Sturgill Simpson does not like to talk. Or, actually, maybe this is a better way to put it: Sturgill Simpson does not like to talk to journalists. On a recent afternoon, the oft-heralded “savior of country music” is sitting across from me as both of us avoid eye contact, explaining the way he believes he’s been presented in the media. “I've been painted in some lights [as] this angry guy,” he says. “Just because when you say things in print it's so easy for context to get twisted.”
We’re seated on a bench in a park near the East River, staring at the heart of media and civilization just across the water. In the year 2017 when cable news can hardly tell left from right, it’s hard to argue with his point, what he calls print media’s “theatric element.” He’s not alone in this belief, either. Beyoncé barely talks to the press anymore. Same goes for Taylor Swift. Lana Del Rey records all of her interviews. And Drake has felt a certain way about music journalists since he lost his Rolling Stone cover a couple years ago.
“Most of the time the two hour conversation is me providing two or three sentences to fill in the blanks on a piece they've already written in their head,” Simpson continues. “I can't tell you how many outlets I've just said no to or don't give passes to the shows because it has nothing to do with what me and the fans are doing in the room, just somebody's take of what they think I'm trying to do or say.”
So what is the 39-year-old Grammy winner doing talking to me?
Earlier this year, I wrote an article called “A Brief Appreciation of Sturgill Simpson’s Instagram Account” which was exactly what the headline said it was. The story was casual, just some screenshots of his funny account with commentary below. In one comment, I pointed out Simpson’s use of the word “pussy” as derogatory within the context of the caption. Several of his fans made sure to let me know I was being an over-sensitive snowflake and a social justice warrior. Simpson, on the other hand, emailed me. He wanted to apologize, and told me an interview was the only way he thought he could do that.
“I just thought you had a good point and I wanted to tell you that, that’s it,” he says. “It’s funny. No one ever wants to listen to that sort of stuff, especially in the country world because you can just ignore it if you want to and say ‘I'm not doing it on purpose.’ You can ignore a lot of things but there's a lot of responsibility with it.”
He's not one to say it, but this is the kind of sensibility that’s made Simpson such a compelling star. That, of course, and his unbelievable skill as a musician. The story of how Simpson got here is a bona fide country music cliché: In 2012, he and his wife Sarah sold almost everything they owned, packed an old Ford Bronco to the max, and moved to Nashville as a last-ditch attempt to make it. A year later he released his self-funded debut, High Top Mountain, which was produced by legendary country producer Dave Cobb. The positive reception of the record led to comparisons to Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard which—in the language of country music—means he was a good artist with just enough edge to be considered an outlaw.
If High Top Mountain was his hillbilly tribute to where he was raised in Kentucky, then his follow-up album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music was his tribute to his time in the Navy as a young man, partying his tits off as often as possible to escape the rare monotony of being in the Navy when there wasn’t a war going on. It was this release—again, paid for out of pocket—that truly set him apart from his contemporaries, earning him that “savior” label because of its honest-yet-snarky depiction of modern country music. At one point during our conversation he mentions a movie he recently watched whose main character is a turtle. “I shouldn’t have said turtle,” he says, interrupting himself, referring to the press coverage he got for his psychedelic country song “Turtles All The Way Down,” the first song on Metamodern that caused such a ruckus he told one Guardian reporter that “people think I wake up in the morning and pour LSD on my Cheerios.”
“I had to write a whole album just to get away from that,” he laughs. The album he’s referring to is 2016’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, the first of two records he signed to release with Atlantic Records, and a record that would go on to be nominated for Album of the Year by the Grammys. Simply put, it’s one of the best albums of the last decade.
The path of a greasy, teenage pot dealer doesn’t usually lead to a $100,000 recording budget and a two-record deal with one of the largest labels in the United States. Nor does it lead to turning down “a sizeable amount of money” from a car company to use one of his songs in their commercials, as he told the New York Times in 2016, or spending the CMAs outside on the street protesting fascism rather than accepting awards, as he did earlier this month. It rarely allows you to enter the music business at age 35, long after any normal person would give up on the dream.
But Simpson is not normal, and life is often better to some people than they feel they deserve. Through our three and a half hour long conversation and exchanging multiple emails (in one note to me he clearly states our conversation is his "final interview"), it’s clear that Simpson is hyperaware of that idea, unconsciously or not. It’s there in the way he credits his wife for being the reason he escaped the depressive misery of a middle-management job. It’s there in how seriously he takes the job of making music providing “maybe 20 minutes of distraction in a person’s life.” It’s there in his daily life as a father: “For the first time in my life I’m scared. I never really gave a fuck before I got married if the world ended. [Then] you have kids and all of a sudden it’s the sobering reality of this immense responsibility that you have to try to let them hold on to positivity and innocence as long as you possibly can.” All Simpson wants to do is a good job.
