Slaid Cleaves will perform at Off Broadway Thursday, October 7.
Austin singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves has been gigging all across the country, from Maine to Texas, for over twenty years. But he hasn’t always been able to make a living off his music.
“I’ve held all kinds of jobs in the past, and every single one was menial. Unskilled labor jobs, minimum wage jobs. I guess if I wasn’t playing music right now, I’d probably go back to being a medical research volunteer,” he says. “At least that job was interesting — and not too tough.”
Cleaves has established a name for himself as a professional storyteller, and a proficient one at that. In 2013, he released his thirteenth album, Still Fighting the War.
“The songs on this album all kind of fit together. I wanted to write about what it’s like to be swindled, what it feels like to come home and find yourself being mistreated," he says. "I was especially interested in the American soldier. The fact that you could put your life on the line and then come home and not get the help that you deserved… I needed to put that into words. It was perfect folk material, perfect for a folk song. Later, I was talking to a friend of mine and he had a best friend who just passed away. He’s the one who came up with the phrase: 'still fighting the war.'”
Cleaves is currently midway through his Maine-to-Texas tour. The geography is fitting; he grew up in coastal Maine and developed his music career in Austin, where he currently lives with his wife.
“So far the tour is going great," he says. "We got rained out of the Albino Skunk Festival in South Carolina, but besides that, we’re happy to be on the road. And we’re definitely excited to be coming through St. Louis.”
Like most singer-songwriters, Cleaves has played his fair share of solo gigs. Over the past ten years, however, he’s preferred to play with a guest.
“I have a rotating cast of characters," he says. "This week it’s Scrappy Jed Newcomb. He picks on his guitar. I strum mine. I guess I’ve settled into touring with a partner.”
Many of the songs on Still Fighting the War discuss the state of Texas. It's clear that Cleaves draws inspiration from his immediate environment.
“I’ve always looked for subjects at hand,” he says. “My first couple batches of songs were about my neighbors and Maine issues. Then I began to explore some new surroundings, some new cities. I guess most of my songs are still about Maine or Texas. Those are the two main places I’ve lived in my life.”
Still, when asked about his favorite city to play, there is no hesitation.
“St. Louis, of course,” he says with a chuckle. “I’ve been playing Off Broadway for a long, long time. And there’s a really solid fan base there every time I return. It’s a nice feeling.”
Cleaves never thought that establishing a career as a musician would be easy, but after twenty years of gigging, he’s glad to be where he is now. More than anything, he is grateful for his fans.
“I just wanted to say thanks to St. Louis. I’m just very thankful," he says. "I get to play music for a living and people will spend their time to watch me play. I’m a very lucky guy.”
8 p.m. Thursday, October 8. Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Avenue. $20 to $23. 314-773-3363.