We came across Bo Armstrong’s upcoming EP, “Where We Are”, in our inbox a few weeks ago, and it instantly caught our ear. With smooth vocals, well-rounded instrumentation and a rich blend of Americana, singer/songwriter, and Texas country, there’s a lot to like . In the 5 track project, Armstrong dives in to heartfelt melodies and stories that explore not only the black and white of love, but also the grey. It definitely left us wanting to know more, so we reached out to the Dallas native about his debut project, his musical influences, and what’s lies ahead and here’s what he had to say:
Texas Music Pickers: Tell us a little bit about yourself
Bo Armstrong: I was born in Dallas and recently relocated to Nashville after stints in New York City and the Mississippi Delta –two places that couldn’t be more different. I’ve been writing songs for a long time, but the last ten years or so were spent committed to careers outside of music. Part of me wishes I had seen the potential in songwriting sooner, but at the same time I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had as a result of pursuing other things. Those experiences have provided me with a lot of perspective and are the foundation of a lot of my material. That said, I’m excited to be invested in this journey now, doing whatever I need to do to make it all work.
TMP: I understand that Jerry Jeff Walker’s music actually played a role in your parents moving to Texas and therefore you being born a Texan. Is that right?
BA: Yes! Though I only just learned that. My parents came to visit in Nashville last New Years, and my dad brought with him a stack of his old records because we had just gotten a record player for Christmas. He was excited to listen to these old albums he hadn’t played in decades (turns out I broke the record player when I was little and it never got fixed), so we ripped through a few of them pretty quick. Then we got to Jerry Jeff’s “Viva Terlingua.” He opened the cover –it folds out and has a ton of pictures of an ice house in Luckenbach, TX inside— and said point blank: “this is the reason we moved to Texas. I just thought this place looked cool, and I figured I could make it work.” My dad isn’t even a musician! He just loved the storytelling and the idea of chasing something. If it weren’t for that album (and it’s cover), it’s quite possible I wouldn’t be a Texan. It was also cool to realize that my dad was my age when he kidnapped my mom and moved to Texas on not much more than a hunch. A little over a year and a half ago, I did the same thing when I convinced my wife we had to move to Nashville simply because I had a feeling that we could make it work. Gotta go with your gut.
TMP: Who would you describe as your musical influences?
BA: This is tough for me to answer because I just want to name everything I’ve listened to and liked for the last twenty years. That said, my musical heroes are Bruce Springsteen and Lyle Lovett. They both pull from so many genres (rock, country, folk, blues, gospel, big band) to produce something that is distinctly their own, and they are every bit as comfortable alone on stage with a single instrument as they are with 10+ piece band. I think that’s magic. They’re both poets and unique forces, and from them I’ve learned that being well rounded helps one be original.
On a separate note, strictly from a songwriting perspective, I don’t think there is anyone out there today writing better songs than Lori McKenna –I aspire to her level of poignancy and honesty.
TMP: How would you describe your style and sound?
BA: This feeds off of the musical influences question a bit. I’ve heard it referred to as “country-infused folk rock with a Texas bent,” and I think that sums it up pretty well. It’s equal parts grit and polish. My friend Brian Douglas Phillips produced the EP and leaned into the direction my voice was pulling the sound. I think he did a killer job of giving some Texas country flare to songs that are kind of storyteller folk tunes. I’m thankful to Brian (as well as guitarist Jacob Hildebrand and drummer Fred Mandujano) for being instrumental to the overall sound. Bad pun…forgive me? But seriously, those guys are insanely talented and make me want to get back to Austin ASAP.
TMP: You describe Jack Ingram as a mentor; could you give us some background on y’all’s relationship?
BA: Jack helms an annual songwriter’s competition in conjunction with the Texas Heritage Songwriters Association called Texas Songwriter’s U. I was a finalist in last year’s class and had the privilege of spending a few days in Austin with him, Jon Randall and Liz Rose. The three of them are immensely driven to write great songs, and their commitment to the craft is really inspiring. They don’t mince words –which is probably why they’re three of the greatest writers in the business today. But yeah, to be able to reach out to them on occasion is a really special thing that I don’t take for granted. They may not know it, but they were the spark for this EP; when writers on their level say that you’re up to something worth pursuing, it’s time to go and do something about it.
TMP: We’re really digging the new EP! With this being your debut record, what are you hoping to accomplish with it?
BA: I think more than anything I just want these songs to find an audience and be heard. But I also hope this EP leads to the making of a lot more music with good people, collaborators old and new. I think one of the best ways to challenge yourself as a songwriter is to write with people who are better than you, and I’m hoping that this batch of songs is good enough to strike a chord with some folks out there and make them say, “damn, I’d like to get in a room and write with that guy.”
TMP: Why did you call it “Where We Are”?
