Talk with Eric Corne and the native Canadian’s sharp intellect and wit are readily evident; he’s a terrific conversationalist. But he may not be the first guy you notice in a room because he’s quiet — observing, listening, absorbing. All those qualities have served him well as a musician and producer.
It’s for the latter that Corne is best known, having diligently amassed a raft of engineering and producing credits over the past 15 years, including blues greats John Mayall and Walter Trout, Portland blues diva Karen Lovely, and, more recently, soul artist Sugaray Rayford. He also launched an independent label, Forty Below Records, for his 2008 solo release “Kid Dynamite,” to which he later signed Mayall and Americana up-and-comers Kail Baxley, Sam Morrow and Jaime Wyatt. All have benefited from Corne’s songwriting and aforementioned listening skills.
This writer has worked in the studio with Corne and observed his depth of listening — to nuances of performance and lyric, to hooks that need reinforcement, and spaces where the addition of a tack piano or Theremin or a change in guitar amplifier could improve the feel of a track. He was mentored by bassist/producer Dusty Wakeman at the latter’s Mad Dog studio in the 2000s, where he worked with so many incredible rock, blues and country sidemen that he felt they had their “own little version of Stax or the Funk Brothers.” He’s since augmented that stable with his own broad network, and it’s no surprise Corne’s second album, “Happy Songs for the Apocalypse,” boasts pedigreed players like Dwight Yoakam pedal steel veteran Skip Edwards, Mavis Staples guitarist Rick Holmstrom, Fitz & the Tantrums bassist Joe Karnes, k.d. lang violinist Freddy Koella, Lucinda Williams guitarist Doug Pettibone, and Alanis Morissette drummer Blair Sinta.
He started out playing in bands in Toronto’s fertile indie-rock scene, but Corne acknowledges that switching from the producer’s chair to the artist’s zone behind the microphone can be tough. In the studio he often bounced ideas off longtime guitarist Eamon Ryland and keyboardist Sasha Smith for feedback. The overall sound is greasier than “Kid Dynamite,” an evolution Corne chalks up to “getting deeper inside” what he wants to do, and a broader range of instruments. “Sonically, I’ve just tried to make things a little dirtier,” he says with a quiet laugh. “Sometimes you have to work to do that.”
Between producing gigs he worked for almost eight years on “Happy Songs for the Apocalypse,” which segues easily from “Ridin’ With Lady Luck,” a blues-rocker with Walter Trout, to the Little Feat-esque funk of “Locomotion”; the Poguesy “Short Wave Preachers”; the angry rock of “Pull String to Inflate”; and the Neil Young-style folk of “The Gilded Age.” The latter’s spare acoustic framework and Corne’s vocal connect with audiences on the rare occasions he plays live. It should be a highlight of his opening set for Mayall at the Rose this Saturday, grounded by Ryland’s soulfully understated playing:
“She left when times got tough, said she had to turn the page
It’s hard to make ends meet without a living wage
Sat right there drinking coffee, always drank fair trade
We compared these wolves of Wall Street to the Gilded Age”
That’s one of the key tracks in which Corne, a self-described “political junkie,” vents frustration at deepening political divides. Another is the steel-washed country lament “History Repeats,” originally written for Morrow. They aren’t protest songs, per se, but they join a substantial canon of Americana and roots songs voicing discontent with the status quo at a time when most mainstream pop is still leery of engaging with divisive sociopolitical issues.
“I don’t know what comes first, the chicken or the egg, but in some way, those genres are more open to that type of expression,” Corne says thoughtfully. “But I also think those genres draw certain types of thinkers and writers, and pop draws a different type of writer and person. With pop music, the lyrics typically aren’t that heavy or topical or deep. I think there’s a lot of realism in Americana and storytelling, and social commentary. It stems from the tradition of folk music and blues, and to an extent country, where those voices emanated from, especially folk. There’s some rock bands doing it, or have done it, like even Green Day, and ‘American Idiot’ to a large extent was that kind of record, reacting to the Bush years. I think there’ll be a lot more, reacting to Trump, but it takes a minute to get out.”
His musical diversity reflects personal tastes, as well as the range of artists he works with. Thanks to his collaborations with Mayall and especially Trout, whose albums have lodged at the top of Billboard’s blues chart, Corne’s profile has risen in the blues world. But he’s the first to say, as writer or producer, that blues is just one color in his musical palette.
“I definitely draw on blues, and I draw on folk and country and soul and rock ‘n’ roll,” he says. “One of the cool things about working under the umbrella of Americana is there’s a lot of forms you can draw on. My strength is not to be a master at any one idiom. My strength is more the ability to draw on different things and make them cohesive.”
Eric Corne opens for John Mayall at the Rose at Paseo Colorado, 245 E. Green St., Pasadena, at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17; $24/$28/$38. Idle Hands play at 7 p.m. Info: (888) 645-5006. Ericcornemusic.com, fortybelowrecords.com, wheremusicmeetsthesoul.com