I first heard Henry Conlon play at the opening night of the Loudoun Arts Film Festival last September in Middleburg, Va, and immediately recognized we had a star in our midst. He has a calm, stoic stage presence and an unmistakable voice with a homey and comforting sound. Since then, the New York-born artist has released two new singles that are taking Nashville by storm.
I sat down, over zoom, with Henry Conlon to talk about how he fell in love with music, how genre-blending is changing the game, and how his experiences have shaped the way he makes music.
A transcript of the interview between Katie C’etta and Henry Conlon is included below. Some content was edited for length.
AF: Tell me about the very beginning, tell me about the moment that you felt “This is it for me, I’m going to be a musician and I’m going to pursue it as a career.”
Henry Conlon: Yeah, there have been a couple moments like that. There was this guy named Vinny at this all boys summer camp I went to. I was probably in like sixth grade. He was one of the counselors in high school. There was one night where the all girls camp came over and there was a talent show and a dance afterward. Vinny got up and played, The General by Dispatch. He absolutely crushed it. And I was like that is it! That’s my golden ticket. After that, I got a guitar but it just sat there for a few years. I didn’t really do anything with it until my senior year of high school.
In 2017, there were two things that made me feel “Okay, I need to do this.” One, I heard Isabel’s Southeastern record for the first time. And two, I saw a movie called Heartworn Highways. The combination of those two things made me feel like there was a new side of music. And one that felt more like literature than music in terms of its creative outlet. The music was poetic and conversational, reminded me a lot of Hemingway. It was deep and profound but used layman’s terms. It gave a sense of “calling it as you see it”, and captured the human experience in the process. Hearing that (music) mixed in with Metamodern Sounds and Imaginary Appalachia, led to a really cool moment of discovering Americana music. And it just made sense to me.
It was the first time in my life where I felt like things just made sense. I didn’t have to think too much about how I had to make myself fit. Before this I tried out a lot of different careers outside of music. I had jobs in hotel management, real estate, psychology, sports management. All these things that really didn’t make sense for me. It was funny because it was sitting right in front of me the whole time. I wake up and the first thing I do is look for new music. I’m checking blogs, playlists, and instagram trying to find new music. I’ve been doing that forever. This is literally what gets me out of bed in the morning. I think that’s when it kind of clicked that this was my thing.
AF: I love that. When I talk to people about the thing that makes their hearts sing, we kind of get to a moment where we agree that whatever the thing is, be it performing on stage, directing a film, or whatever it may be, it feels like falling in love. It’s not exactly like falling in love with a person, it’s with something that can’t be taken away from you. You can always make music because it’s part of you.
Henry Conlon: Yeah it’s like a moment or an experience.
Deciding on Music
AF: Exactly! So what were the next steps after that? After you decided “This is for me!” What did you do after that point?
Henry Conlon: At the time, in 2017, for about a year and a half I just played open mic nights and weird bar gigs. I just asked places to let me play there and they were like “Okay! Sure!” I was working on my chops and didn’t really know what I was doing. I didn’t have any mentors yet.
Then in New Haven, Connecticut, I met this guy named Adam Christofferson. He runs a business called Musical Intervention. It’s a non-profit and they work with the homeless community doing things like music therapy and providing a safe space for people to come. He’s a song writer and likes the same sort of music that I do. We would listen to Kris Kristopherson, John Prine and Johnny Cash.
Adam taught me a lot about the music that I make today. He was really my first mentor, musically. Through him, I met a producer, Eric Licter, in northeastern Connecticut. He has a studio called Dirt Floor Record Productions. I went up there and I just played him some of my music and asked him “Do you dig it?” and he was like, “Yeah, man! Let’s work on this!” And over the next four months we cut an album called “Home“. So, about two years after I started is when I began putting out my own music.
At the end of that summer, I moved down to Nashville. When I got here, that was really a shock for me. You hear this a lot because everyone comes being sort of the best from their hometown. And then you get here and you are a very small fish in a very big pond. The competition level goes up tremendously. I took a while to find my groove. I’m still finding my groove.
I’m still figuring it out. What’s my sound? What’s my plan? Am I a writer, a performer? Am I both? How do I do both? What’s my genre? Who are my bandmates? What instruments do I want? Who am I recording with? What am I recording? There’s a lot to figure out. It’s been an awesome experience. But, I’m very much making it up as I go. I’ve made a lot of friends who have been here for five to ten years. I kind of run ideas by them and ask, “Hey I’m thinking about doing this thing what do you think?” And they can come back and say, “Listen, I’ve done that, don’t do that.” That’s such valuable advice.