The below interview combines our sprawling conversations into one, and has been edited for length and clarity.
Noisey: Do you feel you owe it to people listening to your music and following your career to police your language or own up to your mistakes?
Sturgill Simpson: Yeah, the mistakes part. I don't really watch my language much, which I should and I know I should, but it's like I said [in the initial email]: Years in the Navy and on the railroad, those are both high-stress, tyrannical environments. For some reason foul language just becomes a side effect of intense pressure and stress. I don't like to consider myself to be small-minded, but I talk small-minded a lot. Kinda balances the poetry, I guess.
That’s definitely something people don’t want to speak out about as much lately because they’re afraid of getting in trouble, saying the wrong thing, alienating people.
It’s so easy to say the wrong thing. For instance, we’re talking because I said the wrong thing. I didn’t even know it was the wrong thing. My wife says it, so I just assumed maybe it was OK. There are probably other words much more worthy of concern but at the same time it is a wrong thing, because, to me, feminism is nothing more than the idea that women are equal to men. So you’re equating weakness—or a term used to describe someone as soft or weak—with female genitalia. That is kinda fucked up when you step back. If I fuck up, I’ll be the first to own it. I'm pretty good at fucking up. I made a life out of it.
It's worked out well for you so far.
The last few years have been—I'm not really sure that all this is even happening because of me. It's happening because my family deserves it more so than maybe I do.
That's how I look at it.
Did you ever see yourself becoming this sort of family man?
I met someone who is more important to me than what I wanted or saw or ever thought about even thinking I knew what I wanted. I try not to think about any of it too much, especially with the career thing. You'll go crazy if you worry about what's next, you know.
You don't worry about what's next?
No. You just can't. My career has happened the way it has, more than anything, because I don't think about expectations or what I'm supposed to do. It's not even about maintaining a career so much as it is I've been given this opportunity and this giant toolbox to make records. For me, it's more cathartic release. I'm just trying to constantly improve and become a better artist and then hopefully make records that people—I mean it's great if they buy them today—but I’m more interested in making records that maybe people will still talk about in 30 years. That's the goal for me. You can go crazy if you let yourself think, "How do I remain relevant?" or you can just go and try to make great music and the fans will react to it and it takes care of itself.
You fought getting into music for awhile, didn't you?
I didn't think I was good enough to do it for a living. I played guitar, I've written songs since I was probably in middle school. My uncle played and both my grandfathers played, and a lot of people in my family played, but they all had jobs. It was something they did after work. Honestly I never had any ambition, I think is the answer to your question. It was more just something I enjoyed, it made me feel good. I don't have any ambition but anything I do and throw myself into, I'm gonna give it everything I got and go until I kill myself, probably. Even with this touring thing, I've had to step back and realize it's time to take a break or I'm going to burn out.
You felt that way even about rail work?
Yeah, I got that job and went out there, started out at the bottom, just embraced it and threw myself into it and next thing I know I'm running the office as operations manager, sitting in the office 90 hours a week. My wife realized I was miserable before I even saw it. I'll just keep fucking going.
I guess, someone had to push you to be here—your wife had to say like, “OK, you should do this.” And now you have, arguably, one of the most successful careers in country music. Is there ever any guilt that someone else had to push you to do it?
No. I do believe that everything happens for a reason, and I really believe that you can manifest things and communicate with the universe, and the universe tries to speak to you. Sometimes we don't know how to listen. Looking back on it, I like to think that everything I did, whether I was aware or not, was leading me here, because all those experiences culminated into what I’m using this to say. You know, I waited 'til I was 35 to get into the music business. I don't feel guilty about it, all of that stuff was necessary or this wouldn't be happening.
Why do you have that reaction to anything? Going for it as hard as possible, willing to kill yourself for it, basically?
I don't know. A sense of purpose. For a long time I just felt lost. I always knew there was other things I wanted to do, just didn't know what that was or how to go about it. I got in a really dark, cynical, unhealthy place through most of my 20s, and looking back on that now I can really understand why that was. I wasn't doing what I was supposed to be doing. Now, maybe sometimes I do take it too seriously, but it's just because I know that this is only any semblance of a legacy that I'm gonna leave for my kids. This is it. This is who I am. It's important.
