In his brief career to date, Louisiana-bred/Portland-based singer/songwriter Kyle Craft has developed a signature style of Southern-smoked, glitter-speckled, honky-tonk rock that’s garnered copious comparisons to greats like Dylan, Bowie, and Exile-era Stones. And where many fledgling musicians try to distance themselves from their obvious influences, the 30-year-old Craft openly acknowledges his old-school affinities.
“I grew up in a small town where I didn’t really have any person showing me what was cool,” Craft tells Spotify for Artists. “It felt very strange to hear something like Bowie on my own and feel like that was mine. I think that’s why I’m such a sucker for ’60s and ’70s music—when I first heard Dylan, I was hearing him as if he was my age, even though he was probably in his 50s at the time. I heard him as contemporary, not some throwback thing.”
More than a particular sound, however, what Craft inescapably shares with his classic-rock forebears is a belief in stringent quality control. Though he’s a highly prolific writer, he limits his output to lean, economical records that, back in the day, would’ve fit snugly onto one side of a Maxell XL-II cassette tape. In 2018, Craft began work on his third album for Sub Pop, Showboat Honey, with roughly 20 new songs that he envisioned as “Patti Smith and Leon Russell colliding.” Those eventually got whittled down into a more streamlined 45-minute collection, which he scrambled to complete before heading out on tour.
But the Showboat Honey that Craft put out last month is not the same record he and his backing band (who’ve adopted the new album’s name as their official handle) finished last year. After giving the original version of the record the ol’ car-stereo test while touring, Craft came to the painful realization that he was deeply unsatisfied with the results. Rather than swallow his pride and proceed with the planned release, he scrapped over half the album, holed himself up in his home studio, and wrote a fresh batch of songs that now comprise Showboat Honey’s first side. Given that the additions include standout tracks like the Rundgren-esque piano strut “Blackhole/Joyride” and the swashbuckling centerpiece ballad “Deathwish Blue,” Craft’s trip back to the drawing board was a worthwhile one. Here, he explains how he had to get it wrong before he could get it right.
Spotify for Artists: How did this album take shape initially?
Kyle Craft: I’m constantly in the realm of trying to write, almost to my own detriment. Just when other people are talking about releasing something we’ve recorded, I’ll be like, “Hey, I’ve got another new album to record!” I try to churn out as much as I can. There was a giant slew of songs to pick from with this one—we had about 20. I’ll usually start with a collection of songs that work with just me on the guitar or piano, and then I’ll bring in a demo of that and start adding other things and seeing where it goes, and then I’ll bring that to the band and say, “What do you think about this?” In the past, I’d try to not give myself limits—I’d just write until it feels like it’s done. But that can easily turn into, “Well, here’s another six-minute song!”
At what point did you realize something wasn’t right with the album?
I was in the studio from noon to 3AM for two months straight, just trying to get it right, and I finished the first version of the record the morning we were leaving for tour. Then, over the course of that tour as we were listening to it, I kept thinking, “Ahhhh, I don’t know if this is it.” I just had a gut feeling. And when I got back, I was like, “This really isn’t it.” The entire band had this wave of dread wash over them—like, oh my god, it felt like we had gotten down from the mountain, and then I was like, “I forgot my backpack up at the peak, I think I’m going to go back.” Everyone was like, “Shhhiiittt!”
What was bugging you about the album?
The songs that were scrapped, to me, just felt detached... There was one where people would’ve immediately been like, “Oh, that’s a glam song.” Which is funny, because we get that term a lot, and to me, the glam thing has always been more a look than a sound, so I’ve never been attached to that label; I just call it rock ‘n’ roll. And then there was a backwoods down-home tune, and so it felt like: here’s this glam song, next to this weird rock ‘n’ roll song, next to this country tune—it didn’t feel cohesive to me.
How did you feel when you realized you’d have to take another crack at it?
It sucked! I didn’t want to do it. Honestly, when I pulled out of town for that tour, I felt like it almost killed me trying to get that album done. Because it was a lot of wine and a little sleep. My body was over it, and I was scared to go back into it. But the next go-round happened so quick. I wrote the new half of the record in, like, two weeks—“O! Lucky Hand,” “2 Ugly 4 NY,” “Blackhole/Joyride,” “Bed of Needles #2,” and “Deathwish Blue.” I was trying to home in on getting the point across with more refined songs, time-wise. The songs that ended up getting scrapped were all around the six-minute mark. So it changed from something like a 45-minute record to a 37-minute record. It’s definitely the shortest record we’ve ever done, but I feel like it’s the most pointed as well. It has more focus to me.
Has this experience made you reassess your earlier records?
I can’t tell you the last time I listened to [2016’s] Dolls of Highland or [2018’s] Full Circle Nightmare. It always scares me to do that. We’re not one of those bands that plays the songs live exactly the way they sound on the record. And a lot of times, the live versions are better for us. I remember listening back to [the Dolls of Highland track] “Eye of a Hurricane” not too long ago, and being like, “Holy shit, this is so slow, and so weird-sounding to me!” When I first got the master for that record back, I was like, “This is perfect!” And now I’m like, “Oh my god, I wish we could re-record this whole album and make it better!”