In an era of infinite streams and minuscule record sales, musicians are only worth as much as they can bring in from the road. The paradigm has flipped 180 degrees from the days in which musicians would plan a tour to support an album. Now, they make an album to drive cross country in a van. James Jackson Toth, the man behind the prolific folk project Wooden Wand, doesn't see it that way. "If I could just record albums and do nothing else, that's sort of my platonic ideal of the lifestyle," he tells me over the phone from his home in Richmond, Virginia. Toth lives a comfortable—if not transient—lifestyle in the budding college town, a place that reminds him of his childhood days in Brooklyn. As another album cycle kicks into overdrive with the forthcoming release of his excellent Clipper Ship (which is streaming below), Toth has done his best to disrupt the mind-numbing repetition of album promotion and all it entails. The three years between Toth's last release, 2014's Farmer's Corner, and his May 5 release, Clipper Ship, served as a time of reflection and creation unattached from any sort of commercial end.
Toth's philosophical approach between recording sessions is more existential than practical. "I just didn't feel a need to release a record. I used to feel this pressure to maintain the cycle—record, release, tour, repeat. It just seemed like there was so much going on in the world that it made adding to the glut feel unnecessary. I wanted to make sure it was the right record when I released it," he recalls.
And the right record it is. Clipper Ship consists of seven songs spanning nearly 36 minutes, the tracks oscillating between gorgeous droning meditations and low-key folk musings. On first single "Mexican Coke," Toth pays homage to the art of side hustling, the grind that enables us to do the things we love. "I've had every shitty job you can name. I worked selling vending machines at maximum security prisons," he explains. Part of Toth's willingness to embrace a 9 to 5 when not making music is because the logistics of touring have become too knotty to untangle. Toth is the rare musician who doesn't rely on touring as a main source of income.
"Wrangling all the people who played on the record for a tour is not really feasible," Toth explains. This group includes Glenn Kotche of Wilco and session heroes James Elkington and Nathan Salsburg, who have released a record together on Paradise of Bachelors. The talent shines through on the record, but aligning this many session staples for a month long tour makes little sense. The idea of a solo tour isn't particularly appealing to Toth, either. "I'm not saying I won't try," he chuckles, "but I don't think I'd represent these songs very well by myself." There's a certain workmanlike pride to Toth's craft, an innate joy in the work itself, free of frills and distractions.
Towards the end of our conversation, the questions and answers naturally gravitate to the current state of our country—as so many chats now do. I grew curious as to whether the album's three year process is a reflection of any sort of thesis regarding the modern world. "I feel that more than ever we need to be more discerning about just putting stuff out there and throwing stuff to the wall to see what sticks," he slowly explains, as if he's coming upon this realization for the first time. "This album is just a case of making sure it's gonna stick before I throw it to the wall." Like all Wooden Wand's releases, the words and music stay close long after the album ends; the mandolin on "Mexican Coke" and the raga-influenced dulcimer on "One Can Only Love" haunting the deep recesses of your mind long after the last notes of album closer "Mood Indica" ring out. With Clipper Ship, James Jackson Toth has done his job. The songs are firmly stuck to the wall.