Carson Henley: Thriving under pressure

We speak with soulful singer CARSON HENLEY about his new album “100 Hours”, set for release June 26. Engineered by Grammy winners Kory Kruckenburg & Brian Lucey, the album was literally written and recorded in 100 hours.

[By Monica Harris]

Q.     Why did you decide to begin the 100 Hour project?

Carson:     I guess it was because I was feeling really pressured as a musician and artist and songwriter to put out something, and re-establish myself as an artist. And I was having problems with the songs I currently had, coming up with the money that was necessary to produce all the songs.  I tried to start writing but I was having some issues. I was dealing with writers block. And then I thought, well, why don’t I try to come out of writer’s block and produce all the songs and do everything at once, and have a bunch of new material. And I developed the idea over time, and I thought I’d test myself to prove that I could do it, to prove that I could still write songs. You know, you get into a mode sometimes when you’re not satisfied with a whole lot that you’re doing in the music side of things, you feel like you need to do something to prove to yourself that you could still do it. So that’s why. It was out of necessity to start out with. And then I took it to the next level as far as putting the pressure on. 

Q.        What was the hardest thing you had to tackle in completing the project?

Carson:     There were three major hurdles before I got into it that I knew would come up. And when I got into it, they did.  I knew that I’d probably have a  writer’s block at some point, because I had to essentially write all the music and the lyrics to the songs in 2 ½ days to make sure that they were finished for when the band came in to track. I knew that actually writing the songs themselves was really hard. And after about two days I only had two songs done. I had a bunch of other songs started. So that was a major challenge, just to finish the songs in that amount of time. The last day before tracking I was up 39 hours straight trying to write everything. The next hurdle was could musicians that I brought in – it was going to have to be a flawless studio session – and I knew they were talented, but to bring someone against the clock to songs they had never heard before and try to come out with something really great and organic – it’s a lot to ask of somebody. But they came through and killed it. They recorded all 7 songs in 7 hours. The final [hurdle] was vocally I was really nervous that I was gonna have to record everything and really nail the vocal performances in one day. So all three of those were major challenges. But if I had to pick one, it would probably be when I was up 39-plus hours trying to finish writing all these songs. I was definitely hitting a panic stage.

Q.        What did you learn about yourself in this process?

Carson:     I’ve always been the kind of person that does well under pressure…but I proved that I could do a lot more with myself than I give myself credit for.  For me, it was nice to be able to feel that I was capable of doing this, writing songs and doing it under pressure. What I learned from it, I think, is I can work a lot harder and come out with really good material, even better than before, if I just keep working harder and harder. 

Q.     Can you tell us about the Carly Henley project?

Carson:     About two years ago, my cousin, who was about four years younger than me, she was in college at the University of Washington, and she ended up taking her own life. She was in a sorority there, and she had been struggling with a lot of things personally. And it was, for my sisters and I, and a lot of people in my family, we didn’t know she was struggling. We found out, and it was really hard and a shock to all of us. She was a musician and I had just, three months prior, gone to see her first show, and I remember hearing the song “Come out of the Rain.”  It was a brand new one she had written. And I was blown away. I hadn’t seen her play live before. We kind of hung out and jammed at her house on vacation. And I always knew she was a good songwriter. But I never had seen her perform. And I heard this song “Come out of the Rain” and I was blown away. So when she passed, I started thinking, you know, a lot of people were playing her music, and I was thinking of how great her songs were and how much of a shame it was to see as good as these songs were, I felt horrible that she didn’t get to finish these things, because she was in the process of recording an album. And so I asked my aunt if it would be okay – I came up with an idea with my sister to finishing part of these songs for her, any songs she had halfway written on a YouTube video or something, and then try to do our best to interpret the songs. Get her music out there so that her memory and her music can live on for years to come. So that was the initial idea for the project. We needed some money in order to take care of the recording costs so I set up a Kickstarter page. And we needed about $12,000 in order to make it happen. And at that point I was literally thinking let’s record the CD, get the CD out there, that was all I wanted to do, that was the extent of it. But in 24 hours we reached $14,000 and we were in complete shock. It was the No. 1 Kickstarter page for a good week or so, maybe two weeks. It was something that we ended up raising $36,000, and by the end of it we were so in shock about how much money we had raised. My sister, and my aunt, we talked about it and said, let’s try to do something more with it. So we decided to find a foundation or cause to go to, and we found a camp called Rain City Rock Camp for Girls. It’s a camp for girls that helps to build self-esteem. We felt that was pretty appropriate. They helped us put on a release show for the CD. There were some local artists that came in and lent their vocals to sing on it, and they came and played at the show. So it was something that turned into quite a bit more, and it was a big project to get Carly’s music out to everybody and kind of raise awareness too about depression and people struggling with that.

Learn more about Rain City Rock Camp, Seattle here. 

Q.     Now, I read that you grew up listening to a lot of classics. What do you think makes a song a “classic”?

Carson:     There are a lot of different things that can make a song timeless, and last forever, a classic. In the end it comes down to good songwriting. If the lyrics are phenomenal. If they really touch somebody, or some topic, that can be something that makes it a classic. I don’t know if “Make you feel my love” by Bob Dylan – it’s a great song – but because of his vocal skills we may not have thought it was a classic. But then you hear someone like Adele with the vocal skills do that song and just smash it, you hear that, and you go “that is definitely an amazing song.” So something like that, the lyrics are amazing and it really is beautiful. And sometimes the vocal performance doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a classic to some people’s views. But I think the strength of the songwriting is the big thing for me, that’s what I think. If it has a great melody, a great hook, or something like that, and the lyrics.

Q.           By the way, that is one of my favorite all time songs, but the Adele version.

Carson:     I’m a massive Adele fan. It was one of those things where I went back and listened to the Bob Dylan version and I was like, I don’t know if I would have picked this song – the Bob Dylan version – as to be something that turned out as beautiful as Adele’s. 

Q.           She does it justice, I guess.

Carson:     Yeah, it’s great! 

Q.        My last question, off your new CD, what is your favorite song?

Carson:            It’s really hard to tell. It might be “Leave this Mess.” All the songs have a personal touch to them, but that song to me meant a lot as far as the lyrical content, because I’ve been in situations in my life [that] when I look back, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t be, or the other person couldn’t be, trying to both say, “Let’s just walk away from this, it’s okay that it just didn’t work out, because all we’re doing is hurting each other.” But also because when I initially wrote [this song], I was in the panic stage still, and I was bouncing it off my sister and my mom, and I didn’t get the reaction I was hoping for. And it’s one of those things where you have that artist moment where you decide is what they’re saying something that you agree with it, or are you going to say, “Screw that, I think it’s a good one, and I’m gonna go with my gut.” In the end they both really like it, by the time I was finished, but I didn’t get the reaction I was looking for initially when I showed it to them, so I had to keep going with my gut, telling myself that this was a song that I think is worth recording. 


Carson’s new CD 100 Hours is available worldwide on iTunes on June 26, 2012.

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