“Bound for New York City, and I won’t be back no more… Goodbye, Guitar Town,” Steve Earle announced in the opening lines of the first track on his 12th album. Sure enough, “Washington Square Serenade” found the 53-year-old singer-songwriter trading Nashville for the Big Apple, embracing life with new wife and fellow musician Allison Moorer and exploring an exciting new sound equally reliant upon acoustic guitars and computer programming.
I caught up with the always outspoken musician, actor (most recently seen on “The Wire”), talk-radio host, novelist, playwright and reformed drug addict in the midst of a tour that brings him and Moorer to Chicago on Friday.
Q. It’s been a while since we’ve talked, Steve…
A. Well, I just went the longest I’ve gone without making a record since my drug vacation in the ghetto!
Q. So, were you going through withdrawal from the recording studio?
A. No, and some of it was pure circumstances: I changed record labels, I changed managers, I moved to New York and I got married. It was probably time to reboot; I’d made a lot of records and toured constantly since I got out of jail [in 1994]. When I moved to New York, I kind of had to rethink everything, and that was good -- it was a really natural and organic kind of thing.
My recording process had become where preproduction was just soundcheck: The last few records had been with the Dukes, and you just start writing for the band, running things down at soundcheck and then recording them between tours. I really needed to not do that this time. I really wanted to keep everybody else’s fingerprints off the songs.
Q. So you found this different way of recording, working with programmed drum loops and digital backing tracks?
A. Right. I’d become much more interested in playing acoustic guitar than electric guitar, and I’d been buying a lot of acoustic guitars -- I’m kind of a Communist who doesn’t invest money in anything but guitars, and unfortunately, I live around the corner from Matt Umanov Guitars, which is the best shop in New York City. So it started with at first, I just wanted to work by myself, and that meant working with Pro Tools and going out and buying a computer. We’ve reached a point where anybody as committed to analog recording as I was has to make that decision, unless you want to be nice to Steve Albini, and I don’t! [Chicago recording engineer Albini controls one of the few remaining stocks of two-inch analog recording tape.] Anyway, at first, I thought I was just making demos. But by a very natural, organic process, I started finding and working with these loops and just made them by own.
You know, I’ve always loved records like that, with a mix of electronics and organic instruments. It makes perfect sense to me, because I’ve always said the best hip-hop was folk music. It’s all about making music by yourself: You just buy this equipment and start pushing buttons without worrying about reading the manuals. That’s not that far away from law students with banjos in 1955, and now here I was living in the neighborhood where all that happened [in Greenwich Village]. Obviously, folk music has always been a huge part of who I am, and that whole course I taught at the Old Town School of Folk Music [in 2000] was based on that. I grew up with the Beatles and the Stones and that stuff, but also with the Harry Smith anthology and Woody Guthrie.
Q. Do you think Woody Guthrie would have used a sampler if he’d had one in the’30s?
A. Absolutely! I think the biggest misconception about Woody Guthrie is that he was a politician. He wasn’t; he was an entertainer with his own radio show in California, long before he ever came to New York. He was a professional entertainer who happened to live in really politically charged times and happened to become politicized.
Q. That brings me to the political question: We talked several times circa “Jerusalem” (2002) and “The Revolution Starts... Now” (2004), and I know you were frustrated because a lot of people kept asking, “When are you going to stop singing political songs and go back to stuff like ‘Guitar Town’ again?” Now, you’re playing more personal songs…
A. And yes, people are starting to ask me why I’m not singing about politics anymore! You got it! But you know, there are political songs on this record, just like there were political songs on “Copperhead Road” . I think it was just the times when I made “Jerusalem” and “The Revolution Starts… Now,” which admittedly are kind of part one and part two of the same record. We made “The Revolution Starts… Now” because I literally had two songs I wanted heard before the election, and I beat the deadline by a week. So the intention of those records may have been unapologetically political, but I don’t think this record is apolitical. “City of Immigrants” is pretty f---ing political, and “Steve’s Hammer” certainly is, too. This album is largely love songs for Allison Moorer in New York City. But I’ve never written a record that had no chick songs, and I’ve never written a record that had no political songs!
Q. Still, you must get less hate mail for writing a song like “Sparkle and Shine” than you do for writing “John Walker’s Blues.”
A. I never really got that much hate mail. There were a few people on Fox News and things like that that said, “This guy should consider hiring a bodyguard.” It freaked my mom out a bit, and there were people that worried about me, but I never really worried about it all that much. I really am not sitting around trying to be provocative. I’m just trying to write, and I never consider censoring myself. That’s the difference between now and the ’60s: Back then, there were a lot of artists who never considered censoring themselves. And now there are a lot of people who censor themselves, but I was raised in a way that it never occurred to me to think, “Should I or shouldn’t I say this?” before I made a piece of art.
Q. There’s no easy way to ask this, Steve, so I’ll just say it: You’ve been married seven times to six different women, one of them twice. What makes you think this marriage to Allison is going to work?
A. Well, I got married a lot in the ’80s, but I haven’t been married in a long time. A lot’s changed. Allison and I spent the last three years synching up our schedules so we can tour together. That’s not about marketing, although I think people kind of dig that we tour together and we’re recording together. But the decision was about staying married and not being away from each other. I’m a lot different person than I was even 10 years ago; I’ve been clean for 13 years, and certainly that helps. But I’m just a lot different person than I was all those other times I got married, and I’m married to somebody that’s a lot different than the other people I was married to.
I always believed in marriage, and the reason I believed in it was that my parents stayed married until my father died, a couple of days after Christmas last year. I’m the oldest of five kids whose parents stayed together for 53 years, and I believed in it and still do. So I do believe we’re gonna make it this time, me and Allison.
Q. Is it difficult touring with your spouse?
A. It’s been some work, but it’s better than dealing with what you’d deal with if you were apart. When you live in close quarters, you have to make real allowances for each other. I’ve never had to live with another artist before, so I’ve had to do it differently, and she’s had to, too. There’s a lot of art that gets made in our house, and we live in New York now, which makes the quarters even smaller. So you just have to make allowances, but that’s good for you, to have to do things differently. Since we’ve been together, she’s written one record of all her own material, I’ve written one, she’s done preproduction on a record that’s mostly covers and I’ve got a novel that’s almost finished. It requires some thought, but I think that’s probably good for me and good for the marriage, because we’ve had to consciously make those adjustments.
Steve Earle, Allison Moorer
8:30 p.m. Friday
Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield