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Interview: Aaron Watson discusses his ambitious new album Red Bandana and his affection for the UK

We chat to the independent Country star about his 20 years in the industry.

Aaron Watson
Credit: Joseph Llanes

Texas-born singer-songwriter Aaron Watson has paved his own path in the music industry as an independent artist.

Over the past 20 years, he’s steadily built up a fanbase across the world and proved that hard work really does pay off. Watson released his latest album Red Bandana last month, an ambitious body of work that’s rich with variety.

I spoke on the phone with Aaron recently to talk about the album, discuss the inspiration behind it and to find out his thoughts on the future of the album…

Your new album Red Bandana is an ambitious project. Where did the inspiration for the record come from?

I’ve always loved a lot of the more lengthy rock and roll albums like The Beatles’ White Album. Even when I was a young kid I loved the White Album because of the diversity of the songs. There’s rock and roll on that album, there’s pop… there’s even folk music. I had this idea for this album that had both quantity and quality. I wanted there to be 20 songs for the 20 years that we’ve been making country music and I wanted this to be a project where people could tell these weren’t just 20 songs that we threw together. This was a well-thought out project where we have a lot of the songs that kind of join together. They fit together. I recorded different sounds around the house. I recorded the sound of the train that passes by my ranch. I recorded my dad’s old AM radio. I recorded my grandmother’s wind chime. I wanted it to be a very personal record.

When I saw there were 20 tracks on the record, I wondered how consistent it would be and now I’ve listened to it, it’s incredibly cohesive. You mentioned this was a well-thought out project so tell me a little more about the sequencing of it…

Well thank you. It’s one of those things that I wanted to start it off differently. The first song is The Ghost of God Clark and that song is the manifesto of the entire album. It’s just about following your heart… chasing after your heart and not chasing after a shallow hit. Then it goes into an instrumental that I wrote. I had a lot of fun writing that. I wanted that song, El Comienzo Del Viaje, to have a very spaghetti western type feel like something you would hear from the Italian composer Ennio Morricone.

The Ghost of Guy Clark, El Comienzo Del Viaje and Dark Horse, they all belong together. It’s kind of like the beginning of a movie. I have several moments throughout the record where there’s these three or four song runs, where the songs are joined at the hip. The way I wrote Country Radio, Legends and Am I Amarillo, those are joined at the hip. I didn’t want this thematic idea that I had for the album to also become redundant or monotonous so I would get away from that for a couple of songs and I would try to write songs that would completely surprise you.

Aaron Watson

Credit: Jimmy Fisco

The thing that I tell people is my music is not dictated by a major record label nor is it dictated by critics or opinions. That’s the beauty of being an independent artist, you can truly follow your heart. I put some songs on this record that I felt were different, that I feel like if you’re going to have an album with 20 songs you need to be able to bring a wide variety to the table to entertain the listener.

Songs 10 and 11 – Blood Brothers, Live or Die Trying – those are much different songs than I usually write. Just when you think that I’m going a certain direction with the album… next thing you know there’s Riding With Red, Red Bandana, Trying Like the Devil, Home Sweet Home… and all those songs belong together. Then all of a sudden Burn ‘Em Down and Shake a Heartache and You On My Hands, I give you a different flavour at the end of the record that you haven’t heard the entire time.

I try to put myself in the shoes of the listener and go, ‘Okay, what would I want to hear next on this album?’ It was fun. I wrote every song all by myself and I think I really enjoyed that challenge to be the sole writer. I just wanted to give the fans something special. They’ve taken such good care of me for all these years and I just feel like I want to be ambitious. I want this to be a new phase of my career. I’ve been doing it for 20 years but I’m just getting started. The best is yet to come. I don’t want people to think, ‘OK well he’s been doing this for a long time. He is ready to just ride off into the sunset’. That’s not me. This is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve already started working on the next album actually.

There’s definitely no feeling of complacency with this record. It’s a testament to the power of an album because we live in a time where people are questioning if you even need albums. I point them to this one and say yes you do. You can’t tell these kinds of stories without an album…

That’s a great point you make. Gosh, even with people screaming and with everything going towards streaming, I think it’s still really important to have albums. How can you not have an album? Can you have a book with only one chapter? For me when guys come out and they release one or two songs I’m like, ‘what are these? Are they demos? What is this?’ I think it takes the heart and the soul out of music if you don’t have an album.

I would completely agree with you. I’m a big fan of the album and I’d rather have a physical product in my hand. That’s how I grew up with music…

Me too. I’m kind of at this in-between age. People that are 10 years older than me, they completely missed out on the social media phase of the world but then there’s kids that are 10 years below me they’re a little more in tune with the things that are happening today. I’m kind of in that middle ground where I have to really challenge myself to pay attention to what the current trend is. What I’ve told people is, ‘listen, even no one wants to buy physical I’m still going to be making an album so you can stream the entire album’ because for me creatively speaking there is nothing romantic or sexy about just going in and recording a few songs. I need the whole project to get me fully into it and focused.

