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“It’s all horseshit,” says Sturgill Simpson, his laidback Kentucky baritone gathering steam. “You sit down with a bio writer and they write out what this conversation’s going to be for the next year and a half. And then your publicist sends that to fucking everybody, and then (the media) rewrite their version of the same thing, and they publish it to sell advertising. And then the fans read the same seven answers to the same seven questions 7,000 fucking times, and then they regurgitate it like it was their idea on Twitter. And now you have a narrative.”
In the space of a 20-second rant, one of the biggest stars in contemporary country music who no longer actually makes country music has succinctly laid out the meaninglessness of cultural discourse in 2020. For a moment, I am owned as the utterly exposed “horseshit perpetuator” in the room. It briefly seems pointless to carry on with our interview, and I suspect that’s exactly how Simpson planned it.
While he is unfailingly polite and engaging, there is no doubt that Simpson would rather not be here talking to me. The 41-year-old singer-songwriter — who currently lives with his wife, Sarah, and three young sons on 150 acres perched atop a southeastern Tennessee mountain — has descended from his blessedly remote familial retreat into the belly of the industry beast, Nashville, to do something he rarely does anymore: Promote himself.
But before that, he must point out how dumb this all is, Howard Beale-in-Network style.
“What’s even slipperier, or more dangerous, is when you start buying into your own manufactured horseshit, you know what I mean?” he continues. “We all do it. I caught myself doing it. I was like, ‘Oh, wait a minute, this is not what you fucking moved here for. Let’s try to wake up in 20 years and be able to look in the fucking mirror.’ Because I already got enough regret. I don’t want my art to be something I ever feel like I compromised on.”
Whenever Simpson goes off like this, he can sense how it’s eventually going to look in print. In person, he is self-effacing, funny, and projects a settled calm that could almost be described as Zen-like were it not for the torrents of insults and profanity that tumble out of his mouth, especially when discussing the music industry. He sounds like your cynical but essentially good-natured brother-in-law who can’t stop complaining about his job — assuming your brother-in-law was once nominated for an Album Of The Year Grammy.
“I’m pretty sardonic,” he says. “I’ve learned the written word is not my friend.”
But seriously: Sturgill is doing pretty well these days. He has lost more than 20 pounds in the past four months, which he says is due to eating right. He’s gotten better about pursuing meditative diversions — like racing cars or hitting the gun range — that help block out what he calls “the static.” He’s also ignoring the election season, another form of self-care. (“I don’t really lean one way or the other,” he maintains. “I’m an anarchist.”)
If only he didn’t have to go out on the road again. For a guy whose nearest neighbor lives three miles away, heading out into the world is itself a chore. But he admits that the idea of playing songs every night from 2019’s Sound & Fury — a bitterly funny synth-blooze dystopian guitar-hero opus that divided fans and critics — seems painful. He’s not the angry, alienated guy who made that album anymore.
And yet “angry” and “alienated” pretty much is his persona lately. Hence his reticence to talk with journalists. For Sound & Fury, he did just one interview. For his upcoming 52-show American tour, which signals Simpson’s ascendence to arena headliner status, he’s once again doing the bare minimum to get the word out. Though, as he’s quick to point out, it’s not like he has to talk to you people to sell tickets.
“We’re going on a damn-near sold out arena tour. This is literally the first time I’ve lifted a finger to fucking promote the record or the tour,” he says. “So, the fans did that. I have to believe it wasn’t the industry or marketing myself. I’m not on social media, so I’m definitely not pandering.”
When you meet Sturgill, you find that he’s like the titular character from Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai classic Yojimbo, a thematic inspiration for Sound & Fury and the accompanying bonkers and extremely expensive Netflix anime film — reportedly it cost $1.2 million, which Simpson insisted his record label pay before they could release the record. (You should seek it out if you haven’t already — it’s really fun and super incoherent, like The Wall for funky Eliminator–inspired country-rock music.)
