“I don’t know how to be interesting,” songwriter and musician Abe Stoklasa jokes as we sit down to chat. He’s both modest and wrong – from his unique approach to songwriting to his favorite place in America (State College, Pennsylvania), Stoklasa is easily one of the most interesting wordsmiths in Music City. His graduation speech as his high school’s valedictorian drew national media attention and caused the American Civil Liberties Union to come to his defense.
“I have always been a musician,” Stoklasa tells me. “My dad had a little ransom style show in the midwest – we did like 70 shows a year – so from two years old I was singing on the stage. At like six years old my dad threw me in the band as the keyboard player, sink or swim. So that’s how I learned to play music.” Stoklasa is very matter-of-fact when he speaks, though his voice is softer, as reflective and expressive in speech as when he sings. Aside from a beautiful vocal tone, which is similar to Paul Simon’s (one of his favorites,) Stoklasa is gifted instrumentally – since his immersion in keyboard at age six, he’s also picked up pedal steel and saxophone, with which he’s professionally competitive.
“I was always a musician, and I always thought that that was going to be my thing,” he says. “When I was 16 I had my own truck, so I was able to pick my own music all the time, and that was the biggest thing in the world. James Taylor, I guess, that’s when I decided I needed to be a songwriter too. So I started writing songs at 16 – terrible songs that you’ll never hear.” Though he began writing, Stoklasa was still a musician first, and after graduating from Nashville’s Belmont University he hit the road with David Nail, playing steel guitar. Though he left that gig to head to Miami for a Masters Degree in Jazz Composition, he missed the road, heading back after a semester to join Billy Currington’s band, with whom he played for the next three years.
“To be honest, I was 23 years old playing football stadiums full of people on the Kenny Chesney tour, and after that tour I was just like, I’ve kind of peaked as a musician, it’s never gonna get any bigger than that, I don’t think this is what I’m supposed to do with my life,” Stoklasa says. “I’d always written songs, I’d just only written maybe 10 or 12 a year. So I started writing 50 or 60 a year and honing my skills.” He signed with Big Yellow Dog, where he is currently published.
“I don’t regret it,” he says of leaving touring life behind. “I miss the brotherhood that we had. Bill was the first person that really cared about what I was trying to do before anybody else, before I deserved to have anybody else care because he’s just a nice guy and he saw potential. He cut one of my songs [“Give It To Me Straight”] this year. He has no idea, but his last two records, I [wrote] his whole record and [was] like this is what he should do.” I ask how Currington’s actual releases compared. Stoklasa laughs. “He cut a lot better songs than I wrote.”
“I had the desire and the confidence to be successful way before I had the skills to,” he continues. “You just work until it catches up. Even when my songs were kind of cruddy I still felt like they could still find a home. I was fearless about pitching things to different people, people I knew, and I’ve learned since to be a lot more careful about that. But on the other hand, to new writers, you have to be fearless. You have to be completely fearless in your writing to say anything, to do anything with substance.”
Stoklasa is meticulously passionate about music, and seems most at ease delving deeply into song discussions, peppered with wry moments. “[Music has] always been my life,” he says. “It’s always been the biggest rush and it’s my best friend, it’s my girlfriend, it’s the cocaine, it’s all those things to me. That’s a metaphor.” Perhaps it’s a labor of love, but it’s also an analytical pursuit; when he signed with Big Yellow Dog, he sat and listened through their entire catalog, perusing thousands of songs to better understand what was being written and what was and wasn’t being cut.
Perhaps most interesting about Stoklasa’s writing style is his approach. “Maybe four or five days of the year I’ll come in with a title,” he says, a stark difference from many writers who bring a title, or at least a concrete idea, to a write. “I hate writing to titles,” he continues. “I feel like it’s so pigeonholed to where you have this end of the chorus hook and you have to find a way to get there. It’s so much easier for me to write forward. I feel like songwriting is a skill set, that’s what you’re bringing to the table every day.” He admits his insistence on writing sequentially might be hard on his co-writers. “It’s so much easier to me to just come up with a first line that grabs you, and then write the next line, and then write the next line, and by the time you get to the end of the chorus that next line will make sense.”
While it may be an atypical process, it’s working. Stoklasa’s cuts include “Portland, Maine” for Tim McGraw, a Donovan Woods co-write, and Charles Kelley’s debut solo effort “The Driver,” which features Eric Paslay and Dierks Bentley and is a Stoklasa/Paslay/Kelley co-write. He’s also had songs recorded by Lady Antebellum, Blake Shelton, and Ben Rector. Though he possesses a diverse skill set, he shines on the introspective side, a penchant for lyricism meeting a knack for subtlety and delivered with somber vocals. “I’m a sucker for melancholy,” he says, citing “Portland, Maine” as an example. “I feel like Vince Gill is the master of melancholy. I also feel like I owe a lot to that guy, because if he hadn’t come along and changed the musical and sonic landscape of this city, there would be no room for me. There’s a place for my music in this town because of him, I think.”
“Melancholy, I love,” he continues. “Sad songs stick so much harder than happy songs. Happy songs are so much harder to write though, I think. I can stab someone in the heart much easier than I can tickle ’em.”