I tell people, ‘what if you went to go see the new Star Wars movie and all they gave you was the first 15 minutes and then the movie was over?’ It’s not finished. You wouldn’t be satisfied. The rest of the artists, if they want to just put out little three song EPs they can but that’s not the way I work. My fans, the ones who have supported me for 20 years, they love, love, love an album.

Country, Americana and Folk are some of the genres still keeping the album alive I think. What are your thoughts?

Yeah, I’ve always felt that I’m more of a Americana folk artist honestly. I gravitate more towards that genre. I don’t even know what genre is anymore to be honest with you. We live in a day and age where there’s nothing dividing genres and I think that’s sad. It’s like ice cream, we like flavours right? Well what if you just took every flavour and mixed it all together. Then you wouldn’t be able to appreciate those individual flavours. It might still be good but you’re not going to be able to taste the vanilla or the chocolate or the strawberry separately.

I don’t know what genre is anymore because we try to blend everything together. I think that’s why I like Americana and folk music because I think they’ve done a good job kind of staying true to their style of music. That’s why I always gravitate towards a lot of those artists. I think they’re more focussed on the actual art.

We’re seeing a real shift in the UK right now of music fans gravitating towards Country and Americana, in part due to the effort that artists like yourself have put in by touring here. You’ve built a strong relationship with your UK fans so how have you seen that change over the years?

I’m always thoroughly impressed with the fans in the UK. It’s possibly my favourite place to tour because the fans are hungry for music. It’s also that it’s somewhere, that for a Texas boy… it’s quite a treat to be so far from home and to be around people who are loving my music. It’s really a treat. For example I remember when we were in the UK last fall, after every show I hang out with the fans and everyone will say, “hey I like it on this song where perhaps you had the fiddle and the steel guitar and they played the same parts’. I feel like the UK fans really pay attention to the details of the song and the lyrics. I just feel right at home in the UK. It really has become one of my favourite touring spots. I can’t wait to get back.

Aaron Watson

Credit: Aaron Watson

There is so much love for you here. I remember when you took the headline slot at The Long Road last year after Carrie Underwood had to pull out, and people were talking about your set for weeks afterwards…

That is a great testament to UK fans. Let’s talk about The Long Road Festival. I have to be honest with you… think about it… a lot of festivals, a lot of fans would be very, very disappointed when they found out that Carrie Underwood wasn’t going to be able to make it. A lot of people would just be like, ‘well I’m not going, I’m not coming!’ At The Long Road Festival they didn’t let that affect their love for music or their ability to have a good time. I was a little worried thinking, ‘oh man, gosh, this is going to be difficult. Everyone is expecting Carrie Underwood and I’m probably the exact opposite of Carrie Underwood’. I love Carrie Underwood I think she’s amazing but I was like, ‘oh man. This might be difficult’. I will tell you what, they were almost more appreciative of me because they acted as if I came in and I saved the day. I was like, ‘wow! wow! That is amazing’. I think the UK kind of stole my heart for good at The Long Road Festival. They didn’t have to be so receptive to me. I would have understood had they been disappointed because I was not Carrie. I mean I would much rather look at Carrie than myself I’ll be honest. It was just amazing. It was an amazing night. The country is beautiful.

I love it and the appreciation for music in the UK, it’s really second to none. I tell people that over here in the States when they ask, ‘what sort of places do you feel like your music is most appreciated?’ I always bring up the UK because one thing ya’ll do right is that at every show, regardless of where we’re playing in the UK, y’all know how to have a good time and also appreciate the music. It’s a nice combination that ya’ll have.

Well we’re looking forward to having you back again…

I’m ready. I’m ready to come back. The new show that we have is so fun. I’m a country artist but I want, when it comes to my live show, I want there to be the energy of a rock and roll band. I want people to have fun. I want them to feel the dynamics. I want to give them their money’s worth. My wife came with me the last time we were in the UK and everything that I made, all the money that I made while in the UK, she actually spent it all the following three days that we stayed in London for vacation. Everything y’all paid me, I went ahead and I donated it back to the UK economy. I tried to show a little love back (laughs).

It’s very easy to spend money in London…

Oh man, it doesn’t take much does it?

No it doesn’t! You’ve got a very full touring schedule for the rest of the year and you mentioned that you’re already starting to think about the next record. Is there anything else that you’re hoping to fit in before Christmas arrives?

I plan on doing lots of touring. We plan on continuing to work on the set and the show but also writing. I’m so excited about writing again. For 20 years after I finish an album, I think my mind is exhausted and I literally won’t write or even think of a song idea for three or four months. I always wonder if the ideas will come back to me. A couple weeks back I woke up hungry to start writing songs again so I’m really going to focus on writing the rest of the year and I look forward to probably getting back into the studio in the first part of 2020 to start working on a new record. Writing is my favourite thing. A lot of people have hobbies, things they love to go do – hunting, fishing, bowling, cricket, lacrosse, tennis, soccer – whatever it is you love and mine is songwriting. That’s what I love to do. I’m really excited about getting out the old pencil and paper and starting to work on new songs. That’s my passion. And getting back to the UK!

Aaron Watson’s album Red Bandana is available now. Watch the video for Riding With Red:

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