Carbon Leaf | A Life Extraordinary

carbonleaf sqIf you just wait to be inspired, it’s just not consistent enough.


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Carbon Leaf, a Celtic-infused rock band from Virginia, would like to introduce you to some of your new favorite songs. Their unique blend of folk, blues, rock, and pennywhistle has kept the band on the road for almost 20 years, and spawned nine studio albums/EPs, two live albums, and part of a soundtrack, as the band contributed six songs to the soundtrack for Curious George 2. I have seen the band twice before with over a year between, and I still remembered songs from one show to the next without any album-induced booster shots in between. I can assure you, the show they perform will leave you singing their songs for quite some time afterwards—no matter how much of the music you know going in.

Since the last time I saw Carbon Leaf perform, I have procured most of the band’s catalog, and have subsequently absorbed much of the music. So, when given a chance to have a chat with Barry Privett, front man and one of the founding members, I was intrigued. I was interested to see what he’d have to say about the band’s history—they haven’t exactly had a straight, simple path—and about his life as a musician, in general. Thankfully, Privett was up to the task. Our conversation was interrupted several times by the mountains they were driving through killing our connection, but when we were able to talk, he was amiable and forthcoming. Living the life of a musician—who at one point was playing an average of six days a week—does not seem to have beaten him down; in fact, it still seems a source of great joy for him. He’s thoughtful and intelligent, but not to the point of being solemn or stuffy. He’s still excited to do what he does.

The first sign of that was when I asked him if being on stage is empowering or draining for him, to which he replied enthusiastically, “It’s empowering!” He added in a confiding tone, “I end up getting in better shape when we get on the road and losing four to five pounds.” Considering most people associate the life of a traveling band with hard living that runs the body ragged, it seemed surprising, but he elaborated. “You have your morning and day routines, and then you get to jump on stage, and that’s the most exciting part of the day, getting to connect with the audience. Just being in the same room, playing your music for the people who have come to hear it. That’s more invigorating than it is draining.” That made sense, though he allows, “When you’re done, if you’ve done it right, you’re ready for bed.” Perhaps this is more so now that Privett has hit 40. He laughed at the fact that the band couldn’t survive on two hours of sleep five nights in a row like they could at 23.

This is, of course, not to say that things have always been as straightforward as simply playing music. Their path has not been typical, as much as “typical” even exists in the music industry. In 2002, the band won the first ever American Music Awards New Music Award, and were signed to Vanguard Records in 2004. It would seem this had the opportunity to be an idyllic situation for a band that had been sustaining itself unsigned for almost 10 years. Things were not as peaceful as it may have seemed on the outside, however. The band released Indian Summer in 2004, an album that, along with 2006 follow up Love Loss Hope Repeat, charted on the U.S. Indie Billboard. The next album—their last on Vanguard—2009’s Nothing Rhymes with Woman, charted on the Billboard 200, hitting 136 and surpassing Love Loss Hope Repeat‘s peak position of 170. Despite this chart success—something Carbon Leaf had not had when they were unsigned—they decided to leave the label. As Privett put it in a radio interview in March 2010, “I don’t know if the label knows it or not, but we’re leaving the label…which I hope is cool we just made public.”

So why? Privett says nothing negative about their time on Vanguard, though he has expressed in the past that the band was dissatisfied with the process of waiting two years to record an album, waiting through setup and rollout; they just wanted to record and release music, while keeping the ability to tour. During our chat, he does talk about the upsides of being on a label. Things like having more people to bounce your ideas off of wasn’t enough to give up what you lose though, because, “You’re not going to grow, and you’re not going to own your material, and you’re not going to be able to control your material. The end result is that you’re going to be much more satisfied having a little bit more of that control.” Since the band left Vanguard, they have continued to tour relentlessly, and released more music, including a live CD/DVD last year. Later this year, the band plans to experiment with different ways of getting the music out there, even if it’s as simple as posting a link on Facebook without any sort of rollout. “I think for us, going forward, it’s going to be trying to just keep drilling back and doing less and less setup for a project and kind of be more ‘now’ so that the music being released is almost more journalistic,” Privett explains. “I think ultimately, fans just want music.”

The band has plenty of that. Privett says they have about 40 unreleased songs actually complete, including both lyrics and music, that they’re ready to get “up and running” as a band. Aside from that, he estimates they have about 600 songs that are not finished in some way—lacking lyrics, for instance. There’s little doubt that lyrics will get written. Privett spends four to five hours each day writing. He schedules it that way; he doesn’t wait for inspiration to strike. He explains, “If you just wait to be inspired, it’s just not consistent enough.” Privett also maintains journals, one that is unpublished and an online one. He claims the online journal isn’t far off the ground yet. This leads us to the hope that, at a point in the future, it will be more prolific. Privett also uses his degree in drama to work on screenwriting ideas when he has time, and has acted in a few movies, including Steven Spielberg’s upcoming drama Lincoln.

Despite Privett’s obvious love for music, writing, and the life he leads, I had to ask if there’s ever been a moment where he wanted to throw in the proverbial towel. He admits to some moments of, “What am I doing?” when things go wrong. When you’re “cold, wet, tired, or hungry,” it can be easier to wonder if the life is worth it, but Privett claims, “You have to look back on what excited you about the process in the first place.” He’s quite philosophical about it, saying “Everybody has moments when they’re exhilarated and moments when they’re tired.” He adds with a chuckle, though, “You learn not to make those sort of critical decisions in the heat of the moment.”


We’re lucky that Privett and the rest of the band—guitar player Terry Clark, multi-instrumentalist Carter Gravatt, drummer Jason Neal, and bass player Jon Markel—have decided to stick it out for as long as they have. Things have obviously changed in the last 18 years, both in the band’s lineup and in the lives of its members. A few are single but some are now married with kids. It raises the question of what is home for the band and Privett (who is unmarried and childless) personally. He remarked that home—Richmond, Virginia—feels more like an outpost sometimes than “home.” He adds, though, “Home is kind of where you consider your biggest community.” When I commented on some of their more fervent fans and how they might be considered a pretty good community, he said, “Well, without that, we wouldn’t be able to be out here, so we’re lucky.”

Perhaps they are lucky, but they’re also talented men who are passionate about their jobs. They put everything they can into their shows and their music, and it shows. They’re not in this to sell records, though that is always welcome, but instead to bring something they’re justifiably proud of to the masses. We’re very lucky that St. Louis is a frequent stop for them, and we can only hope that it continues to be in the future. | Teresa Montgomery

Carbon Leaf plays St. Louis at Old Rock House on Wednesday, July 25,with Stickley and Canan. Doors are at 7 p.m. with the show at 8. Tickets are $15 flat and the show is all ages.

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