Nashville or Austin
AF: Yeah, absolutely. You talked a little bit about moving to Nashville, was there ever a point that you considered moving somewhere else or was it always Nashville for you? What made you choose Nashville and how has living there affected the music that you make?
Henry Conlon: It was really between here (Nashville) and Austin. It was like 80/20. Nashville was the logical next step. I had kind of run the well dry where I was and I thought if I want to be doing this (music) I need to be where it’s being done. I need people I can learn from. It’s really interesting because I expected it to be different. I expected it to be country music all day every day. When I got here I saw that it was a much more vibrant scene. It’s like 60/40 country. It’s mostly country music but there’s a great rock scene, a great pop scene, and a great jazz scene. And they all coexist with each other.
And over the last couple of years we’ve seen those lines disappear more and more. The easy example is Old Town Roads. When you get (Lil Naz X) in the studio with Billy Ray Cyrus, you get this weird thing that nobody knows what to call, but everyone loves it! You get this brand new thing where you mix country music and hip hop, or pop and jazz or hard rock and country. It’s nerve wracking and exciting because no one knows what the next big thing is going to be.
Selfishly, I want Americana to be that next big thing.
Last year, you had Sturgill Simpson put out a bluegrass record that went number one on the pop charts. And then you had Jason Isabel put out an Americana Rock record that went number one the pop charts as well. And finally you had Tyler Chillers put out a country record that went number one pop. It’s interesting to see the direction that it’s going. And it’s cool to be riding that wave of making traditional country or Americana Rock while seeing the whole genre build up around you. Nashville is going to be one of the places where that’s kind of the catalyst of it. I couldn’t have known when I moved here, but I really do think that Nashville is the place to be doing this right now.
AF: So you mentioned your album, Home. Can you talk a little bit about how the idea for that came about and what was the creative process for making that album?
Henry Conlon: Yeah, absolutely. At that point I was in the infancy of what I’m doing now. I’m very happy with how it came out because I knew nothing about writing. I knew nothing about song structure or capturing a bigger idea with my lyrics. I was just throwing stuff at the wall. And then, I would just ask people I was friends with what they thought. If they liked it, then I went with it. I just used crowd reactions. I mean look at Nirvana, they broke every single rule that there was, but people loved them. So, I think not knowing what I was supposed to do but just gauging things off what people thought was the magic behind it.
And then add Erik to it, a tremendous talent. He’s an instrumentalist, singer songwriter, rockstar and I trusted him a lot. Looking back, this was a terrible idea that couldn’t have gone better, but I gave him full creative control because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Erik is an awesome guy who cares about the musicians that he works with and happens to share a lot of the same ideas about what the music should sound like, so when I gave that to him he delivered on it ten fold. If anyone is new to this, I’d advise to maintain creative control because not everyone is as nice as Erik. The creative process for that album was really throwing stuff at the wall seeing what sticks. My more recent work definitely changed a lot but (laughs), I’m sure we will get into that.
AF: Yeah let’s get into that! Can you tell me about how you applied all of the things that you learned from your first time around the block to the music you’ve made recently and the music you’re making right now?
Henry Conlon: So when I moved down here I met this guy named Joel Jergenson. He was just this cool dude, rode a motorcycle, had a big beard, and played guitar. Just a cool guy. I didn’t know him super well, I just kind of knew him from around town. Over this summer, there was this guy who was doing shows in his backyard. This was in like June or July. It was just a flatbed trailer with a PA system. They just set it up as a stage, had a bonfire and would say “Hey everyone come through, bring beer, bring fireworks, let’s make music and have fun and see if we can get the cops called on us.”
And we almost always did.
I met Joel and kind of got to know him there. I had just done a set with my first irritation of a band, just me, a mandolin player and a bass player. Joel came up to me and asked “Are you going to record that?” and I just said “Well I’d love to but I don’t know anyone who records stuff” and he says “Well, that’s what I do.”
By September, we were in the studio. A title track off my first record “Home” was a song called “I’m Coming Home” and once I got to Nashville that vibe of that song had changed a lot so the first thing I wanted to do was re-record that new interpretation of what that song sounds like. So, that was my first project, and we worked at a studio called 12-3 South. It was the three of us and a fiddle player named Dana Bee, who is a rock star. Dana plays with a group named Warren Treaty, here in town. We just kept it acoustic guitar, the vocal, and the fiddle. When I went to Joel, I said “I want this to sound like we are back in Robert’s backyard playing on that flatbed stage again. I want it to be personal and intimate.”