Do you think about leaving a legacy for your kids?
No, I just want them to know that I tried to do something good instead of just—something bigger than me, I guess. It's weird though, because once things start happening in this industry there's this need for you to promote yourself which, for me, has never been just about me, it's been about the records. I didn't know what I was trying to say or if there was a message to any of it, but I was trying to put something real out there. I pulled back from press and not really talking to anybody because I felt like for awhile it was becoming more about me than the music, and you just end up being clickbait or filling in gaps in narratives that I just don't have any need to be a part of because it doesn't have anything to do with what I’m trying to accomplish. I realized a lot of that sometimes can be a disservice to the art. I've been painted as this angry guy just because when you say things in print it's so easy for context to get twisted. I can't really text people because I have a dry sardonic wit and it doesn't really come through. I've learned that if I'm going to do interviews it should probably be on video so people can see what I was actually saying.
Do you ever feel like you're being used in media?
Absolutely. Your name gets used to push other things, something you said might get used to frame or to reinforce or put another spin on a narrative someone needs to create. It's been very interesting for me to see what facets of this job are necessary to me and which ones I don't have any use for. I only reached out to you because you spoke in a way that I felt like, you saw me as a human being, and that's really all anybody can ask.
A lot of people, I bet, try to capitalize on what you're doing.
But we didn’t invent it. This happens time and time again in cycles. You had the alt-country movement in the 90s and that petered out. You have to go through 20 years of canon fodder and eventually something regurgitates up as a throwback. I don't ever wanna go in the studio thinking "I better do what I did last time." That terrifies me, probably even more than throwing a single out to radio and next thing you know you're playing to arenas full of people who just came to hear one song, that's probably the scariest fucking thing I could ever imagine.
Is it just that you don't want to bother with that? Arguably you're turning away—well, not turning away—but you're not asking for any help getting your stuff out there.
That's a part of my personality disorder. I didn't want any help. If I was going to do this I had to know I did it on my own, without anybody's help other than maybe three or four or five various people in my direct team. A lot of the people reaching out and trying to shake hands now are the same people that passed ten times the first year. It's been really interesting. The reason I haven’t pursued it is because I understand. I read all the biographies. I know the business. I know what comes with that. There are limitations that are placed around major commercial success, because you have to live up to that to maintain that relevance, and then a lot of those big entities, once you become one of their leaders you have to follow their rules or you go away. Ask The Dixie Chicks.
It [the Dixie Chicks incident] still blows my fucking mind.
What's even scarier? That could easily happen, probably even easier now. We're in 2017, what the fuck is going on?
I think all the time about how lucky you are to be able to say no to everyone. Do you ever think of yourself as lucky? To be able to do that?
I mean anybody can say no. It’s a very powerful word. There’s a lot of things that present themselves on a weekly basis that I’m sure most people would jump at an opportunity to say yes to but I now have enough understanding of what it is that I’m trying to accomplish to know what things have nothing to do with that. As cool as [an] opportunity might be, ultimately it’s just time that you’re giving up, a distraction from the things that I should be focused on which is writing songs and living my life and being a father.
Who’s it for?
Who is this really for? I think I can show support and stick up for things that I love and believe in—for instance, a dead friend—without having to do a record of covers of that person’s music to prove how much I love them. You know, that to me, that’s pretty—that’s just hilarious quite honestly. I’m never going to do that as good as those guys did it so I might as well take elements of that, combine it with the other stuff that I love, and continue trying to figure out who the fuck I am because I’m not sure I even know yet.
Are you learning about yourself?
Removing any outside influence or people who might have an understanding of who they think you should be or what might sell better, trying to help you and really just getting complete control without any input whatsoever other than the members of my band, I’m in awe of all of them. Outside of that I’m not really interested in somebody else’s idea of what I’m supposed to be doing.
What kind of relevance are you trying to keep?
As cliché as it sounds I just want to push myself and I want to push everyone around me, artistically and sonically. I just want to push. I moved to Nashville specifically with the intention to affect change and to put something out there that people would have to respond to because it was so real, and to maybe push things in a different direction and allow some other people [in]. It’s pretty safe to say that we’ve accomplished that. Not to sound like I’m abandoning it or anything but I’m just not sure how much work I really have left to do there. This last album, especially the reception that it got, makes me feel bolder about pushing myself artistically and creatively to go even further out. I’ll probably fall flat on my face and make a really horrible record but fuck, man. It’s worth it.
You could always run for president.
