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Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner on Songwriting, Painting, and Getting Small

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In person, Kurt Wagner — the principal force behind long-running Nashville band Lambchop — doesn’t so much suggest his humble southern artist reputation as completely embody it. His hushed voice, his yellowed, unkempt fingernails, his ever-present trucker hat — he looks much more like, say, a floor-fitter (the grueling job Wagner held well into Lambchop’s career) than a cultishly adored musician. The band’s new album, OH (Ohio), a polite collection of achingly pretty folk songs, will be out October 7 via Merge Records. Wagner, who played a packed show at the Living Room last night, spoke to Vulture about the making of the album and moonlighting as a painter.

So what’s with the new album’s title, OH(Ohio)?
Well, what I liked about it was that it really didn’t make a lot of sense. There’s something about it that’s intuitive — that starts seeming right even if I don’t know why. And that’s a lot of the work that I do and why people can’t always understand what my songs are about, because it’s kind of an intuitive feeling. It just sort of felt right.

I remember reading a quote from you about how your approach to songwriting was that you wrote a song a day, and you threw out the bad ones. What was your approach this time?
This time I was sort of interested in connecting these separate ideas and traces and trying to find a way of putting them together in a seemingly random sort of way, but trying to make sense out of its unconnectedness. There would be a quote from the dictionary or something like that and a quote from the newspaper, and then somehow I would manage to put in coffee or someone talking over there or whatever. I would just sort of mix all the stuff together and then sort of try to make sense of all of it. It was about a splatter of ideas.

Do you have a creative outlet outside of music?
I’ve actually started painting again. I’ve been missing painting a lot since the music got busier and busier. At some point, to me, in order to call yourself a painter you actually have to paint. I looked at that painting that I had started seven years ago and I just literally started wherever I left off. That same line I started seven years ago I started drawing from that and I eventually finished that painting and started another one.

What’s your painting style?
They’re black-and-white oil paintings based on odd collected source material, newspapers or whatever.

I’m sure you could go commercial, considering your reputation. But I’m sure it’s something you’re protective of…
Before, it was basically, “Oh, I could use a painting over here.” And people liked them and would start asking me to paint a picture, so I would paint them on commission or something like that. But I was getting rid of everything that I was making so it was sort of defeating the purpose of filling up my house with the paintings [Laughs]. There are very few remaining, so I’m trying to do that again.

You mention that you are more comfortable than ever with having your name directly equated with Lambchop.
I think just as time has gone on, we’ve tried to figure out how to continue moving forward. And we sort of distilled down to this, for us, smaller size. Six, seven people as opposed to twice that. But I also realized that it could just come down to me. Before, I didn’t want the focus to just be on me, and I really tried not to fall into that thing where because you’re the songwriter you have to be the spokesman. But at this point it’s inevitable. It’s just another part of our evolution.

Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner on Songwriting, Painting, and Getting Small