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Extracting The Habit: A Conversation With Cordovas Founder Joe Firstman

Val Hoeppner
Joe Firstman of Cordovas playing WMOT's AmericanaFest day stage in 2018.

Consistent with his novel-ready name, Joe Firstman is a vortex of intensity and a fountain of words, most of them extravagant and declamatory. As bass player and singer in Nashville’s meticulous roots rock band Cordovas, Firstman is first among equals, a front man with no façade. Reached on a Zoom call, a mane of hair flairs out from a vintage Atlanta Braves cap and fills the screen. Nine months into the Covid statis, he hasn’t lost his verve.

“Bravery! Courage! Honesty! Truthfulness! Sincerity! Beauty!” Firstman says when asked what his band has been working on most concertedly in this year off the road. For this is a band that lives together and plays together every day in an outbuilding behind the house they call The Barn. To hear Firstman talk, it sounds like a church or a school. “This is another one that comes up all the time. Joy. Remember joy? What is joy? Show it to me. Show me what that is. Show me how well you perform joy!” They’ve been reading Joseph Campbell (the decoder of myth) and Eckhart Tolle (the spiritual motivator) and Jens Peter Jacobsen, the 19th century Danish novelist.

“We try to get the false shell off. Anything that seems habitual or assumed. That's the level that we're at right now,” Firstman says. “We're pretty clear about how we perceive our arrangements. So then the next level is okay, well, then how do you extract all the habit? How do you treat each musical moment like it's brand new?”

Cordovas music splits the difference between the ether and the Earth, a refined but heady rock and roll that brings the floating jams of their heroes the Grateful Dead together with the careful sonic craft of Steely Dan or the Allman Brothers. Their recorded songs clock in often at less than three minutes, their two albums on ATO Records under 30 minutes, but they feel longer, by being denser with ideas and hooks than most Americana fare. Destiny Hotel, the new one released in late September, pulses with piano and twin electric guitars, compactly arranged. Firstman’s raspy but tuneful voice is the tip of the spear, but harmony vocals from guitarists Toby Weaver and Lucca Soria lock in for a gliding beauty on just about every chorus. It starts with the rapturous love song “High Feeling.” Follow-up “Rain On The Rails” is a mandolin-touched country groover about seeing change and beauty in the ordinary cycles of nature.

In the conversation presented here, Firstman goes into detail about the heart of the album, a sequence of three songs that build thematically and musically into a kind of suite, starting with “Afraid No More.” “I'm talking to the boys. I'm talking directly to them,” says its songwriter about approaching the stage and its moments of truth. “Fear is nothing. Nervousness is beautiful. The actuality of recognizing your surroundings and going ‘this is a heavy moment.’ That's cool. Use that. Yeah. But you do not have to be afraid.” Then “Man In My Head” is about self-doubt, musically illustrated through a catchy but tense little guitar riff that sets off the psychology of the song. And “Destiny” pairs Firstman’s verses with a simple chorus suggested by Toby Weaver.

Destiny is a nice feeling for a band to have, especially one grounded at a point when they were riding so high. After years of performing without a signature album, they released That Santa Fe Channel in 2018 to wide acclaim. They landed on major stages like Newport Folk Festival and consolidated their story and sound for the world. We chronicled that part of the journey on a past episode of The String. Next chapters will be written next year and beyond, and it sounds like Cordovas will be well-practiced, spiritually and musically.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org
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