Q&A with Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket | Pittsburgh City Paper

Q&A with Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket

Broemel and Steelism play Rex Theater on September 30

click to enlarge Q&A with Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket
Photo: Jack Spencer
Carl Broemel
Carl Broemel still gets nervous. The guitarist and songwriter has been playing music since he was a child, has played with My Morning jacket since 2004, and released four solo albums, including 2018's Wished Out. But as an artist perpetually venturing outside his comfort zone, the nerves don't really go away (especially when branching out on his solo work).

Wished Out, released on September 7, was recorded in Broemel’s newly-constructed home studio in Nashville. While Broemel tracked many of the instrumentals himself, he received a little help from his MMJ friends to create the heady, mellow, semi-psychedelic sound that the album embodies. Working with friends offered a reprieve from the discomfort of riding solo – an experience Broemel is not yet accustomed to and is still overcoming.

After partnering with acoustic band, Steelism, Broemel kicked off his solo tour in Atlanta on September 19; they're playing the Rex on September 30. City Paper chatted with Broemel before the start of his tour to discuss My Morning Jacket's break, his creative process and inspiration, and the challenges (and nervousness) that comes when working as a solo artist.

I’ll start with a question you probably get a lot: Why did you and your fellow My Morning Jacket bandmates decide to take a break to pursue solo projects?
They weren’t necessarily totally connected. We’re just taking a little break, so naturally, we all kind of split off into different directions and started doing other things because of the space that’s there. I’ve been in the band for 14 years, and it existed for many years before that, and this is the first time that we consciously made a moment where we didn’t put things on the calendar for a bit.

Do you feel like you’re going to be rekindling anytime soon or will you be being doing solo work for a while?
Yeah, I’m going to focus on this for the rest of this year and maybe next spring, and then we’ll just see what happens after that.

When you’re writing and recording music, how do you separate your sound from My Morning Jacket?
That’s a good question. I think some of the stuff is inherently connected, no matter what you do. I wrote songs a long time ago, I’ve been in bands before My Morning Jacket, and I’ve been a songwriter for a really long time, so it’s been something that I’ve always done on the side. I usually find myself in the position of being the guitar player in a band who’s not necessarily the singer, and I think that’s kind of what I’m best at doing. So this for me is more kind of exploring what it is I could come up with on my own, and it’s a big challenge to put the work into and get the confidence up to do that. That’s how I look at it. I’m not necessarily drawing a line in the sand saying we’re not related at all, but in a way, they can coexist and not have to intermingle on a big level.

You said it’s a challenge for you, what would you say the biggest challenge is working as a solo artist?
For me, it gets overwhelming being alone. Being alone and having to make the decisions about everything that’s going on. It’s sort of an educational thing. I like being in a collaborative space. I try to collaborate a lot with people when we’re recording. But when it comes to going on tour or standing on stage and in between songs and you're supposed to say something, all these little weird things that I never had to do, I have to do when I’m doing my own. So it kind of informs how I approach the band or any other thing I do. Just feeling the pressure of being the person who has to sing and be the focal point of it, it's not something I crave necessarily, but it’s something I enjoy doing. Especially when I get over that hump, the little twinge of fear every time I start something new.
We all feel that way with new things. So how are you preparing for your solo tour?
I’m putting together a band, it's actually a group that exists, they’re called Steelism, an instrumental band in Nashville. I’ve teamed up with them for the tour. So we’re going to rehearse, starting [the weekend of September 15]. That’s how we’re going to prepare for it, I’ve kind of figured out what I think I want to play, and then as we go through all the songs we'll put together the show. Part of the fun thing about playing with these guys is that none of them played on the record. I made the record with other people – my friends Russ Pollard and Tom Blankenship from My Morning Jacket, and Bo [Koster] played on one song, and Robbie Crowell who used to be in Deer Tick played on the record. So, I kind of made the record at my house, just with a couple of people around helping me. Then two years ago, Steelism and I played at Newport, and they were my backing band. They backed a bunch of people and did their own set. We’ve kind of been collaborating, and we did a weeklong tour [last] November, and now we’re doing like five weeks of touring together, for this record. So they’re going to bring a whole other element to it and put their spin on all the music.

