A Country Oddball Roundtable

Dougie Poole, Esther Rose, and Honey Harper talk the “other guy[s]” of country, past and present.

Dougie Poole, Esther Rose, and Honey Harper, respectively, are Brooklyn-, New Orleans-, and London-based country singers and songwriters. In light of Dougie’s new album The Freelancer’s Bluesout now via Wharf Cat Records — he, Esther, and Honey (aka Will Fussell) hopped on the phone to talk George Jones, songwriting in quarantine, and the idea of “authentic” country.
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor

Dougie Poole: Where are you guys all now? 

Esther Rose: I’m pretty close to the Canadian border, maybe a little close to — is Honey or Will? How do you go? 

Honey Harper: You can call me Will, it’s fine. 

Dougie: I didn’t even know that was your name, cool. 

Honey: That’s me, Will! Where are you at, Esther? 

Esther: I’m in Burlington, Vermont with some family up here. What about you?

Honey: I’ve been in Toronto. I live in London, but right before all of this happened, before we really understood how crazy it was all gonna get, we flew to Toronto because we were about to start a tour and I was trying to not get stuck in the UK. So I’ve been in Toronto with my wife and her parents. We’ve been isolating together for, like, three months in their house. 

Dougie: Did you guys write down any stuff to talk about? I feel like if I try to run this like an interview, it’s going to be like Chris Farley on SNL

Esther: I took down some notes. I was Googling y’all pretty hard. 

Honey: I just was writing down things about you guys — I wrote down at the very top, “power of the pyramid.”

Dougie: Oh, cool! My friend sent that over to me kind of around the beginning of March. I was putting it in my pocket and walking around the house with it for a few days. Now it’s mostly in the headphones.

Honey: It’s just a great song. It’s crazy, because I think the only other person who’s said that quote of “the power of the pyramid” to me before was my grandma when I was, like, 18. I remember I came over for a Christmas dinner or something and I was talking about music. She was like, “I didn’t know you were into cool shit,” and I was like, “Uh, OK, grandma.” She was like, “What do you know about ‘the power of the pyramid’?” Then she took out this glass pyramid from her dresser and gave it to me — “Put your dreams into this thing and then put it by your bed.” 

Dougie: Wow, that’s a really cool grandma.

Honey: She’s pretty wild. But I just thought that was cool — I hadn’t thought about it in a really long time, so it was nice to think about again. 

Esther: What about the song, Doug, are you latching onto? 

Dougie: I guess I just think of George Jones as classic barfly country as it gets. It’s originally a Mel Tillis song, I don’t think George wrote it, but even just a hint of mysticism coming out of George Jones’s face is just so lovely. 

Esther: It feels like a nice place to start with this conversation, because we think of George Jones as being very classic and iconic, but instead it seems like he was always kinda the other guy, off in his weird corner writing funny jokes to himself. That’s a nice place for us all to meet, as maybe more oddball country musicians. 

Dougie: Yeah, he really found his way to the center, but was also kind of a loner. 

Honey: Absolutely.

Dougie: I did have one question to ask, it’s a little off-topic: What do you guys do all day? Especially now?

Esther: Well, I have been getting into YouTube workout videos. Then I just write songs and wander around in the woods. 

Dougie: That sounds lovely. 

Honey: So do you write songs every day? 

Esther: I like to write every day. I don’t write good songs every day; I write silly songs no one will ever hear. For me, I’ve found that the more stressed out I am, the happier and more pop songs I will write. It’s just how I carve out some of my anxiety, strumming on the guitar and coming up with words I think are funny. It’s like this game I play alone with myself and it’s endlessly interesting in that way. It cuts through the anxiety.

