As he tried to explain how his new, breakthrough-worthy album achieved such a rich vintage sound, Jack Klatt got a little flummoxed. Which doesn’t happen very often with the Minneapolis song picker, who seems as laid-back as a koala at a Colorado dispensary.
“I think it’s just because we recorded most of it live and didn’t use a lot of effects,” he said. “If that’s vintage, then so be it.”
Using the Chicago-based studio ace behind the Cactus Blossoms’ latest albums — and enlisting the Blossoms themselves — Klatt completed his transformation from a scrappy, street-busking singer/songwriter to a stylish and at times swooning country twanger with the new record, aptly titled “It Ain’t the Same.”
The results have already made a big difference in his career. The album arrived two weeks ago via Yep Roc Records, the reputable North Carolina roots-rock label that’s home to Dave Alvin, the Sadies, Josh Rouse and Nick Lowe (whose influence is very audible in Klatt’s new tunes).
Yes, turns out record deals still happen. The contract has also led to a national tour this fall.
“There are still good people in this business looking for good music, I guess,” said Klatt, who’s kicking off the album promotion with a hometown release party Saturday at the Turf Club.
Talking last week at Dusty’s Bar, where he and his band had played a “public rehearsal” gig a week earlier, the lanky, 34-year-old Woodbury/St. Paul native pinpointed a turning point in his decadelong rise through the Twin Cities music scene and the vestiges of the old West Bank roots and folk community.
About three years ago, he was heading down to New Orleans in a beat-up 1978 pickup hoping to promote a low-budget album with a similarly frugal tour. The truck broke down, and so did his will.
“I thought: Am I really going to do this or not?” he said of his music career.
Before that incident, the brown-eyed vagabond aimlessly bounced around the globe as if he were the Freewheelin’ Jack Klatt. He took up short residencies everywhere from Seattle to Austin, Texas, and even Spain. He spent nearly a year there, mostly busking on the streets of Madrid and Barcelona.
“I’d been floating kind of rudderless for many years, which was fun,” he recalled. “It was youthfully driven and fueled a lot of creativity.
“But I realized I had done life backwards: I retired when I was young, and now it’s time to get to work.”
‘Good and loose’
After the mechanical breakdown, Klatt got serious about becoming a full-time musician by seemingly taking the opposite approach.
He started doing fabricator work, particularly welding. The steady job allowed him to store up funds to make the kind of record he always wanted to make. He didn’t wait for the record label to come to him, in other words, before making an album worthy of a record deal.
Along with his guitarist John James Tourville, Klatt made repeat trips to Chicago over nearly two years’ time to record with studio ace Alex Hall, who has also hosted sessions for JD McPherson, Robbie Fulks and the Cactus Blossoms at his high-ceilinged loft studio in the Bucktown neighborhood.
Hall brought in other seasoned players, including the Blossoms’ Page Burkum and NRBQ bassist and pedal-steel player Casey McDonough, to flesh out the album’s warm, retro-pure sound.
Klatt said he didn’t know exactly what he wanted going into the sessions; he just knew what he didn’t want.
“My past records were all done live, and were always super-strained for money and time,” he said. “I didn’t want to have to think about that with this. I just wanted everyone to feel good and loose, and to have time to mess around and try things.”
“It Ain’t the Same” sounds as warm and cozy as the picture Klatt paints of those sessions.
Songs like the lush and steely opener “I’ll Never Let You Down” and the rockabilly-revving single “Prove My Love” have a loose, laid-back but firm groove. They’re pure country, but their steady swagger hints at Klatt’s gig history over the years, which included a ska band in high school and his now-defunct country-blues group Jack Klatt & the Cat Swingers.
Most of the tracks on “It Ain’t the Same” are straight-ahead love and heartache songs, including the honky-tonking title track and “Looking for Love.”
Klatt’s not married or in a steady relationship, but he said, “Love songs have always been what I think I write best. It’s such a universal subject — they just feel good to sing.”
Modern times creep into at least one of the tunes, “Caught in the Middle,” a slower and stormier track that calls out “that clown speaking only in riddles” who’s “telling you lies” and “ain’t saying nothing.”
“I tried to not be obvious who I’m singing about, but I guess it’s pretty obvious,” Klatt cracked.
The final two songs, “Tomorrow” and the ballad “Love Me Lonely,” are actually holdovers from previous albums, proving that Klatt has been working toward this kind of lovelorn country record for a long time — “I just didn’t have the means to make this kind of record,” he said, “so I sort of kept those songs in my back pocket.”
With this record essentially paid for, Klatt now has the means to hit the road with a full band after Saturday’s Turf Club bash.
Touring is hardly a new lifestyle to him after his years of roaming, including many opening dates for the Blossoms. But “it’s very different this time,” he said.
“I have other people with me now, and I’m the guy at the wheel.”
True to form, though, he shrugged off the pressure.
“I’ve been working toward this for a long time, and I’m a little older and wiser now. I’m ready for it.”