As portrayed by the iconic Japanese leading man Toshiro Mifune, Yojimbo is an outsider who sees all of the angles, eventually using his intellect and brute power to play both sides in a war between corrupt families. Simpson is attempting a similar trick with the music business, simultaneously attacking it and exploiting it for his own ends. He’s presently writing a book called A Sailor’s Guide To the Music Business in which he lays further waste to all of the “horseshit” he’s had to endure since unexpectedly elevating himself from obscurity to fame and fortune. The liars. The fakes. The corporate mediocrities he insists he no longer needs. He says, though, that he won’t publish it until he’s retired, possibly after the Sound & Fury tour.
He’s also working on a few screenplays, including a “punk-rock” reboot of An American Werewolf In London. (Simpson’s recent interest in cinema also extends to acting, including performances in Queen & Slim, The Dead Don’t Die, and The Hunt.) Oh, and there are (probably) lots of new songs he’s written, too, in the time since he recorded Sound & Fury. (The album was finished almost three years ago, around the time of his uncomfortable Grammys run and a miserable 2017 tour that drove him to substance abuse and depression.) Though he ultimately refuses to either confirm or deny the existence of new music, lest he tip off his record label, Elektra, whom Simpson insists he will never work with again.
When we met up in early February to talk about all of this at a chic downtown Nashville hotel, he rolled his eyes at the fancy suite his label booked for the interview. “Is this the most pretentious hotel they could find?” he says. “Who did this?”
It was certainly a far cry from the first hotel room in which I interviewed Simpson six years ago, right before the release of his breakthrough 2014 LP, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music. At the time, he was touring by himself in the upper midwest, with just his guitar to keep him company. Sometimes, he would go several days without talking to another person.
Simpson was still a relative novice as a professional musician. He had only begun his carer in earnest in his mid-30s, after nearly two decades of drifting from odd job to odd job. There was a stint in the Navy that wound up transplanting him to Seattle for a hazy period of drug abuse and slacking off. There was a relatively happy period working as a train conductor in Salt Lake City. Eventually, Sarah talked him into taking a stab at a music career. Before Metamodern, his career prospects seemed dubious at best. And now his first child — the one who would inspire the writing of his third album, 2016’s Grammy-feted A Sailor’s Guide To Earth — was about to be born.
We caught up in Madison, Wisconsin at a modest inn down the street from the small club he was playing that night. Sturgill’s fanbase at that time was small but passionate, due to his 2013 debut High Top Mountain, an unabashed outlaw-country throwback made with future superstar Nashville producer Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell). While Simpson subsequently made far more successful records, the straight-ahead Waylon-isms of High Top Mountain continue to define him, much like how Bob Dylan is still called a protest singer more than 50 years after he stopped making protest records. By the following year, he had already grown to resent his debut, which he now finds unlistenable. (The sonic palette of Sound & Fury — inspired by ZZ Top, the ’90s stoner-metal band Kyuss, the Bee Gees, Tool, and Eric Clapton — is more reflective of his personal taste, he says.)
At the gig that night, a rowdy audience of about 50 people expected Simpson to play the outspoken anti-establishment country hero. Instead, he stared at his shoes and tried in vain to connect with his own material. Frustrated by his introspection, the mob eventually started chanting “Fuck Toby Keith!” Simpson meanwhile kept looking at his shoes.
He still remembers that night in Madison all of these years later. He recalls phoning his wife after the show and telling her that he wanted to quit the music business right then and there. In a way, he’s never stopped wanting to quit.
“I feel like my whole career has been about trying to get away from that night,” he tells me as we sit down to talk about the upcoming tour, which he says might be his last, and how he’s planning his eventual escape from the music business.
Sound & Fury was recorded almost three years ago, and you’ve talked about how it was a snapshot of your life and mindset at that time. Where are you at now?
Well, that record was really a reaction to burnout, and realizing I just don’t want to really contribute to or be a part of the music business anymore. I just want to play music. And I’d learned I’d been commodified. You just see all these things. I was just trying to feed my family, you know, so you don’t know how fast the train’s going when you’re on it. I hadn’t really gotten any time off — I’d been asking for a long time, our family was growing, and then the Grammy shit happened. And you get convinced, “Oh god, you’ve got to strike now.” But you really don’t. Sometimes I think the best thing we can do in this business anymore is just go the fuck away. But there’s that “tread water or drown” mentality.
