No need to wander
Cory Chisel got a record deal without leaving home
Cory Chisel became an unlikely success story in 2007 when he signed a deal with RCA Records while still living in his hometown of Appleton, a smallish Wisconsin city located two hours north of the state’s acknowledged music hubs, Milwaukee and Madison, and a world away from every place else. Even before he was signed the 26-year-old Chisel had attracted famous fans like Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick thanks to his soulfully gritty vocals, charismatic stage presence, and solid songwriting, which is rooted in the bluesy Americana of Tom Waits and Time Out Of Mind era Bob Dylan. Now Chisel has put out a debut EP Cabin Ghosts on RCA imprint Black Seal, and plans to start recording a full-length with his band The Wandering Sons in October. Before then, he talked with Decider about Appleton and working for a major label.
Decider: Cabin Ghosts mostly was recorded live, and in one night. Why did you make the record that way?
Cory Chisel: I’ve always had a fascination with live records. I’m not one of those guys that picks up a million bootleg tapes, I’ve just always been a fan of people like Johnny Cash and Jeff Buckley and all of their really great live recordings. We just wanted to breathe as much energy into the songs as we possibly could, and do something that would put us at risk of failing miserably. It was a thousand degrees inside the place we were recording. We had some of our closest friends and people who have supported us at the show, so we did not have more than two takes of a song to get through the evening.
D: You made the record in Appleton. Why was that important to you?
CC: A lot of what our music is has to do with where we come from, with Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the aesthetic of the people we’re used to playing for. I threw out the idea of: Can we bring it all back home? And the label was really excited about it. Our success to this point has had a lot to do with our hometown supporting what we do. So, we thought for our first step out the door, what better thing to do than just take anybody who’s listening right to where we’re from.
D: Appleton’s music scene is mostly unheralded outside the area. What’s everybody missing?
CC: For whatever reason a lot of my favorite artists—my friend Noah Harris, and Robby Schiller, and Tim Schweiger—are from there. The music scene is just really brave. There’s no reason to be where we’re from and be making art. There’s no scene to be a part of. It’s not like you’re going to put a band together and within a year you’re going to be signed. It’s almost straight-up exile for people that are completely off the map of the larger world. We’re not really close to anywhere, so we’re really just making music for each other.
D: What’s your experience been like with RCA?
CC: RCA is a really interesting label, even amongst the majors. They have very unusual acts for a major label: Kings Of Leon, The Strokes, Ray LaMontagne, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. It’s sort of a label geared toward live musicians. The label has a view of itself as being fringe even inside the majors. They have a lot of pride in who they sign and bring to the label. I think we’re really lucky, and we keep being told that we’re really lucky by friends that have been on majors. We’ve had nothing but a completely nurturing, artistic experience.
D: Has being on a major influenced your songwriting at all? Do you ever think, “I want to make sure the label likes this song”?
CC: No. Major labels are in trouble, right? Nobody knows what’s going to sell. Nobody knew The White Stripes were going to become one of the biggest rock ‘n’ roll bands in the world. There’s more of a commitment to make the most pure music you can make, and there’s a belief that it will work, because it will be exposed and not hiding in the fringes. There’s just a concern about great songs and great art. It doesn’t have to sound like anything to sell. It seems like we’re moving into a totally different time with music, where vinyl sales are rising for the first time since the ’70s. I think consumers are looking for something different. Music that’s easily digestible and a quick, throwaway kind of thing, most of those records are getting downloaded illegally. It seems like if people want to buy a record, and actually have a product in their hands, it’s art that stands on its own.