Jamie McCarthy, Getty Steve Earle is eating breakfast at Toronto's Drake…
- Posted on Apr 25th 2011 3:00PM by Dan Reilly
Spinner recently had a chance to speak with Earle about his projects, all of which are related to New Orleans and mortality, to varying degrees. In the candid interview below, he reveals how the death of his father inspired him to examine his life and eventual death, why this period of self-discovery improved his relationship with his children, and how he's seen the BP oil spill affect the residents of New Orleans.
How has filming the second season of 'Treme' been?
It's been going great. I'm in it a lot more [this season]. It's been more work, more fun and more music, which is the biggest difference between this and 'The Wire' for me. I get to play music and I get to write some stuff for it. There's a new song that came about because of it and I get to play some music on the street. The best thing about this gig is I get to spend a bunch of time in New Orleans.
Your new album, 'I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive,' features the song 'The Gulf of Mexico.' Was that written while you were shooting 'Treme'?
Oh yeah. Without 'Treme,' that song doesn't happen. That song is absolutely useless in 'Treme' because the second season of 'Treme' takes place 14 months after the storm. 'The Gulf of Mexico' -- we were at the end of the season, we were all feeling pretty good, and pretty good about ourselves. We were all patting ourselves on the back because the locals seemed to like the show and we liked the show, we liked what we had been working on.
Then at the very end of it, when we were filming episode eight or nine, the spill happens. You could watch folks that lived here that were really starting to feel good about themselves and about the city, and it put this big huge question mark about "What's going to happen to us now? What more can happen?"
People come here to eat shrimp and oysters. As it turns out, they're still here -- the oysters are a lot smaller and they cost twice as much money. The shrimp have been affected a lot less but they're still more expensive. I eat the oysters and shrimp in solidarity, and some of the s--- I've done to my body, I'm not sweating the oil all that much. But it's like, I'm not sure it's safe. I can't promise people and I'm not sure I want my kid eating it.
Did the songwriting come from a place of solidarity or anger or both?
Both. People around here want the drilling again to start immediately, and it's sort of telling the story of people that are dependent in it. I believe that they're being had, that they're being lied to, but I do understand. It's about the hope that those people might get jobs, and they just don't want that hope taken out of their lives.
We're going to have to use less [oil] or things are going to go badly. But you are dealing here with people that make a living from it and I try to be sympathetic to that. I do understand why they believe what they believe. I don't think they're bad people. The people that are in BP are bad people. I truly believe that. But I don't think the people that work on the oil rigs are. I think they're just trying to feed their families.
You've said in other interviews that this album and your novel were inspired by mortality. Why did you write about that now?
My father died three years ago, just as I was in what I thought was the final march in the novel. These songs were written over three years, which is the longest I've ever taken to write a record. The record and the last half of the novel were written through the same three years, so there was no way for them to not be about the same thing.
Were any of the songs specifically sparked while you were writing the novel.
Yeah, the first three for sure because I was actively working on my novel. It's not like they're characters in a book that are speaking through the songs of this; it's not a concept record. When my dad died, the thing about the experience that was hard was everybody else dealing with it, my brothers and my sisters and my mom. My reaction was a little different to other people in my family and I felt a little guilty about it because I was very sad, but he also was really sick and had been for a long time. I was relieved not just in the sense of the lack of stress, but I really felt like he wasn't having any f---in' fun.
I've been thinking about mortality in that sense. During that same period of time, a friend of a friend, died in Woodstock. I watched those people deal with the death of somebody that they all loved and him deal with it. He seemed to have an easier time with it. He got sick, and then he got better, then he got sick again. He seemed to go not kicking and screaming and terrified. I'm sure he was scared but it wasn't like what my father and what my family went through. It was a totally different experience.
The book was being written during that time and these songs were being written and what came about was the idea that that death was the one thing ... People say death and taxes, well, that's bulls---. You can choose not to pay taxes. I've done it -- paid a bunch of penalties in interest, there was a consequence. But it is a choice. The one thing that you can't get out of doing is dying, and we're all going to have to deal with it. And maybe it's not a bad idea to try to figure out how to come to terms with it before you get there, if you have the opportunity.
Do you think you've come to terms with it?
No, but I think I'm in the process. Every day that I deal with it that way will make the day that I actually have to go there easier than it would've been if I just tried to think of myself as immortal and put it off. It's a big, scary thing for anybody.
My friends are starting this -- the four of us that dropped out of high school that I hung out with when I was growing up. There are two of us left out of four and the other survivor's got cancer. He's had it for several years -- he's got Hodgkin's lymphoma, which is pretty survivable -- but he's still around. But the other two are gone, one to cancer, one just laid down during a football game and didn't wake up, had a heart attack asleep on a Sunday afternoon. They were guys my age, mid 50s.
I arguably was harder on myself than any of them were, but I also take better care of myself now than any of them did. I don't smoke anymore, I don't take any drugs anymore and I exercise everyday. Because I married someone that's 17 years younger than I am and started having kids, maybe you ought to prioritize taking care of yourself.
Having had a baby, John Henry, in 2010 must play into it.
I have a hard time getting out of my head the fact that I'm not going to be around ... I'll feel good if I can get him to college and get to see that. I think this kid's going to graduate from high school -- for one thing, I think his mother will kill him if he doesn't [laughs].
Did this also make you closer with your older sons, Justin and Ian?
Sure. I'm very happy that both of the older boys call me on a regular basis. You know, our relationships aren't perfect. They know that the way I'm being a father now is a little different than when they were younger. We have that to go through too, and we will.
New Orleans is also a city that's sort of come back from the dead.
I think New Orleans as we know it would have disappeared if the economy of the world hadn't collapsed, because I think there were people that fully planned to turn this into Disneyland. The money went away to do that. There are things that are never gonna be the same again. There's 100,000 less people than there were before the storm. It is coming back, it is resilient. There's a part of it that always been apart from the rest of the country and I think that makes it more resilient than some places.
The 'I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive' is due out April 26 via New West and the book will be released May 12 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Season one of 'Treme' is available on DVD now and new episodes air on HBO Sunday nights at 10PM ET.