So, I got talked into going out, playing a bunch of shows in 2017, when I was already burnt-out and exhausted. I wish I could give anybody’s money back who came to those shows, man, because my head was so far out of that. I didn’t want to be there. Luckily the guys in my band, they understood what I was going through, and showed me a lot of love and loyalty and support, and we just got through it. Sound & Fury was sort of a palate cleanse to just shake it all off, and also to really find my love for music again. So, I realized to do that I had to just do something completely different from everything I’d been doing as a professional musician.
Are you over that burnout now?
The worst part now is we made the record and then I spent a year and a half going back to Japan and making the film. So, now I’m completely burnt out on the record. I literally can’t listen to it.
It’s very weird now, wrapping my head around the fact that I have to go out and sing these songs every night for 52 shows, because I’m so far out of that headspace that I almost can’t even remember how I got there. I’m just feeling very grateful for what I wake up and look at every day, and knowing that at some points, things on my end did get a little slippery. Because you spend so much time in isolation in this job, and then when you come home, you don’t really know where you belong because you’ve been in this cocoon, and you’re irritable and you’re exhausted. And the nightly adrenaline blast is so unhealthy. My dopamine/serotonin levels just got so jacked up. To be completely honest, I fell back into substance abuse in 2017, pretty heavily.
Drinking and other things, just in hotel rooms by myself a lot. You can’t really go anywhere on show days, you’re stuck. There’s always been some depression issues and I let it get on top of me. So I came home and finally got the year or more off that I needed, other than those trips to Japan, and thankfully heavily reconnected with my wife in a very profound and intense way, and then with the children.
Singing these songs, it’s almost like, did this even really happen? It’s still fine, because we’re rocking out. But when I sing these songs, it helps me understand a lot more about myself and how to be healthier, because they’re kind of dark.
I was just thinking that when you were going through this depressive period on the road in 2017, that was around the same time that Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington took their own lives.
We played a show, a festival, literally three days before [Cornell] died, and Soundgarden went on right after us. I remember hearing that and just being like, “What the fuck, man?” It was just so weird, because it was, I think, late ’90s when I’d gotten out of the Navy, and I was living in Seattle, and I was in a pretty bad place, some real dark shit. I would listen to Badmotorfinger on repeat. And that music, the heaviness is one of the things that really made me feel better. I’d sit and play some Star Wars Nintendo 64 game for eight hours just smacked out on shit, listening to Soundgarden and Django Reinhardt. It was a weird thing to bounce back and forth between.
I never got that bad, I was just medicating from… I finally had the family I always wanted, but then you’re gone nine months out of the year. And then I had two kids, and I literally missed the first year of their lives, and I just refuse to do that anymore. So, this tour is really a celebration of the music and the fans and everything that’s happened, especially the band. Some way for us to go out and show this music and the creation the respect it deserves. But then, I don’t know that I’ll ever do this again.
You mean you’ll never do a big tour again, or might you never play live at all?
Definitely not a big tour like this, no. I’m going to get through it, and then I’m going to take my wife and kids on vacation for the summer and just sort of process, see where I’m at with it all. But I love the studio. Anything that feels like a creative exercise. And I do love the stage. You can find bliss out there, in moments when you don’t feel like you’re expected to entertain. Which, to me, when you’re in bliss, what could be more entertaining than seeing a musician lose themself, you know?
Musicians always say that everything that happens around the two hours on stage is the worst part of touring.
It’s all just fucking money, man. So many people, you don’t even know their faces, that are making money off it. So, we’re playing arenas now, and I have no idea if I’m an arena act. I guess I’ll find out.
Do you feel more trepidation than excitement about playing those big rooms?
I just know that it’s going to be really hard to connect with people that are sitting 300 yards away. I like theaters. You can still rock a theater out. But to me, as a guy who spent so much of his musical life in smaller clubs, it’s going to take me a week or two to wrap my head around.
After this tour, I’ll probably never play these songs again, because it’s too painful.
How is it painful?
