Interview: David Allen talks Woody Guthrie, impulse buying instruments and how growing up in a small town influences his music

David Allen played The Aquarium for the release of ‘Regrets and Retribution.’

This past year has been a busy one for alternative country artist David Allen. The musician bought his parent’s house in Hatton, ND, got married, had a baby and released his sophomore album “Regrets and Retribution”.

Living in a town with a population of 700, you get to know everyone pretty well. In his latest album, Allen’s observations and experiences from life in a small, Midwestern town serve as inspiration for many of the tracks.

“This new album I released is more about what people go through, right, and small town things. Kinda the ups and downs of living in a small community. You just see relationships fall apart and just people second guessing, you know and you get to know people and see that happen through time,” Allen explained.

One track, “Hymn for the Rest”, calls out a group of people that exists in virtually every small town. “There’s the judgmental people and, you know, they’re super religious but they aren’t. You know the kind of people I’m talking about. So I kinda got to read the crowd if I’m going to play that (song),” Allen laughed.

Allen always includes a song written by his older brother, who is a songwriter as well. For this album it was the closing track, a song about John Rooney (the murderer, not the sportscaster). Rooney was the last man executed in the state of North Dakota, in 1905. “John Rooney”, “I Don’t Know When” and a song released separately on bandcamp, “La Llorona”, all include some surprising sounds.

“Those were all three just done with me, his producer, and the producer’s assistant in the studio for the day just kind of picking stuff up and grabbing stuff. It was really fun to do. It was a completely different way of doing things for me but it was really interesting,” Allen said.

Allen recorded the album at Underwood Studio in Minneapolis, where he recorded the vocals and his acoustic guitar. The producer then hired out a bassist and drummer who filled out the tracks. “My producer is what made those songs what they are. But, like, ‘Rust’ I guess I was there and a friend of his stopped by and we asked him to play piano. He sat down and played it and I was like, ‘We are cutting everything else out of the song,’ like he was there for 20 minutes, did that, and we were like, ‘Yup. That’s that,’” Allen said.

Allen’s first instrument was the piano, which he was forced to learn in order to play percussion in the school band. “I did my year of piano lessons so I could do percussion in school and I forgot it all…Immediately,” he laughed, “My step-daughter was taking lessons last year and she was trying to teach me again, but ah, that quickly faded too.”

It was as a drummer in an indie cover band that first saw Allen take to the stage. The band covered songs that they enjoyed listening to, such as Band of Horses and My Morning Jacket. Allen laughs and says that he wasn’t a very good drummer, but admits it was a fun experience that got him used to being on stage performing.

After drums, Allen went through a phase where he would impulsively buy instruments and learn the basics before moving on to the next. Mandolin and banjo are among this list of instruments.

“Every once in a while I’ll pick it up and see if I remember anything, but other than that it’s not really…yeah they’re just on the wall in the music room. Just fun to have. My daughters, if they decide they want to play an instrument, they have every opportunity they can think of,” Allen laughed.

Allen’s entire discography, including his first album “Lovers are Liars, Gamblers, and Thieves” and the track “La Llorona” can be found on bandcamp. “Regrets and Retribution” is also available in Spotify.

Laura Ellen Brandjord (LEB): You mention Woody Guthrie in your bio. Are you familiar with his son Arlo’s stuff as well?

David Allen (DA): Not as much with Arlo, no. I like folk music but it’s hard for me to sit down and listen to. But, yeah, Woody Guthrie, I read his book and stuff when I was in high school and it was very interesting.

Like everyone else, I found out about Woody Guthrie from Bob Dylan and stuff, you know. And actually it was Wilco and Billy Bragg did that undiscovered Woody Guthrie recording thing (the album ‘Mermaid Avenue’) and that was a big thing for me and then learning about Woody Guthrie in high school.

There is a good Woody Guthrie biography out there that is really great read to understand what he went through and like there’s a lot of self-inflicted stuff there but like his childhood was pretty tough and how he died and everything.

Huntington’s disease sounds awful, especially for someone like that. It’s just interesting. I’m more into the history of those kind of guys than the music so much. But, like, I respect their music, but their history, where they came from, makes you all understand it.

LEB: Artists you are inspired by for your music?

DA: Townes Van Zandt. You probably hear that a lot in your interviews today…and then the bands I really liked that really made me want to start singing were bands like Lucero and Drive-By Truckers, stuff like that.

 I was a big Randy Travis fan when I was a kid and then kinda fell away from that. Then I rediscovered Randy Travis in my late 20s and was like, ‘Oh, my god. He’s amazing.’ So like all over that kind of country rock spectrum.

LEB: I like to end on some fun questions that don’t necessarily pertain to your album or your career. 

First, if you were stranded alone on a desert island with one album to keep you company, what album would you want it to be?

DA: Oof…I…that could change every week…I…(laughs)…I think ‘High on Tulsa Heat’ by John Moreland, probably. I think that would be the one.

LEB: If you could choose any three headliners (living or dead) for a festival you would want to attend, who would they be?

DA: Living or dead? Townes Van Zandt, Jason Isbell and…hmmm…this one’s tricky, too. Um, Tyler Childers. That would be a good one. 

LEB: Yeah, I’m a big fan of his ‘All Your’n’ right now.

DA: Yeah, he’s great.

LEB: When you are traveling have you had people ask you weird questions when they find out you are from North Dakota?

DA: No. It’s always, ‘Oh, it’s always cold there,’ or when they find out you work construction, ‘Oh, you must work in the oilfield.’ (I say) ‘Nope. Other side of the state. That’s a long ways away.’ So yeah it’s always cold and the oilfield is all anyone really knows about the area and it’s kind of funny. You know, it gets warm, too, and there are so many more jobs.

LEB: A lot of times I’ll get, ‘Oh, so Mount Rushmore,’ and I’m like, ‘No, wrong Dakota.’

DA: God, I’ve never gotten that. Somehow I always seem to run into someone that has some kind of tie to North Dakota where I’m at. There always seem to be a friend of a friend or some weird tie, like, their grandma lived there for a while or something like that. So it’s never really completely bonkers.

LEB: Anything else?

DA: Um, this last album I received a grant from Jade Presents and the Arts Partnership, so if you’d plug them. Jade Presents does a great job of getting good music to Fargo and then the Arts Partnership is just an amazing organization to have.

 And the fact that they do grants for artists is unreal, and they are not nothing either, like 2,500 whatever (dollars). And they’re really supportive even after you get it and try to get you into places, so if you could promote them a little in there.        

LEB: I’ve been seeing ads and posts about submissions for this year.

DA: Yeah they must of had a hard time getting applicants this year or something. But yeah, it’s just they’re a great organization and it’s amazing what they have done around Fargo; what they do around Fargo connecting people that wouldn’t connect otherwise.

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