A version of this story appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
Rod Picott explains the world in songs
The singer-songwriter will play Saturday night at Oklahoma City’s Blue Door, where he will perform songs from his latest album, “Hang Your Hopes on a Crooked Nail,” released last month on his own Welding Rod Music.
For Rod Picott, songwriting isn’t a form a therapy, even though he often bases his songs on personal experience. It isn’t a popularity contest, even though he hopes some people like them; nor is it about creating a commodity, even though his livelihood depends on at least a few folks buying his records.
For Nashville, Tenn.-based musician, songwriting is his method of explaining the world in a way that helps the audience.
“There’s a way to write these songs where you’re giving something away. You’re giving and not taking,” Picott said in a phone interview last week from Austin, Texas, where he was playing South By Southwest. “You’re telling people stories for them, and it helps you make sense of the world. That’s what a great film does, that’s what a great screenplay does, that’s what a great novel does. you recognize pieces of yourself and it helps you make sense of the world and you feel less alone and you feel like your story is told a little bit.”
On Saturday night, the singer-songwriter will return to Oklahoma City’s Blue Door, where he will play songs from his latest album “Hang Your Hopes on a Crooked Nail,” released last month on his own Welding Rod Music.
“That’s my kind of room. The show that I love is wherever there’s a group of people that are engaged in the show and paying attention and listening and really want to be there for the songs. Obviously, I love it if there’s 150 people rather than 20. But I’d rather play to 20 people that are listening than 150 people who are hanging out,” he said.
“I don’t know how many people are interested in a skinny middle-aged white guy with an acoustic guitar. But if they go, they’re gonna have a great time.”
The son of a welder from rural New England, Picott, 49, spent 18 years working in construction before releasing his first album at the age of 35. Although those blue-collar roots clearly show in his songs, he said he was really a songwriter all along. It just took him a long time to gather 10 songs into a debut album he could be proud of.
“I haven’t stopped. To be honest, I may have even picked up speed over the last few years. I feel completely engaged in this life,” said Picott, who has released six more albums since his 2000 debut. “It’s a wonderful way to live. I’ve enjoyed that transition from the kind of work where you just sort of sacrifice your body for a dollar to this kind of work where the bulk of it is spent just for the sake of the work itself and the payday comes on the other end of it. It’s lovely. I’m so grateful to find myself in this position.”
Although it’s “a very strange life that we live as traveling singer-songwriters,” Picott specializes in relatable songs that delve into authentic emotions and often are based on real-life events. The bluesy “Where No One Knows My Name,” from “Crooked Nail,” is about his restless youth growing up in tiny South Berwick, Maine.
“Of course, I can look back at the place that I grew up in and see how idyllic it is now. And it would be as an adult. But as a very curious kid who had a lot on his mind, growing up in a very small town where people were expected to behave and act and only have interests that were of a certain nature, it was incredibly frustrating. My experience is a lot of people’s experience. I was curious about the world and had very little access to it,” he said. I grew up a very loving house but a house without books and without intellectual curiosity. I grew up around people who had a lot of fear about the world and stepping out into it. So it was a battle to find my place in a world, like it is, I think, for a lot of artists.”
Based on true stories
Likewise, he and Amanda Shires wrote the haunting “I Might Be Broken Now” in the midst of their actual breakup.
“I don’t fight that stuff. It comes from the center out. I write about what I’m curious about. I don’t think, ‘Well, what do people want to hear about?’ and then write about that. I’m in it for the art. It’s not a popularity contest, songwriting. If it was, you could just say, ‘Well, what kinds of songs are the most popular and I’ll just write those.’ And that’s just not how it works,” I mean, I work on the songs, I work on the records, and I make the thing that I want to make, and then I try to figure out who might want to hear it and who might be interested in buying it. You can do it the opposite way, and you become a very different kind of (musician). That’s not art. That’s just a commodity, just looking for something that you know people want to buy and trying to give it to ‘em. That’s just not what I do. I’m not criticizing it. But that’s not what I’m interested in doing. It’s not why I was drawn to do it in the first place,” he said.
“I’m really proud of that song. I think there’s a lot of honesty in it. It’s a very sort of naked declaration of what it feels like to be in that moment. It’s not manipulative. I feel good singing it. It feels honest when I sing it.”
He draws a subtle distinction, though, between, writing about his experiences and using songwriting as a therapeutic exercise.
“I sort of dislike songs where you can tell the writer is writing for therapy for themselves and sort of asking the audience for their approval and love. I’m kind of repelled by songs like that. … This is a way of explaining the world. It’s a way of making sense of the things that happen to us and the things that we go through. When I hear somebody else’s song that I feel like expresses something that I’ve been through, I feel galvanized and stronger for it, even if listening to it makes me sad or melancholy,” he said.
For the record, he noted that not all his songs on “Crooked Nail” are sorrowful: His fun car song “65 Falcon” is about a beat-up hot rod that gets his lady revved up. But even that fact-based tale has a downer of an ending, even if he omitted it from the song.
“I was driving along Eastland Avenue in East Nashville and I was deep in thought. I was trying to figure out a harmony to an old Who song. I was trying to figure out what the interval of the harmony was and how it worked. And I just got completely lost and I just wasn’t even in the car anymore, if you know what I mean. I was just inside my head. and I rear-ended somebody and stove in the front end of the Falcon,” he said. It was a low-speed collision, but nonetheless it put the radiator into the engine and that was the end of the car,” he said.
“I’m still crushed, but I left that part out.”
With: Kevin Gordon.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Blue Door, 2805 N McKinley.
Information: 524-0738 or www.bluedoorokc.com.