I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t ever want to be that guy again.
But the music on Sound & Fury is so playful. Plus, you get to cut loose as a guitar player.
I’m having more fun playing guitar than singing right now. That’s where my head and my heart is. And I know I’ll wake up in a year or two and it’ll be the exact opposite because that’s just how it goes. But for right now, it’s very freeing.
How was the European tour?
Those were rehearsals. I go to Europe to rehearse and for vacation. We don’t make money over there. You can play 3,000-seat theaters and still you’re lucky to break even. So, that’s where my band and I were at. I’m not really somebody who practices. We just sort of go and get the flow and figure it out. Some nights, like the London show, the crowd was dead. They had a mezzanine with tables and silver spoons and shit. You just know 30 seconds into the first song this is going to be a long fucking night, because you get what you give, you know? And I kind of slagged the crowd a little bit too, because they weren’t giving us any energy. So, I just said what I knew would piss them off, which is like, “Germany was more fucking wild than you guys.” The Londoners hate that shit. It’s the other L.A. I think I’ll just play Glasgow and Dublin twice and skip London next time.
I think it’s very canny on your part — even if it’s just a byproduct of your aversion to the music business — to not market yourself. Because I think people are tired of constantly having celebrities in their faces. This might seem like a random question but it relates to what we’re talking about: Are you a Frank Ocean fan?
I love Frank Ocean. I’ve never met him. I love his music. I heard his previous record, but Blonde sort of floored me because texturally and tonally, those guys, just the tools that they use, it’s so different than what I do. A lot of the time, I don’t understand what I’m hearing or how they achieved it, and that’s fascinating to me. But I definitely appreciate his artistry. I think his integrity is pretty unimpeachable. Yeah, I love Frank. I think he’s a genius.
I feel like you both approach celebrity in a similar kind of way. It’s very hands-off. You’re often inaccessible, which makes anything you do carry more weight.
Well, he knows what is healthy for him and what isn’t, and what at a certain point becomes a detriment to the work. Rick Rubin said something to me one time about the game, and the static of it all. And the real gift, the opportunity in this is, we get to create, man. And that’s holy, if you want to be cliché. It’s not even cliché. That’s profound, it is. It’s so easy to destroy, or tear things down, you know what I mean? And some people make a living doing just that and only that.
I made a conscious decision with this record: I’m not going to do the late-night circuit, I’m not going to do a thousand interviews. Because at a certain point it’s not about the music anymore. I also don’t think Frank is a thirsty bitch, which also helps. It’s very important to not be a thirsty bitch.
How hard is it to draw that line in the sand with your record company?
It was pretty easy, you just say no.
The record company’s not on your back?
I don’t talk to the record company.
It’s really that simple?
It’s really that simple. Or, maybe if you don’t want to be on a record label anymore, you make a record they can’t market, then you get them to spend a million bucks on an animation film and refuse to promote it, and leave them holding this giant un-recouped debt. Maybe the bean counters will make a decision for me. I can go back to just doing it myself better than they do. That’s what I’ve learned. Because they don’t know what the fuck to do with me.
It sounds like you’re done with Elektra.
I’m done. I’m done. Unless they drop me, I’m done.
What does that mean? You won’t record for them anymore?
I’m not going to give them anything ever again, so I guess I’m done.
Have you written anything since recording Sound & Fury?
Oh yeah. I’m always writing. I wrote a book. I’m working on a couple of scripts. I’ve gotten really into film. Not just acting, but the whole art of it. I think it’s a very powerful medium for storytelling, without as many restrictions as a three-and-a-half minute song. But I definitely wrote a book. Still working on it.
What would you call it? Investigative journalism. It’s called A Sailor’s Guide To The Music Business. I’m going to sit on that a while.
I assume it’s about your experiences in the industry?
Mm-hmm. As somebody starting at 35 and just sort of learning to navigate the waters and all the real ins and outs behind the curtain. The kind of stuff that fans probably deserve to know, but you don’t really want to say while you’re still actively engaged in the business. So, I’m going to save that. Also, I’m not done learning. I don’t think my journey’s over yet.
Can you talk about your scripts at all?
