by: Thomas D. Mooney
The highly anticipated album from Austin’s Shinyribs, the incredibly vivid and perfectly named Okra Candy, will be officially released next Tuesday (preorder it here). It’s the third set of songs from Kevin Russell and company in the last five years.
Much like Russell’s previous Shinyribs albums, Well After Awhile and Gulf Coast Museum, Okra Candy revolves and expands on Russell’s unique songwriting chops that walk the line between singer-songwriter and country-soul groove. The two sounds work in unison to be more than just one thing.
Undoubtedly, Russell and company have found their stride as not just a band of accomplished individuals, but as a well-oiled machine that breathes life into Russell’s compositions on everyday life in Central and East Texas. There’s an undeniable pulse.
We caught up with Russell late last week to talk about the making of Okra Candy, the evolution of the band, and Russell’s songwriting approach. Shinyribs will be performing at The Blue Light tonight (Wednesday, April 15). Doors open at 10.
Watch/Listen to Shinyribs perform “Baby, What’s Wrong?” on The Texas Music Scene below.
New Slang: Okra Candy comes out in just a couple of weeks now. You guys have been working on it for a while now.
Kevin Russell: Yeah, we have. We had started in January of 2014. You always seem pressed and it always seems stressful right at the end when you’re trying to get it out. You don’t want to be rushed. I felt I was rushed on the last record so I started early this time around thinking, “Oh, you’ve got plenty of time.” Musically, it was all pretty much together. By the summer, we had it pretty much musically finished–the recording and everything. Then this label Thirty Tigers wanted to put it out. I thought that would be great since they’re a great label and they’re kind of the hot Americana label. Everybody seems to be released by them and that got me thinking about how they seem to be releasing records by everybody in the Americana world. I didn’t really want to be one of those. I may get lost in the shuffle. So, I decided to just self-release it.
The other thing on this record was the name. I normally name the record at the last second. It’s the last thing I do. I’ve got the artwork, the music, and I’m looking at the whole thing, and then I name it. This time, I named it first, Okra Candy. I just fell in love with that name and stuck with it. I couldn’t figure out the artwork. It sort of got in the way and I couldn’t do any visual art for it. Everything I did, it just seemed sort of lame to me. So I had to find an artist. I tried a few different people and a few different ideas. None of those stuck. The name, it just felt like it made it all harder. I found this girl on Instagram. I really liked her art. She lives here in Austin. A young girl named Ashton Guy. I got to know her and asked her if she’d do something for the album. And the first time, I said, “Do something with okra. Do whatever when you think of okra.” So she sent me a picture–which I still have–of Oprah Winfrey eating a candy bar [laughs].
NS: Oh wow. That’s incredible [laughs].
KR: I got it and was like “What? What does this have to do with okra [laughs]?” She said that her and her boyfriend had an inside joke about every time they hear Oprah Winfrey, they think of okra. I said that it was great, but it wasn’t going to work [laughs]. She did a bunch of stuff and it ended up working out. Long story short, the lesson I’ve learned is that it doesn’t matter when you start, you’re still going to be stressed out. You’re still going to have to deal with getting the package together. That’s always going to be the difficult part.
NS: Yeah. It’s all the stuff that has to be done after you’ve finished recording the actual music. It’s that stuff that takes time and in a way, makes a record a record and not just a collection of songs. So during this time, just about everybody is asking, “So when’s this new record coming out? When’s this new record coming out? When’s this new record coming out?”
KR: Oh yeah. I’d been talking about it for a while. Pretty early on. Too early probably.
NS: Yeah. I remember the first time we spoke, you mentioned the name. That was a while back now I guess.
KR: Yeah. Plus, there’s been a lot of anticipation for the album. That could be a great thing. People thinking finally. We’ll see. I had to keep readjusting the release date. It was originally going to be in the fall of last year. Then I delayed it.
