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Songwriter Slaid Cleaves Forges New Ground with <i>Wishbones</i>


Ever since he moved from his home state of Maine to Austin, Texas, more than a decade ago, Slaid Cleaves has been "the next big singer-songwriter." While it's still too early to know if he'll ever break out and become a "real" star like Bob Dylan, it is fair to say Slaid's newest release, Wishbones, is so strong that his peers will have to work a bit harder in order to match its critical success.

Slaid Cleaves writes songs about people. Not the smiling, light-hearted souls that live in some pop songs, but the broken-down folks living on the darker side of town. The ones who are barely getting by, but keep on scrapping, because they have to in order to survive.

The songs on Wishbones aren't written in the first-person perspective. Slaid Cleaves is not a down-and-out drifter. He's a songwriter, one who escaped the bustle of Austin, Texas, and headed out to a cottage in the Texas hill country in order to find the solitude he needed to write the songs for Wishbones.

In the past, Slaid wrote his songs in longhand, using a pencil and a pad of paper. This time, he tried something a bit different. His writing tools were a small four-track recorder and a laptop computer. The computer was essential when Slaid was writing the title track to Wishbones.

"I have a working folder, and I have an 'ideas' folder, and a final finished list of 'done' songs in a folder," he said. "And I have my 'junkyard' folder, where I put songs if I give up on them. They're still there. They're not in the wastebasket. I go and check them out every once in a while. And that's actually how I wrote Wishbones. I took three songs out of the 'junkyard' folder, and said, 'OK, this is the last chance for these songs.' I couldn't get either one of them to work on its own, but I knew each one had a little bit of promise to it. Each one had at least one good idea. So I just hacked out the good ideas, crammed them into a new song, and figured out a way to make those three good ideas work as one song."

And that one song was Wishbones, the title track.

Slaid Cleaves began playing music when he was in high school. He then went on to study English and Philosophy at Tufts University, near Boston. While at university, he learned to play guitar, the first step on the road to becoming a singer-songwriter. Step two, his first actual performances, came almost by accident.

"My first public performance as a singer-songwriter was on Patrick Street in Cork, Ireland," he said. "I was over there chasing an American girl who wanted to spend a school year in Cork, and I followed her over. And she immediately ran off with some guy who looked like [U2 lead singer] Bono. And there I was, heartbroken, with a guitar, and a suitcase full of Hank Williams and Buddy Holly cassettes that I taped from my Dad's record collection. So I soothed my aching heart by learning all these sad songs, and sang my heart out on the streets of Cork."

Is that what he would suggest to anyone who wants to get started on the road to being a singer-songwriter?

"In a way, yes," he said. "I know a lot of people have some talent and want to be singer-songwriters, and work at it, but also have a real life and a day job. If they really want to do this, my first piece of advice is 'there's a certain amount of desperation that you need to achieve in order to really do this.' And you can't do it with a day job. If you really want to do this, you need to give up some comfort and be desperate for a while."

Slaid Cleaves has worked hard for his success, and continues to forge new ground on his Wishbones CD. The next year should see him resume a seemingly never-ending tour schedule, with dates scheduled in the U.S. and overseas. And, one more note for the would-be songwriters: Slaid includes a few more realities of life on the road in the track "Road Too Long."

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