His songs are honest replications of everyday life and emotions that aren’t bogged down by confusing imagery. As a result, his hymns quickly cultivate connections with listeners and become harbors for personal exploration. It’s for that reason Cleaves has been invited back to the Sisters Folk Festival for performances on Saturday, Sept. 8, and Sunday, Sept. 9.
Cleaves, who is currently on a summer break in Maine before heading out West, stepped away from a boiling pot of $2.99 per pound lobster long enough to talk about life on the road and his current songwriting process. He’s developed a method that works, he said.
“Now I borrow a friend’s country ranch house in Cherokee, Texas,” said Cleaves, during a phone interview with the Source. “I bring some books and movies, my guitar, and a laptop I use to write songs on. I’ll be there alone for three or four days at a time and write.”
While the songs Cleaves pens typically relate to personal stories, not all of what he writes comes from experience.
“Sometimes an idea will come from a book,” said Cleaves. “I wrote a song once about a character named Tommy Luther after reading the book Seabiscuit. Reading a book gets you thinking about different themes, philosophies, characters and language.”
Over the past two decades, Cleaves has become a touring stalwart. If he isn’t taking a break in Maine or writing at his friend’s ranch, he’s on the road. That impulse to travel has a long history with Cleaves, who moved to Ireland for some of college. Since then, he has traveled all over America earning accolades for his brand of Americana. As with most musicians, that’s led to some interesting stories. Like the one about trying to fly from Austin to Nashville to play Bluebird with childhood friend and occasional collaborator Rod Picott.
“My flight was delayed for so long that everyone else got rerouted,” said Cleaves. “I ended up being the only person on a plane with 180 seats. The flight crew was blown away by that. I got out my guitar at 20,000 feet and sang a few songs. They brought me champagne and orange juice and it was the first time I ever sat in first class.”
After all the traveling he’s done, Cleaves finds himself drawn to one region in particular.
“I don’t want to sound like a brownnoser, but we always look forward to coming out West,” he said. “I was an early adopter of the homebrew craze but got too busy to do it myself. I like to show up at a tavern after sound check and sample the local brews wherever we go.”
After this next trip, Cleaves said he is ready to cut a new record. It’s been three years since his last studio effort, and festivalgoers should plan on hearing a few of those new songs at both performances. And who knows, you might even find him at Three Creeks Brewing in Sisters telling a few stories without his guitar after the shows.
Photo taken by Karen Cleaves
Saturday, Sept. 8, 2 p.m. • Sunday, Sept. 9, 12:15 p.m.
Sisters Art Works • 204 W Adams St.