The singular niche Dan Auerbach has carved out is a beautifully crafted one, maybe a little anachronistic (and unabashedly so), and very, very successful. Whether with the Black Keys or as a producer for the likes of Lana Del Rey, Ray LaMontagne, and Dr. John, Auerbach’s work always glows with rootsy American songcraft and sincere, detailed singing and playing. Those same qualities come through on his new solo album Waiting on a Song, which features songwriting contributions from Americana touchstone John Prine, as well as guest spots from guitar icons Duane Eddy and Mark Knopfler. Like a lot of Auerbach’s work, Waiting on a Song more readily calls to mind the burnished sounds of albums made in decades past than it does the music of today, which is probably why it’ll feel so nourishing to fans and also, as he explains, not particularly intentional.
Auerbach spoke from his tour bus, the day after playing a gig with bluegrass legend Del McCoury.
I’ve read you say that living in Nashville, where you moved a few years back, has changed the way you think about music and the way you record it. How, exactly?
When I was living in Akron, I never had all the tools at my disposal that I have now. I was pretty isolated in Ohio. There were definitely not a lot of musicians that were into what I was into. Nashville is a very different thing. I met all these great writers and musicians and singers. It’s really a beautiful thing to be able to regularly work with people of that caliber. It changes the way I record, too, yeah. I used to not know anyone who played the piano and now I know 12 different piano players and each one shines at a specific thing. That change is a real blessing.
What do you learn working with people like Duane Eddy and John Prine?
I learn something new every single day. Every single day. No matter who I was working with on a given day, with this project, it felt like the harder that I worked the more that I got out of it. It sometimes felt never-ending, but it also never stopped giving.
So when you’re working on a song with John Prine — one of the great, great American songwriters — what does that look like? Are you guys sitting around with guitars and a blank notebook? Are you each bringing in songs you’ve already worked on?
We would sit around and strum, lobbing ideas back and forth, like a snowball fight with words. It worked out. I’ve gotten together with great songwriters and it just didn’t quite click. But every time I got together with John it was fruitful. That’s one of the things I learned from Prine actually: If it’s going to happen, it’ll happen. You can’t force things. You can’t will a good song into existence. But he and I were just in a really good headspace. It was summertime when we were working together, he’d just got a new Cadillac. Everyone was feeling good.
I think it’s fair to say that Waiting on a Song — and to a degree all your work — is rooted in the sounds of the ’60s and ’70s. Do you ever get the urge to immerse yourself in new music? Or to try and figure out what makes something sound, for lack of a better word, contemporary?
I make all my records on computers and use all the latest equipment. And I’ve recorded all different types of styles, and made all different types of records. I don’t know, man. It has nothing to do with age. I don’t think about it like that. What I’m going for is this: I want something to be on my mind because it’s great. I want someone who doesn’t even speak the language to understand the song, to feel it. Worrying about what’s hip right now is a total dead end.
What are you listening to these days? What music are you excited about?
I’ve been listening to Roger Miller. I just played with Del McCoury, so I’ve been on a bluesgrass kick — the Stanley Brothers, the Louvin Brothers.
Just going back to my earlier question — I guess I’m not talking so much about trying to figure out how to make something hip. You know, I’ll go through long periods where I’m only listening to music recorded before, say, 1980. And sometimes I wonder if willfully disconnecting myself from the larger culture is a good thing. It’s like, you gotta live in the times you’re living, you know? Does that make any sense?
Yeah, it does. I think it’s totally worth it to think about things like that. There’s nothing wrong with that. You’re off in this place that doesn’t have anything to do with today. But at the end of the day, it has to be about making good art. You’re just wasting intellectual brain space thinking about anything beyond that. The idea is you don’t want to think about anything. You want to be pretty disconnected so that you can create your own world. I’m telling you, that’s my goal: to create my own reality. It feels good to do that. And my reality is the only one that matters to me.
That’s all you need. Sometimes trying for what’s hip can result in something interesting, though. I was listening to the Rolling Stones Dirty Work not that long ago, and that’s an album where they were really trying hard to sound contemporary. I wouldn’t argue the results stand up to Exile on Main St. but it’s compelling to hear that band shoot for something different.
I went through that kind of thing with the Black Keys. We had a number-one hit and then people were starting to sound like us — or hiring all the people we worked with for the record. I had people in Nashville telling me, “Hey, our producer told us three times today that he wanted the song to sound more like the Black Keys.”
What do you think “sound more like the Black Keys” might’ve meant to that producer?
Probably just “something that’s already a hit.” That’s the worst, when they just want something to sound like whatever is number one. That’s just gross. A lot of people are in the music business because it’s a business. You can make a lot of money being someone who follows trends, but I’m not that person and I never have been. My decisions have always been about making things perfect. I mean, being in the deep weeds, playing rock and roll, that doesn’t make any damn business sense.
How much do you have to change your approach to making music when you’re producing another artist’s record?
It’s totally the same. I’ve worked the way I work for so long that it’s hard for me to talk about how, exactly, I produce something. The way that I go about it, and having had my own studio for so long, having so much recording experience and experience being in a rock-and-roll band — I think it’s pretty unique.
What do you see as being most unique about those elements?
That I’m able to be a songwriter, that I’m able to be the producer, that I’m able to be a player. I [know] how to speak those languages. I’ve spent my whole life working on all those things simultaneously and they all help me do my job.
So there’s not really a change in method when you’re producing, like you have, for Lana Del Rey or Dr. John?
For those two, it did not change. I assembled a band for both, I oversaw the engineering — the process was the same. But, you know, they’re very different people, so that makes a difference. Figuring out how to keep the momentum going from hour to hour is different depending on the personalities you’re working with. And figuring out how to generate that momentum is a large part of what your job as a producer is.
Are you taking the new record out on the road?
I don’t know, man. We went to play a show in L.A. and it was really good, but the road can a drag. Being home is so much more fun.
Do you think traveling around and performing for people would feel different this year, when the country seems like such a mess, than it did in previous years?
I would guess not. I shut off the rest of the world. I lived in my own world for a year basically, making this record. I didn’t get on an airplane. I didn’t go anywhere. But the thing was, I had never gotten to know my own world so well. It made me feel like a more effective human.
Did that have an effect on the music?
The record has a very joyous feeling to it, and I think that’s why. It was made from creating joy for myself, by surrounding myself with people that give off joy. That’s all I was doing for a whole year, just immersing myself in that. It was life-changing.
Moving forward, do you think you can get that feeling of joy from the Black Keys?
Maybe. We’ll have to see what happens when we get together. You never know. Everything is so day-to-day in my life. I kind of live for the moment, because the moment is all that really matters.
This interview has been edited and condensed.