Blitzen Trapper's Eric Earley isn't a talkative man. He's a mumbler on the phone, not terribly forthcoming, and uncomfortable, it seems, with getting too much attention, but he laughs a lot. It's a sound that comes up frequently when he's faced with questions that make him look at his life, which has been mostly spent in and around Portland, Ore. It's a strange but charming sort of reaction, given Earley's concession that the band's latest album, 2011's American Goldwing, is "pretty nostalgic."
"I don't really think about the past," he says. "I think there's a reason for whatever songs I was writing at the time. It's not necessarily a matter of confidence, but knowing yourself better as you get older." He pauses, then laughs. "Besides, there's good things and bad things about getting more confidence as you write songs."
The new album is certainly more country-rock and AM Gold than Blitzen Trapper's previous country-folk albums, Destroyer of the Void and Furr, and Earley likens the new sound to running down the center in American music. The first three tracks have an aggressiveness most of the rest of the album lacks, which is ultimately a good thing, as the band tends to excel in more vulnerable, story-driven territory. "Girl in a Coat" is quiet and restrained, with Celtic influences and Earley thoughtfully declaring, "I've been used and abused by these lesser deities." "My Home Town" has a chilled-out, rambling folky-ness. Things get ratcheted up a notch on the '70s-influenced title track and on the glorious "Astronaut."
None of this sounds like it would add up to a songwriter who loves hip-hop, but to hear Earley talk about the genre is to realize it has played a formative part in his narrative approach to songcraft.
"I listen to it a lot," he says. "Hip-hop is the American folk music. It's one of the two types of music invented solely here in America. And it's all story-based, it's all rhyme-based. To me, it's like a lot of old-time music, a lot of violence and stuff."
Like many writers, Earley obviously takes his inspirations from disparate sources. He's open to disclosing what those are, but he does so on his own terms. The lyrics on American Goldwing are a murky reflection of where he's been, though he opens up more in Blitzen Trapper's band bio (which he wrote himself), hinting at American Goldwing's dark source: "A certain tragedy struck me, a death of which I can't speak, and I began writing." He details reaching into his past and talks about feeling stuck and the difficult nature of moving on. Over the phone, he's reticent to elaborate or revisit those places. "I think a lot of the record, when you look at the lyrics, has a lot to do with somebody being in a place where they can't figure out how to get themselves out of," he says.
He references songs like Goldwing's "Fletcher," which was inspired by guys he grew up with, and "Taking it Easy Too Long," about a guy who can't get over a girl, to illustrate his point. "Fletcher, he's obviously runnin' drugs, and he's in this place where his life doesn't have much meaning," Earley says. "He's the guy trying to figure out how to get out of this situation. 'Takin' it Easy,' same thing."
Earley does admit that writing these songs helped dislodge him from the place in which he was stuck, but at the beginning it was difficult to live with them and sing them every day.
"For a while, some of the songs were hard, just because they were about very specific people and things," he says. "But it changes with time. You always get disconnected with something you do repetitively. It's good. It allows you to move on."
Though on some level, it must be strange for Earley to finally be moving toward the end of this touring cycle, preparing to let this record go. After all, for the longest time, he couldn't play it, even though he desperately wanted to. Earley wrote American Goldwing while touring Blitzen Trapper's last album, 2010's Destroyer of the Void.
"[Goldwing] was the record I wanted to be playing, but I had to wait a year to put it out," Earley remembers. "It was more the record I was connecting to for a longer period of time. It was all written within three or four months, and there was a consistency to it at the time that made sense to me."
Earley doesn't go into any further detail. Details, it seems, are to be revealed on his own terms. But what about his lyrics? He's a thoughtful writer. Doesn't he want to guide the listener toward revelations? Or is he content with his fans scrutinizing and inferring at will? "You're always trying to figure out what someone's saying, what their meaning is, but you're always going to just project yourself onto everything," he says. "But that's good. That's how people understand themselves in relation to everyone else."