Songwriter Interviews

Shooter Jennings

by Leslie Michele Derrough

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Joe Levy of Rolling Stone recently called Shooter Jennings a "country music scion" and was surprised how faithful to the sound his latest recording, Countach (For Giorgio), was to the music of famed disco producer Giorgio Moroder. But if you've really sat down and listened to what Jennings has been producing these last 10 years, you would have noticed that the apple fell far from his daddy Waylon's country music tree and that this type of music is what really holds his passion.

Born at the end of the '70s, Jennings fell into the music of Nine Inch Nails with unwavering loyalty during his early years, preferring the electronics over the simple songs of heartbreak and cowboy-hat honky-tonkin'. It is a path that Jennings has very rarely strayed from since, despite some forays dabbling in attitude-drenched outlaw music, à la Put The O Back In Country in 2005, which produced the hit "4th Of July" and gave country music fans the impression that the prodigal son was going to follow in his pop's bootprints.

Alas, that is not what Jennings had planned for his future. His 2010 Black Ribbons album was haunting and innovative – and even featured horror author Stephen King. "We were really building the mood on that record," Jennings explained in a 2013 interview with Glide magazine. "I spent about six months building the music to that record before we even started actually bringing the band in and putting vocals down and stuff."

His latest trek down this musical rabbit hole is Countach, a tribute to Giorgio Moroder, the man who supplied songs for Donna Summer, Blondie, David Bowie and Berlin during and after the era of disco. "There was a point in time which I realized how big of an influence Giorgio had on the music that I grew up with," Jennings said.

Here, he talks about the songs of his past and present, and how he finally got comfortable in his own skin.
Leslie Michele Derrough (Songfacts): How does somebody like yourself, who was rooted in country music, discover or even like somebody like Giorgio Moroder?

Shooter Jennings: Well, to say I was rooted in country music would be true in terms of my parents, but as a kid it was not what I was into. I was not into country music at all. I mean, I liked my dad's music and I knew my dad's music and there were certain songs I really liked, but for me, I was a rock and roll kid. I was into MTV, I was into Nine Inch Nails, everything. When I was little I would listen to Metallica. I was also listening to Ice Cube - just everything and anything that caught my ear.

I found pretty quickly that the music side of things really got me. Long before I really understood lyrics and cared about lyrics, I was very into music. Even at a very small age, like seven or eight, I remember loving Jan Hammer, who did the soundtrack to Miami Vice. So as far as music goes, I got into composition and creating audio landscapes and stuff like that. That's always been my favorite thing and I think that's why I flock to so many rock bands instead of country bands. Country was so rooted in songwriting and all of that and it wasn't really an extremely progressive music. My dad was very progressive at the time - we didn't consider him traditional by any means - but he had the same kind of view of music in the way he fell in love with Buddy Holly, and was bringing that into his music, doing Bob Dylan covers before anybody else was doing them and things like that.

Giorgio Moroder first gained notoriety writing with and producing Donna Summer while the singer was living in Germany in the mid-1970s. Scoring their first huge hit with "Love To Love You Baby," Moroder also helped produce subsequent Summer hits "Bad Girls," "Last Dance," "Hot Stuff," and her collaboration with Barbra Streisand, "No More Tears."

Moroder continued to work with artists throughout the disco age and composed songs for movie soundtracks, one of the most popular being Blondie's "Call Me" that appeared in the 1980 Richard Gere film, American Gigolo. Moroder released a solo album, Déjà Vu, in 2015 and continues to perform live.
To me, the Giorgio thing, had I been on the tip of that at that age I would have pieced a lot of things together because a lot of the music I was listening to at a very young age was Giorgio's music, but I didn't know that. There was a point in time when I realized how big of an influence Giorgio had on the music I grew up with. His brilliance starts with his pioneering of the synthesizers and drum machines, but it was in his production of Donna Summer that was the first time that they had like dance mixes. I heard a story the other day of him playing "Love To Love You Baby" for somebody for the first time and they had never heard it and they requested like a 10-minute long version for the dance club and that was the first time that they'd ever done that.

