Austin Basham is the rare songwriter whose songs feel broken-in and meaningful right away.
Here’s what I mean: for me, at least, songs usually don’t mean much at first. They accumulate meaning over time, the way a snowball picks up snow as it rolls. They gather moments and memories – our own and other people’s – that slowly add nostalgic significance and the weight of truth.
When songs have been experienced, and when they’ve added to experiences, then they mean something.
It’s why your parents’ songs impact you. Like, I can’t listen to Billy Joel without thinking of my mom. It’s why old folk songs resonate. You can’t hear “The Parting Glass” without feeling something.
It’s the rare artist who can create songs that have the feeling of age from the moment they’re written – songs that carry memories in them even when they’re brand new. Foy Vance, I think, writes music like that.
So does Austin. And on his latest record, You and Me for Now, the emotive, nostalgia-inducing weight of his songwriting is in full effect.
It’s the result of a cohesive approach; everything about the record feels aged. It’s in the instrumentation, from the subtle folk notes of the banjo on “All is Well” to the the finger-picked, 100-year-old nylon guitar on “Willow”. It’s in the language of snow and rocks and ivory on “Elephants”. It’s in the worn-tape, old-timey movie vibes that are the foundation of the track’s music video.
And all of it feels authentic, too. Some music that aims for age ends up sounding forced and unoriginal, like the knockoff version of a memory. You and Me for Now sounds natural. Maybe that’s only possible to pull off if you’ve traveled, or if you’ve built up memories yourself, or if you have an old soul. Who knows?
However it happens, though, these songs feel meaningful already, and they seem destined to gather more memories as they go. Now all that’s left is to listen to them – and to let them, over time, pick up your memories, too.
So go do that. Then come back to find out how Austin writes music that somehow carries immediate nostalgic weight.
How did you start writing songs? I know you were an engineer in college; did you write songs growing up? Did you write songs through college? How did you get your start?
Austin: So, I come from a family of mostly musicians. My dad was a singer-songwriter back in the day. So he used to always get out his guitar and play his little ballads, and he used to write about his high school flames and you know, what girlfriend he had at the time. He went out to Nashville at one point. It didn’t end up working out, but we just always grew up hearing those songs. And I have an older brother who was in a band – he would kind of teach me guitar growing up. So I kind of just was around it.
And I think I sang in church choirs. I was real young … probably elementary. And then around the sixth grade I started playing the trumpet. But then, you know, I thought trumpet was lame in the seventh grade, so I found an electric guitar and started a band.
Actually, now, in the hindsight, I see that the trumpet was cooler. My band wasn’t very cool. We were kind of punky -we performed at the talent show and stuff. But we weren’t very cool.
Did you win? Because that would make it cool, probably.
The school kind of liked it; I think we did. I’ve seen the video, and it wasn’t earned. We were the last band, and the stage was red., which was cool, but we were pretty bad.
But yeah, so I’ve been playing in bands and stuff since around seventh grade, but it was never really serious. It was just fun while I did other things on the side. I went to school and did engineering, but I always did music on the side to kind of keep my sanity.
And actually, that was kind of the real goal – music. The engineering was the backup plan, in my head at least.
I recorded an album while I was getting my engineering degree at UT. And I just did it all myself. It wasn’t the greatest album, but it was the first time I kind of made one cohesive album – it kind of flowed together a little bit.
Is that still up anywhere? Which album was that?
It was called Little Foxes. And I don’t even think it’s out on the internet anymore – I think we took it down. It was pretty old school.
But that led into Linton // Oslo, when I met up with a producer from Vancouver. We actually ended up recording and doing some of the songwriting process – first in Linton, which is a small village outside of Cambridge, England, and then recording in a studio called Subsonic that was right in the heart of Oslo.
That studio has darker setting; it’s pretty dark, so you don’t know what time of day it is when you’re recording, and I know when we recorded the EP we had six days to record five songs, so it was a little bit different than I had imagined going into the process. It was a little stressful, but we got most of it done. And via Skype I would send tracks to my producer from Albany and Austin at the time. And so we would continue to chip away with the post-production from afar that way.
Was the process of recording You and Me for Now a lot different?
It was similar in the fact that we spent a lot of time together. But we also still continued to spin tracks and stuff when we weren’t together via Skype. So both were kind of a long process.
This album has been in the works since the EP – some of the songs on the album I was recording at the time of the EP and just for whatever reason didn’t make it onto the EP.
