THE PUB TO MAIN STREET
WITH THE BEST NEW BAND IN AMERICA
Leaf, winner of the first ever Coca-Cola Best New Band in
America, is building its fan base the old fashioned way, with
grace of God timing, hard work and a grass roots following
that has driven the success of the band beyond anyone’s
belief. We caught Guitarist Terry Clark on a rare day off
in the midst of a month long tour of the U.S. that stretches
from coast to coast. The band drove all night from Columbia,
Missouri to Albuquerque, New Mexico, so that they would have
a complete day off, before playing at Albuquerque’s
Sunshine Theatre the next night. Terry was headed out for
the Rattlesnake Museum but graciously sat down for an hour
to be interviewed. A second interview with Barry Privett followed.
John: Carbon Leaf has been together for
almost eleven years, but became full time musicians in 1999
and then really jumping into national attention with winning
the first ever Coca-Cola New Music Award. How did that come
Terry: At the time, we still had day jobs.
I was working at a recording studio. Part of my job, for the
band, was to find these interesting marketing opportunities,
on the internet or elsewhere, and Barry would forward me things.
A fan sent an email to Barry and he forwarded it to me. The
email stated that Coca-Cola and Dick Clark Productions were
having this contest for the Coca-Cola New Music Awards.
So while I was at work, in my downtime, I filled out the application
and we uploaded three songs (mp3’s) and pretty much
forgot about it. [The songs were The Boxer, Wanderin’
Around & Shine] I did that with other contests - the John
Lennon Songwriting Contest, the International Song Writing
Contest and some other random stuff. Basically anything where
we could possibly find an outlet, I would enter a contest
or do whatever I could.
[The Coca-Cola New Music Award, also often called “the
Best Unsigned Band in America Award,” featured over
eight hundred bands competing over eight months, for the award,
plus a chance to perform on The American Music Awards in front
of eighty million people.]
So I forgot about it. Two months later we got a Fed-Ex, which
was kind of rare, ‘cause we weren’t getting a
lot of Fed-Ex’s in those days, saying “Congratulations,
you’ve made the Top 50 , we’ll let you know in
a couple of weeks what’s going on.”
Barry called me, “We got some sort of weird Fed-Ex about
the American Music Awards, do you know anything about that?
I had to go back through my old emails.” Then when I
found it, I remembered [thinking], “Oh this is that
contest we entered.”
A couple of weeks later, we got another Fed-Ex saying, “Congratulations,
you made the Top 10. Come and compete, and the top ten will
showcase at New York City’s Bowry Ballroom.”
We were supposed to fly there on September 12th, we had everything
lined up and then September 11th came and obviously everything
changed dramatically. New York was a different place. But
they ended up being able to reschedule it a few months later.
So we went up at the beginning of November, something like
that. And because things had changed, the timing had changed.
The Top 5 bands out of the top ten would go on a three week
national tour, sponsored by Coke, basically a college tour.
But with the timing, everything shifted back, it ended up
being the Top 5 bands had to leave the day after the Bowry
Ballroom show for the three week tour.
So we went up there not knowing, if we were going to be coming
home or … we all had day jobs so we told our bosses,
“Well, I might be back to work on Tuesday but I might
be gone for 3 ½ weeks.” It ended up we were [going
to be gone for 3 ½ weeks]. We won and proceeded to
the next level. We did the three week tour and at the end
of it, they whittled it down to the Top 3. The judges were;
Dick Clark, Nic Harcourt, nationally syndicated host of The
Morning Becomes Eclectic, on KCRW radio, and Bobby Haber,
Founder and Editor of College Music Journal, one of the sponsors
of the American Music Awards.
The Top 3 did a showcase in Los Angeles at the El Rey Theatre.
Dick Clark actually got up and announced the winner and after
he announced that we won, we had rehearsals for the American
Music Awards the next day for the live show the day after
that. So everything was pretty squished. It was pretty neat,
and weird, because we had never been on for The Battle of
the Bands kind of thing, this was pre-American Idol. The whole
nervousness, standing there waiting for a panel of judges
to decide your fate, definitely holding your breath. When
Dick Clark announced our name, it was pretty cool.
got three minutes to play our song [The Boxer], live on national
television, in the Shrine Auditorium [at the American Music
Awards] in front of all the music moguls and the country and
it was basically the world’s biggest showcase. Then
it was up to us to turn it into more than that. It was the
first time they gave an award to an unsigned band, so that
definitely broadened our fan base a lot, and after that we
sold CD’s as far away as Europe and Australia. An outpouring
of people buying CD’s on Amazon.com from around the
world [followed], which was really neat. From that point on,
we just got on the road and we started to talk to record labels
after that, but decided to stay independent for a while longer.
We toured our butts off and several radio stations picked
up on The Boxer and started playing it and that really helped
us move things to the next level and that actually introduced
us to our new label, Vanguard, who we signed with last year.