Yeah, one of them’s based on my experiences from the Navy. A group of guys that decide to get out during wartime. And the other one is I want to do a reboot of An American Werewolf in London. Like a punk-rock, really gritty version.
How about songs? Do you have enough songs for another album?
Well, if I said that then the record label would never let me go.
I’m done working for them. I’m done giving babies away. I equate it to, if you owned a fucking dry cleaners, and it took off, and somebody showed up like, “Hey, we want to buy your dry cleaners. You can sit here and run the counter, but we’ll keep all the money.” Like, what other business model would anybody fucking think that makes sense in? And honestly, I don’t really see what they’ve done that I couldn’t have done myself, probably better. They haven’t delivered on any of their promises, so I’m fucking done there. But they wanted me to promote the tour, so here we are.
Was the label upset when you turned in Sound & Fury?
I don’t know, I don’t talk to them. I went almost two and a half years without a manager, because we were just touring and there’s nothing to manage. The only reason I hired a manager was, essentially, just to be a wall, so that I don’t have to talk to these people anymore, because they’re static. They’re a creative suck. Because at the end of the day, their agenda is not the same as mine.
Was there a particular breaking point with your label?
Yeah, it’s that they control everything and contribute nothing, and that to be successful in their world I would have to play the game and do things that I just don’t want to do. So, it makes no sense. It’s not a good relationship for anybody. And I was manipulated into thinking I needed a record contract when I knew I never did, by certain individuals who aren’t even in my life anymore, because they had their own back-channel deals working behind the scenes that nobody tells you about until the ink’s dry. So, that’s lessons learned. I just don’t want to make the kind of records that a major label lives to promote and make money off of. I don’t want to be Bruno Mars.
I assume the kind of record they would want is a down-the-middle country album.
For sure. Metamodern happened in the grassroots world. But a major label, the people that worry about bottom lines and quarterly reports, they’ll never understand why my career really happened, because that’s not the world they navigate. The following year Traveller happened, the Chris Stapleton breakthrough, which was very much an insider thing. Chris is a very talented guy, but that happened because they directly benefited from it. I guess Atlantic thought I was going to make that record, too, which showed me they didn’t understand who they signed. [Simpson signed with Atlantic in 2015, and then was put under the Elektra umbrella in 2018.]
So I wrote a record to my kid. Which, fucking weirdly, was still pretty successful, but all that Grammy shit, that was them trying to get return on investment. I would have never been nominated for Album Of The Year if I put that album out on Thirty Tigers, and I know that for a fucking fact because I know those secret committees exist, and that’s all them trying to service themselves. It really had nothing to do with me.
It seems like the “secret committees” aspect of the Grammys is finally coming to light.
Oh, it should come out. It’s all horseshit. It’s so unimportant. I’m glad I went, because now I never have to go again. To sit there with a shadow and a radio on me the whole fucking night because I guess they thought I was going to leave or something, and then having to spend a month on conference calls threatening not to go if I didn’t get a performance. It was all just like, “Oh, okay, I see what this is.”
Let me play devil’s advocate here: Doesn’t working with a big record label enable your art to reach as many people as possible? And isn’t that what most artists want?
I was already making music. I was making music before I was a professional musician. They have no semblance over whether I get to be an artist or not. They just make it harder to be an artist. If I was a real artist, I would have never fucking listened to this record again as soon as it was finished, I would never be going out and playing these shows, I would have just started working on the next record, but you got to feed the mechanics. We don’t get paid unless we tour, so I’m going on the road.
The only reason to sign with a record label is to have more money for recording, if you’re okay with giving the masters away. But you don’t even have to do that anymore. If they want it bad enough, you can give them one record and license the masters for a term and get them back. A bigger recording budget is the only reason any real artist should sign with a record label. I don’t really ever want to work with a producer again, having done it and knowing what a struggle it can be. Because they all have their agenda, which is trying to make money or sell this commercialized version of what they think you are.
You’re referring to your debut album, High Top Mountain.
The one that Dave Cobb produced.
But you worked with him again on Metamodern Sounds.