Dougie: That’s funny, it’s so the opposite for me. I live dealing with anxiety, and what I’ve been doing a lot in my isolation is: I watch a lot of TV and zone out, fully. I just watch The Sopranos over and over again. And when I get bored of that, I’ll drag myself to the computer where I write, but it takes every ounce of willpower I possess to make myself sit down. Then I’ll get lost and like it a little bit, but it’s very not relaxing for me. And as such, I haven’t done a huge amount of work in this time. But, you know, that’s OK — at least that’s what all the listicles are saying. 

Honey: I feel the same way. I’ve been working on this acoustic EP that I’m going to try to put out relatively soon. I started taking an online class. I’m doing a Berklee ProTools class, so I can start recording myself a bit easier. I’ve always done things really lo-fi when I’m by myself. I wanna be a little more self-reliant, and I feel like that’s a good way to start that, I guess. It’s pretty cool, the class is pretty fun — it’s really technical, so I don’t have to think about being creative. 

Esther: That seems really important, to get some skills to be productive at home because we are boxed out of our workspaces. 

Dougie: Yeah, I find when I’m not feeling creative, watching YouTube how-to videos on software is a nice way to feel like I’m getting something done. 

Esther: I love that, unwinding with a nice technical manual. 

Honey: [Laughs.] It’s true though, it’s relaxing.

Dougie: It is weirdly relaxing for me. It’s like, almost dissociative or something, doing the technical side of things. Esther, do you work in a recording studio often? When I was listening to your work, it sounds very live. Do you record it live? 

Esther: Yeah! All the albums that I’ve done are all live. Most of the time, I’m just writing and rehearsing with my band apart from the studio, then we’ll go in for three or five days and get through the songs start to finish, everybody playing live, singing vocals live. We’ll go with the take that has the best energy. I like that because, when I first started, I was definitely not a perfectionist. The more albums I make, the more I slowly am becoming OK with doing digital stuff — I just made my first complete song with only overdubs, so I’m working my way into the future. I’m a little behind y’all when it comes to ProTools, but as I get more comfortable with writing…

Dougie: That’s so funny, because it’s been a journey in the opposite direction for me. 

Honey: I was gonna say the same thing. 

Dougie: I feel like I’m teaching myself to be cool with imperfections. It’s really tough. 

Honey: On Spotify, I think it says you recorded with tape for a lot of these, which it sounds like that. It sounds so good. The tone and everything is so nice. I really like how you use fiddle in a lot of your songs. I feel like, how we’re trying to make something new and different, I’m so afraid of using those classic roots instruments. But listening to your music makes it a little less scary. 

Dougie: It’s beautiful fiddle-playing too. Before this phone call, I was spinning your record and I was thinking: You’re maybe the contemporary musician I’ve heard who sounds the most like Hank Williams to me. I mean that in the best way possible. 

Esther: Thank you. That’s my guru — I got into country music by listening to Hank and just feeling like, alright, I can do this. He just makes it sound so fun and easy. Plus, living in New Orleans, everyone is dancing and you have to have bands playing dance music.

Dougie: That’s so different.

Esther: I want to just throw this past you all to see — I wanted to see where we all fit into this country-ish map. I’ve got the band with the instrumentation that kind of has that traditional roots element of when people think of early recorded country music. Doug is a storyteller, which is such a huge thing in country music, and Will, you’ve got the glamor. The three of us together, we kind of have it all going on. 

Dougie: Yeah, it definitely feels like we’ve latched onto different parts of it for sure. I wonder how much of it has to do with location. I feel like everyone I know in New York… first of all, practice space is really hard to find, and when we get it, we’re cramped into a really, really small room. You can maybe practice once a week for a month if everyone is freed up and we’re gearing toward a show. It’s really hard to lock down people’s schedules, everyone is running around so much. I feel like it sort of confines my musical practice to the computer. If I want to get something done, I have to just do it alone at the computer, to a certain extent. 

I just guess I just hear a lot of New Orleans, or what I think of as New Orleans, in your music.

Esther: Will, you were talking about the regionalism of country music — or, I was reading about it in one of your interviews. Tell me more about that.

