Carbon 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 about?

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.

We 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 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 from?

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 try.

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’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 base?

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 and success].

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 moments.

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 Used with permission of Barry Privett.

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  • Meander (1995) Constant Ivy
  • Shadows in the Banquet Hall (1997) Constant Ivy
  • Ether - Electrified Porch Music (1999) Constant Ivy
  • Echo Echo (2002) Constant Ivy
  • 5 Alive! (2003) Constant Ivy
  • Indian Summer (2004) Vanguard

  • Carbon Leaf is:

    Barry Privett - Lyrics / vocals, Penny whistle.
    Terry Clark - Vocals / Electric and Acoustic Guitars.
    Carter Gravatt - Vocals / Acoustic and Electric Guitars, Mandolins, 12 - String Guitar, Lap Steel, Bouzouki, Bodhran
    Jordan Medas - Vocals / Electric Bass and Double Bass.
    Scott Milstead - Drums and Percussion.

    Tour and Sound Manager:
    Cliff Hutchinson

    Doug LeFrack - Feisty Management / Eric Sells - Red Ryder Entertainment
    John O’Brien, Jr.
    14615 Triskett Road, Cleveland, Ohio 44111-3123
    P 216.647.1144

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