T.S. Eliot once wrote, "We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring. Will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time."
That's a statement that applies to musician Austin Lucas and his latest album, Immortal Americans. It's a collection of songs that reflect changes in perspective, how the familiar becomes the strange and how the strange can be a great source of comfort.
Raised in Bloomington, Indiana, Lucas left his hometown two weeks after graduating high school, bound for Ohio, then San Francisco, Prague, Portland, Oregon and, finally, Nashville.
"I was collecting different hometowns," he says.
A series of circumstances led to his unlikely return to his hometown and though that may have been unplanned, the singer-songwriter is happy to point out that these unexpected turns have reaped unexpected dividends. Austin Lucas performs at Wave on Sunday, March 17. Immortal Americans is available now.
My understanding is that Immortal Americans was inspired by a return to your hometown, among other things going on in your life.
I'd moved to Nashville after I'd gotten divorced from my wife. I was there for a few years and things had gotten pretty dark. I needed to regroup and come home. I don't really believe in fate or signs or anything like that, but I was driving home to see my mom and something happened back in Nashville and I needed to move out of the place I was living in.
I had a couple offers to move into other houses but I decided that, since I was driving home, it just made sense to go back to Bloomington. I'd been having a rough go of it in Tennessee. I was on the right track to get my life together, but I needed that added piece of hometown comfort. Family and old friends, stuff like that, to set me back right.
As I settled in back home, I started to notice a lot of things that had changed about [Bloomington] and immediately started writing. That's where Immortal Americans came from, that transitive period of uprooting myself from Music City and reacquainting myself with the place that I'd grown up.
Did you see Bloomington through different eyes?
I've always loved Bloomington. It's a university town. It's a lot like Lawrence. It's a hotbed for alternative culture. It's got music and art. But I feel a lot of people from Indiana come here and they feel like they've made it to a place. Maybe they stay here. But if you're from Bloomington and you're interested in the kinds of things I'm interested in, you've got to escape your hometown sometimes.
There's an urge to escape your hometown. You villainize your hometown, marginalize it and take it for granted and set your sights on whatever else is out there. That's what I did: I kept moving forward to other places. What I discovered when I got back here—and this isn't necessarily the Bloomington that I wrote the record about, but it is in a way—that the place I was looking for was the place that I started.
Do you remember the first song that came to you once you got back there?
The first song that came was "Monroe County Nights." That song features a juxtaposition of the town that I remembered. As much as I had a tendency to hate on my town, like a lot of people do, I also had an idyllic childhood. There's a lot of me imagining this place as kind of a pure, idyllic community seated in the hills of southern Indiana.
Coming home, I found all these discrepancies. We have one of the highest poverty rates in the United States. One of the highest homelessness rates in the United States. The opioid crisis has affected us enormously here. These things that exist here aren't seated in my memory of growing up here.
The differences between what I remembered and what it was became very acute.
You co-produced this album with Will Johnson [Centro-Matic, South San Gabriel]. How did you two first become acquainted?
We've known each other in a roundabout way for a pretty long time. We shared a booking agent at one point. We have a lot of mutual friends and played shows together. He had worked with my hero, Jason Molina [Magnolia Electric Company, Songs: Ohia], so I was always interested in knowing him a little bit more.
I was trying to make this record happened, and we'd exchanged numbers sometime before that. I texted him, sent him some files and he said, "Dude, I would love to be part of this." He said he'd love to co-produce and be in the band for the record. I said, "I would love to make that happen." Then it came up that [legendary sound engineer] Steve Albini would be available as well.
Most people associate Albini with loud rock ‘n' roll but he's made some beautiful, quiet singer-songwriter records.
I was nervous at first. He's responsible for having recorded probably the majority of the music that I love and have listened to throughout my life. His discography is insane. There are some big ones that you're going to think of off the top of your head: In Utero by Nirvana, Surfer Rosa by the Pixies. There's so much more. But Jason Molina recorded an extensive body of work with him as well.
This record was really a singer-songwriter record and a record about all these really big things that have been happening to me. I wanted it to be a direct conduit to me, and I wanted it to sound sparse and beautiful and haunting. To me, Steve was the guy to go to.
Your life changes in all these ways, then you work with Will and Albini, they had a connection to Molina. That's significant.
Huge, yeah. Enormous. Almost indescribable.
Did you have a sense of, ‘If these negative things hadn't happened, maybe these other, positive ones may not have fallen into place'?
This record was like a catastrophe, that continued to happen, that turned out really great. All these really negative things kept on happening, a lot of really negative things impacted this record. The way that this album was supposed to be recorded and the way that it ended up being recorded are vastly different things. I tripped and fell on the most perfect combination of ways to make this album.
In a way, it's an accidental miracle. I don't believe in fate, I don't believe in miracles, but I do know that this record happened only as the result of a bunch of things that I hoped to happen not happening. Then, something that I wanted even more was the thing that came up.