Interviews: John Baumann

Photo by Natalie Rhea Riggs. Courtesy of the Artist.

Photo by Natalie Rhea Riggs. Courtesy of the Artist.

by: Thomas D. Mooney

In Texas, if you’re a songwriter, it’s not weird to go with the three name stage title. Hell, it’s actually kind of cool. John Edward Baumman may have dropped the middle name earlier this year, but like all the three namers in Texas Music–Ray Wylie Hubbard, Robert Earl Keen, William Clark Green, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, etc–Baumann too has a gift for storytelling and lessons learned. 

The six-tracks that make up his latest EP, Departures, finds the Texas songsmith hitting a stride in just about every way imaginable.

There’s a sonic punch on Departures that we haven’t heard before. There’s a dynamic pop to Departures that runs its’ entire length. The guitars moan here. They cut there. 

Where previous releases–West Texas Vernacular and High Plains Alchemy–saw Baumann writing about the cultural intricacies of Texas in general and West Texas specifically, Departures broadens the scope while never losing the personal details and specifics that makes Baumann’s songwriting identifiable–and it’s not just Baumann finding magic chorus lines that can string together the storytelling. The Steve Earle punching “Vices” has Baumann showing that chorus doesn’t have to be dumbed down to be an anthem. 

There’s a smooth comfort to Baumann’s vocals. At times in the past, he was cramming in as many syllables in as possible like a Panhandle Springsteen circa, 1973 (Greeting from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle). His Texas drawl is relaxed, but still has a touch of that anxiousness that you’ve heard in the past. It comes in the desperation of “Bay City Blues.”

We caught up with the rising singer-songwriter to discuss songwriting and Departures earlier this week. Baumann and company will be playing at The Blue Light tonight (Saturday, Nov 14) with Alex Culbreth opening. Find Departures there or online here. Listen to “Vices” below.

New Slang: Where did these songs come from? Were they planned to be used for an EP or were you initially thinking full-length?

John Baumann: I knew we were going to be going to be doing an EP. I think we were just excited to get into the studio and refresh what I’d been putting out. Have a little more update and polish–have a better produced and sounding record. We were just eager to get something new out. Not have the “Edward” associated with it. The songs were all chosen and written at random. There’s nothing that really binds them together. With calling the EP Departures, I’m no longer using my middle name, none of the songs really have that theme running through them that the last two records had. I quit my day job and doing music full time now. It just felt right to call it Departures

NS: Yeah. The record sounds really great. There’s some pop to it. One of my favorite little moments is the beginning of “Bay City Blues” and how it comes in full about 30 seconds into the song. What other things did you try to expand or experiment with on Departures?

JB: I think this time around, I started getting out of my comfort zone with chords, keys, and chord progressions. I’ve been so reliant on G, C, and D. They’re staples for country songs, but I start going off into the key of E, B7, and A–just trying to shift a little bit on how this album sounded. There were a lot of creative minds in the studio. A lot of instruments were at our disposal. Keys to banjos. Some of those production things were just on the spot.

NS: “Bay City Blues.” I think a lot of people really like that song. I really like it. I’ve seen a bunch of Twitter commentary about it. There’s a line that I didn’t really even hear until just yesterday, but I really love it. It’s “The Chronicle is just killing the news.” Where’d it come from?

JB: I had been messing around with that progression for a few days and really just didn’t have anything to talk about. One of my good friends had just moved home from San Fransisco. I was kind of showing him the chord progression and chorus I had been messing around with. I didn’t want to make the song about him, but sort of the situation of a guy who has been in San Fransisco and he’s trying to make a go of it, but it’s just not working. He’s just going back home. I put it together over a few days, but it took a while to get all of that on paper. I wrote it last November, December. 

It’s been really cool seeing the response. Cody Canada heard it on the radio and made a post about it on Facebook. That completely took me aback. Then Josh Abbott plugged it. It’s been pretty cool seeing those kind of things. There’s a Bay City, Texas, but I think you have to really listen close to get where I’m coming from–even though it’s not rocket science either [laughs]. 

NS: [Laughs]. Your songwriting, you use a lot of location to tell the story. On here, there’s San Fransisco, Harlingen, Wyoming to name a few. Going further back, there’s Marfa, Midland, Amarillo, etc. Why is location such an important aspect of your songwriting?

JB: I’m very passionate about places. I’m interested in geography and culture. I’m interested in taking them and understanding them from my point of view and then spitting it back out with how I’ve perceived it. It’s something I really pride myself on. But at the same time, I have to be careful with overdoing it. It’s been kind of tricky. I was glad that with this record, I didn’t have a group of songs that were all about the same place.

NS: On Cory Morrow’s last album, The Good Fight, you had a few co-writes. How’d you get involved?

JB: My manager set me up with Cory. I was pretty star-struck and intimidated at first. I drove over to his place on a Tuesday afternoon. He was hitting golf balls out on his front lawn. I think we were both a little anxious about it. I grew up listening to him and here I am getting to write with him. We sat down, had some coffee, and then went to this old airplane hangar in his neighborhood. We spent the day there writing. 

I took him this song that I had been working on for a while called “In & Out of Light.” I hadn’t finished it, but had two verses and the tag line. He was like, “This is great. What do you need me for?” We ended up writing a bridge and a third verse. That was the first co-write. Talk about making a guy’s day. Then there’s one with Owen Temple, Brian Keane, Shane Smith, Cory, and I called “All I Need is You” and another one with Cory and I called “Running After You.” It’s something I’m really fortunate to have been a part of and to have on my resume. I’ve built a really good relationship with Cory. If this whole aspiration fizzles out at the end of the day, I’ll always know I have three co-writes on a Cory Morrow record.

NS: Yeah. Not too bad. Has that opened any doors for other co-writing opportunities?

JB: It really has. I think there will be a lot more co-writing in 2016 with other established Texas artists. I know I’ll be going up to Nashville and doing some stuff with Waylon Payne at the end of the year.

NS: That’ll be awesome. 

JB: Yeah. I think that’s my real gift. I’ve been working on the stage show and everything. But when it’s me and another songwriter in the room, I think that’s when I’m hitting on all cylinders. I’m looking forward to writing with more people.

NS: You feel that most of those will be where they’ll end up filling your next album or they’ll primarily be put out on their records?

JB: That’s a good question. Anything I co-write with these established Texas guys, should those opportunities arise, ideally we’d be writing for their record. But if I get to write with Waylon Payne, that’s something I’ll keep for my record. I think it depends on who the artist is and where their market is. 


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