Fuck that, are you kidding me? Although…
I mean, you technically have more experience than the guy we’ve got right now just by being in the Navy.
I can’t even talk about that man, it’s... it’s just…
Do you ever feel pressure to speak out or say something and use your platform?
No, no I really don’t. Ever. If I say something it’s because I want to. I have opinions but it’s not my job to get on Twitter and tell everyone how they should think. If I have something I feel really strongly about, I’ll say it. Because I play music I’m not allowed to talk?
You’re so lucky to be able to do that.
I’m very, very fortunate and it’s hard not to be—I dunno, I don’t ever stop to ask myself why it’s happening because I probably wouldn’t get any answers, but it’s happening. I just want to not waste it. I don’t ever want to just go in the studio and make an album because it’s time to make an album. If it’s seven years before I do it again then I’ll be doing a lot of other really interesting shit to me in the meantime, like studying to become a ninja or working for FEMA. That would be a cool way to spend a year—helping people fucking drowning.
How you do keep pushing yourself forward?
A lot of it comes with not getting, not becoming a slave to mechanics of the industry. The worst thing that an artist can do is to allow yourself to be put in this never ending cycle of just running laps and going out and playing shows and being that karaoke machine and then coming off the road for three weeks and trying to figure out how to go make a record before the next tour. The next thing you can do is just go the fuck away for a while, recharge your battery and ask yourself, honestly, do I have anything to say? If you don’t, then maybe don’t say it because that’s how bad albums get made.
All that pressure.
If you’re making it for any other reason than to just do something beautiful that makes you feel good, you should probably step back a little bit and wonder where that pressure’s coming from. If it’s not coming from you, that’s a problem. It’s like, you make a record, I make a record, and the way I work is not for everybody and the guys that have stuck it out in my band, they’ve learned to understand that’s how it works. It’s highly intensive and there’s not a lot of second guessing and 15 to 18 hour days is pretty much the norm. We just keep going typically until it’s done, or I feel I need to step back and process a little bit. It goes very fast. I don’t really suffer fools. I take it very seriously, but I’ve learned to identify when it’s time.
How has having kids changed your perception of the world?
Oh god, for the first time in my life, I’m scared. I never really gave a fuck before I got married if the world ended. I was like, well it won’t matter, we’ll all be gone. I read too much Nietzsche in high school—nobody should read that shit before the age of 24—and you have kids and suddenly it’s the sobering reality of this immense responsibility that you have to try to let them hold on to positivity and innocence as long as possible. I feel like that’s my job right now. We were all that at some point in our lives. To be reminded of that on a daily basis, it lets you know that this world is worth saving and doing good for it does change.
Humans aren’t meant to be alone.
That’s so true. A friend of mine said one time: the worst thing you can do to somebody in prison is put them in solitary confinement. Like, you’re stuck in a fucking box with a bunch of rapists and murderers and the only thing worse than that is being by yourself? I’m an extreme introvert and an only child so I can’t do the meet and greet thing because I get exhausted and depressed almost. I can’t explain it. It physically takes a huge toll. There are periods where I have to be alone, but we all need people, even if they’re assholes. Actually, my favorite people are all assholes, now that I think about it.
Because they’re real and they tell me what I don’t want to hear which is what I need to hear and that’s something you can’t really put a price on. Like you said earlier, you gotta ask yourself: who’s this really for? I used to think I was doing this for me or for my family, but now I know that nothing could be further from the truth. You meet enough people that tell you how much the music has affected their life or gotten them through hard things, or you meet a lady after the show by the bus who says the last concert she came to was with her husband who died of cancer and she just wanted to come see a show to feel that connection to a person. It’s hard not to feel an extreme amount of responsibility. That’s been the best part of this: learning how to live outside myself in so many ways.
And that’s why you do it?
I guess now, it’s easy to forget that sometimes but when you’re reminded of it, it’s a little overwhelming obviously. But, yeah, you go out and you look at ten thousand fucking strangers all screaming the words back to you that you thought were about your life—that’s... you can’t really describe that, that make sense? That’s what I mean when I say a lot of times I don’t feel like I deserve it, because who does deserve that? I feel like everyone keeps telling me, “Oh how successful things have gone." People say that stuff to me now and I still, I don’t feel that. We’re playing a sold out show at Radio City but like I still feel like I’ve sort of clawed my way to the beginning.
What do you mean by beginning?
I dunno. I dunno. I just feel like I still have a lot of work to do.
Why do you want to so badly to figure out your purpose?