When it finally hit me and made me realize how much of his music I had been listening to my whole life without even knowing that it was this one dude doing it, I kind of went down the rabbit hole with him and started listening to some of his solo records. I just really loved some of it and was like, I can do these songs but different, staying very, very true to the originals but with the live band and incorporating these elements of the rock thing and the country thing and bringing it all to this one sound. It spoke to me and it was a language I could easily decipher.

The first song that we recorded was "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone." We recorded that back in 2014 and I knew I could carry this across the finish line. I knew that I could do this record. I don't know how many other people could, but I knew I could, so getting to that place was an accomplishment.

Songfacts: Do you consider yourself a studio nerd?

Jennings: The studio is my favorite thing by far. I like touring and stuff but it's never been my thing like, "Oh I just want to get onstage and play for people." To me, going in the studio with nothing and coming out with something new and exciting, that's my favorite thing.

I wouldn't put myself in the category of a gear collector - I'm not a gear dude. Some people, like Dave Cobb, who I do all my records with, he's a real gear guy. He collects a lot of different microphones and things like that, but I like to get in with the tools that I have and see what happens. But yes, I am definitely a studio nerd.

Although Jennings plays guitar, it has not always been his instrument of choice. "I played the piano and drums for a long time and then when I moved to LA, I always had guitar players," Jennings revealed. "I have guitars laying around but none of them were really like my guitar, like my baby. I never treated it that way. Once I was in LA, I sang and played piano in my band but I didn't play guitar. It wasn't until I started doing the Put the O Back In Country stuff that I started playing guitar in my band. I love playing guitar but I also hate the guitar [Laughs]. I'd be like, I hate the fucking guitar. Who wants another damn guitar solo! But I love guitar in ways and I love records with guitar. But at the end of the day if the choice was between the guitar and a Nintendo, I'd probably take the Nintendo.
Songfacts: How early did you start messing around in a studio?

Jennings: I was around my dad doing stuff in the studio when I was little and I always loved that. I have memories of just sitting around and playing while he was recording. But the connection with me came with Nine Inch Nails. I was in about the eighth grade and I heard the album Broken [1992] and it really blew my mind because I was already into rock bands and stuff, but this was by far the most cool, aggressive, dangerous music that I'd ever heard and it was real exciting.

I was never like cool. I didn't hang out with people. I played piano and I played drums from a young age. With Nine Inch Nails, when I found out that one dude did all of it in the studio by himself, it really intrigued me. I was also a computer geek and I still am. I asked my parents for a Macintosh computer because there was nobody I knew that had one and they could do digital graphics and I was really into that, really into games and stuff. So by the time I heard Nine Inch Nails, I already had a Macintosh computer and I read an article that he used a piece of software called Studio Vision Pro. So I went and got a copy of this software and I started messing with it and that was the first time I started making my own music, because I understood the gear, I could do the keyboard, I could do the drums, I could play it all within the computer. I didn't have to be cool enough to be in a band. I didn't have to have anybody else involved. I could just start making my own music.

Most kids get a car when they graduate high school, but I asked my parents for some better studio equipment so I could actually start recording vocals and start doing stuff at home. I spent two years just every day in the studio at my house and by that time I had met other guys and formed a band. So it was really the thing that clicked with me that said, "Oh this is how I can make music, this is who I relate to."

Songfacts: You've said that Marilyn Manson was a big influence on you then as well.

Jennings: Marilyn Manson was huge to me. When the first Marilyn Manson record came out, Mom didn't want me to have it. But Antichrist Superstar, his opus with Reznor, I listened to that record every day going to and from school, looked at the artwork all the time. All that stuff was so intriguing to me. After I got a band together I was like, "I'm going to move to LA," and by this time I was still into Nine Inch Nails and stuff but I had discovered David Bowie and I started to gear towards this kind of Bowie/T-Rex glam-y thing because I just loved it.

Songfacts: What happened when you moved to Los Angeles?

Jennings: After I moved to LA, I didn't have a studio set up for a long time. I started doing a lot of live music and then once I started working with Dave, I had access to his studio but I still didn't have my home thing. I really didn't get that together until like 2013 or 2014 when I finally built a home studio where I could kind of go back to my roots and do all that. That's when I started doing this record and the George Jones record [Don't Wait Up (For George) EP] at the same time. Both of those were done at home Trent Reznor-style.

