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Interview: Neilson Hubbard on new album, production work and songwriting

We caught up with the Americana singer-songwriter ahead of his performance at AmericanaFest 2019.

Neilson Hubbard
Credit: Proper Records

2018 was a career year for Mississippi native Neilson Hubbard.

As well as releasing his first collection of songs in 12 years, Cumberland Island, he also recorded a new album with his band The Orphan Brigade, alongside bandmates Ben Glover and Joshua Britt. Additionally, he spent time on the other side of the studio desk, producing Glover’s solo record Shorebound (which won the UK Album of the Year prize at the Americana Music Association Awards earlier this month) and Mary Gauthier’s critically acclaimed Rifles and Rosary Beads.

I spoke to Neilson ahead of his recent set at AmericanaFest 2019. Read on to find out more about his latest album, working with Ben and Mary, and his own experiences as a songwriter and on the road.

How have you found AmericanaFest?

Well we’ve only been in London about two hours – we came straight down – but loving it so far.

Is there anything you particularly enjoy about performing in the UK?

Well it’s always better than playing in the States [laughs]. Actually the band that I’m in with Ben Glover which is The Orphan Brigade, we do most of our playing over in the UK and Italy, so we rarely play in the States. We’ll do a show in Nashville. But I just love the crowds – they seem to be way more attentive and seem to get what we’re doing a little bit better, so you gotta go there.

Your latest record Cumberland Island came out at the end of last year. Can you tell us more about it?

Well, what inspired it was I do a lot of production work, and every once in a blue moon I’ll do a solo record. I went to Ben because being bandmates and we’ve worked together so much, I just wanted him to be a part of the production of it. So we started writing a bunch to finish out the record, and we wrote this one song called Cumberland Island. That kind of made me realise what all the songs were about. I’d gotten married and just had a kid in the last couple of years, and that song is about the day after Audrey and I got married.

We spent a day on the island which is off the coast of Georgia – you take a little ferry there and they have the ruins of the Carnegie mansion that burned down. And also it’s full of wild horses, these feral horses that have been left. Rumour has it the Spanish conquistadors brought them over. So it’s this crazy wild terrain and we spent this beautiful day on the island, and that seemed like a really fitting image for the overall record, because a lot of it’s about the relationship that we have and having a kid and being in love – relationships and life.

There’s also some songs on this record which you wrote a few years ago – was it difficult to decide what songs to put on the record or did it come together fairly easily?

I think it was pretty organic. I had some songs that were a little older that I had not recorded yet, and some other people like Ben had recorded a couple of them. I knew that I wanted those on the record because I’d get to sing them. So knowing that kind of helps you shape the style of the record. And so I knew when Ben and I were writing – we probably wrote four songs to finish off the record, so they were very specific. So I think there’s an advantage of being a producer because I’m having to get through that process so much, when you’re picking songs and knowing how to make a record that feels like a cohesive project. So that maybe comes a little easier to me. I call it seeing it from space – you can see the overall thing better.

How did your experience as a producer shape your approach to this record as an artist?

I think so. I think that what I do as a producer is I like things to be very organic, and I like them to be in the moment. And so I kind of expect that out of my own self as an artist. We made it really quickly – it was a couple of days so there was no fuss about it. We didn’t get picky. I guess the kind things that I love to listen to always seem to be records that are made that way. Old school stuff was made really quickly, with people that could really perform and sing the song. And we had players that could do it. That’s where we are – we have a bunch of friends that play on all these records, so everybody’s kind of familiar with it.

Has your approach to songwriting changed over time?

I think it probably has changed some. It probably is always evolving. I guess I do write with a lot of people because as a producer I’ll come in and help finish songs, and then with some people like Ben or other artists like Dean Owens that I’ve worked with – he’s in the Buffalo Blood – I might be a finisher at times. But then sometimes I’ll come in and be like, ‘hey I’ve got this idea, can you help me?’ So I think it’s just knowing how to take a role. Sometimes you’re more of the music person, sometimes you’re the lyric person.

