The Chicago troubadour pushes restart on his life with a new album
He got divorced. He sold his house. He quit his job. He hit the open road heading west, weaving in and out of mountain peaks and the dusty Texas desert, to find not only himself but excavate his passion for songwriting. And, well, it worked.
David Quinn drifts mercilessly between flecks of ash, his heart shattered and his mindy weary. The Wanderin’ Fool, his proper full-length debut, is a lonesome cosmic cowboy confessional. “It was a long time coming with life, in general, and the music. It all sort of comes to a head on this record. It’s been a second chance at everything,” he says.
From the soul-shattering “We Both Know,” an exceptional showcase for Muddy Magnolias’ Alexis Saski on background vocals, to galloping traveling tune “Grassy Trails” and silky waltz number “Three Quarter Time,” the Chicago musician mines his troubled heart for the answers to life’s greatest inquiries. In effect, he pieces together one of the year’s most important releases. Producer Andrija Tokic (Margo Price, Alabama Shakes) guides the production to breathe and swirl around Quinn’s distinctive twang and honky-tonk trademark, and across a meager nine songs, Quinn watches buffalo roam, basks in the unknown, tears himself away from the past, and still has time to twirl across the barroom floor.
Quinn spoke with The Globe about his cross-country adventures, his personal transformations, moving on from divorce, and rediscovering his own heart.
Where were you creatively after things in your personal life unraveled and you released your EP?
Well, that EP wasn’t quite it for me. It was a good test run, and the Giving Tree Band weren’t necessarily the right musicians for it or anything. But they’re still great. Don’t get me wrong. Everything was falling apart. I had had enough of everything. The relationship wasn’t working out. I was sick of working and living that sort of routine. It wasn’t me. Writing keeps me sane. I realized I needed to do a little more than write to stay sane. So, I dropped it all. It was almost like a free fall. There was so much freedom. Once that was all done, I hit the road. I was playing with the Giving Tree guys for a little bit. I headed out west, and my buddy was with me for a little bit.
Was all this a slow progression? Or did it happen at once?
It was definitely a slow burn when I was in it. I could feel it. The unhappiness and the routine was burning me up a little bit. The end of the relationship was the pivotal one. That was part of why I was trying to do the right thing and stay home. Once that went south, that was pretty much it. I stayed at the house for a little bit living on my own, and then, I thought, “What the fuck am I doing?” [laughs] I didn’t need a house. The relationship was the kick-start there, but it was definitely a long slow burn building up to that for a couple years.
When did you hit the road for this cross-country trip?
It was probably about four years ago. I hit the road and headed out west. I was actually hiking out in Colorado by myself, and I walked off the path. I started to get a little worried. I had been hiking for about five hours. So, I went to the top, and I was hiking back down. I got off the path, and I heard someone yelling. I turned around, and this guy said, “You’re off the path. I’ll walk down with you.” It was one of those moments in life. We had a great conversation. We get to the bottom of the mountain, and the path goes right and the path goes left. He said, “Well, I’m going right.” I said, “Well, hey, I’m going left.”
It was interesting. He then said, “You can do anything you want right now. Go to Moab, Utah.” I said, “I’m doing that tomorrow. I promise you.” The next day, I packed up and went to Moab, Utah for a little bit. It was amazing. Then, I went out to California. I have friends out there. I went down to Texas and played at Old Quarter, which was a bucket list place for me. I’m a huge Townes Van Zandt fan, so just to see the shrine of him was pretty humbling.
It’s a good thing your encounter with the stranger turned out well.
[laughs] That’s a good point. It’s such a positive thing for me when I tell that story. When you don’t know the ending, that could sound like it’s about to go awry. Luckily, it was a really good positive experience. On that trip, I did a ton of writing. That was really where I was trying to gather all my thoughts and everything that had happened over the past couple years.
When you grace such iconic venues as Old Quarter Cafe, do you feel the energy of the legends that have gone on before you?
Oh, yes, absolutely. Just being in there was wild. You know, they have a big shrine to Townes. When he made his live debut, I believe it was at the old one that burned down. So, this one is newer than the one he recorded at. But they still have the shrine. Hayes Carll got his start at this one down in Galveston. Right when I walked in, it was unbelievable. Townes is my biggest hero of all time. There’s no one better in my book. Being in that place, that’s all I could think about. It was truly an unbelievable moment. A ton of people have come through there, not just Townes. It was definitely pretty cool.
“Grassy Trails” has such a lonesome prairie, traveling song vibe akin to Eddy Arnold.
This is a song I had had for a little bit. I never really worked out how it was going to be done. I grew up reading [Jack] Kerouac and [Allen] Ginsberg and all those beat poets. Kerouac would write about hopping freights and all that kind of stuff. I’ve been into that sort of storytelling since I was really young. I’ve always tried to recreate that. It’s so cliche to say, “I love trains,” but I truly do. I’ve always been chasing that idea. I don’t think I’d really captured it, and I never wanted to overdo it either. I’ve written stuff, but I’ve never stuck with it. If I was going to do a traveling train song, I wanted to be the one. I finally felt like I hit it here. In my head, what I wanted to do my whole life is in this song. From a sound standpoint, Jimmy Lester and Dave Roe are two heavy hitters in country music, and they really helped dictate where the song went. They’ve been playing together for years, and they hammered it down. They knew exactly how to hit the rhythm and vibe we were going for.