Songfacts: You kind of dipped into something like the new record before with "Lights In The Sky."

Jennings: Oh yeah, that whole record, Black Ribbons, was me starting to dip back into that. At the time, I did not have my home thing going so when we, me and Dave Cobb, did that record, we just buried ourselves in the studio for a year and did all this music and constructed this album. But what's really interesting about that record, there's these breaks to it with Stephen King talking, but all the music in the background of that Stephen King stuff is me unknowingly vibing Giorgio-style because I was kind of imitating the music that was on Coast To Coast AM, which was a Giorgio song, but I didn't know that at that time. [Morodor's song "Chase" is the theme song to the Coast To Coast AM radio show.]

Songfacts: You covered "Cat People" with Marilyn Manson. Why did you pick that song in particular to do with him?

Jennings: I was already like halfway done with the record. Manson and I had been friends for several years, and I had invited him out to this party at this club I was at. He came to meet me and I was like, "Hey, I'm doing this Giorgio record and he did this 'Cat People' song with Bowie. Do you like that song?" And he started singing it right there and he was telling me he had a list of songs that he warmed up with every night before shows and that was the primary one.

Then I went and cut a track, sent it to him and he liked it. I brought all my shit to his house at like three in the morning and he cut the thing in one take basically. He did a couple more takes but I didn't even use them. So it was one of those things where it just kind of came together. I probably wouldn't have done that song had he not said he would do it.

Same with "The NeverEnding Story." I never would have done that with somebody else. The reason why I picked Brandi Carlile and the reason why it happened was because I'd met Brandi at a Johnny Cash tribute show I did like four or five years ago and she had The NeverEnding Story logo tattooed on both of her arms. So when I was doing this record, I said, "Hey, I'm doing this Giorgio record. If you'll sing 'The NeverEnding Story,' I will put it on the record." She said yes and she did great.

Songfacts: But amongst all that heavier electronic stuff you have a pretty straight-forward song like "Born To Die."

Jennings: That is a Giorgio tune from very early in his career. Actually, it's two songs from the same album. He did a record before he even got to producing Donna Summer, and Donna Summer cut "Born To Die" very early in their relationship. His version of it came out earlier that year and Donna Summer cut it later that year.

He had a thing called Giorgio's Common Cause and you can find "Born To Die" on iTunes but you can't find the rest of it. I stumbled across this "Dark And Deep And Inbetween" song and I was in the studio and literally discovered it the day we were recording "Born To Die" and I said, "We should take this and make this a bridge for this other song and have it kind of go in and out." There are a couple of other times where other songs of Giorgio's kind of weave into other songs. But when I heard the song, I was like, "This has to go on the record."

Songfacts: What was the first song that you remember hearing where the lyrics really impacted you?

Jennings: Well, that's hard because I listened to all the lyrics of all the songs that I heard. Certain lyrics would excite me, like Danzig or all the Nails stuff. That stuff was so heavy. But the song "Hurt" for instance, as a 14-year-old kid I couldn't really relate to it but I wanted to relate to it, I wanted to be that down. It was traumatic and even if I didn't live through it, I could emotionally tear up listening to it.

I'm not saying the song "Hurt" is the one, I'm just saying all those Nine Inch Nails tunes. The whole package was there with Nails and Manson. Both of those lyrically related to me because, Manson especially, was our John Lennon. He was saying it was okay to be yourself. All these other assholes in school that pick on you, all these teachers, all these people, it was the same message as John Lennon and Pink Floyd: It's okay to be yourself and the world sucks. But the music itself also was very exciting and dark and new.

When I started getting into David Bowie, I really related to a lot of the things that he said. I really dug the storytelling of Ziggy Stardust because it had this whole story to it, and I used to listen to The Beatles White Album around the time I was into Nine Inch Nails. Same with Pink Floyd's The Wall. Those are all records I got into early.

