Cash Cabin adds magic to Trapper Schoepp’s latest record
Using a bevy of folk instruments and pulling from a deep well of character studies, Milwaukee singer-songwriter Trapper Schoepp answered the call of Johnny Cash’s “Cash Cabin” in Hendersonville, Tenn., for new record Siren Songs
Inspired and fueled by the storied lore and sounds of traditional folk music, Schoepp renders his own atmosphere-infused legends on this album, enlisting producers John Jackson (The Jayhawks) and Patrick Sansone (Wilco), with help from Cash’s grandson Joseph to add structure, magic and plain old heart.
The first single from Siren Songs, “Cliffs of Dover,” just got its release today, Jan. 19, to set the stage for the full album due out in April. Schoepp recently spoke with me about how Siren Songs came together.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
With this new album, you said something I really liked: “It's important to be a link in the chain of folk singers before and after your time.” When did you — or what made you — realize that?
I think when I was 16 years old, playing at the Blue Moon Coffee House in Red Wing, Minn., watching these folk singers that were 20 years older than me tell stories between songs, I watched the way their hands held the guitar. I watched the way they smoked cigarettes after the show. I watched them load their cars, and I realized that their music and their whole being was linked to a time before, and I thought that was so special and a way of honoring the past and creating something entirely new in the present. And I said, “You know, that seems like a path I want to go down.”
Over your years of songwriting, certain influences are really easy to pick out and often return. When I listened to Siren Songs, one song [“Secrets of the Breeze”] really stuck out, and it's the first time I heard your love of The Waterboys really shine through. I'm also a fan. What about their sound inspires your own?
Oh, it's this rambling European, sort of patchwork quilt of Irish music, British folk music, American music. It's this beautiful and chaotic patchwork quilt of all of these different sounds and stories and territories and people, and it sounds so diverse and unhinged and present. And I mean all those things in a complimentary way.
I think with this album, we went into the studio after not really recording with bandmates all at once, and so I was truly, you know, playing for my life. We had 14 songs in seven days, and the effect of being at the Cash Cabin, where so much great music has been recorded, so many legends had been through there. There was certainly the DNA of the Cash family, as well as Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson — all these different people that had been through those doors before. That was present. You could feel that. It was tangible and spiritual and such an inspiring place to record.
Getting back to The Waterboys, their music sounds like that to me. It sounds like those musicians are playing for their lives, and they're very present in what they're doing, and so much of Siren Songs is us doing that. It’s totally winging it and going for it.
“Cliffs of Dover,” the first track, as well as “Secrets of the Breeze,” those are two tracks we started at probably about 8 or 9 at night. I stood around Patrick Sansone and John Jackson, and we’d all convene in the main, live room, and I’d just play through the track for them and then say, “OK, we’ll start this tomorrow.”
Of course, we all went into the recording in our different booths, and we tracked both of those songs entirely in like an hour. It was probably the fourth or fifth take. We’d go in later and add a tin whistle or a violin, but much of what you hear on this album is kind of inspired by that rowdy rambling. We joke, much like a “love army marching over the hills of Scotland” — that kind of “Waterboys” sound. So, you totally picked up on that, and I appreciate that.
There's definitely raw emotion. Folk songs are free-flowing, centered on raw emotion. It seems like you captured that.
I've made so many albums piece-by-piece, and when you listen back to those albums that you multi-track — when you weren't playing live with the band — I can't really hear the song anymore. On this album, I just went in with this thought of: We've all been isolated from each other for so long with the pandemic and everything. I want to get in there, in the Cash Cabin, and make something that feels really present.
This feels like a true folk record [for you]. What brought you to this place?
During the pandemic, I got really into Irish music. So everything from The Pogues to The Clancy Brothers to Glen Hansard — covering the whole spectrum. But there was this artist, relatively obscure, his name is Paul Brady, and he has this song called “Arthur McBride,” which is an anti-war ballad. There's this amazing video of him on YouTube playing it, and I was watching his fingers move up and down the neck of the guitar and watching his shapes and realized, “Well, I can't make those sounds with standard tuning.”
So I de-tuned my guitar to open D tuning, which Joni Mitchell famously did throughout her career, as well as Bob Dylan on Blood on the Tracks, and it broke open my entire musical universe. It was just as if I was starting over and was like a child. It was a completely new canvas for me to work from and really inspiring. So I basically wrote, like, 15 songs in a few months using this new tuning. It was a new canvas and all these different new colors to work from, so that was sort of the start of it.
Folk stories are the basis of this record. Each song is a story unto itself, and I’d like to talk about your own story, “Secrets of the Breeze,” about an incident in an unruly Lake Michigan. What level are you on with Lake Michigan now, after your experience?
I love, love living in Milwaukee and the proximity to water. I always say “take the lake,” even if it's like a 10-minute detour. I always try driving up and down the lake, and during the pandemic I got obsessed with paddleboarding and just found that when I was out on Lake Michigan, my mind would just completely empty, and it was just stroke-by-stroke with the paddle. Just me and the water and my buddies. And I began doing it in the winter as well, with my full wetsuit and everything.
One day, I went out when I shouldn't have went out. It was in early November. And “the sea was angry that day,” as George Costanza said, and I just didn't know what I was doing. I didn't have the proper equipment on — the boots, the suit. And I tried pushing out into the water, and the waves threw me back underwater pretty deep and then threw me against the shore into a big pile of rocks. This was at Big Bay. And I went to the ER that night because my foot had kinda swollen up, black and blue.