NS: When that happens, when the album is done, but there is a delay. There is a moved back release date. What are you thinking during that time–like do the songs on the album kind of get old to you since you’ve recorded them and listened to so many mixes and masters. In a way, are you just wanting to move on to the next project already?
KR: Oh yeah. Definitely. That’s always a problem for me. As soon as you’ve recorded them, my part is done really. To me, I made the record more than a year ago. That’s a year or more old to me. So yeah, it’s a little old to me. It doesn’t necessarily represent where I am now. That was right after the horns had started playing with us. They were sort of half of the shows. They didn’t do all the shows at that time. Some. Now, they’re full members of the band and doing every show. We’ve worked up a lot of new stuff since then. We’ve grown as a band into this new thing. So Okra Candy is really a document of a moment–this transitional moment from the old Shinyribs to the horny Shinyribs [laughs].
KR: It’s from the thorny Shinyribs to the horny Shinyribs. It’s been a transitional record [laughs]. But yeah, I’m totally already ready to make the next record. I’m already thinking about it. I’ve got songs written and have been starting to put songs together. I’m thinking it’s going to be a little bit more funk and soul driven. It’s probably going to be all horns. Plus, I’m starting to play more banjo now. There’s some banjo on this record. I’ve always played, but now, I’m sitting and writing on it. I’m playing it more. Sort of obsessed with it. Banjo and horns.
NS: Yeah. Nobody is doing that. You’ve established that as your corner.
KR: Yeah. You know, I’ve had this history with old timey instruments. Old timey country tunes. But I really do love funk and soul too. I feel like it’s a fun thing, putting these two loves of mine together. It’s kind of like a kid in his room with Legos. Sticking them together and seeing what he can make [laughs].
NS: Yeah [laughs]. That’s an incredible analogy. May have to steal that. Going back to the idea of these songs already being a year old for you and feeling like they’re a little old already for you, has that always been something you’ve felt when making records–whether it was old Gourds albums or these past Shinyribs ones?
KR: Oh yeah. I’ve always felt that really.
NS: Do you think there’s ever going to be a way to get a record out quick enough that it feels current for a band’s representation? You ever think the turnover is going to advance or is that just part of making an album? It’s always going to be part of it.
KR: I don’t know. That’s a tough question. For me, I think it’s possible to do that. To make a record quickly and to get it out quickly. You’d have to be recording live–which is kind of Gulf Coast Museum for me. That came out fairly quickly right on the heels of the first one. I feel like that record, for the most part, is really live, really band oriented. I think this record, it’s like the first one, Well After Awhile, in the sense that there’s a lot of new songs that the band had never heard that I took songs to the studio and found a way to get a recording of them and built them from there. That’s kind of how the first record was done. I didn’t know what I was doing, but had some songs that I liked and kind of built them up in a studio setting. That’s totally different from playing them live. For me, that’s a whole different brain I’m using when I’m recording than I do when playing live.
So that’s kind of how this record was. I feel like the band is playing so great right now, I’m going to be writing new material and we’ll be working it up for the next six months or so. We’ll be playing new stuff from the record obviously, but we’ll be doing things that people have never heard before. Doing things that haven’t been recorded and are new to us. We’ll be doing some of that so we’ll be familiar with it enough that when we do record the fourth album, we’ll be doing it live. That’s kind of what I’m thinking. Not a true live record, but maybe. I don’t know yet. I have fantasies about that as well. A have a whole concept about a live record that’d be filmed as well. It’d be an audio and video of new songs live–with an audience that would be cast. They’d be scripted where the audience would be part of it. Probably would be a lot of actors in the audience.
NS: Yeah. That’d be a really interesting performance to see done. In a way, it’d be sort of similar to a rock opera.
KR: Could be. It’d be theatrical. Things would happen that’d make sense to what’s going on–or not make sense at all [laughs].
NS: [Laughs]. Would you say that, as the Shinyribs project has gone on, that you’ve evolved and adapted your songwriting to fit how the band sounds? Like the band has shaped your songwriting more than your songwriting has shaped the band.