I think how it’s changed is I don’t write all the time just strictly by myself, which I did when I first began 25 years ago. I was writing a lot more solo. But I think over time of being a producer and being in that city of Nashville, I just learned how to write more with others because also I think you panic. I think you go through this period when you’re writing with everyone, but then you’re like ‘OK wait, I want to go back to the people I really connect with’. I think I’m at that space right now.

You’ve mentioned your collaborations with The Orphan Brigade and Buffalo Blood. Is that something that’s quite important to you?

Absolutely. I think The Orphan Brigade more than anything, because Ben and Josh that I’ve been writing the songs with, it’s like a brotherhood. We’re a really close group of people. We bring in other artists and singers and things like that, but the core of that band is us three. That shaped how I make records, because even with Ben we made a record for him called Atlantic in his living room from Ireland. And so I think that basically started a process for me of wanting to make records where  in a perfect world you’d make a record and you’d burn the studio down so that you never make the same record, though that’s a little over-the-top.

That’s why we really got into making those records where you go on location, which we did for the last two Orphan Brigade records. I’m working on the new Orphan Brigade in Ireland in an old church. There’s an inspiration to that. So those collaborations have affected both writing and they’ve affected artistry and how I make records.

How did you feel when you found out Shorebound was nominated for the UK Album of the Year Award at the UK Americana Association Awards?

Super excited. I was so happy for Ben because i’s such a great record. He put his heart into those songs. He wrote a lot of them in collaboration and then had a singer sing on it. So it’s a special record. I’m super excited for him. And then Mary’s up for an award – I worked with her on this record which was up for an American award but she’s up for the artist of the year.

And the Grammy as well…

Yes! We’re going to go to the Grammys next week which will be cool.

What was it like to work with Mary on that record?

Amazing. She is one of the purest artists I know. I was talking to someone about her recently. She always would say ‘ah, I’m not a great singer’ but I would say, ‘you’re an amazing singer because you make me believe what you say’. So there’s no higher compliment. She’s an artist through and through, to the core.

Have there been any standout moments from people you’ve worked with over the years?

Well one thing that I did which was with my wife Audrey. We were making her record maybe two years ago, and she had been in a film with Kris Kristofferson, so she got to know him and his wife. They stayed in touch and he came and sang on a song on her record. He came by her studio and they did this duet, and I remember at the time he had Lyme disease and there’s a little bit of memory loss there. They were doing one of his songs, one of the really early songs, and they asked if I would play. So I’d kind of barely learned the song, because I thought he was gonna play it, and he said ‘no no no, you play it’. So I was playing and he was singing and Audrey was singing, and Audrey started and I was like ‘this sounds amazing’. She killed it and then he came in and we were gonna do a couple of takes because he’d take a second to get into it, and then he came in and I was like ‘oh no, this is the take’. I just faked my way and made it through whilst he was totally killing it. It was like watching the master. All the things he was struggling with – the second it started he was the guy. That was pretty awesome [laughs].

Who would you like to work with in future?

My all time wish list – I know it would never happen, but somehow Bjork. Whether it was her screaming at me and telling me what to do. That would be the ultimate dream.

What’s the one song you wish you’d written?

Oh wow! I think The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.

What does 2019 look like for you?

Well we’re doing the awards stuff and then I’ve got a couple of records I’m about to start working on in March. Then we go to make a new Orphan Brigade. I also have a video company with Josh who’s in the Orphan Brigade – we’ve worked a lot with John Prine and Jason Isbell. And we work with a guy called Tommy Emmanuel who’s an incredible guitarist. He just made a new so we’ll be making a bunch of videos for Tommy. And then I’ll just be working on finishing up a record with my wife Audrey. It’s just started but it’ll just keep on rolling.

Neilson Hubbard’s latest album, Cumberland Island, is out now.

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