Aaron Lewis shouldn't be so radio friendly, but there was a time around 2001 when you couldn't get away from his sullen Staind hits "It's Been Awhile" and "Outside." Now that he's gone country, Aaron brings the same intensity and heartfelt honesty to his songwriting, and it's still suitable for airplay. The first example is the single "Country Boy," which also features Nashville legends George Jones and Charlie Daniels. When your talent attracts Music City icons, as well as rock stars like Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst, you are truly unique.
However, Lewis didn't create such associations by playing the music business, buddy-buddy game. Instead, he earned their appreciation but writing and singing songs from his gut. Lewis doesn't simply write songs - he vomits them up. Many songwriters use more sensitive terms for these bouts of inspiration, but for Aaron songwriting can be very aggressive. What comes out is truthful and pure, like listening to a riveting story from an old friend.
It's a cliché to say that performers must suffer for their art. In Lewis' case, this is no cliché. The benefit of Lewis putting his soul on the line every time he creates a song is that we, the listeners, believe every word he says.
Aaron Lewis: Well, the first music I was ever exposed to was country. Now, my grandfather was a huge old-school country listener, Hank and Hank Jr. and Merle and Johnny Cash - that was his stuff. So that's what I was hearing as a very young kid. And then when my grandfather passed away, no one else that was around me, once we moved, listened to country music. And all of my friends at school listened to rock music and the first three albums that my babysitter ever gave me were Pink Floyd The Wall, and AC/AC Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and KISS Destroyer, and so all of a sudden this was what I had that I was exposed to. And then as 4th and 5th and 6th grade came around, Def Leppard and all that stuff came out, and that's what me and my friends were listening to. And then as junior high school came, it was the '80s metal and Skid Row and the first Motley Crue record and along with Ozzy and Black Sabbath and everything else that would have fallen into play during that timeframe.
And what I heard in my house growing up was Gordon Lightfoot and Kenny Rankin, Simon and Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, that type of stuff. And then high school came around and I started listening to the old Zeppelin, the Beatles and the Doors, and all that stuff. And that kind of turned into Crosby, Stills and Nash, Jim Croce, and the stuff that I was hearing in my house as I was growing up. And then it went to like Pantera and Sepultura, Slayer, and then the first Korn record absolutely destroyed me. And Limp Bizkit record and the Deftones and that type of stuff. And Pearl Jam's first record, Stone Temple Pilots' first record. And then all of a sudden it was '93 or '94 and I was in a band and I was playing all that stuff, and mixing my own stuff in to it. And then it was '98 and we had a record deal and put out our first record. And here we are. What the fuck.
Songfacts: What led you to you return to the country sounds that you heard growing up?
Aaron: Well, there was a few things. I've always written songs on an acoustic guitar. I've always written songs that tug at your heartstrings. I've always written songs that have had meaning to them - they're not fluff songs. And me as a person, I've lived in a rural setting for most of my life and I guess I certainly wasn't living in a rural setting when I was in junior high school and high school in Massachusetts, but I grew up rural and I now live rural again. And it's what I feel in my bones. I love this country, and I'm very patriotic in my political views and the fact that I hunt and fish all points me in the direction of country.
Songfacts: So it's as much a lifestyle as it is a musical style for you?
Aaron: Yeah, I guess.
Songfacts: You had George Jones on your record. What was that like?
Aaron: Pretty amazing. Same with Charlie Daniels. And that marked the seventh decade that George Jones had something that was recorded and on the radio.
Aaron: And it was like the 5th or 6th decade for Charlie.
Songfacts: Were you in the studio with them?
Aaron: Unfortunately I was not in the studio with George. But I spent the whole time with Charlie.
Songfacts: I could see that you guys would have a lot in common. Did you find that you did?
Aaron: The conversations were legendary. We'll just kind of leave it at that. We argued about the North and the South, and let's say it was pretty funny.
Songfacts: I want to talk about some of the Staind songs. You said earlier you don't write fluff, you write really meaningful songs. Do you have to be in a certain state of mind to be able to write a Staind song? Or can you be having a good day and still be able to write those songs?
Aaron: God, I wish I knew. I wish I could put a finger on it so that I knew where I had to be in order for that stuff to come out. 'Cause it just comes out when it wants to.
Aaron: It is the most uncontrollable thing. There's a song on my new country record that's the full length that's going to be coming out sometime in the first half of next year. That song came vomiting out of me that day - the whole thing came out, just threw up. I didn't sit down with a pen and paper, I sat down and started playing the chord progression in front of the microphone during sound check. And the whole song came out, and it leveled me. I left the stage in tears. I went to my bus and cried in my bed like a little bitch. But the whole song came flying out of me.