So you said you wrote a lot of this record at home in your studio, tell me about a day in your creative process.
I probably wrote half the songs at home and half the songs on tour in hotel rooms or something. But I just have a small studio space in my backyard, and it’s the first time I’ve had a place where I can leave everything set up – leave it a mess or leave it in perfect position to record – it’s modular, the space. I can set it up for songwriting, I can set it up for tracking a drum kit, it just depends on what I want to do. When I put the record together, since I was using my own space, I’d work on one or two songs, then maybe go write for a little bit, and then come back and record two are three more songs. I just sort of slowly accumulated the eight that are now on the album.

Do you have any songs that you got rid of or threw away in the process of refining the eight?

Oh definitely! It’s been cool, I feel like I’m still learning how to write songs. I always feel like a total beginner. For me personally, I end up having 30 or so ideas, and I try to see how far I can take them, and then I’ll pick from that. I’m like, "out of all of these, which ones would I not be embarrassed to play for my friends?" And then those are the ones we work on; you just see what rises to the top. I wanted this record to be upbeat, a little more rockin'. That was the only preconceived notion I had for it, so there are a bunch of mellower songs that I finished and was like, "you know what, I’m going to set these aside and keep looking to see if I can come up with some other stuff."

Do you have plans for the songs you set aside or are you just waiting to see what happens?
You know, they get thrown in a new folder for the next record, so they have a chance.

So I read that some of your inspiration for this album came from reading scientific pieces, from Neil deGrasse Tyson for example, what specifically stood out to you? I don’t usually hear that musicians are inspired by science.
It’s pretty exciting if you pay attention at all to current cutting-edge scientific thought that’s not super metaphysical. I mean, people are taking science and manipulating it to their own weird mystical purposes, but there are certain trustworthy sources that you can go to. When I watched the Cosmos series, that really kind of blew my mind and got me back into it. So I read some of his books, and there's a guy named Carlo Rovelli who wrote a really good short book. Then I read this book by Chris Impey, who’s another astrophysicist, and his book is really cool because he teaches the exiled Tibetan monks. I guess the Dalai Lama hired him to do a seminar. But that book is amazing because you have the intersection of cutting-edge science and an ancient religious tradition and how they intermingle, and how they connect and how they are not really at odds with each other at all. I think that’s really interesting when you can find that sort of thing. The edge of scientific knowledge is a really beautiful thing to ponder. It’s full of wonder and gives you that moment of like, "wow!" Like when you see a rainbow or something, it’s like you can explain the rainbow by photons and water molecules and moisture or whatever, but you still have that feeling, it's like a human thing. I’m stoked on that moment when you can hear how something really works, the mechanics. One of my favorite things to think of is the mechanics of a record player. I know how that works but it still seems magical. I enjoy that moment. The magic of science is fun; it’s not a cold thing.

It’s like looking at something with a child’s sense of astonishment and wonder.
Yeah, exactly. And then investigating it and seeing how deep our understanding can be from there.

What are you most looking forward to regarding your tour?
I’m just looking forward to it period. There are two things that I love doing. I love being in the studio and making something new and seeing if it feels good a few months later. And then to get to go play and keep exploring those ideas. Like I said with this band, it’s going to be a whole other beast for me. I’m going to have to wrap my head around it, and we’re all going to discuss what all we can do with my songs and collaborating together. For me, those moments on tour when you feel like you needed to play ten shows to get to that eleventh show, or you had the idea to do something new, or something unexpected happens, those are the treasure chests on tour.

Follow music writer Jordan Snowden on Twitter @snowden_jordan