Shaking up Nashville from way up north
Small Town Pistols, the brother and sister duo featuring Amanda and Tyler Wilkinson, have been building their career the classic way (also known as the hard way): making great records, touring their hearts out, and taking their music directly to fans. Though they've been in the business for decades (they got their start as The Wilkinsons, a trio that included their father, Steve) it's only been in the last year, since the release of their debut album and the hit single "Living on the Outside," that their career has started to heat up. Their recent showcase in Nashville brought out old fans and new and their next release, slated for 2015, will probably kick them over the top. Amanda and Tyler stopped by Epiphone to fortify their road stash of guitars before heading out to places far and wide. If the future of country music sounds like Small Town Pistols, country music is in good hands. Epiphone.com spoke to Amanda and Tyler before their showcase in Nashville.
Thanks for talking to Epiphone.com. It's great to see you in Nashville again. You stopped by the House of Stathopoulo I see?
Tyler: Yeah, we went by headquarters. It's a huge facility. Fantastic. I picked up a DR-500MCE Masterbilt. I love it. I have two at home but I don't like traveling with those guitars since they're my main writing and recording guitars and I've tweaked them a bit. The Masterbilts are great guitars. I was borrowing Gibson's at first but I tried a Masterbilt and thought right away, 'this is the guitar for me.'
Since harmony is a big part of your sound, how does the tone of your acoustic guitar fit in?
Amanda: For us it's like another voice.
Tyler: Especially when we play just the two of us. Which happens a lot where the two of us will go in a room and just play guitar. And trust me, if your guitar is not sounding right, it will just throw everything out of whack for us.
Do you feel that your choice of instrument--incorporating a guitar heavily into your sound--sets you apart? There's a lot emphasis on image in country music today, which often leaves out instruments all together.
Tyler: That's right. For me, I play with a lot of open tunings and open chords, letting them ring out to fill out the spaces when you're not hearing our voices. So, I think it's really important especially when you're playing in that style where you want something that's really nice and rich and full and not tinny. The Masterbilt is a nice, full-bodied guitar---it's totally great.
So why do a showcase in Nashville? Tell us about what's going on with you these days.
Tyler: We've had a record out in Canada for about a year now that's done really, really well for us and I think the whole purpose of the showcase is to say hello to Music City. There are a lot of people who are familiar with what we did before when we were in a band called the Wilkinsons. But this is really the first time that we've actually came down and said 'we're gonna play a show and invite everybody we've ever met or known in the music industry and ask them to come out and check out this new project that we're doing.'
Amanda: It's been a long time since we've been here but luckily in our formative years--Tyler was 14 and I was 16 when we cut our first record--we laid a lot of groundwork. We've gone away for awhile but we've always had ties here. This is like another home to us. When we were trying to figure out what we wanted to do musically, we always knew we could come here and write. And we've maintained those relationships over the years. So for us, just standing here at the ages we are now, we can say 'here's our baby and this process we've been involved with so heavily, all the writing and production.' We feel so heavily invested in what we're doing now. We're so proud of it.
Tyler: There's much more of an emotional connection now--and I'm not saying there wasn't one before. But now because we're writing everything and a lot of these songs were real moments for us--things we've gone through, it's a little different when you stand on stage and sing those songs. They come from a different spot. Even though today, we're not now who we were then, it still resonates with us.
When most new artists perform a showcase, they're looking to the audience for acceptance. But you're doing this show from a place of confidence. You're not looking to take from the audience. You're there to give. Is that fair?
Amanda: Exactly. We're just so excited to see familiar faces in the room. It's true, I think for us, knowing the roller coaster that is the music industry, we're lucky to have a family foundation. When it's all said and done, we can come home and square with one another. We're not quite a young artist that's not used to a hit or a knock--because that does still happen all the time. On the road, you learn really big life lessons. But we still have that unabashed passion for what we do. We know what can happen.
Tyler: I think the most important thing to know when you're an artist and you make music is that you have to just love it. You have to ooze it. You have to bleed it. It has to be a part of you. And if you're not in that place, I think you're in the wrong business because we are in a business where people are going to tell you that you're shit, that you're terrible, that they don't like what you do. But that should never stop you from doing what you do. Because if you think you're great--well, now some people, they might really need a wake up call because they're not that good--but if you really have the passion for it, I don't think you should let anybody knock you down.
Amanda: At this point, we're lifers
Tyler: Yeah! In some form or fashion, we're gonna be involved music. We have to.
As longtime recording artists, you're always a bit ahead of your audience. What are you working on right now?
