The Black Keys have been grinding their way to sold-out arenas and multiple Grammy Awards at an old-school music-biz pace for a decade.
It’s not surprising that after their tour for Turn Blue ended in 2015, the Akron-born duo of singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney would finally take some time away from the write-record-tour rock ’n’ roll hamster wheel.
While Carney has been producing and touring with his new girlfriend, singer/songwriter Michelle Branch, Auerbach has been spending his break having some quality time with his tween daughter Sadie, which occasionally leaves him baffled.
“I sit around watching Sadie with her friends having conversations and it’s absolute madness. Are you even using words? What is that?” he said by phone.
“They don’t ever actually say anything, they just regurgitate scenarios they see,” he added with a chuckle.
In addition to deciphering the conversations of pre-teens, Auerbach has been writing and recording … and writing and recording some more. He opened up his traditional routine to include a few of the many, many capable and legendary songwriters in Nashville, where he has lived since moving from Akron eight years ago.
“It just started as writing sessions,” he said. “It was last summer and I just stopped touring, and that was the thing that set up the writing sessions, and from the writing sessions came the recording sessions. I didn’t plan it.”
Dan Auerbach's new solo project, "Waiting on a Song."
The initial results can be heard on Auerbach’s latest solo album, Waiting on a Song, released today.
It’s a mere 10 songs that all clock in under five minutes, similar to the classic days of vinyl records. But Auerbach said the album is a fraction of what he and co-producer Dave “Fergie” Ferguson have been recording for the past several months.
“I recorded like 200 songs this past year. I was just going crazy making music,” Auerbach said.
“I just had so much of it and I definitely had something for a record. So I picked a couple of songs that I knew I wanted to be on there, like Waiting On a Song, and that’s what dictated how the rest of the record was chosen. You needed the ones that were a good flow with that song and picked the other songs that would work with that. Short and tight and direct.”
The lead single is Shine On Me, a punchy, poppy, up-tempo tune with a shuffle groove, a fantastically bouncy bass line from Johnny Cash’s longtime bassist Dave Roe, and female background ooh-oohing that belie its subject matter.
“Yeah, it’s got a peppy feeling, although the lyrics aren’t peppy; they’re kind of depressing. That’s what I love about it. I love depressing pop music.”
The tune features a typically understated rhythm guitar from Dire Straits singer/songwriter/guitarist Mark Knopfler. Auerbach said the song’s groove reminded him of Knopfler, so he just sent a copy of the song with a short note to the guitarist in England and a few days later received the song back with little fanfare.
As with most of the album, Shine On Me was written with professional Nashville songwriters, in this case, Pat McLaughlin, who has had songs recorded by Bonnie Raitt, Trisha Yearwood and Alan Jackson to name-drop a few.
Auerbach said he realized he was in one of the song-writing capitals of the world, but had never collaborated with other writers. “Why not? Maybe I find out I’m not on their level, maybe I have a good time, I don’t know,” he said.
“I’ve never done it before. I’ve lived in Nashville for eight years, but I never did the traditional Nashville co-writing thing ever, and this whole town is built on that,” he said laughing.
“They’re everywhere and I’m friends with a few of them, so I started by writing some of the friends I knew and they introduced me to a couple more people, and I found that certain people I clicked with and I got into a regular writing routine that became so fruitful, so quickly.”
Among those fruits were sessions with John Prine, the legendary Grammy-winning singer/songwriter, Nashville hall of famer and master of elegant, plainspoken real-world lyrics. Prine’s tunes have been covered by artists from Johnny Cash to Bette Midler to Jamaican vocal trio the Mighty Diamonds. The album’s title track was co-written with Prine, with whom Auerbach will do a short opening stint on an upcoming tour.
“We were just in the groove and just jumped in, and it was great and really fast,” Auerbach said of the sessions. “The songs we wrote with Prine were very natural and they come out very easily, and when we finished Waiting it just felt so familiar. We wrote a song and then we just kept singing it. It was fun.”
In addition to opening up his writing, Auerbach opened up his studio, Easy Eye Sound, where most of the album was recorded live with a bevy of musicians who have been at the top of the first-call session list for decades.
Average listeners might not know such names as guitarist Duane Eddy, bassist Dave Roe, pianist Bobby Wood and drummer Gene Chrisman. But if you’ve listened to popular music in the last 50 years, you’ve heard their work on songs such as Sweet Caroline, Elvis’ take on In The Ghetto, Dusty Springfield’s Son of a Preacher Man and Aretha Franklin’s Do Right Woman, Do Right Man. Roe has recorded with contemporaries Carrie Underwood and recent Grammy winner Sturgill Simpson, as well as legends Chet Atkins and Loretta Lynn.
On a recent promotional appearance on Late Night with Stephen Colbert, Auerbach and his crew of veterans could be seen with huge smiles during their two-song set, everyone clearly having a great time.
“They were having a [frickin’] ball,” Auerbach said with a laugh. “They’re such great players and it was really fun because they were part of the process from the very start. We got to create something together and then we got to show it off together.”
The album contains little of Auerbach’s signature fuzz tone, and in terms of the production, the overall sound is much tighter. There are nods to classic Memphis and Nashville sounds, with a few stabbing strings, glockenspiel and vibes adding tightly packed musical layers rather than Auerbach’s usual looser feel.
The catchy Livin’ In Sin again features taut and in-pocket rhythmic shuffling and melodic bass. The slinky, lightly funky Cherrybomb works an Odelay-era Beck groove minus the beat machines, and Undertow ups the simmering funky groove quotient with some classic Memphis-style string punctuation.
Auerbach gives all the credit for the album’s clean, soulful sound to the musicians.
“You’re hearing the musicians,” he said. “The [frickin’] Memphis Boys are on there! Bubba [drummer Gene Chrisman] played on Al Green records. … So, yeah, you don’t hear something that sounds like a style. You’re literally hearing people who are the style.
“I had to check myself a few times. Every once in a while I’d hear something and think, ‘That sounds a little too much like Memphis soul,’ and then I’d go ‘Listen, these guys are Memphis soul,’?” he said laughing.
“They are also magicians. Bobby Wood, every time he plays, it sounds like a record and it’s easy really to be around. Everyone contributed in a really special way.”
As for touring behind the album, Auerbach admits he’s in no hurry to get back on the road, but may put together a tour if “everyone is up for it, why not?”
(AP Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision)
In this file photo, guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney of The Black Keys perform at the Global Citizen Festival in Central Park, in New York.
Eventually he and Carney will return to the Black Keys mothership, but there’s no hurry.
“At some point, yeah, sure. When the stars align for it. It’ll happen when it’s supposed to happen. You gotta be in the right mood. I don’t wanna force anything. I mean, we’ve gotten this far making our own decisions and I think we want to do it when the time is right,” he said.
But until that day comes, Auerbach is happy hanging with the kids, the songwriters and musicians, and the other projects he has lined up for his Easy Eye Sound record label.
“I’ve got a bunch of really cool projects and these are albums that are kind of finished. I got some younger bands, some older singers and some weird records; all kinds of stuff really,” he said of the label’s lineup, which should also include his father Chuck Auerbach’s already recorded debut album.
But with no pressure to crank out another Keys record and hit an arena near you, Auerbach is enjoying the time at home and in the studio being creative with his new friends.
“I’m gonna kind of work on [the label] for a while and keep writing. I don’t have too many plans, to be honest.”
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3758. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmabramABJ .