After spending four years in Nashville, Will Stewart decided he needed a change of scenery and musical style — and he found both in a familiar place: Birmingham.
After living here from 2006 to 2012, the singer-songwriter had relocated to Nashville to spend some time in the city’s indie rock scene. But two years ago, Stewart, a Montgomery native, moved back to Birmingham and shifted his musical focus to a rootsy sound driven by acoustic guitars and pedal steels — and people noticed.
Rolling Stone placed him on its “10 New Country Artists You Need to Know” list earlier this year — and that was before the April release of his full-length solo debut, County Seat, on Cornelius Chapel Records. The album is a nine-song collection that finds Stewart comfortable in his surroundings and confident in his songcraft. As he prepares for an active summer, including several high-profile local appearances, Stewart spoke with Jefferson County Journal about his new album and how it was influenced by coming home to Birmingham.
Jefferson County Journal: How did the material for County Seat take shape?
Will Stewart: I moved back to town from Nashville in early 2016. I’d been in a few bands up there that had disbanded, and I basically started from scratch. I just started writing when I got back. That first year I was back, most of those songs came together.
Jefferson County Journal: Did the move back to Alabama have an effect on your writing process and musical style?
Stewart: Totally. A lot of that stuff can be subconscious at times, but I grew up listening to folk music and roots-based music, so it’s always been a part of me. I tried to do heavier rock stuff. I listen to all kinds of different stuff, but this kind of style feels the most natural to me, so [the music] just started coming out in a very natural way. I didn’t try to fight it.
Jefferson County Journal: Lyrically, did the move back to Alabama influence the album’s themes?
Stewart: A lot of this material deals with isolation and being removed from different things. I definitely felt that way when I moved back. Even though I have a lot of friends here, you feel kind of disconnected that first year you move to a new place. You kind of feel like you’re floating out there alone. It deals with that kind of stuff, yeah.
Jefferson County Journal: What prompted your decision to leave Nashville?
Stewart: I love Nashville. I still go back up there all the time and have a lot of friends [there]. It’s still close. I’m a big believer that you don’t have to be in any certain place for things to happen. Obviously, the infrastructure of the the industry is up there, but I’ve never been concerned with being part of a big scene. I just felt more connected to Birmingham. It felt more like home. It was getting to be too much up there. It was growing so fast and it just wasn’t my vibe.
Jefferson County Journal: Also, Birmingham changed in many ways while you were living in Nashville.
Stewart: That was definitely part of my decision. I was still playing down here a lot and seeing all the cool stuff that was happening. I very much wanted to be a part of it. I have a sense of pride for Birmingham, and I want to tell people how cool it is all the time. People that have never been here, they probably think of it as a small, rinky-dink town if they’re from a bigger place. But I always thought it would be so cool to cultivate a scene here — which, there already is a scene — for the style of music that I’m playing and be a part of the Birmingham sound. It’s already starting in that direction, but I would love to be a part of it.
Jefferson County Journal: You co-produced County Seat with Les Nuby, another musician that moved away and came back to Birmingham. When did the two of you begin working together?
Stewart: Les is a dear friend and he’s served as a mentor to me. When I first started recording, he was the first guy that I recorded with in town. That would have been late 2009. I still am green in a lot of ways, but I really didn’t know what I was doing back then, so he’s helped me along the way and taught me things here and there. He’s a super talented musician and engineer and just a great guy to hang out with. I can’t say enough good things about Les.
Jefferson County Journal: If you will, talk about the recording of County Seat. Your bio says the album was basically recorded in just two days. You hear about artists taking weeks or months to record an album. Are you glad you finished it quickly and didn’t belabor the process?
Stewart: Yeah, we pretty much tracked everything in two days. There were a few overdubs here and there on the third day, but for the most part we tracked everything in two days, which I’m really proud of.
Obviously, there are different approaches to recording. Sometimes staying in the studio for a month is great. You go in there and write songs while you’re there. I don’t have that luxury mostly because of funds — this can be pretty expensive stuff. So, mainly because I don’t have that much money to spend on recording I said, “Alright, let’s go in and do it in two days.” [Laughs]
But all of these songs were very rehearsed, and we’d been playing them live for a year. If you go in rehearsed and well-prepared, you can knock it out pretty fast, and that’s how I like to work.
Jefferson County Journal: You mentioned how, in moving back to Birmingham, you were leaving an established music scene behind. The internet has certainly made it easier for artists to have freedom, with respect to location, recording, releasing songs, and booking shows. As an artist, how do you view the shifting climate of the music industry?
Stewart: That’s a hard question. It’s a double-edged sword and it’s a constantly-changing industry. No one has the answer on the best way to move forward if you’re not Beyonce or someone like that.
At this point, it’s still about playing shows. That’s the survival way for folks like me who are doing non-mainstream pop stuff.
I think there are pros and cons. It’s so cool that I can get on Spotify and see that people in Sweden and Thailand are listening to my record, which is wild to me. Without the internet, I don’t know if that would even be possible. On the other hand, you have so much more competition. But I try not to view music as a competition. It’s something that I do for fulfillment, and as soon as I start thinking about it as being a business transaction, it devalues the whole process.
This summer, Will Stewart will perform at Ghost Train Brewing Co. (June 9), SliceFest (June 16), Iron City (June 27), and Sloss Fest (July 15). For more information, visit willstewartmusic.com.