As the frontman of the Akron, Ohio–born blues-rock band The Black Keys, Dan Auerbach has carved out a distinct role for himself, delivering a retrofitted sound without bowing to obvious tropes. On his second solo album, Waiting on a Song, released earlier this month, Auerbach taps into his bluegrass roots, summoning his childhood and pushing for a simpler narrative.
Eight years removed from being an Ohio resident, Auerbach has been living in Nashville, soaking up the mythologies of the city and playing intimate sessions with some of the area's legends. You can hear the evolution of his sound and songwriting on the new album. The songs are thrilling in their simplicity, dancing on the thin line between homage and retread without once crossing it; Auerbach sounds confident and self-assured. The album feels like a series of small conversations between friends. I spoke with Auerbach about place, avoiding the internet, and making an album that feels like home.
You played a show at The Station Inn, the famous Nashville bluegrass venue. How was that?
Dan Auerbach: It was a good time. I’ve sat in with people there before, but I’ve never had my own show there. It reminds me of home. There are a lot of little places like that in Ohio. I also grew up on bluegrass music, and that place is kind of the epicenter for bluegrass music. A big reason why I moved to Nashville was to be around that stuff. We played last night and I had Del McCoury and Ronnie McCoury and Billy Wood come up and play with me and we played a Bill Monroe song. For someone raised on bluegrass, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Can you talk about the role that Nashville as a place has played in the album’s creation?
Auerbach: Well, I’ve had this crew of musicians I’ve used over the years — whether I’ve been working on the Lana Del Rey album or the Ray LaMontagne album, I’d call all of them up and see who could make it to the studio to record. On this album I had all of them. And they’re all kind of Memphis musicians, but kind of not. Like [keyboardist] Bobby Wood and [drummer] Gene Chrisman, they were in The Memphis Boys. So they cut “ Son of a Preacher Man” by Dusty Springfield, “ In the Ghetto” by Elvis Presley — big Memphis records.
I think the biggest Nashville thing was the songwriting sessions. I never did anything like that in my life. Even though I’ve lived here for eight years, I was on tour a lot of the time, so I never got to experience anything like that. I met a couple of people like Pat McLaughlin, who introduced me to John Prine, Roger Cook, Larry Brown — all of these people who aren’t really from Nashville, but have been here a long time, writing songs, becoming a part of the community. It’s part of the reason I moved here — to work with people like this. You move here hoping it’ll happen, and it actually did. I really got deep into the whole songwriting session thing, and we were doing it every day. It was pure joy, all the time.
And you worked with [legendary guitarist] Duane Eddy on some songs, right?
Auerbach: Duane was in the studio all of the time. He was in the mix on all of the sessions. He was just in there, playing guitar. These guys are all legends and shit, and they’re old, but I don’t hang out with them because they’re legends. And I don’t think of them as old. Because when I close my eyes and listen to the songs, they just sound great. They’re playing everything exactly as I want to hear it played. Recording is all about the ear, anyway. If you want a big guitar sound, you use the smallest amp, you know what I mean? It’s all about feeling the ear. And these guys have perfected that, playing for decades.
Do you feel like you were still picking up things as you went along?
Auerbach: Listen, a year ago when I started this project, I didn’t know shit. It’s gonna take me a long time before I can even … no, I’ll never be close to as good as Bobby Wood is. He’s the Bob Dylan of playing the Wurlitzer. He’s a fucking national treasure. So yeah, I learned shit every day. I went in early and I stayed late.
I love the way your songwriting seems to have evolved on this album — you’re writing into more simple silences and comforts. The first song is about writing a song! That’s classic American songwriting, but it's so rarely executed well now. Do you think the shift in geography has bled into your songwriting sensibilities?
Auerbach: I wrote that song with John Prine, so, you know … it makes sense. I just followed the leader. I had a good teacher on that song, and on all of these. I think one of the things that these guys taught me is to sort of tune out. Growing up with the internet and having constant information all of the time is just what I knew. Those guys don’t constantly critique everything going on in the world. They’re not up to speed on everything all of the time. And I think it gives them the ability to sit back and see the big picture a lot better. Hanging with them, I learned to go with the flow and let go. If you made some magic that day, you made it. If you didn’t, no big deal. The whole last year, I hadn’t been on the internet. I hadn’t been on my phone. I wasn’t on any social network or anything. I just hung out and made music.
Have you quit the internet forever?
Auerbach: I mean … no. I am on the fucking internet. [ laughs] But the idea of it is nice. It really helped me, and the momentum increased once I could forget about everything but the music. It was overpowering, and it really overtook everyone.
You have all of these roots to the past, and it seems like your work is constantly aiming to update them in a way that feels present. How do you reconcile all of that?
Auerbach: It’s really delicate, but man, if you’re in the studio trying to create something new every day and not trying to recreate something old, then it’s impossible to miss the mark. I grew up in a musical family. I was around specific, traditional music, and those are my traditions and part of who I am. But also part of who I am is someone who likes to be creative. The traditional thing is part of my DNA, and I don’t have to try to do some retro thing, because I grew up playing bluegrass. It’s a part of my vocabulary. It works in time with my desire to creatively shift it.
I was impressed with the lyrical craftsmanship on the album, particularly the storytelling on songs like “Cherrybomb.” Did you have any lyrical inspirations that stood out here, ones that varied from your past projects?
Auerbach: It’s all in that idea of letting go again, you know? Accepting whatever happens was the biggest part of the songwriting. I had to learn to get out of my own way as a songwriter. I stopped trying to be smart, I stopped trying to show off. We were just having fun, and I really got into the small details of language. I really loved digging into the details of a word to make it dance easier. Yeah, you’re right in saying that sometimes it was the storytelling. But sometimes it was just the way the words danced. And both of those things are totally acceptable to me. The fact that I was free to go either way with that was a total joy.
What is your vision for how this record lives? What is your idea of how it fits into the canon of both old Nashville and new Nashville?
Auerbach: I feel like I live in my own little world, to be honest. I mean, I love it here, but I don’t feel tied to it like that. I sort of created my own little universe in the studio, and that’s why all of those musicians who made a living in the Nashville music scene loved coming over to my place so much. It was free, open, and creative. We had a great year — not just for me, but the musicians I worked with felt it too. I’ve been to Muscle Shoals, I’ve been to New Orleans, I’ve been to Memphis, New York, L.A., all of these great places where all of these great records were made. But, you know, the magic is in the musicians. That’s always where it is. Look, the records you love are because the musicians who made them had these gifts from God. It’s like Bob Dylan, how he had a gift for words. Bobby Wood, Gene Chrisman, all of the musicians I played with are gifted in that way. When they get inside of the studio, that’s where they shine. I was just lucky enough to be there. To be around as a witness to that.
So you saw yourself as more of a vehicle for capturing the brief moments of magic that were happening around you?
Auerbach: Absolutely. That’s what I am. That’s all I do. I don’t care what instrument I’m playing, but as long as I’m in the studio, that’s all I’m gonna do.
Do you miss Ohio?
Auerbach: Yes and no. There’s things about it that I really miss, of course. The last few years I was there, I was gone so much on tour. I think of Akron in a nostalgic kind of way. But the things that I’m able to do in Nashville with my work, music, and art — I’m really lucky to be in this situation.