“I seem to work best under extreme, unnecessary, self-imposed stress,” singer-songwriter Aaron Lewis quips about his recording process. Admittedly, it’s a sentiment to which I and many other writers, artists and creatives can relate. “When I put it off and put off and then go after it, I feel like it’s more natural and true to the moment than if I sat down with pen and paper and tried to write something and be clever. It works better for me when I let it come out.”
Some might know Lewis best from his years as the founding lead singer for rock band Staind. Founded in the mid-‘90s, their second studio album, “Dysfunction” (co-produced by Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst in 1999), set them on a course for a string of radio hits, such as “It’s Been Awhile” and “Outside” (“Break the Cycle,” 2001), “So Far Away” (“14 Shades of Grey,” 2003), followed by four more well-received albums. Lewis has since taken the country road to new commercial success, and released his first EP, “Town Line,” in 2011. He’s now touring with his latest and third release, “Sinner” (September 2016), and playing at the Port City’s newest venue, The Shell, located on the Cape Fear River on August 9.
“Sinner” was recorded in a blazing 16 hours at Nashville’s Blackbird Studios and produced by Buddy Cannon. Cannon has worked with some of Lewis’ favorite artists, a la George Strait, Merle Haggard and George Jones. The singer grew up listening to his grandfather’s country faves: Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and David Allen Coe.
“If we were awake, [country music] was on,” he tells. “It was the first thing that was on with the coffee in the morning, and it was the last thing to get shut off with the lights at night. The TV would be turned up loud, so it wasn’t competing with the radio that was still on.”
These days, Lewis often keeps the dial turned on to Jamey Johnson, Sturgill Simpson, Cody Johnson, Alex Williams, and Cody Jinks. “I love what Chris Stapleton has recorded,” he notes. “Though, I’m not a fan of what other artists do to his songs when they record them.”
His love for country music sat dormant for years. However, it was a chance gamble with Lewis’ plumber that led him head first into the genre again.
“He bet me I wouldn’t write a country song,” Lewis tells. “There was no money on the table; it was just a pride thing. I sat down to write and about 20 minutes later I had ‘Country Boy’ [(‘The Road,’ 2012)], which is just my kind of watered down, undetailed story.”
While Lewis’ songwriting process is more or less the same as it was during his Staind years—writing a skeletal structure of a song on acoustic guitar—he’s not much of a storyteller who reaches outside his own life. His focus remains on getting out inner thoughts, personal demons, obstacles, triumphs, and heartaches. While his last Staind album took over six months to record, “Sinner” only took one or two takes each song.
“What’s really changed is how long we sit and dwell on the products,” he tells. “And in this process and experience, I’ve done all three of my country records the same way: ride a bolt of lightning, take a deep breath, and ‘Holy, shit! It’s done.’ It just seems to be a very rare, organic, natural way of doing it. There’s not enough time to start messing with everything.”
Lewis credits the efficiency and success in the studio to a core crew. Guitarist Brent Mason, Paul Franklin (pedal steel), Kevin “Swine” Grantt (bass), and multi-instrumentalist Jim “Moose” Brown have been with Lewis for the long haul.
“With all these guys, it’s like clockwork,” he adds. “We all love working with each other. They’re the only musicians I’ve worked with in the country world in the studio, and they know what I’m all about. I don’t try to tell them what to do.”
When thinking of heavy-rock versus country, obvious tonal differences arise in sounds, instrumentals and approaches. But Lewis acknowledges the subject matter has shifted, even in his own writing since making the switch.
“[Country] is an opportunity to express other facets of my life that wouldn’t have necessarily flown well on the Staind side of things,” he says. “A perfect example of that would be ‘Endless Summer’ off of [‘The Road’]. I almost didn’t record it because of the uncomfortableness and unfamiliarity of writing a happy song . . . about taking my daughters to the beach for the weekend. There is not a hint of darkness to it.”
Actually, there are several tunes Lewis has recorded in the last few years that wouldn’t have been appropriate for Staind. From “Country Boy” (2012’s “The Road”) to “Northern Redneck” (“Sinner”)—the latter which came from frustrations with most country songs insisting “rednecks” are only found below the Mason Dixon.
“There’s a whole bunch of country ass, Podunk people out there that don’t have red dirt—that aren’t from the South,” he observes. “There’s way more country folk outside the South than there is in.”
Writing “Northern Redneck” was easy for Lewis; he simply pulled all stereotypes into one and moved them outside the South. He views “redneck” less of an insult, and more an endearment—describing someone with country pride, pride for their way of life, pride for their country, and pride for being a redneck.
“There’s always going to be people who take things too far on whatever side of the fence you’re on,” he says. “It doesn’t really have the same connotation as it once did. I certainly don’t look at it in a racist kind of way. . . . I don’t look at it as a none-positive thing. I view it as the meat and potatoes, the heartbeat of America—it’s not all these wealthy people that live on the edge.”
Lewis recorded the title track with Willie Nelson, who, like Lewis, will play The Shell later on in September. “Sitting and having a conversation with Willie is almost like having a conversation with Jesus, in some weird philosophical way,” Lewis says with a laugh. “He’s just so sweet and nice and thoughtful and caring—he’s something else.”