When I had my first real love and she cheated on me with her ex, it was like a whole year and a half of me just holding on, trying to make her mine again, and that was just a nightmare to even attempt. So when that was happening, I was into Sgt. Pepper, the darkest, darkest moments of that, so I remember listening to "With A Little Help From My Friends" and listening to like "Love Hurts" by Nazareth and all this stuff and started really emotionally getting into that.

Songfacts: Did country music ever play a part in that?

Jennings: When my band started, I was writing songs that were about that girl, that first girl, and I was writing stuff that was emotional so it all really clicked with me but there was definitely an expansion in my mind that happened when I kind of fell in love with country music on my own, which was really right before I put together that country record. I was listening to a ton of Hank Jr - I still think he's one of the most underrated songwriters in country music. I was listening to a ton of him, I was listening to a ton of my dad, a ton of Willie, and getting really into Phases & Stages.

So by this point I'd been through several relationships and had my heart broken in different ways. I was kind of a shit to a couple of girlfriends because I didn't want to commit but I wanted to be in a relationship and trying to jump into serious relationships way too early in life. By the time I started falling in love with country music really hard was when I started expanding my understanding of songwriting, and that's what led me to fall in love with Bob Dylan.

And Bob Dylan is the greatest to me now. He is my favorite songwriter hands-down of all time. He's the one who at 23 was writing songs like "She Belongs To Me," things that were so smart and prophetic about men and women. So now my view of songwriting and lyrics is a lot bigger of a palette than it was when I was crying in the car listening to The Beatles when that chick broke my heart.

Songfacts: When you're writing songs today, are they more free-flowing or do you have to work on them a while?

Jennings: You know, it's different every time. Sometimes there will be an idea - I find if I can get a central spark with something, usually with the whole album, and if I can really grasp the one event that inspired me, if I can just focus on that and keep that in my sight, I can usually carry it until it's done. But for the last three years I only wrote like three or four songs, which is scary. For some reason I'm not digesting everything yet and I need to wait and let myself digest everything before it's going to come out, because that's how my past experience has been. I have to go through life for a while and have a bunch of feelings and then at some point in time they come out in some ways or others.

Then sometimes, like Dave Cobb the other day called me and he wanted me to write a song for some band he was producing, and I was like, "I'll try." And I wrote it in like three hours and had a demo to them later just because his idea of what he needed set off an idea in my head enough that I could carry it across the finishing line.

Songfacts: So are we going to hear this song anytime soon?

Jennings: They didn't cut it [Laughs]. But I'm working on my originals record because I haven't had one in three years that's all originals, so I'm working on that.

Songfacts: Well let's talk about some of your past songs, starting with "The 4th Of July."

Jennings: The thing about that song, and God I sound like an asshole when I say this because I either get accused of doing something because I thought it would be popular or doing something because I was being facetious about another type of music, but when I did that song I had just broken up my band so I was having to write stuff and figure it out and then I was going to put together a band and do a record, and that became Put the O Back In Country. I was sitting in this little rehearsal hall that my old band Stargunn had. We had broken up but I was the one who paid the rent on this place, so I was there, sitting behind this drum set.

I had written this song on the drums and I had been doing all these shows with a lot of these Texas guys. It was at the height of that initial Red Dirt thing and we were doing shows with Cross Canadian Ragweed and Jason Boland, but there were so many of these bands that were popping up and some of them rose to the occasion and made it out of that, but if you took them out of the picture there were a lot of bands that sounded alike and I was kind of satirically making fun of - no [Laughs], satirically mimicking is what I mean to say - that sound. If they can do that, I can do that kind of thing.

I just wrote this song on the spot and told this story about a road trip I had taken at one point. I meant it - I meant the words. I was doing my best to make it better but in the same vein as that stuff. I was kind of saying, "I can do that but better."

That was in my mind, and that song turned into what everyone focused on, which was kind of karma coming back at me for being a little bit snarky in doing it in that style [Laughs].

Songfacts: It was a hit and people expected that from you all the time and you didn't do that.

Jennings: Yep, I didn't ever do that again.

Songfacts: But you were still a smartass on "Outlaw You."

Jennings: [Laughs] You know, that's finally starting to overtake the other one in popularity and I'm fine with that. And I did the same thing: I was making fun of that music by making it sound like that music.

