Jack Ingram’s back, and he’s more serious about his craft than ever.
That intensity was always there, he told me in a phone interview, throughout his whole career, even during his Top 20 cover of Hinder’s “Lips of an Angel,” which he calls “a pure business decision.” But more on that later.
Today, Ingram releases his first album in seven years, and his first since his departure from Big Machine in 2011. He’ll celebrate by playing a free show at 5 p.m. today at Waterloo Records.
“Midnight Motel,” recorded independently and released through roots label Rounder Records, is a return to “the songs that only I could make,” Ingram said.
“It’s been seven years in the making—that first one or two years was just writing songs and recharging my batteries. The album’s about those first few years of staying up late, writing songs late at night.”
The album is also about staying true to your own artistic sensibilities, whether they mesh with mainstream radio or not. At this point in his career, Ingram’s seen and done it all, and “Midnight Motel” is filled with the hallmarks of an artist who doesn’t give a damn about being successful on anyone’s terms but his own.Related: Read our review of “Midnight Motel”
“I believe that the most commercial success you’ll have is when you’re authentic,” Ingram said. “It’s almost like when you’re single and you’re trying to get a girlfriend and it’s not working because you’re trying too hard, and then you just relax and be authentic, and it ends up working out.”
He said all the years at Big Machine were good for his career, but taxing on his artistic integrity, and all the different input from record executives started to wear thin.
“It sounds silly, but if you’re a people pleaser, which a lot of performers are, you do whatever it takes to perform,” Ingram said. “When you’re performing, it’s always, ‘What can I do to make this crowd love me?’ Anyway, I wanted to make sure I shut myself off from other peoples’ opinions…and I know people want the best for me, so I did what they asked, and ultimately, that relationship soured because I like records that speak for themselves.”
“Midnight Motel” doesn’t so much speak for itself as it announces itself right off the bat. The first words on the album are “Love is a broken neon sign, a tattered worn-out suitcase someone left behind.” By Ingram’s own admission, this is a record about “troubled, lasting relationships.”
“That’s all of our relationships,” he explained. “We’ve all got flaws, and they all put us on shaky ground with those that we are in relationships with. Identifying those problems doesn’t stop us from avoiding them.”
The first single, “I’m Drinking Through It,” is a five-minute breakup song that features an F-bomb. Multiple songs feature in-studio banter from Ingram and his band. The shortest song on the album is three minutes long. And most of the album deals with the unhappy side of life, the feelings of regret tinged with loss.
As the title suggests, the songs were all written, and recorded after dark as well, to capture the same timeframe they were written in. The whole record was recorded live (with a largely Austin-based band) with little overdubbing in post-production, for a more intimate sound. Ingram hopes that will resonate with fans who want to hear something real.
Here’s where “Lips of an Angel” comes in.
The song about a late-night phone call between two exes who clearly don’t want to be broken up was originally recorded by mid-aughts rock group Hinder, making it to No. 1 on Billboard’s “Pop 100” chart in 2005. Ingram released a version of the song as the lead single for his 2007 album “This Is It.” Many of Ingram’s fans loved it, while some felt he had jumped the shark. His version reached No. 16 on Billboard’s “Hot Country Songs” chart, but Ingram now says the song was “a pure business decision.”
“I don’t live under a rock, and I’m honest with myself, so if there’s a time when I overstepped my standards, it was that song,” Ingram said. “We figured it would raise some eyebrows, and it did, in a good way. But you don’t know where your line is until you cross it. And what fans think about that song is much different from what I think about it. I know we did a really good version of a really good song, but it’s also very much of its time.”
That experience drove him to create more emotional content and start making the songs that only he could create.
“I could give all these songs to other artists, and they wouldn’t be able to make them, not because the album’s ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ or anything, but because they’re mine,” Ingram said. “The only music I really like deals with extreme emotions…I’ve always been a fan of extreme artists, things that last, the things that make you feel. Whether it makes you feel like punching a wall, grabbing a girl, driving fast, I like the stuff that drives emotion out of you. The material that lasts feeds in the outer reaches of our emotional spectrum.”
His new rallying cry comes from one of the album’s cuts, “Nothing Left to Fix”: “Don’t write a song tat you wouldn’t sing.”
“My perspective now, if I end up in Heaven, and Willie’s up there, Waylon’s up there, Guy Clark’s up there, and we’re all sitting around singing songs and playing guitar for each other, and they ask me to play one song for them, I’m not gonna play them ‘Lips of an Angel.’ And that kind of became a rallying cry for me on this one. Don’t write a song that you won’t play for your heroes, not just for this album, but never f—ing again. If you’re that serious about music, if you only have one song to play, make sure it passes that test.”
Ingram will play a free show promoting the album today at Waterloo Records at 5 p.m.