Interview: Getting to Know Joe Dillstrom

Hi Joe and welcome to BuzzMusic! As many have just found out through this review, you are not only a talented musician but also a College Mathematics instructor. How did you choose to pursue a career in music? You know, it’s an unusual pairing on paper, but it’s just how my life happened to turn out. I originally planned to study English and become a literature teacher of some kind, but I had a wonderful professor who showed me that mathematics basically unified all my interests. Right now I’m basically a nerd by day and a folkie by night, and I hope to transition out of my day job and fully embark on music once I solidify my business model as a singer-songwriter. I’ve been playing music and writing songs since I was about 12 (I’m 28 now), so it was always occurring somewhat in tandem with the rest of my life. I always felt like I was a musician but only really made the jump in committing to it professionally a few years ago. But it’s who I am and I can’t imagine pursuing anything else. How does "Highways & Byways" relate or differ to your previous album release? To tell you the truth I’m embarrassed by my first album. I can hear how green it is. It was a good and necessary experience though, and I wanted my follow-up to show how I’ve learned and grown since. Thematically they’re both collections of songs about people coming to terms with the inertia of their lives, but Highways & Byways is a more mature effort and has a more unifying device (the open road). I wanted to use the simplest tools possible—guitar, voice, sometimes harmonica—as a ‘proof of concept’ for my songwriting and my particular sensibilities as a musician. There’s a lot of open space in my melodies and in my playing—I wanted the subtleties to be front and center. Above all else though, I just wanted to do my best to ensure that the songs felt sincere, warm, and authentic in their writing and in their delivery. Is there a central theme to this album? Highways & Byways is just a collection of road songs, singalongs, and bar-fly lullabies. It’s a depiction of the journeys we take from different points of view. The songs “One More Moment”, “Exit Next Right”, “Highways & Byways”, “In A Violet Night”, and “Take A Page (Out of Me)” are all interconnected—the same person starting out on the road in the early evening and then ending up somewhere a number of days later in the morning, with no particular resolution given to the trip. The songs “Magdelena” and “Charlie” tell the story of two star-crossed lovers from opposite points of view. The songs “Montgomery”, “Tecumseh Blues”, and “What A Long Goodbye” all depict a teenager who takes a joyride. And finally “Mosey On Over, Babe” and “Johnnie Walker Red” are sketches of bar-flies and motel drunks, respectively. I didn’t plan it this way, the songs revealed this structure when I started sequencing them. To me, they’re little movies that take you in and out of a particular consciousness or state of being for a few minutes at a time. If I had to condense the theme into a sentence, I think I would say that Highways & Byways is about those small, potent moments of Self that you find somewhere out there between ‘E’ and ‘F’. Where do you draw your inspiration from? For me, it all comes down to the melody. A musical phrase or chord progression will have something ‘behind it’, some feeling or some images that it puts in my head, and those start to coalesce around a melody. I then just chase the melody and try my best to follow wherever it leads me. Usually, this will generate some kind of general sentiment, feeling, or narrative that I can then start to develop. The melody gives me the vocal phrasing and puts limits in place for the lyrics (syllable count, emphasis and dynamics, etc). 

I rarely write songs that touch on my own life because it’s just not very interesting; instead, I just chase the pictures in my head. My songs are rarely autobiographical, but the general feelings and sentiments depicted are nonetheless very personal. I think I grew into this form of literary songwriting based on my influences—my favorite album is Tom Waits’ debut, Closing Time (1973). The restrained and understated playing along with the gentleness of its ‘touch’ were fundamental building blocks for how I play and write. I didn’t know before that album that playing quietly and with restraint could be so rich and so musical. My other favorite songwriters are Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, Warren Zevon, Gordon Lightfoot, and Robbie Robertson, who each in their own way have a storytelling approach in much of their work. Two major literary influences of mine are the short stories of Anton Chekhov and the novels of Don Delillo. Chekhov wrote these spare, impressionistic sketches of people trying to make sense of their lives, and this affected me deeply. Delillo has a lyrical precision in his prose that taught me to pay attention to syllables and phrasing. Finally, my favorite filmmaker is Robert Altman, whose naturalism and humanism in his films (and the way he composed and shot them) enriched my own view of life around me, and inevitably bled into my own writing in some kind of intangible way. The short answer is that the melodies come from things I see and hear, and everything else follows after. We love your acoustics and melodic sounds. Do you see yourself collaborating with others in the future and if so, who?

Absolutely! At my current level of the music industry ladder, it’s mostly just a question of the budget as to why I’ve put out solo recordings. For better or worse I wanted to exhibit my playing and songwriting first and foremost, and then build from there. It often feels like an uphill battle in the digital, streaming age. I work in a duo with a tenor saxophone player named Ryan Dunn who has been an indispensable addition to my music (and also my life). I have several other musical confidants who I plan to start incorporating into ensemble recordings in the future. In fact, one of my next projects will be a ‘full band’, ensemble version of Highways & Byways, because I like the idea of there being a solo, stripped-down version, and then a more fleshed-out version. Two birds, one stone.

Thanks for chatting with us at BuzzMusic! What's next for you as 2019 comes to an end?

I’ve finished the songs for my next two albums and I’m excited about where those are going. I plan to get an ensemble together to record these. Somewhere in between, I plan to do the ‘full’ H&B as mentioned above. The rest of 2019 is just planning the above and trying to get my ducks in a row to take the next step. My eventual goal is to do the ‘Traveling Troubadour’ bit and get into the house concert/listening room network circuit, with winery/brewery and venue gigs in between. I think my style and my work ethic are both suited for it. I’ll be continuing to work towards this in 2020. Above all else, I hope to get enough of a following to pay my electric bill with my songs and most importantly, I hope to work hard enough to earn a silent audience. In this life, a silent audience is the greatest reward a musician can acquire.