Interview With Songwriter & Producer David Thompson
David Thompson, the songwriter and originator of Woody Overtones Music, was born in Boston but for the past 25+ years has lived in lovely Bozeman, Montana, where he runs a small strategic design and marketing agency. When he’s not working or playing music, he is fly fishing, shooting photos, or spending time outdoors with his wife, two daughters, and black Lab named Jasper.
Dave has shared the stage with all manner of great musicians over the years, has seen his songs enjoy some success on the National Bluegrass Charts (#7 and #12 songs at one point), and occasionally appears on other folks’ projects.
What first inspired you to start making music, and what was your first instrument?
My family is very musical, as my grandma was an incredible pianist and organist, my mom a music major, and dad a pretty good piano player too. So it was pretty hard to avoid a passion for music. Piano was my first instrument, but my older brother (guitarist) said “let’s start a band!” when we were in junior high, and he said “you play drums!” and my parents vetoed that, so he said “you play bass then!” and I said, uh, ok. So that’s how bass became my main instrument.
Do you play any other instruments, or sing?
Although bass is my usual instrument in terms of performance, I play a lot of guitar, write my songs on guitar too. I have a drum set and dabble in that, sadly am crappy at keyboards, and then have random mandolins and things around the studio to plink on, but wouldn’t say I play them. And technically, yes, I sing — but poorly. I can do some harmony singing when pressed, but sadly lead singing is not my thing.
When you were starting out, who were the artists, and what were the sounds, that most inspired you? And how has that evolved over the years?
Early on, I think my parents influenced me a lot, because we listened to a lot of different stuff. I remember loving The Beatles as a kid, and later on, my dad was actually into The Who’s album, Who By Numbers and I remember that and Cat Stevens being cranked on his big stereo at times. In my early teens, he got into Dire Straits’ Telegraph Road, which turned me into a lifelong Dire Straits aficionado. Maybe from that, I continue to like music that is melody driven, but that tells a story, too. So, now that I think about it, maybe my tastes haven’t changed all that much. I guess I would add that I have more of an appreciation for instrumental music than I used to, I think because sometimes it’s nice to paint the picture yourself, rather than having it told do you?
What were some of your early musical / gigging experiences? ie did you play in local bands, start your own projects, co-write with others?
My band in high school played some school functions, and then I had a college band called “Plate of Shrimp” and then another called “Behind Door #1” both of which were fun, but fairly typical college band experiences. When I moved to Montana, I randomly connected with some great bluegrass musicians, and that’s when we started a band that had actual paying gigs. Our band Kane’s River was mid-successful in the early 2000s, with a couple of my original songs off our two records making the national charts (#7 and #12 respectively), and we got to play some really fun festivals, and meet and play with some true musical heroes. I did co-write a few songs, but typically it was me bringing a mostly-done song to the band, and they would come up with cool variations and arrangement and harmony ideas. It was a ton of fun, musically and personally — but then I started my own business, had kids, and together those things make it tough to also do a lot of gigging, of course.
When did you write your first song?
The first real song I wrote was called “Spanish Peaks, China Moon” for our bluegrass band (originally called Deep River, later changed to Kane’s River). Ironically it became one of our more popular songs, and if we have reunion shows, it’s often requested. I think it’s a good song, but I think it’s appeal is that it did very much come from real inspiration, real emotion – and I guess there’s something nostalgic or wistful about it to the degree that it struck a chord (pun intended) with some. But that was a bit ironic since I really had not written a song prior to that one and yet it had staying power more than some others.
What prompted you to move from Boston to Bozeman, Montana?
Even though I grew up ‘back East’ as we call it out here, I always loved the outdoors, and in particular, fly fishing. I went to college in Maine, but worked at a guest ranch for those summers up in White Sulphur Springs, Montana, and basically said to myself “one day I’m going to live in Montana, it just feels more like me.” When I moved from a good job in Boston, I had told myself I was moving for the fishing and outdoors — but mostly now I’ve come to realize that day-to-day life in Montana is just a better fit for me, more fulfilling, nicer people, more my pace. Haven’t looked back since.
Has your approach to songwriting changed over the years (if so how) or is it pretty much the same?
