Blackberry Smoke has every reason to go into its sixth studio album Find A Light — premiering exclusively below — with a degree of confidence.
The Atlanta Southern rock quintet’s two previous releases, 2015’s Holding All The Roses and 2016’s Like An Arrow, debuted at No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart. Find A Light shares many of their virtues, a self-produced set that runs a wide stylistic range from heavy rock to gentle balladry and twangy country — with a heavyweight guest list that includes Robert Randolph, the Wood Brothers and Amanda Shires.
With the album dropping on Friday and the band kicking off a new round of touring on April 11, frontman Charlie Starr chatted with Billboard about things both Light and heavy.
What did you set out to do on Find A Light?
There was no grand design. We tour most of the year and then I write a batch of songs, and if they’re good enough we go record ’em. It’s generally the way that it happens with us these days. That’s a simple way to think about doing it, and it’s pretty efficient.
You produced this one yourself, as you did on Like An Arrow. Are you growing more comfortable in that role?
I think we’re very comfortable. I think we just want to continue to challenge ourselves as far as how we make records. It’s just such an enjoyable process. I get more and more addicted to it each time we make a record and learning about making records, about what we can do. It’s limitless. It’s like we’re all chasing the Beatles and what they did.
What’s gang producing like? Lots of swinging and ducking?
(Laughs) Sometimes it’s swinging. Sometimes it’s yelling. On this newest record the process went along more smoothly than any of our other records, I think. There was nothing but happy people every day. I think everybody shared the same vision, which may start with me but we don’t always agree, so there are times where it can be tough. But not this time. It really was a pleasure.
There seems to be a thematic thread running through Find A Light, of finding hope during hard times. True?
I think that’s why I kinda landed on that title. I looked at the majority of the songs, lyrically, and they seemed to be a little more optimistic than the last album — I don’t know why, in this climate, ’cause it definitely seems more desperate now than ever in my life. But maybe that’s it; Maybe what everyone needs is a little more optimism. So, yeah, the title is really a broad stroke, and it just means that it seems like the only way you can find happiness and find the good is to find it yourself. Nobody is gonna do it for you, so you’ve got to find the light yourself.
You wrote several of these songs with Keith Nelson, formerly of Buckcherry. How did that come about?
He and I have been friends maybe 25 years and we’ve never worked together before in that regard. We’ve just been friendly for years. He called one day and just said, “Hey, you want to write some songs?” and I thought, “OK, that’s something we’ve not done but, hey, let’s do it.” And before I knew it we had written five, six songs. We wrote long distance, which is a lot different than sitting down in a room with someone, good ol’ fashioned face to face. But Keith and I are both guitar nerds, so it started just with guitar stuff; We were geeking out about different guitar tones and vintage guitars and amps and then started bouncing riffs back and forth, and then the songwriting began in earnest. It was very inspiring for me.
There’s a lot of range in these songs, which is not unusual for Blackberry Smoke but still pronounced. Where does that come from?
We really enjoy an endless amount of freedom. I think all of our records are pretty varied and they get more and more so with each record. I think we’re sort of challenging ourselves, like “Hey, let’s do something that’s more like this” or “Let’s do something that’s less like this” or “What if we went this far with it?” There’s nothing better than being able to do what you want, musically. I have friends that don’t enjoy that freedom, and it must really suck.
The band has been gradually moving the needle forward each time out. What do you hope Find A Light accomplishes?
One goal, I guess, would be I hope our fans will continue to come with us on this journey. Some people will be like, “This record, it doesn’t sound like you do live.” Maybe they don’t understand that it is two completely different things. We’ve made a couple records where we just set up and played live and that’s cool, but how many times can you do that? It’s like, “OK, do we want to do that again or create something that has more to hear, more to listen to?” Somebody once said one of our records was overproduced, and I was like, “That’s because WE produced more sound. We gave you more to listen to.”