“Gearing up to write this record, one reoccurring theme kept smacking me in the face. It came from every direction and in many ways, but always the same: write from your heart. Create from a personal space. Heart. Heart. Heart. It was the only way to do it.”
So reads the inside sleeve for The Black Lillies’ fourth studio album, Hard To Please, which is available this Friday, October 2. For the Knoxville, Tennessee based bluesy roots rockers, the record represents significant changes; not only is it their first release since two former members went their separate ways, Hard To Please is the first album they’ve recorded with outside production. The band spend 80% of their time touring, which gives them the opportunity to fine-tune their songs in front of a live audience; for Hard to Please, Cruz Contreras found himself tasked with writing the majority of the record in just two weeks.
“Then there was a snowstorm,” Trisha Gene Brady says.
This turns out to have been a blessing for the group. “It was great; the town shut down and I pretty much just locked the door,” Contreras says. “I worked on tunes, would get them to a certain point, give everybody a call, and the basement became the spot.”
“We’d been so busy I hadn’t written a lot; it was kinda cool because it’s like when you have something to say and you’re kind of raising your hand and waiting,” he says. The most important thing with a record is keeping it fresh, so I was like, ‘Where are you right now?’ Some of the other songs were like going back and looking at old notes, like here’s a concept and working through it. It was very song to song.”
Not that writing a record in two weeks came without some trepidation. “That was a really unique, unproven challenge,” Contreras says. “Like okay, can I come up with material in 2 weeks? I think I can, I really feel like I can, but I have no proof.”
With some of the songs melded by numerous live performances and others so new the ink had barely dried on Contreras’ notepad, the approach to recording varied slightly. “There’s advantages to either way,” Contreras says. “When you play a song live and it evolves through live performances, it becomes very proven, they all become danceable because whatever groove is working, you’re kind of like, ‘Okay, that’s gonna be it.’ They’re a little less nuanced, where as if you’re in the studio rehearsal, you tend to come up with more intricate parts, more subtlety. Some songs benefit from one approach or the other. I think we got a good variation throughout the record.”
To hone that sound, the group turned to Grammy-award winning Ryan Hewitt (Avett Brothers, Johnny Cash, The Red Hot Chili Peppers) for production, recording in Nashville’s historic House of Blues Studio D.
“It was completely different song to song,” Contreras says of shaping the record. “There were some songs that we’d been performing for the past year – these songs have really been evolving – if you’d listened to live recordings over a year’s time, whether it’s the mood or the form or the key, they’d really been living out their way. They changed over and over, and some of them pretty drastically when Ryan came in. He was like, ‘Hey, let’s go for such and such and really fill them out more, make them more tough.’ And at first we’re like, ‘Is that a technical musical term?’ But then you learn what he means by it.”
So what does it mean to make the songs tougher? “I would say it goes with the album title, Hard To Please,” Brady says. “Toughen it up. If we’re hard to please, make it good. It all comes from the song but we got to that point with ourselves, and it’s fuller, more mature.”
That maturity comes in part from conviction and drive. Contreras and Brady met in Knoxville – “round a pickin’ party drinking moonshine, singing gospel songs all night long,” Brady recalls. At the time, Brady had completed her Masters’ Degree and was working at the University of Tennessee Knoxville on a professor track. She played music, but doubled down on dedication when they formed The Black Lillies. “I laugh hysterically once a day over how crazy we must be,” she says of having traded a solid job for the more unexpected music industry, plus a touring schedule that puts them constantly on the road.
“It does feel crazy,” Contreras continues. “When we did the first tour I gave up my lease and I took all my possessions and put them on the sidewalk. ‘Cuz I knew it was like, we’re doing it, an unknown band, on a shoestring, and I don’t know, I was determined to make it work. In 45 minutes everything I had was gone. There was one particular day [on that first tour] where half the band was thinking about hanging it up – I was like, I can’t, I have nothing at home. We’ll work it out, but I’m not going back. This is it.”