Tyler: Right now, we have a good handful of songs that are ready to be produced and also, we just went into the studio and cut four new tracks for a new record. We're co-producing with our guitar player, Dave Kalmusky. He's a great engineer, mix master producer, everything. He's one of those guys that makes you sick (laughs) because he literally does everything. And so it's fun.
And the great thing about producing with him is there's no pressure. Sometimes you get into a room and you feel like, 'we have a clock that's constantly ticking and we need to get it all done right now.' You have a session, it's scheduled for two hours, and you're under pressure to produce. With Dave, we have free reign of the studio to experiment. If we want to put a Theremin on the record, we're gonna do it!
Amanda: The studio is great, too. It's owned by Jonathan Cain, who has played keyboards for Journey forever. The studio has all the things you could ever want to use. We just go geek out on the studio for hours at a time. It's there if we need it. Jonathan has been a big fan and huge supporter of us as well.
Tyler: It's really like a refuge for artists instead of a factory for music.
What's changed about Nashville since you first came here?
Tyler: The city is always changing. There's always things that are happening here, music- wise and just construction. The city is developing like crazy. I think it always feels the same. It always feels like a place--you know, you're driving down 65 South and you go up that hill and all of a sudden, you see the city and you can just feel the energy. For us--our artistic selves--it's home.
Is it easier this time--talking to labels and publishers and other writers?
Tyler: I think before when we first moved here, we didn't know anything. We were green you know?
Amanda: We were just excited to sing! It didn't matter if we played a couch party. We did a lot of those to pay the bills. But anytime we had a chance to just open our mouths and sing together, we were so grateful. And to get a record deal out of that and have the career that we've had--that initial feeling is still with us.
Tyler: This time we have so many friends and this is our musical home. And we've been lucky that we've had great relationships with people. Then too, it's the excitement that so many other people have joined this format that weren't there ten years ago or five years ago. Country music has just exploded. It's an exciting time for listenership. So for us, we're excited just to be able to get out there and show people what we've been working on for a while.
Amanda: It's pretty exciting stuff.
Are you on the road most of the summer?
Tyler: Yeah, in-between shows there's a lot of production, working on the creative side of things. We'll play shows and then work on finishing this record.
Will we see it next year?
Amanda: Yeah, it will be ready next year. We hope!
Are you playing some of the new songs on the road?
Tyler: Yeah, we're going to showcase three new songs that will be on the new album that we've never played live before. So that's exciting, nerve wracking. Especially for people who are familiar with the last record. There will probably be some Canadians in the room that will be familiar with the last record.
Amanda: The last record did really well so I think that's the cool part too, is that we've toured extensively over the last year for the last record and people are familiar with it. We've gotten a lot of recognition with the Juno Awards and Sirius XM. So it's cool to show people our full body of work and the stuff that's coming down the pike.
Tyler: A lot of people in Nashville haven't seen us play live in close to 10 years.
Do you record live in the studio?
Tyler: Yeah, I mean when it comes to studio time for us, we are not believers in the whole mailing it in--sing 42 passes and comp a word here and there. We will probably sing two or three passes and pick the best one and go and edit here and there.
Amanda: We've been doing newer songs with just a few passes, completely live, using an echo chamber. We might press the best of them on a 45. That's the way it should be done. There's nothing like recording a great performance. That's the kind of music we grew up on.
Tyler: And doing that is a big deal for us because previously we've never done that. Vocals are so important to us. To do something with no edits, no punches--raw and old school. That's exciting. There's no edit button when you're on stage. We're a firm believer that singers should be able to sing and performers should be able to perform. We're never gonna mail it in.
Amanda: It's what we like. Not that it's wrong to do otherwise.
Tyler: Right! We're going to be very Canadian and say 'It's not wrong, it just what they want to do (laughs).'
Who are you listening to for inspiration?
Tyler: We listen to a wide variety of music. Man, right now I'm really digging Sam Smith from the UK. In the country world, obviously, we have to mention that we love Kasey Musgrave. We're not just jumping on any bandwagon. We've known her crew for a long time. She's just incredible. The new Dierks Bentley single and album are just mind-blowing.
Amanda: That bluegrass record of his is incredible. We listen to Lissy and Bad Suns. Obviously, we were raised listening to old music--Jim Reeves and Lefty Frizzell and Patsy Montana. And then it was Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. We're always going into record stores and music shares. That's kind of the cool thing about Canada. We're heavily influenced by the UK so we tend to get those bands first. If we get a moment, we're out in Toronto listening to live music. Haim is another one we like a lot. We're music geeks.
Tyler: We're musical lovers.
Amanda: We're freaks for it.