“Bob [Russell] always has these Buddha moments with me that I feel are so simple but super-deep life-lesson stuff, too,” singer-songwriter Travis Shallow says of his bandmate and guitarist. “He drops these diamonds every now and again that are not preachy at all, but they seem to come right when I need to hear ‘em.”
Russell completes Shallow’s full band, The Deep End, who closed out October with the release of their latest album, “The Great Divide,” on October 31. Shallow wasn’t especially planning on a Halloween release, it just happened to be the hard deadline he gave himself a couple of months ago. It was Russell, he credits, who coached him through completing the album during somewhat of a crossroads in his life.
“It was really hard for me to walk away from it and call it finished,” Shallow explains. “He would tell me things toward the end, like, ‘Music is indefinitely perfectible,’ while I was getting all manic about mixes and pacing outside the studio like a weirdo. . . . But it helped me find comfort in letting it go when I had to, and Bob helped me with that. [It was a] completely new experience for me being sober and dealing with the swings of making a record. It’s really hard some days and effortless other days—if only you could harness the effortless days forever.”
Fans can order digital copies now and pre-order the record at Shallow’s website (www.travisshallow.com), but CDs and vinyl copies will soon be available at local record shop Gravity and at live shows. While Shallow and company are still settling on a release party date and venue, Shallow will make an appearance at the next songwriter showcase at the Brooklyn Arts Center Annex on November 8, during which he’ll play a few tracks off of “The Great Divide” and from his past catalog.
encore spoke to Shallow to learn more about the stories told on the record. His extended interview is below.
encore (e): Tell us more about making the album and your journey producing it.
Travis Shallow (TS): Two years ago I got sober and wasn’t sure what the next step was going to be. Music was still at the forefront, but I wasn’t sure what writing, performing and overall life was going to be like. I took a month off and just got down to basics: Get up early in the morning (October 2015—‘cause the sober fairy is a real thing and is relentless), and take my dog to the south end of Wrightsville Beach, and put in headphones and listen to my “go-to” records and Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast. Music sounded different; the beach looked different; my dog had a different energy because we were actually outside and not in the house with the blackout shades drawn. Everything was new and overwhelming. I didn’t play the guitar for a month. I didn’t sing. I literally just tried to find my footing in a completely new reality.
The guitars I have laying around the house were definitely whispering to me throughout that month off and romantically asking me to pick them back up, but I took my time. When I finally did, my first thought was, Can I still write a song?
I finally plugged in my electric rig and had a full day of diming my amps and getting that raw feeling of teenage-garage rock and roll, and that day i started writing, what would become the title track, “The Great Divide.” I basically just told the story of where I was during those new days of being sober and the concept of not taking on this new reality with anxiety and fear, but try to embrace the “magic of jumping to the unknown”.
Once I had “The Great Divide” written, I thought and felt compelled to say, “I’m gonna make a record right now and document this new experience.” Looking back now it was pretty ambitious because of the shape i was in then, but i needed to make a new normal and I needed a way to process life through a sober sense. Music has always been every kind of outlet for me, so I leaned on it hard and jumped in.
I had The Deep End up and running before I got sober with Bob Russell being a staple member, and had gone through a few personnel changes with rhythm sections. Honestly, I had no business trying to quarterback a band during that time; I was in a bad space and in full blown active addiction, but when you play music for a living, there’s not a whole lot of checks and balances, you can kind of get away with that lifestyle for awhile, and if you’re playing your shows and showing up on time, life rolls on for a while but ultimately it’s unsustainable the way I was … hence the crash.
Back to the album, I knew I wanted the album to have full band production and a pretty clear vision of instrumentation and overall vibe, so I needed to find session guys to record with me.
Bob was still fully on board and was a true brother and friend during that whole time, and he really kept me going and inspired and never wavered. “He’s a great man to ride the river with”, as Tom Petty would say. So i needed a rhythm section, and so I reached out to some of the best in town, guys that i already had a lot of history with. I had been in different bands with Brian Mason (drums) and Jason Moore (bass) throughout the last 10 years or so, so I reached out to them and told them what I was cooking up. They jumped right in and we started rehearsing this batch of songs, some I was still writing, some I had from pre-sober times, and they seemed to take on a new meaning and really fit in and support the overall scope and theme of The Great Divide as an album.
