On the Road with Joseph Allen Beltram
Cleveland singer-songwriter Joseph Allen Beltram‘s latest album, N. Cali Turnaround has a nice classic country flavor that mixes perfectly with strong lyrics and some Southern soul influences. His voice draws you into these new, but comfortably familiar songs and makes you listen again and again. The former frontman for Goodmorning Valentine has been touring the country on a motorcycle and soaking up influences along the way. We had a chance to talk with him about songwriting, the new album and life on the road.
The new album is N. Cali Turnaround. What inspired that title?
I just liked the name. I found out that there were all kinds of names for trucker’s speed, like amphetamines, in the ‘60s. One was called South Cali Turnaround. I actually found that out later but I thought it was kind of interesting. It is road speak, you know, for hitting a destination and turning back.
Were most of the songs written on the road?
Actually, it’s very, very hard to write on the road. On the longer days, I spend about 10 hours driving. On the bike that can be pretty intense. I try to journal as much as I possibly can. I go back and write about stuff when I come home, but it seems like the entries from when I’m actually on the road ring a little more true. You pick up the nuances of things. Writing things in retrospect you just miss things. You miss the energy that’s involved. As far as writing the songs on the road, there’s very little time to actually sit and play guitar and figure anything out. But, yeah, a lot of the songs come from those trips. It seems like I’ve been kind of intrigued by the idea of writing geographically. I like the idea of explaining the United States through these trips. It’s a really interesting way to see the country because you are so exposed. You can’t roll the window up and turn the air conditioning on. If it rains, you’re wet. If it’s cold, you’re cold.
There’s a lyric in “Highway Sky” that says “Take me anywhere but home.”
I don’t get homesick. Cleveland is where I’m located currently and I have an affinity for this place, but I don’t get homesick and it would be very easy for me to be somewhere else. The world is a great big place. I spend at least a month every year away. With the other little trips, it’s probably more like two months. I guess I’m kind of moving towards being gone six months of the year between tours and exploring other connections. The “Highway Sky” thing is kind of the romantic idea of being on a plane and never touching down.
Do you get a different reaction to your music on the road then you do at home?
Yeah. I really don’t think that Cleveland is a singer-songwriter town. We have great songwriters here [but the audience seems] skewed to other things. I feel like that could be changing a little bit. I’ve been playing in Northeast Ohio since I was sixteen. It seems like when I’m out in Seattle, I play a lot more shows that are quiet and almost European-style. People come and they’re just focused on whoever’s performing. It seems like you don’t play a lot of those shows [in Cleveland]. I think music is a very geographical thing. If you go to Virginia, there’s definitely a different scene going on than there is in Northeast Ohio. They skew one way and we skew another. I do think that there are pockets where singer-songwriters are a more valued part of the music community than here. But, it could be all changing. Brent Kirby’s doing amazing things with the 10×3 and stuff like that.
I noticed that there’s a little more of a country feel to this album. Does that come from traveling and playing with different people, or from what you’ve been listening to?
I think it’s a little bit of everything. I do think that by being in different places different things get into my system. I’m traveling by myself and I hardly ever pay for hotels. If I play a show, somebody’s taking me home. I enter these people’s lives for an evening. People are very gracious. There’s a lot of shared stories. They want to play you music and you want to play them music. The music has definitely been shifting. “Rosa Lee” has a little bit of Spanish influence. I don’t know where that came from. I’m totally open to it. I want to be influenced. I’m like a weird sponge.
Is there anything you’ve been listening to that was more of an influence on this album?
I really like Phosphorescent. I’m really into a record called Here’s To Taking It Easy. That definitely influenced how I did this last record. It’s very open. There’s not a lot of bridges. There’s not a lot of changes, it’s just a verse and a chorus that relies on the musicianship. I like the idea of letting it just be about the words . . . stripped down melodies and just letting the players play. There really aren’t any changes on the record. No big choruses, except maybe “6 Years.” I had amazing players on the record and just let them go to town.
Who played on the album?