Songfacts: What's it called?
Aaron: That song is called "Forever."
Songfacts: And what's it about?
Aaron: There's self-doubt in relationships and there's a turnaround at the end of the song that exists now that didn't exist when it first came vomiting out of me.
Songfacts: When you said vomiting out of you, the first image that came to my mind was The Exorcist.
Songfacts: When you say that, it makes me think that there are songs that almost have a life of their own, and you're almost like you're channeling something that already pre-existed. Do you ever get that sense?
Aaron: It's hard to not - without sounding kind of kooky, it's hard to not get that sometimes, the way they come out of me.
Songfacts: Do you feel better?
Aaron: Sometimes. I didn't feel better when that one I was just talking about came out of me and it frickin' leveled me. I didn't go back to that song for months. I wouldn't play the chord progression during the soundcheck - nothing. I didn't want it - my guitar tech recorded it. My guitar tech realized early, early in our little thing that something was going on. And he started recording it. And he recorded the entire thing all the way up to me getting up and walking offstage at the end of it in tears. And I wouldn't listen to it, and I still haven't listened to it. The way this all came about and the way it became a song again was when I finally started being okay with playing the chord progression again, and different words and different scenarios and different things were coming out as I was playing it, Ben was recording all that. And he went back and he listened to the original, and he found things in other lyrics that I had spit out for the same song, in the same melody frame and the same everything. And he put it together in a manner that when I read it, it didn't gut me. And that is how the song became a song again.
Songfacts: How often does that happen where you create a song and then you have trouble listening to your own song again? Does that happen often?
Aaron: Well, no. What usually happens is there's three or four songs that I came up with the melody structure and a chord progression for and everything while I was just home for the past few days. And I will probably have a hard time sitting down and remembering what they are right now. That happens a lot.
Songfacts: So you need that guitar tech with you wherever you go.
Aaron: (Laughing) That's some diva shit right there.
Songfacts: You're right there.
Aaron: It would be very out of character for me.
Songfacts: At the risk of asking a father to pick his favorite children, can you tell me some of the songs that you've written that you're most proud of?
Songfacts: Right. You have a multi-faceted musical personality, and they can co-exist. I mean, if Neil Young can change with every album, why can't you have a couple of personalities, right?
Aaron: Well, I mean, there's songs on this new record that are straight-up Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, old-school dirty, all sorts of guitar solo, like just leads in between every single phrase and pedal steel all over the place and just super duper old-school. Few of the songs, "Forever," that I'm talking about, that is really what radio would want from me. But it came out that way. It's a song that I wouldn't even go near for months.
Songfacts: Who have you worked with on the new album? Have you worked with any new people, or is it pretty much the same people that worked with you on the last project?
Aaron: No, it's the same people. Brent Mason, Eddie Bayers, Paul Franklin, the who's who, really the best of the best session musicians for what they're doing that Nashville has to offer.
Songfacts: Wonderful. I can't wait to hear it. When you mentioned names like Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, it always has me salivating. So I'm excited to hear it.
Aaron: Oh, the majority of it is exactly what country radio and country music is missing. It's kind of funny that a guy that's been in rock for 17 years is the one that's trying to bring that back, but yeah.
Songfacts: Well, I appreciate it, Aaron.
Aaron: Well, because that's all I was ever exposed to. I missed everything that lead up to where country radio is today. I missed it all. I missed the Clint Blacks, I missed the what's-his-name that sold 50 gajillion records?
Songfacts: Garth Brooks, probably.
Aaron: Yeah, I missed all that. I heard "Thunder Rolls" because it was frickin' everywhere, and I heard "Friends In Low Places," but I didn't really hear that much of it. It was being on tour with Kid Rock in February, March, April of '99, and our bus was like the Amistad. There were two people more on the bus than there were beds. So any chance that I could get off of that bus and ride Bob's bus with him, I did. And in the back lounge, where we were hanging out rolling down the road, all that was playing in the background was this old country music; it was like a walk down memory lane for me. It was throwing up all these memories of my grandfather - stuff that I had heard my grandfather listening to so long ago. And it rekindled something in me that I haven't really been able to get away from since. I slowly but surely stopped listening to rock radio pretty much altogether. And if I'm not listening to extremely patriotic conservative talk radio, I'm listening to Willie's Place, or I'm listening to the Highway, or the local country radio station on the radio.
We spoke with Aaron Lewis on December 29, 2011
Photo (2): Christina SanMiguel
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