But yeah, so a lot of similarities. It took a lot of time. I’m not the most efficient songwriter. I wish I could just spit out songs really quick, but for me it’s a process. Sometimes I’ll have a song, and I’ll do hundreds of iterations using voice memos on my phone and just slowly chip away at a song until it finally starts to sound more natural.
I feel like with most of my songs, I want to play them and get them to a point where they almost sounded aged a little bit. Because some of my favorite songs – like, there’s an artist I’m into whose name’s Johnny Flynn. He’s a British folk artist, and what I really like about his songs is that as soon as I hear them, they already sound like they were passed down. It’s like he’s singing traditional folk songs that his parents taught him or something. They just sound old, and it drew me to them. It has this authenticity to it or something.
The aged feeling feels more authentic to you?
Yeah. So I’ll have a song, and you compare the first few times when you write out those lyrics, you’re like, “Yeah, I think that can work,” but it changes over time.” And it’s more or less the same rhythmically or melodically, but it just doesn’t sound almost like you believe it yet until you’ve worn it in – until you’ve played it and you’ve broken in the song and you know the rhythm forwards and backwards.
It was actually funny, when we recorded this album, I remember right when we were in the process. I was still in the studio in Oslo this time, but I went on tour with Radical Face, so I think we recorded the majority of the songs before that tour. And I remember after having a tour, playing these songs for however many shows, then after the tour being like, “Wow, I wish we could record the songs now because I feel like I know them a little bit better and they just feel broken in.”
I don’t know if that makes any sense.
I think it does. Do you think are there other tricks to making a song feel aged? Is it just how long you sit with it or how much experience you have with it? As you’re writing, are you intentionally doing anything to make it feel aged?
I wasn’t, actually, at the time, but obviously when you record it, there are ways that you can go about it. The song “Willow”, I think that’s the oldest-sounding song on the album. We recorded it with this vintage rhythm mic, so it just had that grit and a pretty low vibe, but it’s really cool. And then the guitar we used on that song – my buddy and producer Tyler, his wife’s great-great-great-grandfather had this guitar, and we were visiting them in this town off the west coast of Norway.
But it’s this old guitar, hundreds of years old, or maybe 100, I don’t know. Pretty old. And the story behind it was that the person that made the guitar got into a fight with a brother, and they picked up this guitar and hit it over the brother’s head. Anyway, there’s this long crack going all the way down the guitar.
And so I picked it up and I was playing it. It has nylon strings, and the thing is old, so old it can barely hold a tune. But we ended up taking it to the studio, and we actually re-tracked the song using that guitar.
So yeah, that was a little bit more intentional for the vintage sound. It just worked because that song has that tone, but I think you can go about it either way.
What about lyrically or the ideas you use? Because I feel like those also have an old-timey feel to me.
Yeah, the lyrics – that’s the biggest challenge for me in songwriting. I could write melodies all day, but the lyrics, that’s what holds up the process for me sometimes and takes a little time.
A lot of time, I’ll have the melody and I’ll have the guitar, and I’ll get the vocals by just singing and almost improv-ing.
Like, you’ll sing a line that sounds good. Then you’ll listen back and you’re like, “Well, those words don’t make sense.”
Sometimes you know generally what you want to say, but you’re just doing it in the moment to get more of the feel and the intonation and all that stuff.
So for this album, I knew, more or less, what I wanted to get across, but from there it was like chipping away at these songs slowly and fixing the words here and there. I’d sing one word, and I’d like what it meant, but the rhythm would be weird so I’d have to find another one. So it’s just a long trial-and-error process. But then some other songs, it might just come/
“All Is Well”, that song was one of the quicker songs that I wrote. It didn’t take as long as some of the others. Sometimes you get lucky and it just flows out, and you’re like, “Okay, that sounds cool. Moving on.” But others take a little bit more finesse.
Do you usually carve out intentional space to write or do those things just happen more organically?
That’s an interesting question.
So for this album, there were actually a couple songs on the album that felt more intentional. “Sounds Like Help” and “Frames” – those two songs were especially challenging for me to write because we were over in Norway and I was recording at this art studio in this town outside of Oslo called… I’m not gonna try to say it in Norwegian, because it’s weird. But yeah, we had music for two of these songs, and then I had to go home after because we didn’t have time to finish them, and I had to finish writing the lyrics.
So I had to go and then write the lyrics to these already essentially recorded songs.
Those were some of the harder songs I’ve written because usually I just pick up my guitar and, you know, I’m comfortable with the guitar. My ideas, vocally, are kind of glued together with the guitar, so when you have to do it separately, it feels more intentional and harder.