Well, we worked on Metamodern but those songs were carved out when we were on the road, with my band. He got all the credit and career from it, but that’s my album. Anybody that’s heard my last few records, I think it’s pretty fucking clear.
But in that instance [with High Top Mountain], I definitely felt like there wasn’t really much interest in who I was really wanting to be. So, we made a Waylon Jennings record, and I’ve been trying to shake that shit off ever since. I can’t fucking listen to it. It’s so slick and clean.
Do you feel that way about the songs or is it just the album?
I can play those songs live and still love them, but I can’t listen to that record. It was a commercial record disguised as a traditional album, and to my ears, it’s just too fucking safe. So, with Metamodern, we got real unsafe.
I mean, to my eyes, the Traveller record Cobb did with Stapleton was a commercial country record disguised as a traditional record. Chris is a phenomenal talent, but live it’s just so much more pleasing to me than what sonically that record was. His voice is amazing. And honestly, of anybody from that mainstream world, that guy’s been incredibly kind to me. Truly one of the people I feel like has genuinely tried to be a friend.
Will your family be able to come out on tour with you?
With the kids, it’s hard, because there’s no routine out there. I’ve realized I can only go so long without seeing my wife, and she will drop everything on a dime and just fly to where I’m at, even if it’s just for a day or two. It’s amazing how much that recharges my battery. I just don’t ever want to be a cliché. I don’t want to get to that point where I destroy the one thing that actually fucking matters to me just because I’m out chasing attention. I have something at home so profoundly real and powerful. With this job, the gift is you get to go out and make strangers happy, and share creation with them. Ninety-nine percent of the rest of the job is truly manufactured horseshit. So, what? I’m subjecting myself to horseshit instead of the most beautiful thing I could ever imagine in this lifetime?
That’s a hard thing to balance. Don’t get me wrong, the shows are fun. It’s the other 22 hours of the day on the road that I don’t know what to do with myself. So, I’ve made conscious decisions in the last four months. I’ve lost 23 pounds just from exercising, cutting sugar out, and changing my diet, being more aware of precursors that can affect mental health. But there’s no way around the adrenaline blast. It’s just learning how to counterbalance that a little better.
Do you have a routine during the day on tour?
I do now, yeah. Not waking up and smoking pot until I go back to sleep is a good step. I’ve gotten into racing. Like, cars.
You mean you driving race cars yourself?
Well, yeah. I have a rally car. I like two-lane country roads, just really tear ass.
On the road, I’m going to tracks on days off, and taking more intensely focused professional driving lessons. And then I got into competition, marksmanship, like, shooting festivals, and long-range rifle stuff. Anything that allows or demands total concentration, and shutting off the static, as I like to call it. I’m trying to get into yoga. I don’t know enough about it, but I think if I can stick with it it might actually save my life. But driving real fucking fast I’ve found is extremely therapeutic.
In my own small way, I can relate to what you’re saying about how being away from your family can make you feel rootless. I feel like before I got married was —
Yeah. And having a family gave me structure.
Fucking yeah. My wife is my North Star, man. When I’m away too long, you’re just bobbing on the fucking water, you know?
It’s hard to see a point to life.
I was an only child, very tumultuous household. Probably took too long to actually break apart. So, there’s a lot of stuff I could have done without from that. And between the Navy and the railroad and all the odd jobs, I’ve basically lived out of a bag for 20 years, and I’m just done with it. I want to go home.
You lived out of a bag, and then you found a home. And then you had to live out of a bag again.
It’s so easy, when you’re out there bobbing on the water, to hallucinate and lose grip. And I felt that. I felt that a time or two, and I don’t ever want to feel that again.
We’re all filling voids, man. I’m always wary of the people that are really good at this job and they try to act like they’ve got it all together. Those are the ones you know are full of shit, you know what I mean? I’ve always said, show me a stable artist and I’ll show you some boring art. But when I’m at home, I’ve got it all together, for the most part. There’s something that also requires you to be thinking two years ahead of time all the time with this job, and it’s a source of anxiety if you live in the future like that. So, I’m learning how to live more in the moment.
Sturgill Simpson is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.