“Where the Buffalo Roam” closes the record and is inspired by your buffalo-watching in Boulder, Colorado. What were you seeing as you were writing this?
I spent a lot of time in Colorado, not just on that trip. I’ve gone back there plenty of times. I lived out in California for a short period of time, and I would go to Colorado to visit. I would always go back to the buffalo. It’s always something I’ve loved, and I identify with them. I have a song about horses and a song about buffalo; there’s something I’m drawn to on both of those. I have an image of these buffalo that are preserved, and you can’t hunt on the land. I would watch them through this little chained fence. They were free and enjoying themselves.
It was something about looking at that through some lines. I always felt there is a metaphor for life there, especially with what I was going through at the time. That was like the birth of a new path for everything. Some of the newer stuff is closer to that style. That’s why I stuck it on the end of the record. It fits, but it’s a little different. It’s almost like a slight “f*ck you,” like “I’m going to live the way I’m going to live” type of thing.
The opening guitar chords are reminiscent of something that could have played on the oldies stations back in the ‘90s. What did you seek to evoke with those chords and the song’s overall aesthetics?
We were really excited about this one. My producer is unbelievable. It was a pleasure to work with him. He’s a good buddy now. We kept calling this song the spaghetti western. We wanted it to have that style. They were always the good bloody ones, right, more action-packed. I’m a huge film and western guy, so it was funny. That was our point of reference when we were doing that one. We were talking about riffs, so we’d always come back to that. I think we were both on the same page.
Really, I wanted it to be a little less traditional than some of the other record. It’s really the rebirth of me. It’s where I’m going and headed next, creatively. It’s a creative song and whatever felt right. Jon Estes came up with that intro riff. We were messing around with that for awhile, listening to old songs that had a good country guitar lick to start the song. We couldn’t really find anything. We threw in some tambourine, and we were all on the road after that. [laughs]
“We Both Know” feels very much a vulnerable post-relationship song. One lyric is particularly cutting: “Take off them old memories.” How cathartic was this one to write?
This was definitely quite cathartic. I was even hesitant to put it on the record. It’s a vulnerable song, but I’m glad I did in the end. It’s one I enjoy doing live now, too, in between some more energetic songs. Writing this was almost as a way to close that book and move on. When that kind of sh*t happens, it’s hard to process everything. It’s a very strange feeling. You’re vulnerable. You’re hurt. You kind of don’t know where to go. What are you going to do? The best way I’ve only been able to deal with things is through writing. It’s very symbolic of the whole journey. I wanted to leave all that sh*t behind.
I remember when I finished that song. It was such a weight off my shoulders. I could not believe it. It was kind of weird. I finished it, and it was kind of sitting in my notebook. I didn’t really play it much. When I was out on the road playing, I never played that song until I got back into the studio with Andrija. I had sent him a demo of it with just me on an acoustic. But I had not played it for months. Reliving it was kind of nice. I wasn’t as attached anymore. I had already been through my trip, and I was through the transformation at that point.
Muddy Magnolias band member Alexis Saski sings background vocals here, and they’re particularly haunting. How did you some to sing on your record?
Oh, she was unbelievable. I met her through Andrija. We were talking about getting a girl to sing on there. There were a couple I know in Nashville that I liked, and we went back and forth. He kept saying a ton of really great things about Alexis. I hadn’t even heard her voice, but he said, “Let’s have her come in and bullsh*t a bit.” She came in, and we hit it off. She got in the live room. I gave her some lyrics and played her the track. We let her do her thing.
I think that was the first one we did, too. I couldn’t believe the voice on her. She does all the harmony and girl vocals on the record. Absolutely beautiful. I knew the second she started singing that she was the one. She stole the show on about every song she sang on. [laughs] Her voice is almost haunting. She did “In My Dreams,” too. Both times, she just evokes so much emotion. I know she’s more of a rock ‘n roll singer, so it was really cool to have her on something like this.
Considering this album was a long time coming, do you feel different from when you started?
I do. It’s really crazy — the whole transformation from then to where I am now. I feel like a different man. On a grander scale, how I feel with “We Both Know” is how I feel about this record. I was in it when I was making this record. I felt like a wandering fool, which is where that whole idea came from. I didn’t really feel like I had a home or anything. I was just going wherever. Now, it almost feels like that was sort of the last chapter. I feel like I’m in a new chapter of things now. I have a full band I’m playing with now. We’re playing all around Chicago all the time. We’ve got some short tours coming up. I’ve been writing a tone lately over the last couple of months, and it’s a tad bit different sort of approach and worldview. So, yeah, I absolutely feel a transformation. It’s interesting to look back. I haven’t fully done that yet. It’s funny that you ask me that now. [laughs] It almost feels like two different chapters.