I guess when it’s all said and done, I can understand it. Right now I’m just hanging on for the ride—that’s what I mean when I say I clawed my way to the beginning. It’s hard to tell how fast the fucking train’s going when you’re sitting on it, you know? So I don’t really have real perspective on what has happened until I meet people that tell me what it’s done for them. The hardest part is to wake up every day with the internal structure of the business and constantly remind yourself that it’s not fucking about you, it’s about all these people that you’re affecting and maybe bringing 20 minutes of distraction to from their lives and their jobs that they fucking hate. That’s why I went to concerts when I was a kid. And not letting distractions and bullshit and ego and all these other things that we all have to deal with make you do things for the wrong reasons. It’s a very exciting time in music though.
You think so?
I know people say that but, oh, it’s an exciting time in music. I don’t want to say a modern punk rock movement because punk was about something entirely different. The public is making this happen, not the artists, because [the public is] responding to it. They’re sharing it. You can do something and see ten other people being inspired to make a record, hopefully for the right reasons, because that’s probably the best compliment that anybody can ever pay you.
That you’re not doing it for the money?
We all have to pay bills but I can definitely tell you I’m not just doing it for the money. I just don’t want do anything that isn’t for the right reasons. Ultimately these are the things that really just hurt you and overshadow all the things you did for the right reasons. All of a sudden you’re the “insert major car company brand name here” guy, you know? Nothing’s ever free, trust me. I don’t really do the freebies. Gibson gave me a Les Paul that I haven’t put down since I got it because it’s an amazing guitar. I told them I just don't want to do the pictures and all that stuff all the time and they looked at me, the guy was like, “Sturgill, we only put up pictures of dead people playing our guitars. When you’re Jimmy Page we’ll fucking worry about it.” I was like “Oh. Thanks for the perspective and the guitar.”
We live in the same townhouse we lived in before my career took off, and we’ll probably keep our lives like that as long as we possibly can. When you start getting upside down, and it becomes about maintaining lifestyles and relevancy, that’s when you start making bad records and doing things for the wrong reasons. Or one day you wake up and you’ve got 30 tour busses and 80 people on your crew and now you’re working for all the people that work for you, because these people have lives and they depend on you for their income and you’re just a slave to that machinery. [pauses] Man… I’m playing Radio City Music Hall. I sold out Radio City Music Hall. What the fuck man! I remember looking at pictures when I was a kid of Stevie Ray Vaughn standing in front of Radio City the first time he played it and now that’s our reality. After four years of just putting your head down and working your fucking ass off you know it’s—it’s kinda heavy.
How is it heavy?
It’s a milestone. It feels like... understanding purpose. The last five years feel like five months because for us we’ve been in the bubble, just constantly trying to do the best we can every night, and one day you’re playing Radio City Music Hall. The first gig we played three years ago was at Hill Country BBQ and there was nobody in there except the wedding party who didn’t give a fuck about what we were doing on a Saturday night in Manhattan. That “we” was me in a four seat passenger van trying to find a parking lot or a parking spot anywhere on that Island to load the gear fucking eight blocks and play a BBQ joint. And now three years later we’re playing Radio City. That’s pretty cool.
It’s been a long time coming.
Somebody was talking about that shit in 2012, 2013. My wife was like, “you’re trying to be Batman or something.” I was like, no, the fucking Joker.
Setting fires just to watch them burn?
Just to watch it burn. Some men can’t be bought.
I respect it.
Out of chaos comes beauty and order. That’s why I think all this Trump shit, as much as it’s hard to watch and look at, it’s absolutely necessary. I really believe that. He’s a manifestation of all the leftover remnants of the negative energy existing in our society. It’s all just coming to this head and it’s going to get so fucking ugly and exposed that it all just fizzles away and dissolves into itself and out of all of that, both parties will have to step up and take a real hard look in the mirror and do a much better job for us than they’ve been doing. In terms of empires or countries, we’re a puppy. It’s going to be OK. Other than outright global nuclear war, which in any case it doesn’t matter much.
Is that the worst that could really happen?
That’s pretty much the worst that could happen, yeah, if the whole earth is on fire. But the earth even then, Earth would be OK. In a couple of years Earth would be just fine. Some other organism will pop up and evolve and fuck it up all over again. Actually I guess the worst thing that could happen would be a solar flare. Or if an intergalactic empire built a space station that could blow your planet up. That would suck.
Annalise Domenighini will also no longer be doing interviews. Follow her on Twitter.
Jessica Lerhman is a photographer based in Brooklyn. Follow her on Instagram.