“Sudden Opera,” the new album by Pony Bradshaw, is truly a work of art. Every composition stands on its own; each is also a vital piece of quilt work, with not a sign of musical makeweight in the track listing.
Pony Bradshaw is the songwriting project of James Bradshaw, a young man/Army brat from Georgia who reads Flaubert and is a huge Flannery O’Connor fan.
Bradshaw’s songs are sparse, guitar-driven stories about a variety of subjects … sunny things like coffins.
His voice is high and lilting. The song craft is reminiscent of early Dylan and maybe a little Cure.
Albums like “Sudden Opera” usually come along much later in a musician’s career, after the enmity of finding one’s true voice. In an age of singles and custom playlists, records like this are to be enjoyed, studied and used as foundation pieces for rich, long-lasting careers.
Pony Bradshaw plays July 21 at the Nick in Birmingham. Bradshaw spoke recently with the Star.
Q: “Sudden Opera” is a truly beautiful record from beginning to end. I don’t know if you pay attention to the track order and the pacing of the record, but it’s perfect.
A: The sequence in it is a big part of how you want that stuff to flow, so I definitely pay attention.
Q: Did you have to struggle with that at all or did it all just kind of fit in your head?
A: It was kind of like a puzzle because I don’t know what I want the flow to be beforehand. I just know I’ve got to figure out a way to put them together where it’s not a bunch of randomness going on.
Q: Is there a cohesive theme throughout the whole record?
A: Not on purpose, but I think they sometimes fall into place like that.
Q: Let’s talk about a couple of songs. I’ve seen the video of you playing live to “Bad Teeth” and I think it really stands out live. It’s kind of a haunting track, so can you tell me a little bit about writing that song?
A: I’d say it’s about three to four years old. We released it previously on a demo thing and then that got shoved when we got signed, so we just made a new one. The bad teeth thing was kind of like a nod to my people around here, and the coffins is just the fact that year after year we’re all going to die. There’s no one thing it’s about; it’s a mixture of things. It’s kind of just moods and energy, but I get a different interpretation about it from different people all the time.
Q: How about “Van Gogh”? How did that come about?
A: The first line, “I’ve got a dream,” is where it sparked from. I was reading a biography about Van Gogh and had a dream about him. I mixed it all up with life but it’s more of a dreamy kind of thing.
Q: You had mentioned that one song was a little older. Have you been working on this particular set of songs for a long time?
A: Half of them were on that demo I mentioned and the other ones were written during the time of making this record, which has been the last year and a half.
Q: Your bio says that you read a little bit more than you listen to music.
A: These days for sure. Growing up, I listened to music way more than I read. So I got enough of that and I know what I like, but I still try to listen to some of the new stuff that comes out. What I’ve been doing all day today is reading. I’m going to Italy in March for my birthday so I’ve been reading about it.
Q: Have certain authors influenced your music in any way?
A: Lyrically it made the mood for sure. Authors and painters, and the way they would do or say things, definitely give me inspiration for my songs and the way they’re set up. I take a lot from other creators to not be so bored with songwriting.
Q: You toured with Social Distortion; that’s pretty cool.
A: That was real fun. I was actually solo and it was really overwhelming to go out there on the big ol’ stage by myself. They like it hardcore for sure. I didn’t play my acoustic so I just turned it up a little bit. It was a great experience and I learned a lot about touring and venues, but it was tough, man. The whole month of October. I usually don’t do 30-day runs like that, so it was hard trying to figure out how to hang with my kids and family.
Q: You’re touring on your own this summer and you’re going to be playing in Birmingham, our neck of the woods, on July 21. What kind of show can those fans expect?
A: It will be a mixture of the record we just put out and some new songs. It’ll be a little more gritty and dirtier than the record, but I guess that’s normal because I don’t have a cellist or choir traveling with me. We try to make up for it with a little bit of energy.
Q: I know as a father, and my son is a musician, that being a dad is the most uplifting thing in the world. Do you use family, or certain things like that, to help you get into the mood or inspire you to write?
A: These days when I sit down to write, like the last batch or two I’ve been writing, I feel like I’m trying to put into song something to teach my kids. It’s a different way of writing that’s enjoyable because it feels like it has a higher purpose than just being poetic. I feel a little bit more proud of things I write that might have use for my children.
Q: You read a lot and write songs; could you see yourself being a writer in other areas, besides music?
A: I’ve dabbled and written some stories, but I’ve learned that I’m not good with balance. I’m very obsessive and I go all in on one thing and ignore the other. Maybe one day, when I’m tired of touring and stuff, I can take a big block of time off and maybe write something.
Q: You’re from Georgia, and Atlanta is a truly vibrant city for musicians; do you ever get the chance to go out and see other artists play shows?
A: I live about two hours from Atlanta so I don’t really go there much. I basically live in the boonies in a really small town. I’ve been to Atlanta and I do like it. I’m not much for traffic, but I've played Birmingham a few times, too, and I really love it there.
Larry May is the owner of CD Cellar record store on Noble Street in downtown Anniston.