That was exactly what I was doing with that one, but in a little bit cooler fashion. I heard one of those early kind of bro-country songs in a restaurant and I was like, "What if someone did a song that sounded like this and makes fun of songs like this?" That was my initial thought and I went back and wrote that song pretty quickly.

Jennings spent the whole video for "Outlaw You" walking down Nashville's Music Row in 102 temps. "The guy who was at the time running CMT in Nashville was a friend of mine and I always liked this guy, so I sent the song to him and he said, 'If you send the video for this today, I'll put this on the air tomorrow.'"

"He had that idea of just shooting it with me walking down Music Row in one shot and hopefully the cops will come," Jennings said with a laugh. "So we shot that thing in one shot and the saddest part was, here we are with a blaring stereo walking up and down Music Row during business hours and everyone had been fired. It was so sad. The cops didn't care, the people didn't care, nobody came out. It was like, Oh man, it's kind of depressing down here. We wanted them to get mad at us for being out there and everybody had been fired and all the buildings were empty and Music Row was just asleep."
Songfacts: On the opposite end you have "All This Could Have Been Yours," which is very haunting.

Jennings: That may be my favorite and I wish I could replicate it. It was just perfect for me. Musically, I feel like I really set forth to do something good, and I did something I was really happy with. It wasn't one of these songs like "I love you" or where I was mimicking something or doing something snarky.

That song is about Nashville. That song was about my experience about being on a major label. I had the option to stay but they told me I couldn't spend as much time in the studio and I said, "Then I'm not doing it." They're like, "You need to start rehearsing your songs on the road and then come in and in a couple of days be done with it." And I was just like, "It doesn't work for me that way."

I was kind of heartbroken, but at the same time glad to be out of the label because everybody had changed over there. It wasn't the people that had signed me and it just didn't feel right. So I was just in this place where I had a lot of anger and I had a lot of confusion. I felt like there was this other side of me. Electric Rodeo [2006] was really progressive, but when I did The Wolf, the third record, I was still on the major and really depressed because I felt like Electric Rodeo was supposed to be this triumphant second record that was so much better than the first, and country music radio just really kind of turned their back on us right after they just had all this love for "4th Of July."

So when I got to The Wolf I was just confused and I was like, "I'm going to do this more straight country record." Then my band was breaking up.

I hate that record. I hate listening to it. It sounds like a band breaking up to me and it sounds like me just floundering a little bit. So after that I was angry and I lashed out by doing this record, and it was like a cool thing, with a lot of emotions wrapped up in it.

But "All This Could Have Been Yours" was the song about that and about what I went through after I left the label and how I felt and where I ended up and all my misgivings and regrets and all those things spun into one song. I wrote all the lyrics without any music and then I wrote music to the lyrics. I've never done that since, but in that case, I sat in a hotel room and wrote all these lyrics down and then went and made up some music to run under it and made it all work together. And I love that song. I am very proud of that song.

Songfacts: That song could have very well spiraled into a very angry, aggressive song, but you held back.

Jennings: At the end it gets pretty accusatory and inflammatory. I can almost go through line by line and tell you what each one of them was about because it's that specific. There's one that's about Travis Tritt and it says:

All of the wounded, that you left for dead
Now creep in the corner, they're all in my head


I was on the bus with Travis Tritt one time. I've only hung out with him a handful of times, but I like him and he was telling me how there were all these older country singers that were now broke and they were super famous but they got screwed and they're broke and it's terrible. He wanted to find a way to start like an assisted living place specifically for people that were in music and in Nashville that was kept up properly for those types of people when they got old and got screwed and all that. It was such a heavy thing.

So I was thinking about all these people who had been wounded and were like haunting the halls leading into this terrible place that was the music business. A lot of lines like that were real specific scenarios where I was just expressing the anger that I had for how I had let them into my head at one point and I was pissed about it.

Songfacts: Are you cool with it now?

Jennings: Oh yeah. That song to me is special, so every time I play it or sing it, it's like "Fuck You" [Laughs]. You know what I mean? That whole record was like, "Okay, you know what? Fuck you guys. You can do whatever you guys do but you can't replicate me because I'm going to be me and that's it."