It took a year and a half to hook up with Vanguard. We saw
things the same way, which is pretty rare. We looked at all
the major labels. Vanguard was in it for the long haul. A
lot of labels aren’t into artist development. Vanguard
is an older label, a lot of history, around since the late
50’s, with Joan Baez, Kingston Trio, the Weavers etc..
and now they have a pretty diverse lineup; like us, Hootie
& The Blowfish, Mindy Smith, Sinead O’Connor, Blues
Traveller - very diverse.
John: Carbon Leaf is very diverse itself,
having numerous influences and are often referred to as a
Celtic rock band. Isn’t the truth a lot more that Carbon
Leaf is a rock band, with Celtic influences, among others?
Terry: Right, … It’s a rock band.
First and foremost, it’s just a rock band. And we have
a lot of different influences. Obviously Celtic, but also
a lot of Americana, Appalachian, bluegrass, which does sort
of skim [relate] to a lot of Scottish, Irish roots themselves
and jazz and stuff like that. We try to write songs, and concentrate
on the songs and do what the song needs to do. Sometimes the
song comes up a straight pop song. Sometimes it’s a
little more bluegrass. Sometimes it’s a little more
Irish. And sometimes it’s a blend of everything, of
all our influences.
John: Where does the Celtic influence come
Terry: Barry and I studied a semester in Ireland,
in college. I’m Irish and grew up listening to some
music around the house. Certainly, it is one of those things
that kind of rubbed off on us a little bit [Terry’s
family hails from Castlegregory, County Kerry].
Our first record is very main stream, sort of alternative
rock, and after that we started to get a little more experimental
and started to introduce acoustic instruments. Barry started
to pick up the penny whistle and Carter picked up the mandolin,
and when we picked up those instruments, it changed the sound
a lot. [We] Studied mostly in Dublin, out of Dublin University,
stayed at a [former] convent in Dundrum, which is now a convention
center. Then traveled around, mostly southern Ireland.
It was supposed to be” Arts and Architecture in Ireland.”
In between the evening pints and the tours during the day,
we did a bit of studying. Go to the pubs in the evenings,
listen to music and discuss what we saw during the day. Then
we would travel and stay in hostels and went down to Kerry
and Kilkenny and did some random things, the horse track in
Kilkenny and stuff like that.
Barry: Terry and I studied there in 1993.
We stayed outside of Dundrum at the Guit Maira, or the “Good
Mary.” A typical day was a museum in the morning, pub
at 11am, another site, pub at 2pm, another site or some classes,
pub from 6 to 11pm and then back to the monastery. We went
to Dublin of course, Kilkenny, Killarney, did the Ring of
Kerry, hit the coast, studied Irish art and architecture.
John: How did Carbon Leaf come together?
Barry: “We all kind of just came together.
I knew Terry. Terry knew Carter, and they started playing
guitar together. Scott played drums with our original bassist.
Carter knew those guys, so eventually he and Terry got together
with them. I filled in for the singer role.1
Terry: We all met and started the band while
we were attending Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, VA. We
were basically a group of friend who got together to have
some fun while playing music.
John: Where do the Carbon Leaf sound and
songs come from?
Barry: Terry, Carter or Jordan will come
up with a guitar part or idea for a song, and hash it out
with the band. I write the lyrics and vocal melodies. We then
put the two pieces together in our rehearsal space, which
is the basement to the band house. Usually the music comes
first and I take a CD of it and work out the themes, vocals
and words on my own. Other times we will all riff on an idea
in practice; the guys taking turns filling in some ideas to
The Boxer is fun, it’s about communication and how each
person in an argument is preparing their response, as opposed
to listening to the other person. Like a boxing match (and
it has a poorly played pennywhistle section).
Sometimes I will sketch down some ideas during practice if
they hit me at the time. "Wandrin' Around" was built
around a drum beat Scott had. A lot of things are written
while recording. It changes from song to song... Each of us
has different musical influences, from classic rock to pop,
jazz to jam, Celtic to bluegrass and roots.
There's Celtic and bluegrass influence in there. The Cajun
was just a cool thing to do for stripped down stuff. We don't
want those influences to consume our music - we're a rock
band, not a Celtic or bluegrass band - but they add a nice
spirit to a lot of the music, which seems to sit well with
some Carbon Leaf themes. It adds a fresh approach to what
we do as a rock band. [Our music is] good acoustic-based rock
with some roots and pop influences.1
Terry: Often we’ll hammer things out
with Jordan, Carter and Terry and put it on a CD for Barry.
Barry puts them on his ipod, he’s got three hundred
songs of unfinished Carbon Leaf musical ideas.
John: How has your sound changed since you
started playing together?
Barry: It's totally changed. And keeps changing.
We started out writing kind of what we were hearing on the
radio back in college. Luckily we were able to escape it.
I hear some early stuff and just groan! But that's what it
takes. It was more electric, heavier guitar alternative. Darker
for sure. Some goofy harmonies and quirky ideas and themes.