We rehearsed for eight to nine months and I found an engineer, Jason Merritt, who understood the vision I had and the concept of these songs, and we went into Overdub Lane in September last year for a week and tracked these songs to 2-inch tape. It was inspiring to be back in the studio and to feel that “purpose” feeling again, with this new line up players that can really bring it, and just having fun. A lot of laughing. I spent the following year doing overdubs and finishing the album with Bob as a co-pilot. We worked on it some at Low Tide Studio with Jim Fox, Dark Pines Studio in Graham, NC, and a few stints back at Overdub Lane. It ended up being a hybrid analog/digital album, with most all of the rhythm section tracks all to 2-inch tape and some vocals, with the rest of the overdubs done remotely, via digital. Then mixed in Durham by Jason Merritt. We finished with a batch of songs that I’m proud of and that is a snapshot of the last two years of my life, the good, bad, and ugly.
e: Have you been playing them for locals for a while or just introducing a couple along the way?
TS: Once we got done recording, we kept rehearsing with the same lineup, and it started to become a well-oiled machine. So I said, “Hey, let’s book some shows while I’m finishing the album.” Everybody was onboard, and we felt like it was a special project [we] wanted to keep close to the chest until the record was out. Also, we didn’t want to take it too seriously either; we just wanted to get back to the fun side of playing shows. So we’ve played most of them live but not all of ‘em.
e: How have they evolved over time?
TS: “The Great Divide” is different every time we play it, purposely. There’s an open instrumental build section in the middle and we never know how it’s going to go, how long, or when it ends, but we always seem to land on our feet at the end of it. Some songs shouldn’t have too much structure, it rings the life out of ‘em. That one also has two tempos: a slower one for verses and a faster one for the chorus—pretty drastic changes, actually, but it feels right so it stays that way.
We haven’t been playing “Come On In”; it’s a pretty ballad but it’s a sad bastard song, for sure. So when we do the electric full band show, we haven’t found a place for some of the softer stuff, but we will incorporate it once the album’s out. We will probably have a shorter acoustic set, and then a longer electric set—but it’s mainly an electric album.
e: Is “Come On In” about personal relationships?
TS: “Come on In” is an older tune I had written with a character in mind, but it’s impossible for my own sensibilities and story not to creep into every song I write, even when it’s character-driven and trying to be non-autobiographical. That one came out pretty; we had a guest feature on it, Mike Hickman, who played cello and really knocked it out of the park. Strings just elevate a song in a way only they can.
e: What about “Backseat Dreamer”? Is it about your experiences in the music biz?
TS: “Backseat Dreamer” I had the music too for awhile, but was actually two separate pieces of two unfinished songs I had, and then I found a way to meld them together that i think works pretty well. I got the idea for “Backseat Dreamer” when I was driving down College [Road], and this car pulled up beside me and my girlfriend, and this kid was sitting in the back just staring out the window and up into the sky with a smile on his face like he was literally somewhere else, and that place was awesome for him, and I said, “check out that little ‘backseat dreamer’” and when I said it outloud, my mind went, ding, that’s a song title. When I sat down to right the lyrics, it became about thinking back on how I got where I was and came out of that dark place, but still processing it and honestly, still processing the thought of not ever living that lifestyle again and missing some parts of it at times. It wasn’t all bad, there were still a bunch of good times and late nights, until the party turns into just you by yourself. That’s what “I’ll miss that race to the top, searching for a signal and waiting for the drop” came from.
e: Listeners are eased into the record with a lovely violin solo on “The Great Divide.” Why choose this as the title track and to start off the album?
TS: When you put the record on, I imagine a vinyl listening experience where the needle drops and you’re eased into it, with a beautiful string arrangement that’s short and sweet. Then the drums kick in and we’re off to the races.
e: Did you explore any new soundscapes or approaches with this album?
TS: We definitely had a few “tone quests” in the studio, where we’d be working on something and have an idea—like a guitar through a leslie cab or using a space echo or reverse guitar. When we had an idea and were onto something, we used the toys to the fullest in all studies we worked in; that’s what they’re there for. Guitar through the leslie cab at Overdub Lane for that big cathedral soundscape-y stuff, and using cool guitars, ‘60s Rickenbacher 12-string (on Stitch), Hammond B-3, B-15 flip top on bass, cool amps, etc.
Then at Dark Pines, we were on a Neve Console there, so we had fun with that and a vintage space echo with a ‘64 Gibson 330, (had to peel it from Bob’s hands), and even some synth stuff I have never really used on a record but added a texture and warmth to songs like “Papertrail” and “World Will Turn.” Every studio has things its known and good for; we tried to hit ‘em all wherever we were.
I did some harmony vocal stuff on the album that was more complex and experimental for me. I love harmony vocals, and I used to be in a three-part harmony band, A Few Good Liars, so it’s really hard for me to not layer the shit out of every song. But there are a couple songs on the record with no harmonies at all—some where I got all Jeff Lynn with it and went for it, and if it felt good, I kept it.