Tara (Hanish), who I’ve worked with forever, plays cello. She’s just absolutely amazing. She arranges for violin and cello. We’ve been playing together for six years and she’s awesome. I just call her and she’s there. And she puts a lot of heart into what she does. David (Marchione), great guitar player that I do a lot of duo shows with. Mike Lyford played keyboards. He plays with Mike Uva. I’ve always liked his piano playing. I told him this one time—it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to him—but his music reminds me of Charlie Brown. His melodies are beautiful. I love working with him. He’s really good at writing hooks. Mike Allan, who’s played with everybody, played bass. Dylan Jones, who’s in New York now, really great drummer. The pedal steel guy Stephen Karney, who’s on everything, I actually met at the Beachland. I saw him play with Rodney & the Regulars. I think he built his own lap steel and taught himself how to play from YouTube. I wanted him to come in and play on two songs. He knocked it out of the park in a half hour and asked, “Do you want me to play on the rest of the record?” He’s on every song now. He just nailed it. Alex Tapié came in and sang. Jessica Dreschel came in and sang. Matt Haas, who I’ve worked with forever, Akron kid, phenomenal guitar player. Andrea (Belding Elson) was the violin player, she’s Tara’s friend.
“Bright Lights in Brooklyn Town” has a different feel than the other songs, is there anything different about how it was written?
I know it’s different than the rest but I still think it works in the context of the record. I think there’s a little bit of a soul element in N. Cali Turnaround. There’s a tiny bit of soul music that threads its way through the record. When I wrote that song I had a bit of writer’s block. I decided I was going to write a bunch of songs on piano, which I don’t know how to play. I wrote eight or nine really simple songs and that song came out of that. As a songwriter, I’ve always liked the idea of writing for other people. The second that song was finished, I totally wanted Aretha Franklin to sing it. I do what I do, but I want someone to cover that song. I think that writing something that’s strong enough that it isn’t dependent on your personality and can exist in the world without you is really, really cool.
Are you also focused on trying to sell your songs to other artists then?
Focused is a pretty strong word. I’m very open to it. I’ve sent songs to people. I’m interested in exploring that. I have friends that do songwriting sessions in Nashville. I’ve just got so much crap going on already. I’ve already started working on the new album. But, yeah, I would love to. I’ve helped people produce albums before and it’s just a lot of fun. The writing is kind of the heavy lifting. Performance, can be too, but to be able to sit in a session with somebody and throw out ideas, that’s just fun. It’s just pure creativity.
You play local shows with the full band, but your out-of-town gigs are solo, right?
I have done a lot of small touring with the band, just not the extensive stuff that I do. I don’t feel right about asking people to go out and lose their shirt with me. It’s fine if I come back broke myself. I respect the guys that I work with and they ask very little of me. For this next record, I’m hoping we can get a mid-level label to put it out and that will change things. Then I’ll be able to take the band out. I enjoy playing with people. Playing by yourself is fine and sometimes it can be really gratifying, but when you’re playing with other people you reach a different place.
Any travel tips for musicians?
Always carry cash. There are a lot of places in the U.S. that still do not take credit cards. Always carry a real paper atlas because GPS doesn’t work when you get out west. I always take a tarp with me, just in case there’s a lot of rain. Always travel light. There’s a point of being so dirty that you’re just not dirty any more. If I can’t carry everything in one go, then it’s not coming. If I’m in, say, Chicago and I park my bike on a city street, everything has to come in the club with me because when I come back it’s not going to be there.
You’re already working on the next album. Are you using a different approach?
All of the albums are different. The technique is always different. Usually, I arrange things and have extensive practices. Well, extensive as far as I’m concerned, which isn’t really that much practice actually. I like to write out the keyboard melodies and have everything all sorted out. With N. Cali, we practiced as a trio and then we basically just brought people in. People would come in and pretty much just jam. We did a lot of stuff on the back end where we tucked things in and out. But the players were so good that there wasn’t that much editing. Everyone stayed out of each other’s way. This new one is all written but I’ve never rehearsed it with the band. [I think I am going to have some musician friends] come in for a long weekend and arrange everything in the studio on the fly. It’s going to be different. I’m interested in getting all of my parts done first because that’s what makes me anxious. Once I’m comfortable with my parts being done, it’s all gravy.