KR: Yeah, that’s definitely true.
NS: So you’re obviously thinking about how the horns are going to be done in a song. You’re thinking about that when writing, but what else are you looking to highlight when you’re working up or writing a song?
KR: The groove. The bassline. The rhythm section. Jeff Brown and Keith Langford, those guys are great players. So I’m challenging them somewhat. I’m really trying to focus on that. Trying to work more there. Sometimes, with a rhythm section, when you’re a singer-songwriter or a guitar player, you just leave it to them to do what they do. There’s not a lot of singer-songwriter guys who understand what that’s about. But that’s what makes people want to dance. If it’s happening there, then the band is going to be grooving with those guys. Then people are going to dance and it’s going to be great. It all emanates from those guys. That’s something that I want to focus on more.
Jeff and Keith, they’re playing is great now, but they’re capable of even better things. That’s another philosophy with this band. You can always get better. And getting better doesn’t mean technically more proficient. It means musically better. You’re trying to create musical moments that are surprising and engaging.
I’d like to bring some more improvisational–like the early days of Shinyribs, the gigs were more improvisational because I had musicians who didn’t know the songs [laughs]. They would just follow my hands. And I would just make shit up. That still happens a little bit in Shinyribs shows, but now, we’re a little bit more rehearsed. We’re playing a lot of shows so everybody knows what they’re doing. Then with the addition of the horns, those guys, they chart and write down everything. They’re very organized in their parts–they have to be as horn players. That’s forced us into some beneficial discipline–mainly me [laughs]. I needed some of that approach. It helps the band play better. But I still think it’s important to have those “Oh Shit” moments. You need those moments during a live show where the band says, “Oh shit. What’s happening? What is he doing? Where are we going?” They should be lost at some point during the show. It’s important. I feel it creates an energy that the crowd doesn’t necessarily know, but it creates an energy in the room. The crowd responds to it. It’s hard to explain. I think that’s why a lot of kids liked The Grateful Dead. Bob Dylan the same deal.
NS: Yeah. I agree. Because if not, there’s really no point of going and seeing a show. You can just listen to the records at home.
KR: Yeah. Course, some people love that. They want the record exactly, but that’s for Branson, Missouri.
NS: [Laughs]. Yeah. There was this Texas Highways piece you did a while back. It had this Doug Sahm quote from you in it that I really liked. The whole you have to West Texas dust or East Texas rust when singing.
KR: Oh yeah. He was saying the best singers in Texas, they either have the West Texas dust or the East Texas rust.
NS: Yeah. I find that really interesting and pretty accurate.
KR: Yeah, it’s poetic. You can certainly hear the dust in Terry Allen or Joe Ely’s voice. I don’t hear so much dust in Buddy Holly’s voice, but he was of course from another planet. And the rust, you can hear it in George Jones, Gene Watson, and those guys.
NS: Earlier, you posted this video of a song you did with Shawn Sahm. This song called “Old School Austin Groove.”
KR: Yeah. It’s for this local documentary that some friends of mine made. Not sure if you watched Growing a Beard–it was this documentary The Gourds did some music for about Shamrock, Texas and the beard growing contest they have out there. But it’s the same guy, Mike Woolf. Beef & Pie Productions. They made a little documentary on a character here in Austin named Crazy Carl, who was like the local crazy wacko everybody knew and loved. The ’70s was his heyday. He’s still around and as crazy as ever. He ran for mayor a few times. He was kind of a flag-bearer for the whole weirdo Austin. I really think he’s like the godfather of weirdo Austin. I don’t think there was anyone else like him before. So this documentary, they asked me to do some music for it. They asked Shawn Sahm to do some. So Shawn came up with this little tune and he sent it to me. It was just like an idea. He had some verses and chorus. So we rearranged it a little bit and I added a bridge. So it’s in the movie and then we thought it’d be fun to do a video for the song. Just for kicks. The Beef & Pie guys were into it so we did it one day over a Shawn’s place out in Boerne.