in his own music, do you have any specific songs or albums by other artists that you’ve been particularly gravitating to since the election?

Langford: Well, that’s an interesting one. Let’s see what’s on the jukebox here. Believe it or not, I’ve actually been listening to a lot of Calypso music lately, which has been great for me. People like Lord Kitchener, it’s like pop music and politics. I’m not from Barbados, but it’s fascinating to me to see the mechanics of it. Anything where the real world is brought into the music like that, country and western, punk, blues, all of it. I’ve become very fond of Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War” as well. That one cheers me up.

NT: There are some really interesting geographical convergences on Four Lost Souls – you’re based in Chicago, the album was recorded in Alabama, you have band members from Nashville and Los Angeles, song titles directly reference Mississippi and Tennessee, and so on. Was this a conscious decision on your part and do you think it helps underscore the thematic reach of the album in any way?

Langford: Over the years I’ve done a few site-specific albums, particularly with The Mekons. We went to Scotland and did an album there, for example. It’s fun to write about what you’re experiencing at the time and then take it a step further by recording in those surroundings. For this new one, there are a lot of Nashville connections and connections to Alabama and multiple ties to the rich American musical tradition. To be honest, it feels like I’ve just skimmed the surface on this one and that there’s a lot more I can achieve there.

NT: Finally, since Four Lost Souls was recorded in the hallowed Muscle Shoals region of Alabama, do you have a few favorite songs or albums that have come from that area that you recommend folks check out for themselves?

Langford: There’s so much good music from there that it’s almost impossible to say where to start. A guilty pleasure that I’ve gotten into in recent years is Paul Simon’s Muscle Shoals stuff. I never took him that seriously in the past, but a bunch of his stuff has been recorded in Muscle Shoals. David Hood, who played bass on my record, played bass on Simon’s “Loves Me Like A Rock” and “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” from his third solo album (There Goes Rhymin’ Simon). I was definitely impressed when I found that stuff out. I also love Tony Joe White. Working with Norbert, his legacy is really great. I found myself listening to Elvis’s Stax stuff and really enjoyed it. It’s fantastic! Norbert’s back catalog is amazing. Also, “I’ll Take You There” from The Staple Singers.

When writer Will Hodge (@will_hodge) isn’t singing in a Sunday choir, you can find him running off at the keyboard about music, concerts, and vinyl at My So-Called Soundtrack