As nearly every one of us is learning these days, you can get a lot done when you’re by yourself. But that secret is something that Dave Simonett has known for quite some time. The singer-songwriter and leader of the popular roots band Trampled by Turtles lives and creates in Minnesota, where the winters are long, cold, and, yes, isolated affairs. They’re also a blank canvas and offer the undisturbed chance to have, as voracious reader Burgess Meredith once pined for in The Twilight Zone, time enough at last.
“In the winter, everything slows down and I write a lot more. I like to think I use it as kind of a tool,” says Simonett, seated at the counter of a busy coffee shop in Nashville in mid-February. He just flew in from Minneapolis and he’s decompressing with a glass of red wine as he connects the dots between the creative exile of writing his new solo album Red Tail and the communal recording session that brought the project to life.
Recorded at Pachyderm Recording Studio in rural Minnesota and released earlier this month, Red Tail is Simonett’s first LP under his own name (he’s previously released a pair of albums, including 2017’s Furnace, as Dead Man Winter). It’s a concise collection of eight songs that allows the 40-year-old to diverge from Trampled by Turtles’ bluegrass-oriented roots sound. Red Tail is more ethereal, more hushed, but with urgent slashes of electric guitar that add an element of indie rock in tracks like “You Belong Right Here” and “Silhouette.”
“I hate to be limited in scope. I still enjoy playing electric guitar in front of a drum kit,” he says.
“You Belong Right Here” is particularly intense, with slow-building guitar parts from musician DJ House that call to mind the effects and swells of Tom Morello. Simonett says he encouraged House, who also tours with Trampled by Turtles as their instrument tech, to run wild. “That’s a basic folk song, but he refuses to play a country lick on it, which I love. I wanted the base of the songs to be what they were as I wrote them, but then have other people come in and give them something unique. I love a hot Telecaster solo, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t ready for that.”
Other tracks are more introspective and soul-searching, like the simple ballad “By the Light of the Moon.” Simonett pairs the song about the acceptance of emptiness and loss with a stop-motion music video that swells with emotion. While a video may offer insight into a song’s particular backstory, he doesn’t like putting a fine point on the meanings behind any of his compositions.
“The songs are very personal. I just don’t want to explain it to people or tell them what it’s about,” he says. “I like ambiguity as far as the author goes, because my favorite songs are ones in which I feel like this person, from a lyrical point of view, is saying [something] I’ve never been able to say. I don’t want to take away the possibility of that by defining what [a song’s] supposed to do. There’s no mystery in that.”
Simonett will pull back the curtain, however, on Red Tail‘s closing track, “There’s a Lifeline Deep in the Night Sky,” an entry he half-dismisses as a “silly song.” In reality, it’s both unintentional salve and message for our current situation, with group vocals recorded at Pachyderm during a birthday party for the guitarist House. Simonett told the more than dozen assembled guests that they were welcome to hang out into the night, on the condition they lend him their voices in return.
“We stuck a mic up and recorded it to a cassette player. I wanted it to sound as raw as we can make it,” he says of the sing-along lyric: “Can you feel it coming over you?”
“It felt so good, and felt like music in an old sense — a community thing. Just to have everybody in there and nobody cared if you messed up,” he says.
Simonett had intended to tour behind Red Tail this spring, but like the live plans of so many of his peers, that’s currently on hold (he still has two Minnesota shows on the books: November 27th in St. Paul, and the 28th in Grand Rapids). Ironically, for being such a committed road warrior — Trampled by Turtles are a consistent live draw, especially on the festival circuit — Simonett says he prefers the studio to the stage.
“The creation of the song is my favorite part, in its writing and recording. Playing it live is wonderful, but it all directs back to the album or the song itself,” he says. “A show is this wonderful energetic thing, but then it’s there and gone, and that’s the point: it doesn’t stay around. I really enjoy touring, but making records is the most important part of what I do.”
When it came to the title, though, Simonett didn’t overthink it. Instead, surrounded by the Minnesota woods, he just looked up. “It was a simple experience of seeing a red-tailed hawk at the right time,” he says. “It stuck with me.”