It turned out, strangely enough, the doctor was a surfer who was out on Lake Michigan that day. And he said, “OK, so you need to get these boots. You need to get this, that and the other, and your foot's not broken, but it's very damaged, and I will be seeing you again if you don't be more careful.”
I think “Secrets of the Breeze” was written out of that idea of: There's the mystery of nature, and it's Lake Michigan, but you need to respect it. You don't have to understand it, but you have to respect it and know that it's a much stronger force than you. I also was kind of thinking about the pandemic as well and how everything kind of spiraled, and we don't understand what's happening necessarily, but we have to respect it. So that's how that song was born.
I'm glad you walked away from that experience with just a story.
I wanted to talk about the Cash Cabin a little more. We talked about the storied lore.
What a treasure that place is. What an above-ground treasure.
What mark did recording there and just being there leave on your creative mind?
First off, we were connected through the Cash Cabin through our producer, John Jackson. He worked for Sony Legacy for years, and he helped produce some of Loretta Lynn's albums that were made there, and helped package and release some of Johnny Cash's posthumous work. So we were able to get in with him.
The first day we walked through the doors, Joseph Cash, Johnny's grandson — who ended up taking the album cover photo, making a music video, and ultimately playing and singing on the record, none of which was planned — he folded out this old [harmonium] organ they used to use on battlefields for prayers and services, and it's like a pump organ with your feet. And he started playing this harmonium. It's a kind of thing they would use a lot in Irish music as well. But it just gave me absolute chills hearing this instrument in that space.
I think what really had a profound impact on me is the staying power of these instruments. Johnny Cash's ’30s guitar, which was called his s***kicker guitar, so everyone that would come through his house would play this 1930s Martin guitar. He just left it on his couch. God, who would've played this thing? There was June's piano, her Steinway. These instruments have a lot of power. It doesn't matter how spiritual you are; instruments can really hold so much power. I played the song on my album, “Devil's Kettle” on Johnny's 1930s Martin in open tuning.
I'm left with so much gratitude, obviously, for the Cash family for allowing us to make the album there. But also, I think it did leave a profound impact on me just getting to play on some of the same instruments that all these greats got to.
You feel … I don't know … the “ghost in the machine” a little bit, I guess.
Yes, exactly. I mean, it's there. It's there. I mean, Johnny recorded “Hurt” on the lawn of the Cash Cabin. He recorded with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — a lot of his older material — just in the main, live room. It was basically Johnny's old hunting cabin that in his later years, when he wasn't as mobile, was turned into a recording studio. So they added on certain bits.
But yeah, I mean, it's great. Everything's set up. Everything's mic’d. Everything's ready to go at a moment's notice. As you know, Erin — as a [fellow] musician — so much time in the studio is just plugging in everything, getting tones right. This was just sort of like a turnkey, “let's go” experience, which was so exciting for me.
“Cliffs of Dover” is officially out, and it's the first track on Siren Songs. How does this song in particular set up the rest of the record?
Well, I am so sick of all of the war in the world. It’s just so upsetting to turn on your television and see what's happening in Ukraine and, you know, we've just brought everybody home from the Middle East, and now it seems as if another war is starting. That's a very important part of folk music: standing up for what you believe in.
It sounds cheesy, but I hear a lot of music today, and I don't hear much rebellion. I don't hear statements being made. Where are all the songs that are standing up against the thieves and warmongers and the, you know, “Masters of War,” as Bob Dylan is saying. I'm not hearing those songs. Maybe I have to listen harder, but I wanted to sing one of those songs. I felt I needed to do that.
So, one day, I wrote this song kind of in rapid fire about a soldier who had come home, and he can't stop hearing the sound of bullets in his head and the ghosts of war. I think it's really important to sing one for all the people who've come home from wars and haven't been treated right, and they haven't gotten the right treatment.
There’s a really great organization in Milwaukee I have to shout out called Guitars For Vets. They're doing really important work in putting guitars in the hands of veterans who have come home battered and bruised — physically and mentally. It gives them something to focus on, gives them something to work on. It’s a really powerful organization, and it's now all over the United States, helping out veterans.
I think “Cliffs of Dover” came from some of my frustrations watching the way that the wars have played out and watching the way that we treat veterans.
There are statements in music, but typically in the mainstream music world, you don't hear those statements of rebellion. It's true. Usually you'll find it in punk or hardcore, but it's important to spread the message across genres.
Or hip-hop. Some of the most inspiring music to me, when I listen to Tupac or NWA, there are such strong statements and messages being made, just rapid fire like this [snaps]. So as much as I'm tied to Irish music, I really pull from everywhere.
We’re on the cusp of this big release of yours, and I’m excited for you. This is kind of where it all starts. What should your Milwaukee and Wisconsin fans pay attention to from you in the next few months?
You should come see us play at the Back Room @ Colectivo. I believe that’s on the release day, April 21. And shout out to the Pabst Theater Group for always treating their artists right and presenting music in a really cool way that I really don't see much other than in Europe. I'll also be touring in Europe a lot of next month, and then I'll be around Wisconsin a lot. This summer you can find me probably at Summerfest, probably on Lake Michigan. I'll be all over the place. I love it here.