Songfacts: How long was it before you felt confident and comfortable being you?

Jennings: Honestly, it's been the last couple of years. When I met the Colonel Jon Hensley, my old manager who passed away, when I met him he became my instant best friend and he was this guy who lived and breathed not giving a fuck what other people thought about him. He started managing me, and he pushed me and really supported me in starting my own label, so I started going in that direction and living by his example. Then he passed away out of nowhere last year in June. It's hard to explain, but he had such a profound influence on me that I think it was from him that I started to really embrace just being me.

Fun Facts About Shooter

First record bought with his own money: Rock-Afire Explosion 7" Birthday Song record from Showbiz Pizza.

First rock record bought with his own money: Guns N' Roses Use Your Illusion I & II.

First Ambition: to be an animator, but "I realized I'm not a very good artist. I'm better at digital art than I am at drawing."

Favorite Movie: Bladerunner.

His mother is Jessi Colter, who had a #1 country song with "I'm Not Lisa" in 1975.
But there were a lot of factors that went into play there. I married my longtime friend that I've known 16 years and always adored. I got myself to a place where I was going to be happy personally and I think the way it all worked out was sparked by him.

I don't care what other people think anymore. I used to have so many things that really weighed heavily on me, like my dad and his legacy and what people think about me after they've known him or not wanting anybody to be mad at me or not like me. I had a lot of hang-ups in that way that would cause me to do things that weren't really true to myself and act certain ways that weren't really true to myself because I was trying to balance this fictional weight on my shoulders. Now it's like, Who cares? Who cares if everyone hates me. I'm doing what I'm doing and I'm going to stay true to it and that's going to help somebody else somewhere.

Songfacts: You've covered "Something In The Way" by Nirvana in the past. Why did it call to you?

Jennings: It's funny, I didn't really like Nirvana when I was in high school. I liked it but it wasn't my favorite band. There were other bands I liked better. But recently, after my wife and I got married, there was a point in time where something clicked with Kurt Cobain in me and I just went crazy over him. I bought his Journals and I read all this shit and listened to everything, all the bootlegs. Way late to the party [Laughs].

But maybe it was because I had gone through enough pain in my life I could get it. Maybe I hadn't gone through enough before but I was like, this guy is the best, he's literally writing these kind of songs that are so deep, off-the-cuff. It's his wit, it's not him not caring and writing all the lyrics to a song right before he goes in there. It's because his brain works so fast and he had so much wit. He could express these extremely painful emotions really quickly with a snappy, snarky comment and all of a sudden all this depth to the songwriting would appear.

"Something In The Way" was the perfect example of a song like that. There is so much depth to it and darkness in it.

Songfacts: What about "Blood From A Stone"?

Jennings: That's an old song and it was off that record I hate, but I like that song. I was breaking up a long friendship with somebody and I wrote that song about them. I'm friends with him again now, but at the time I was hurting and it couldn't go on. That's what that was.

Songfacts: What do you think is the biggest mistake someone can make as a songwriter?

Jennings: I don't think that you can make a mistake as a songwriter. I don't think there's a rulebook. But I think the biggest mistake you can make is second-guessing yourself and thinking that what you do doesn't sound like anything else out there so you need to change what you do to sound more like what is out there.

But I think that there are no mistakes. Once you release yourself from the rules and the way you're supposed to think about things, then anything is possible, and that to me is the coolest shit ever.

Songfacts: And who are your three wise men of songwriting – the three songwriters who have inspired you the most?

Jennings: Bob Dylan, David Bowie and my dad, even though he didn't write that many songs. But he'll go in there. John Lennon. I mean, I can't say three. John Prine, Kris Kristofferson. Bruce Springsteen is a great songwriter. These are all dudes that took it and advanced it. But Bob Dylan is the greatest in my opinion. He did it the most, he changed it many times in his career and is continuing to make some of the best records of his entire life.

May 27, 2016
Shooter Jennings Website: shooterjennings.com
Live photos by Leslie Michele Derrough; publicity portrait by James Manchin

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