Honey: It’s funny, I guess I wouldn’t have started playing this music if I hadn’t moved out of the South. It didn’t click with me at that point. I wrote folk music and was in weird psych-folk bands when I was young, and then I got into indie rock stuff. When I moved to London, I was doing this other electronica thing. I feel like country music, for such a long time, had this regional stigma to it, [but] when I was saying those things [in the interview], it’s already changed a lot since then too. It’s no longer based on that. I feel like with what we try to do — and there’s others too — it’s changing the way people look at country music, which I think is really exciting and fun. That’s why it’s such a good, important genre to be in right now, as far as what we can do with existing… we can change what it means to listen to country music and to make it.

Esther: There was a time for all of us, I’m sure, because we’re in this generation where we kind of grew up alongside of YouTube — I don’t know how old y’all are. There’s a point where we chose what sound we were going to make. 

Dougie: That was one of the things I jotted down, was how you came to [country], and how you decided it was the music you wanted to make, and felt like it was the truest expression of what you can do.

Honey: Are you from New Orleans originally? 

Esther: No, I grew up in Michigan, the Midwest. Born in Detroit but grew up in a really rural village, technically — less than 2,000 people, I think, is what makes a village. It was all country music from the ‘90s. I liked it before middle school, but in middle school, my music taste, as much as the way that I dressed, was how I found my voice, and my voice was very much like, I need to get the heck out of Michigan. So I rejected everything. 

I moved around a bunch and eventually found New Orleans. I’m feeling strong enough in my sense of self now that I can explore my early roots and influences. But it was just like — you know when you hear a song that’s so good that you heard it a zillion times on the oldies station when you were a little kid, but it still can cut through and just astound you with how great it is? That was me and Hank, like, five years ago. 

Dougie: Yeah, I sort of latched onto bluegrass pretty young, and then in my 20s I was in punk bands. I was always kind of trying to write songs, but they were never really fitting in. It’s weird, I had a moment where I was watching TV, and I heard George Jones’s “The Grand Tour” on a show — I was like, oh, I love this song, I could do this.

When I was coming to it, I think I was having a lot of anxiety about playing in punk bands, and indie rock bands, and not feeling any connection to the music deep in my bones, where music comes from in the old way. And hearing that, a switch flipped. 

Honey: When someone sent me your Instagram, I started checking out your music and automatically was so excited. I felt like there was someone else who also felt the same way about it. It’s really cool, because it’s a really nice mixture of modern and classic styles in your music, especially some of the stuff on your new album. In the same way that Arthur Russel does a lot of that stuff — I felt a lot of that vibe. I don’t know if that was any inspiration. 

Dougie: I feel like he’s always hanging out in my mind, for sure. He’s definitely an early person who I was like, this feels American and expansive in a wise way that speaks to me for sure

Honey: Also, the lyrics are really good. The “Los Angeles” lyrics speak to me in so many ways. That’s what makes the best song, I think. I often rely on trying to write something pretty, but you can write a song that really means something just by saying exactly what you’re thinking.

Esther: I think you should do lyric videos for all of your songs, Doug, because reading them across the screen is just great. It’s vital. 

Dougie: Thanks. It’s funny that you expressed that, Will, because when I listen to your music, I feel… I’m trying to find the right word, and I feel like the word is envy. [Laughs.] I get really hung up on hooks, and the meter matching and the rhymes lining up, and all that kind of obsessive stuff, and I feel like your music just goes in a way that I really love.

Honey: Thank you. I also feel like, Esther — “Good Time” is a song on your record that’s gonna come out. It has this great Joni Mitchell vibe too. I don’t know if you were thinking about at all, but I just felt like it has some kind of kindred spirit in it that I really, really like. It’s the same thing I felt any time I listen to a Joni Mitchell song for the first time.

