Interview: Jack Ingram on Vulnerability and Earning an Audience

Photo by David McClister
Photo by David McClister

Midnight Motel, the latest from Jack Ingram, centerpieces vulnerability, raw emotions streaking across the screen and the record. The film, a short that screened last week at the Nashville Film Festival, draws directly from the record, featuring Ingram in the lead role tackling career and relationship challenges. The similarly focused record is due this June via Rounder Records. We caught up with Ingram at the Nashville Film Festival.

The Shotgun Seat: Now that you’ve seen your songs centerpiece your film, do you approach songwriting any differently?

Jack Ingram: To me, when I write songs, they are mini movies; they’re moments of a complete scene that I see that I try to recreate in music. I’m a real visual writer. Putting them on screen after the record, I knew what they were supposed to look like, I knew what they were supposed to feel like, so it was just an extension.

Is it a different kind of vulnerable to share yourself and your work through film versus through music?

It is, but my background as far as doing videos and performing live and being in very vulnerable situations… when you have a couple hits on the radio, you get shoved out in front of Toby Keith’s audience, or in front of Brad Paisley’s audience, or in front of fans that don’t give a shit who you are. And that’s a really scary place to be cause you walk out on stage assuming everybody hates you. [Film is] kind of the same thing, is I just assume everyone’s gonna hate it, so everybody that loves it is kind of a bonus.

That must be a bit of an emotional tough spot.

Every artist that I’ve become friends with that I’m also a fan of, we all have that in common. I think that’s what makes people work an audience. Pretending like you don’t care means that they might not care either, and I can’t live with that. I’ve got 90 minutes or 30 minutes to do my job every day, and if I fuck it up, go, ‘Well, I’m gonna play Mr. Cool Guy,’ they’ve already got a favorite artist. So in my mind I’m like, ‘Well, they don’t have to like me. I have to give them a reason.’ That’s kind of how I do it.

That’s an interesting way to approach it.

It comes from playing honky tonks and sports bars, stuff like that, when you’re young. It’s like, they wanna watch tv. My first job was to turn off the ball game.

When you’re performing on a stage you can feel the audience’s energy, read the room. On film, there’s a separation, both in time and because of the camera and screen. How do you connect with that a separated audience, or is that not even something you think about?

It’s delayed, it’s a different gratification. I like to listen to people who do things great, whether it’s athletes or other actors or artists and I just have always really identified with, even those shows I’m talking about when I’m opening up in front of 25,000 people, you could spend all night after your show wondering if it went well, and like, 10,000, why didn’t I get everybody to love me. With acting it’s the same thing, I’ve just – I haven’t done a lot, but I’ve done enough – to where I go, ‘I did my best, after that it’s really not up to me.’ It’s like selling a record – I make records, and it’s just like making a movie – they buy it, they go home and talk about how much they hated or loved it and I have no idea. It’s kind of the same thing. I love movies, so I know what I do, I internalize it, and when I walk out of a movie you can’t tell if I loved or hated it, but I feel it. So it’s like, there’s nothing I can do about it. You do shit and you let go of the expectations. That’s what I do.

That’s a good way to go about it.

That’s the only way to go about it in the entertainment business because it’s tough. Cause even if the love you, they’re not going to every time. I mean, I love Neil Young, I don’t love his records, all of them. I love Johnny Depp, I think some of his stuff’s awful. That doesn’t make me love him any less. It just makes me know he’s willing to take chances and fail.

I think that’s true artistic love – when you care about something enough that you care through the strong and weak points.

If you’re reaching for something great, no matter what it is, if you’re reaching for something great you’re gonna fail. So all I care about is even if it sucks, I go, ‘Well, I don’t know what they were reaching for but I trust that they were reaching for something that they just didn’t reach this time. It’s okay.’

When you were writing this album, what were you going in trying to say or pin down sonically?

I grew up listing to records that were kind of dirty and kind of… like they had noises on them and I wanted to dive into the headphones or dive into the record and be like, ‘What were y’ll doing in there?’ The whole record to me was about really exploring something that. I mean, I just sat up midnight to four a.m. for a couple years writing songs and trying to figure out how I got here, what I got out of it, what was shitty about it, what was great about it, in both my personal and professional relationships. So I made a record that conveys that and hopefully lures the person listening to it to try and understand themselves. We’re all the same, we’re all going through weird shit. Ignoring it is to me the worst part. So I want to put music out there… I like making people nervous cause I like feeling nervous and thinking. Great music can do that; there’s movies that make you want to change your whole life. And if you’re not trying to do that…

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