Patrick Droney says writing songs “is like finding fossils”
Rising singer-songwriter Patrick Droney is set to kick off his State of the Heart Tour with an appearance at the Kessler Theater at 8 p.m. Friday, February 11, with special guest morgxn. Droney is no stranger to the Texas music scene, having frequented Antone’s in Austin, shared the stage with Double Trouble, being friends with North Texas musicians Jonathan Tyler and Alison Ponthier, and recently collaborating with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons on a revamped cover of “Crude Boy.” But this will be Droney’s first headlining appearance in support of his first full album. State of the heart.
We caught up with Droney as he prepared to head to DFW to talk about the nature of songwriting, production, and what makes a good pop song worth covering.
You’re based in Nashville today, but you’ve lived in many places. How is being based in Nashville different from other places you’ve lived?
This disc is the story of three cities, LA, New York and Nashville. I grew up in Jersey, then lived in New York, LA, then Nashville. I’ve been lucky enough to live in these different cities and enjoy what they offer musically – they’re so diverse. Nashville is still a songwriting community, so lyrics trump everything. Being here adds a bit of a bonus to the storytelling. I really don’t think I would have had the joint five years ago. My heart lives in New York, it’s my real home base, but living in Nashville has given me a lot. I just want to be here and give back to the city. This community is really hard to deny.
How has Nashville directly affected the sound of your music? Lately you’ve been working with Ian Fitchuk (Nashville-based producer), so how has he shaped your music?
Ian is amazing. It all starts in a writing room here, so I met Ian as a songwriter. We wrote a song called “Ruins” from the first EP. We thought, “Let’s record this real quick at our mate’s,” and that demo ended up being the exact performance that’s on the record. So from there, Ian and I decided to do an EP and co-produce it. That’s what I mean about the community here. Everyone is so talented. The local guy plays guitar better than me, it’s so humiliating. Guys like Ian are gems, and I feel lucky to be in a place with so many of them.
How did you come into contact with him?
Ian and I were connected during a writing session, and we quickly became friends. I do a lot of my production myself and seeing Ian he’s like a scholar. That was before he did that golden hour recording with Kacey Musgraves, and you could tell he had something really big coming up. I have a single coming out soon featuring Daniel Tashian, who is the other half of the Kacey Musgraves production team. Just really great people with incredible talent.
There is finesse in your records, and often the finesse can be distracting, but in your music it seems to be appropriate. who produced State of the heart?
I’m behind the board, it’s entirely in my hands, and my collaborators are real partners. I did a lot of this record with my buddy Ben West, who is an amazing engineer, songwriter, producer. We co-wrote a song called “Always Been the End of the World” from the first EP. It was our first attempt together. Most of this record we went in and put together a live band, and I brought in Ben to help make sense of it all. And that was during the time of COVID, so it was entirely through FaceTime. Ben and I would do virtual sessions, exchanging files on a screen. It made us really resourceful. The way I approach production is that everything is an emotional arc. There’s obviously the vocals and the lyrics – telling the story of the song – but every element for me, in terms of that “distraction” with the production, and I agree that sometimes a really brilliant production can be entertaining, but I grew up listening to music in movies and TV, and music has a cinematic quality where that specific drone or pad is an emotional pressure point. I love creating production-level worlds for songs to live in. I spend a lot of time figuring out what the color of a production is, what that feeling is, not just the thumbtacks. It’s just a lot of intention and a lot of time. Ben West is an incredible partner for me. We have a great relationship with our blenders and trust them to take the next step. The assembly line is solid.
What’s an example of that on this disc?
A song like “Nowhere Town”. It’s a journey. It’s standing on the corner of a small town, trying to get to the big city and understanding its life. It’s hard to have that courage. I was lucky enough to get this Moog One synthesizer which really became a rocket ship for me on this record. A lot of the synth sounds come from this machine, and that first synth sound — the arpeggiator — it just gets you in that mood like “engine starts” and there’s a little sonar beep like I’m just appearing in the world, coming out of my shell. I’m really happy to be able to introduce the sax into this record, and I use it at many times to create that lift. I grew up on Springsteen and Clarence being a big part of my emotional core every time I hear that horn. There are little things, these are films. These are coming-of-age movies.
John Mayer once said, “Songwriting is like lucid dreaming,” and therefore it’s hard to co-write. What was it like co-writing “Nowhere Town” with Sarah Buxton?
Sarah is like my spirit animal. She and I have been writing songs for years. My tribe of collaborators, we have that language and Sarah is the kind of person where she can finish my sentence. We come from the same kind of heart. Writing songs is like finding fossils, and the process of finding a song that’s meant to be found is just being in the moment, removing the artifact, and revealing it. It’s already written, the best songs find you and all you have to do is stay in the moment and sweep them away. That’s how I feel about every song on this album. I was just lucky they chose me. We wrote so many songs for this project, hundreds, and “Nowhere Town” just wasn’t on anyone’s radar. It was just a song that I always had in mind. I think we were cutting the title track, and during a break, I started playing the chords, and we cut it without pre-production, in real time. It was just supposed to happen. All of these moments are just following your instincts.
What draws you to a cover of a pop song like Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball”?
I’m fascinated by the idea of dressing songs with different clothes. I’m a sucker for a massive choir and I’m a sucker for a song in the top 40 that gets me on the gas pedal and makes my heart beat a little faster. “Wrecking Ball” has always done that for me, and I always felt there was a depth to those lyrics. A friend of mine, Sacha Skarbek, is one of the co-writers of this song, and I remember talking to him when we were on a writing retreat, and I was fascinated. These are massive records in a time when big, big songs are rare. I like to take on the challenge of dressing “Wrecking Ball” in State of the heart clothes. The music is just fun, and it’s a worthy challenge to make these songs have more life.
In what state of mind are you approaching a writing session? Is it scary to potentially have to write with strangers?
The core of it all is publishing, your editor. What they know how to do is organize personalities, styles of writers. “Hey, Patrick would be really good with so-and-so.” A great publisher helps a songwriter find his people. I don’t go on too many first dates anymore; I really have my tribe. The mission of this tribe comes from people who really know me. I don’t really do the foreigner thing anymore. That being said, otherwise, it’s hard to walk into a room with a stranger and bare your soul. You are very vulnerable and you just have to make it happen. That’s the beautiful thing about songwriting and collaborating. You become so human so fast and you are so connected and so alike. These are just quick versions of these, and they can also go very wrong. Maybe there’s no chemistry, they’re having a bad day, or they have a totally different point of view. It happens too, but it’s always worth a try. Collaboration is so much fun, but can you be honest with yourself?