BA: I had a tricky time naming the record, but once the music was finally done and the track order was locked, it just felt right. I’ve been writing and singing songs in various capacities for over 15 years, but this is the first release that I’m really pursuing professionally. I left my job to dig into this industry full time, and my wife and I have made some sacrifices in doing so. Some days are good, some are bad, but this is where we are right now and we’re eager to see where things head. The title track, “Where We Are,” concludes the album with a two-minute instrumental that just slowly fades out, and every time I listen to it, I remember the feeling of being in the studio tracking that song and just letting go. We did three takes, and each time we got towards the end I thought to myself: this sure beats sitting in an office and listening to jerks complain over e-mail all day. Letting the EP play out with an infinite, uplifting jam was my way of looking forward and staying hopeful amid the uncertainty of the future. Did I make a colossal mistake in going after all this? Who knows –but when I listen to the end of this little record, I’m proud of the accomplishment and am excited about the future.
TMP: Two tracks that really stand out to us from the EP are “Strangers” and “Bonnie and Clyde. Can you provide us with some background on them?
BA: Absolutely! “Bonnie and Clyde” is a fun one, and I’m proud of it because sometimes writing up-tempo is challenging for me. I wrote the lyrics while passing the hours travelling on a train and later waiting around in an airport. I went down a rabbit hole on Google researching Bonnie and Clyde and was blown away by how bizarre and fascinating their lives were. Every fact (and fable) I read about them seemed more absurd than the next, and I kept thinking, “man, our lives couldn’t be any more different” (other than that we were from Dallas). And then I discovered that Clyde fell for Bonnie the first time he met her. That was a feeling I could connect with, and from there I meandered my way into a hook. It was also a cool one to write because I did it without a guitar, and I typically come up with lyrics and chords at the same time. On this one, I hummed the melody into the voice memos on my iPhone while in the bathroom on a plane!
“Strangers” was a very different writing experience. Prior to making my way to Nashville, I always wrote solo, and while I still write alone regularly (3 of the 5 tunes on the EP are 100 percenters), I spend a ton of time these days co-writing…and I love it. It’s awesome to dig into other people’s stories, connect with them on some level, and create something special. I wrote “Strangers” with my friend David Cleek who I met at the back of an open mic not long after I moved to Nashville. It was my second time writing with Dave, and my third co-write ever. When we were done, I shared the demo with my family, and a few days later my wife got a call from her dad, worried that things had gone sour between the two of us. It was so funny and endearing, but it served as an important reminder that good songs require a lot of vulnerability. My wife and I have been together for a long time, and I’ve put her through a lot; the source for all of my sad love songs come from the deep seeded realization that I know exactly what I stand to lose.
Coincidently, the acoustic demos of these two songs were the submissions that got me into TX Songwriters U, so it felt appropriate to work them into the narrative of the EP.
TMP: If you had to pick just one song from the EP, which song are you the most proud of?
BA: If I had to choose one, it would be the title track, “Where We Are.” It may not have the most commercial appeal, but I believe in it and hope that those who listen to the EP as a cohesive story will appreciate it. I wrote it alone, and I tend to write from an emotion more than a hook. I always aim for honesty (whether I’m writing for myself or another artist), but “Where We Are” stands out in my mind as one of the purest things I’ve ever put together. It’s also a friendly reminder that I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing without my wife, my best friend.
TMP: As of right now, what has been your most memorable live show so far?
BA: Several years ago while I was teaching elementary school in rural Mississippi, I was asked to play a show at a private high school in New England. I left my classroom on a Friday afternoon, drove along the levee, up highway 61 to Memphis, boarded a flight to Hartford, and by midnight I was staying in an on-campus hotel at this incredible institution tucked away in the woods. In a matter of hours I travelled from one cultural extreme to another, and the next night I played a show and shared some songs I had written about the experiences I was having in the Mississippi Delta. I was genuinely overwhelmed by my day-to-day in the classroom, so I got a little emotional as I sat there performing to a community that was on the opposite end of the spectrum of what I was encountering daily. It was a special experience, but it was honestly a little embarrassing. It taught me the importance of harnessing your feelings and pouring them all into the songs.
TMP: What’s your favorite thing to eat while on the road?
BA: Sunflower seeds. I chew on ‘em until the inside of my mouth is numb from the salt. A few good albums (or podcasts) and a mouthful of seeds — no better way to pass the miles.
TMP: What does the rests of 2018 look like for Bo Armstrong?
BA: I’m heading back to Austin at the beginning of November to spend a week in the studio with Brian, Jacob, and Fred, so that will be great…but come December things are really gonna get wild. My wife and I are welcoming our first child, and we’re incredibly excited. We’ll need some time to get situated with the little guy, but I’ve got plans for some shows starting in the winter of 2019…stay tuned!
TMP: Is there anything else you want listeners to know?
BA: Just enjoy the record! It’s a love story top to bottom, and I think there’s a little something in it for everyone. Hopefully I’ll have the chance to share these songs with you all in person some day soon. Also –if you follow me on Instagram (@bo_armstrong) you can stay up to date on what I’ve got going on and you can meet my one-year-old pup, Ellis. He’s an Airedale Terrier and a complete doofus.
The EP drops this Friday (9/28) and we definitely encourage you to get your hands on it! In the meantime, enjoy an early listen to our *PICK* of the album “Strangers” below!
Pre-order/Pre-save link: https://distrokid.com/hyperfollow/boarmstrong/egT7