We started out all over the map, but mostly guitar rock. then
it got a little folksy on the 2nd CD, but still rock, then
it got a little Celtic on the 3rd and 4th CD, with the advent
of mandolin and penny whistle (poorly played pennywhistle,
I might add...it’s kind of my thing). We went through
a period where we were really inspired by the roots music
of the Celtic and bluegrass genres.
The latest album didn’t find us in that headspace [of
the Celtic influences] as much and the inspiration wasn’t
there. I was writing more songs about relationships and anything
we did with that flavor just seemed contrived, so we went
into a more rock direction. We still have a bunch of unfinished
songs with that Celtic flavor, but we’re waiting for
that spark to hit us again before we complete them.
Terry: When we started the band, we were
basically copying the sound of bands that we were fans of:
REM, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, etc. As we continued
writing music, we began to add other instruments: acoustic
guitars, mandolins, penny whistle, etc. The more we wrote
and played together the more “our sound” developed.
We just try to write good songs and aren’t concerned
about whether or not they fit into any particular genre.
John: How does Carbon Leaf develops its fan
Barry: Persist. Devoted years to hard work.
It takes time. We've just progressed little by little, playing
for pockets of people and gaining fans one at the time. It
really takes fans latching on to what you're doing and spreading
the word. Bands need fans spreading the word. The internet
is really helping a lot, and people burn our CDs, tape trade
and file share to get the music to their friends. We always
encourage people to buy it if they like it, but [CD burning
happens]. It's a good policy and creates a symbiotic relationship
between and band and audience. One doesn't survive without
the other, really. Bands can't always depend on massive air
play, so word of mouth is key [to building band recognition
John: What’s it like at a show, when
the band stops singing and Barry holds a mic out to the crowd
and they resoundingly holler the words back at you?
Terry: It’s the best feeling in the
world. Definitely a rush, you know. Best feeling in the world
to know that people care enough about the music to learn the
lyrics and sing along, it’s an awesome feeling.
All the festivals that we play in the summer and spring, Like
Cleveland’s Irish Cultural Festival, is awesome because
you see such an amazing variety of people in the audience,
young people and old people and everything in between.
It’s a big big world. In order for a smaller band to
get out there [be heard, they have to work continuously].
The play lists are fixed at a national or corporate office
somewhere, there is very little room for something new, so
in order for people to discover bands, you have to stumble
on them at a show or festival or someone else has to pass
you a CD. Word of mouth is the only way people will find us.
John: A live CD is a challenge, to capture
the essence of Carbon Leaf, on a format that doesn’t
allow for all the visuals that a show includes. How did 5
Alive! do that?
Terry: It definitely captured that period
of our lives, we did it all ourselves, from six or seven favorite
shows; Festivals in Richmond, New Years Eve, the 930 Club
in D.C., a tiny bar in North Carolina that we like. Our favorites
from those shows, we culled them all into one show. We hope
to do that once a year or once every year and a half or two
years, do a release like that, to show where we are at that
time in our careers. We like the idea of capturing the best
John: Before we sign off, here is some breaking
news on Carbon Leaf.
Carbon Leaf are featured on Volume #2 of the TIME "Know
Music" CD - the sampler CDs are distributed free with
the purchase of TIME Magazine at many college bookstores during
the back-to-school period. Volume #2 hits stores the first
week of September, and will be distributed until all 10,000
samplers have been passed out.
Carbon Leaf will take part in the Rock Boat VI, aboard the
Carnival Cruise Ship, "Sensation", sailing January
14th thru 19th, 2006, from New Orleans, stopping in Costa
Maya and Cozumel, Mexico, and then returning to the Big Easy.
Other performers include Sister Hazel, Better Than Ezra, Pat
McGee, old tour mates Blue Merle and many others.
Carbon Leaf was in the right place at the right time and made
a special appearance on Dr. Phil. They were in Los Angeles,
shooting a video for Life Less Ordinary and the Dr. Phil show
called and asked Carbon Leaf to appear and perform on the
show. The show was focused on people pursuing their dreams
and Carbon Leaf were the success story at the end. A nice
side benefit was that CD sales doubled over the next few weeks
after the show aired (November, 2004) and again after the
show reran in June, 2005.
1 From “FAQs” at www.carbonleaf.com. Used with
permission of Barry Privett.
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(1995) Constant Ivy
in the Banquet Hall (1997) Constant Ivy
- Electrified Porch Music (1999) Constant Ivy
Echo (2002) Constant Ivy
Alive! (2003) Constant Ivy
Summer (2004) Vanguard
Carbon Leaf is:
Barry Privett - Lyrics / vocals, Penny
Terry Clark - Vocals / Electric and Acoustic
Carter Gravatt - Vocals / Acoustic and
Electric Guitars, Mandolins, 12 - String Guitar, Lap Steel,
Jordan Medas - Vocals / Electric Bass and
Scott Milstead - Drums and Percussion.
Tour and Sound Manager:
Doug LeFrack - Feisty Management / Eric Sells - Red Ryder