Mostly I’ve learned that songwriting takes work, and working hard does not guarantee a great song. Then you wrap in the subjectivity on styles, topics, etc., and it’s a wonderfully, painfully complex endeavor. I think mostly I’ve learned not to overthink, and get stuff down, edit, and then launch it out there and move on.
You’ve put together, and been a part of, some really interesting thematic projects over the years. From Fishing Music volumes 1 and 2, to The Sweet Groovalicious Funk Machine, to The Creekwalkers, to Kane’s River and Growling Old Men (which was featured on A Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keillor). Is there any common thread that unites these projects together for you?
Interesting question; I think the overall thread there is that pretty much all of my musical conglomerations have involved playing quality music with friends. I have witnessed great musicians who were no fun to watch at shows because their group’s chemistry sucked. Playing music with friends (ok, it does help to have friends who are great musicians, no doubt) is something the crowd feeds off, and also, is just more my definition of success.
How did The Creekwalkers come to be?
The Creekwalkers was essentially born out of wanting to do a music project that was outside my bluegrass band at the time (Kane’s River), when we were playing a fair amount. I like bluegrass, but I like every other kind of music too, and I wanted to write some songs outside a specific genre, and basically in the style of whatever I felt like. Then, I asked various friends to cover various parts, and came up with The Creekwalkers as a ‘virtual band’ made up of whomever I wanted to play on a given song. I jokingly say it’s the same concept as Steely Dan — but without the monumental talents of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, sadly!
Tell us a bit about the inspiration for the most recent Creekwalkers’ album All The Things Between?
Basically the latest Creekwalkers project came out of the isolation brought on by Covid, like so many other projects. I would have rather collaborated in person, but obviously that wasn’t an option, but I knew it was a good time to focus on something other than global pandemics. The process of producing that album was so fun, and so all-consuming during those lonesome times, I found it hard to want to call it done.
You did a good bit of remote recording for All The Things Between. How did that change the experience for you?
Mostly what I experienced in producing the latest project (probably 85% remotely), I found that it’s fun to connect with people from all over, even if it can be challenging creatively. I know some people feel that in-person is absolutely required for a successful album, but I guess I like working remotely sometimes. Discovering AirGigs was a huge lightbulb moment for me because I suddenly found great musicians who could bring their talents virtually to Montana — and, these were actual, nice people, who wanted to collaborate, and even wanted to get to know you a bit. I think across the board, musicians tend to be good people who want to make good music whenever possible.
Both Creekwalkers albums have a really great mix of styles and sounds. As producer, do you go in with a kind of “album sound” in your head that you’re aiming for, or do you kind of let it evolve song to song?
I love so many different kinds of music, I wanted to just write and play what I wanted, hence the mix. If I was my own business manager, I’d probably advise myself to stick with a more singular sound or style, but I’m fortunate that music isn’t a full time thing for me, so I just create what I want. I imagine my stuff fits into some sort of Americana/acoustic category, but not really sure where most of it lands, genre-wise — and I’m ok with that.
Is there any one musical accomplishment that you are most proud of?
Hmm, maybe I’m most proud of the fact that I see how much music is important to my kids. Just based on my own tastes, I guess I exposed them to a wide range of music, and I see how much of an important role music plays in both their lives now (I have two teenage daughters). They like stuff that the other kids do, too, but they introduce their friends to everything from French Pop to Jackson 5, and at this point I see that they have a real appreciation for quality music. I guess in terms of my own musical accomplishments, I’d probably say I’m most proud when I hear from someone that my music has moved them in some way, or really meant something to them personally. Hearing those kinds of comments never gets old — partly because I know how much others’ songs have made a difference in my own life experiences over the years.
Desert island question…which 5 albums do you take with you?
Ack, impossible question! I will amend your question to be “Name 5 albums that were and continue to be highly influential to you and things you still listen to” because otherwise it’s too painful to choose:
James Taylor’s Greatest Hits (kind of cheating to say a compilation album, but I’m saying that anyway!)
Come Away With Me (Norah Jones)
Shotgun Down The Avalanche (Shawn Colvin)
How Did You Find Me Here (David Wilcox)
Stripping Cane (Jeffrey Foucault)
Geez, I’m exhausted from having to limit to only 5!
See David’s recent experience on The Creekwalker’s latest release. For music licensing opportunities, you can contact David here.