One of the reasons I knew I was going to like Joel right off the bat is because when we were recording he would come in every five to ten minutes and ask if we were headed in the direction I wanted to go in. It’s so important to me to have a producer that knows it’s not necessarily their job to have the vision for the song. But rather to execute the artist’s vision for the song.
I think it’s unbelievably important.
That being said, I trust his input. With my last song “Lucy,” I went to him and asked “What should I do with this?” and gave him the song. I told him, “I’m kind of stuck in terms of ideas”. And he came back and said “well, what if we do this?” and I’m like “That’s perfect!” So it’s a relationship between the producer and an artist. You kind of need to grow in your understanding of that. Joel is an awesome guy.
“Lucy” was a totally new thing for us. It was the quickest turn around of any song I’d ever done. My buddy, John Oliae, and I wrote it on December 27th, we were in the studio on January 15th and released it on February 26th, so it was lightning fast. I was like “I think I got a thing here, we gotta do this one and we gotta do it now. I need this out.” And it’s been doing really well so far. I’m excited!
I’m not doing this for validation, I’m doing this because it is what makes sense to me, but to get the validation that I’m headed in the right direction is a nice thing. I see people that put music out that they are passionate about but it doesn’t inspire or move people the way some others do. To see that this song excites people, to see it move a room is such a cool thing.
Granted, I’m not going to get wax poetic about this, it’s an upbeat rock and roll song about meeting a girl in a bar. And there is nothing much deeper about it. But, we chased the the instrumentation of the Americana songs that have those deeper roots feel to it. And then filled it out with a baritone guitar, pedal steel, and an acoustic piano. So to have that as the rock roots of it, it excites people and it catches their ear and it’s not exactly what they expect to hear when they turn on the FM radio here in Nashville. They’re like “who’s this Henry guy? What’s this Lucy song all about?” It’s confusing people in a really good way.
And I’m happy to confuse people any day of the week.
AF: I’m hoping that people who are new to music might read this article and I want to give you a moment and some space to talk directly to those readers and give them some advice. If you could start with some advice that you’ve received yourself and then move towards some things that you learned over your time in music so far.
Henry Conlon: Be humble and be open to suggestions. I think that’s the only reason that I’m able to keep doing this. I fully accept the fact that I have no idea what I’m doing. You can’t let your pride get in the way of this. I see people who are like “No I’m not doing this because I’m better than this.”
First off, no one is better than these things, you gotta pay your dues. One of the things that have been the most important for me is finding someone that I look up to who is in the place I want to be in five to ten years and just bug them until they teach me something. Just be open to learning from people, be humble enough to say “I don’t know the answer to that question.” You can say that you don’t know and that is okay. Let’s learn, let’s grow on this.
I credit my parents for teaching me that if you don’t know something you should be asking where you can learn it. That’s what made this process what it’s been for me. I just get out there and learn things. No one knows everything. Even the people I’m asking questions to don’t know everything but they know a little more than I do. Be honest to who you are. I don’t really call myself a country artist because I’m from New York and I’m not going to claim I’m something that I’m not.
You can write a really great song that has a great groove and great melody and it’s catchy but if it’s not honest people are going to see right through that and it’s just not going to hit. I have songs that could not be further from true stories, but they are about true things. It’s capturing an emotion or a mood that people understand. When people understand what you’re talking about they pay attention. So be honest and be true to yourself. That’s the most important thing.
I was talking to a buddy of mine, Scott Kline, a writing partner of mine. He was playing a show the other night and I walked up to him and asked him how he was feeling. He says, “I’m not going to lie, I feel kind of nervous!” I asked him why he felt nervous and he said, ‘Well, there’s a lot of people here.” I said, “Who cares what they think? Just get up on stage and have fun.”
If you’re playing to the crowd, you’ll be thinking about the crowd the whole time. Whereas, if I get up on stage and I just say “I want to have fun tonight and play the songs that make me happy and me and my band are going to crush it because WE all feel it.” The crowd is going to feed off that genuine emotion and excitement, then they’re your crowd and you’ve got them.
So, be yourself, be humble and be honest.
For more follow Henry Conlon on instagram @henryconlonmusic