Esther: Joni Mitchell and Hank Williams — that’s my parents. I just listen and listen. I listen to the same Joni Mitchell album. I haven’t listened to her entire discography, I guess, but I get really zoned in. I think the song that really impacted me the most is “This Flight Tonight” on Blue. It just has the best feeling. I love a good strum. [Laughs.]

Honey: It’s funny that you said that too, because I feel the exact same way about not listening to full discographies. I feel like it has to do with YouTube, growing up in that era. I just go into these YouTube rabbit holes and add so many crazy things, and I feel like that’s also how I like to write music. I listen to all these different, crazy kinds of songs and try to make music that sounds like what I just listened to. 

Esther: I think we should plan to talk 10 years from now to check in. I’ll be, like, making a ska album. [Laughs.] All just different genres. It’s nice to be here for this moment, whatever this moment is. 

Dougie: It’s funny that you mention that – before I really latched onto country and it sunk in as the way a could express myself, I was working on a dub record. [Laughs.] It’s somewhere on my computer. I’ve just kind of left it there. 

Esther: That’s the thing, about it sticking. Everybody is looking for the most authentic country thing happening, or aren’t they?

Honey: It’s interesting, because in my mind for a while, I was like, I gotta make sure this is legit. I have to make sure that I’m coming across and let everyone know I’m from the South. But in reality, it doesn’t really matter what we’re trying to do. It doesn’t matter if you’re making the real-deal traditional country.

Dougie: I feel like, baked into the history of country music, as I understand it, is a persistent sense that whatever is being done in the moment isn’t true to the tradition of it, and that’s sort of how it moves forward. I look at it as the opposite of jazz, where [in] jazz the underlying idea is that things change and have to develop, and that’s the guiding principle. But baked into country music is a need to stay the same, and there’s this tension between remaining true to the tradition but also having to switch it up and make new sounds. 

Honey: That’s so true. It’s happened for so long — it was George Jones, and then Waylon Jennings came and all the people who liked George Jones were like, “That sucks!” And then after Waylon Jennings, George Strait straight was doing stuff and it was like, “That’s not real country!” And then it was Garth Brooks: “that’s not real country!”

Dougie Poole is a country musician and songwriter living in Brooklyn, New York. Coming of age in Providence, Rhode Island he dabbled in heavier and more experimental music before maturing into a country auteur. He writes earnestly about his experience (life in the big city, heartbreak in the digital age) and approaches country music with honesty and a deep respect for the genre’s traditions.

Poole has long had ties to several artists in the experimental music scene including Jerry Paper with whom he toured nationally while playing in Paper’s live band, and in 2019 he appeared on the Drugdealer album Raw Honey, drawing praise from Pitchfork for his “sad-eyed Elvis croon” on the track “Wild Motion.” Poole’s solo debut, 2017’s Wideass Highway, was his first public experiment with country music and was an immediate favorite of publications like The FADER, who praised his ability to bring classic country songwriting into a “contemporary space” with an album that “articulated a generational self-consciousness.”

On his sophomore album, The Freelancer’s Blueswhich is out June 2020 on beloved Brooklyn indie Wharf Cat Records (Palberta, Bambara, Public Practice), he graduates from drum machine and synthesizer bedroom country to a full band with honky-tonk harmonies, wailing pedal steel, and carefully constructed arrangements that whole-heartedly embrace the country sound he only hinted at on his debut. Produced by Jonathan Schenke (PC Worship, Gong Gong Gong, Public Practice) the album does the seemingly impossible by staying true to Poole’s heritage in the DIY scenes of New York and Providence, while simultaneously certifying him as a bonafide country songwriter, and captures the lived experience of Poole and his contemporaries in a way that resonates with both the current moment and his classic country forebears. On The Freelancer’s Blues Poole approaches the storytelling backbone of country music for an audience that is city-dwelling, romantically alienated and financially precarious, using the same threads spun by Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson before him to write anthems that will resonate with hardline country music fans and newcomers alike.