But I think what’s cool about songwriting is that it’s never the same. It really does feel like a challenge every time.
Okay, so you don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to. Do you have a favorite song on the album from a songwriting perspective?
That’s a tough one. I’m not sure… I’m looking through the album list right now.
So, this isn’t the answer to your question, but here’s a fun thing – on the album “Elephants” and “Sea So Blue”, they were initially called “Elephants Part 1” and “Elephants Part 2”. And actually, at first it was one song, but it was like triple the length. Basically, I cut that song into two full songs, and then I shifted the keys so they essentially ended up sounding like two different songs.
But it was “Elephants Part 2” until like a week before the release.
Ha… the writing process really is different every time.
Yeah. As far as favorites, I think, honestly, “Foreign Town” might be one of my favorites just because of the way it was recorded and where I was when I wrote it. When I hear the song it just kind of takes me back. I was living in Oslo with like eight roommates, and we were all just doing music and hanging out. It was quite awhile. I was engaged at that point, so I was gone from my fiance for probably like three and a half plus months.
There was that aspect of it, but it’s still a sweet memory from a time with all my friends and stuff. We recorded it in the art studio, and it’s one of the few on the album that was just recorded live off the floor. And so it’s pretty raw, and it’s rough. I remember when I first heard it, and I got the final master back, I couldn’t really listen to it because I could just hear so many flaws in it,
because that’s just how it was. We did a take with my friend playing drums, and I was doing acoustic and singing. And then we overdubbed a few things. The essence of the track was just one take, and so it’s the one that was kind of the scariest to listen to, because it has the least production added to it.
But I don’t know. Listening back, it sounds kind of the warmest, I think.
Yeah. I think live takes like that, you can get such an authenticity to the sound. There’s just the honesty in the mistakes, I think.
Right. I think that’s probably going to be more my goal in recording for the next album, is to do more live takes. That’s my dream, to be able to do just live recording with a band. With most of my recording, I play all the parts and everything, and I’ll get some friends to play as well. But it’s all tracked so that a lot of times I’ve never played these songs live with a band up.
And when I tour myself, I gotta turn around and play these songs just acoustic. But you know, I think it’s a good learning curve as far as my performance.
What’s your goal when you write a song? And how has that changed over time?
I think with songwriting it’s cool because you can write something that is personal to you at the time when you write it, and someone can listen to it, and it can be personal to them in a different way. Maybe it’s for a different reason, maybe for the same reason, but the fact that your music or something that kind of served you at that time could essentially help someone is so cool. Not to be pretentious, you know – people most of the time are just listening to listen, but the thought that it could do some good and help someone, that’s a pretty nice thought to have.
Otherwise, I like just making something that sounds good. Something that I would like to listen to.
Yeah. I mean those are both good things. I love that about songs, that they can be personal to you and to somebody else.
Yeah. A lot of times when I release songs, if people are doing a feature or something, the first question is always, “What is this song about? What does this song mean?”
And it’s hard because I give an answer sometimes because they want an answer, but I don’t think that that’s the only meaning. I think that’s one of the coolest things about music is that it doesn’t have to mean one thing. When I write songs, I like them to be able to be interpreted in more than one way.
Obviously, I have certain things that they mean to me, but oftentimes people will say something that it meant to them, and I’m like, “Well that’s actually better than what I had in mind.”
All right, last question. What’s your best advice for other songwriters?
I think it’s just don’t get too inside of your head. Don’t let other people’s critiques get you down, you know?
Make art that you’re passionate and feel connected to and that you can be proud of. And it doesn’t really matter what anyone thinks, because if you really believe it, and you’re proud to make it, and it sounds good to you, that’ll shine through.
As soon as you start writing for other people, it doesn’t work. And people can sense that.
Yeah. I like that – it feels authentic.
Thank you. It’s interesting – this album was a bit of a rocky road at times, just because, it is a bit chill sometimes, and I think it might be a little too chill for some people. But one good thing is, with streaming today, you can listen to so many different types of music. There’s an audience for any kind of music, whether you’re into just solo piano stuff, whether you’re into EDM, there is an audience for it. People don’t listen to just one kind of music.
And I think that’s kind of the exciting thing with music, too – as a musician, I don’t want to create the same thing twice. So that’s the exciting thing is it’s kind of uncharted territory, everywhere you go. You can always set out to make something new and unique, but something that also feels real and like it’s coming from the right place.
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