The pursuit of rock ‘n roll hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows for Joe Firstman, but it has been full of adventures, many of which are looked back on throughout The Rose of Aces, the latest record from his band, Cordovas.
Born in Charlotte, North Carolina to an opera singer mother and a weed dealing veteran father, Firstman first rose to notoriety in the area during the 90s before hopping on a Greyhound bus bound for Los Angeles in 2000.
It didn’t take him long to hit his stride in the City of Angels either, being named Singer-Songwriter of the Year at the 2001 Los Angeles Music Awards and signing with Atlantic Records the year after. All the while he was partying excessively, however, ultimately leading to the label parting ways with him in 2005 after three underwhelming years.
Despite the setback, Firstman was quickly back on his feet again, joining NBC's late-night program Last Call with Carson Daly as bandleader later that year. While there he performed with everyone from Kamasi Washington to Thundercat. However, the grind of network television eventually wore the spry, young artist down, leading him to part ways with it in 2009.
“I had gone through the Hollywood system, I’d been on a major label and on national television, not just once but every single night for four years, and I’d just gotten blown out by it,” Firstman tells Holler.
Two years later Firstman founded Cordovas in Nashville, which has toured relentlessly throughout the U.S. and Europe for the past decade. After self-releasing its 2012 debut the band joined ATO Records, with The Rose of Aces marking their third release together.
Chatting from Los Angeles ahead of the lead show on the band’s recent west coast tour, Firstman shared how the band is starting to enlist lyric writers from outside the group, the influence of his Mexico compound on the new record, how surfing and playing music are similar, and more.
Most of the songwriting for this album was workshopped on your compound down in Todos Santos, Mexico. What is that spot’s significance not only to this album, but the band as a whole?
I cherish Mexico a lot. Back when I was making TV money in LA I decided to use some of it to build a tiny house down in Todos Santos. My thought was that my music career could fail completely and at the very least I could go sit in the cafe, play one night a week on the piano and surf my life away. Then Peter Buck from R.E.M. moved there, then John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin followed. Quickly there became this tiny folk music festival in this paradise you could have never imagined one being.
Suddenly paradise became a place you didn’t just go to to stay loose, you were going down there to work on your craft. It's often hard to work on your craft on tour, even though you have the repetition of playing your nightly show. As far as workshopping an idea or orchestrating harmonies, you need time for that, which is what Mexico became.
We feel like we benefit every year we go down because we have enough tourists and fans there to make the shows meaningful. They’re not empty dress rehearsals, they’re the real thing. I always feel that once we leave Mexico at the end of winter and go back on the road, I’ve learned all these new skills to take into the shows that make me feel more confident about playing.
Even though he wasn’t around at the start, it seems like Lucca [Soria, guitarist] has grown to be an integral part of Cordovas over the course of the past few albums. How was it that y’all first crossed paths and began playing together?
I don’t remember exactly when it was, but I was rolling around playing solo shows and trying to have some peace. I had a show in Des Moines, Iowa, and Lucca was living there at the time. He’d been looking through the local rag and saw that either Cordovas or Joe Firstman had a show and talked the promoter into letting his small band open up for it.
I remember him coming up to me before the show and saying how much he enjoyed our music and that he’d be moving to Nashville soon. I told him to find me when I did. From there it was like a movie - I didn’t give him my phone number, nothing, but sure enough he did find me. When he did at a show I was playing we made plans to write a song together, and the rest is history.
What’s it been like for you from a creative standpoint sharing the songwriting duties with him?
I’ve destroyed the concept of the one singular master genius who climbs the mountain, lightning strikes and poems float before him to grab out of thin air and present to the lucky people down below. The truth is it's hard to write a song. I used to think it was easy, and it was, to write bad ones.
You need a lot of equipment, a lot of poetry, a lot of poise and a lot of discipline to be a good lyric and songwriter. It’s taken me a long time to figure that out. I really thought it was a singular act, whereas I’ve just dispelled that completely. If somebody walks by on the street right now I’d be just as inclined to ask them about what we should do with the song. I want to get everyone’s opinion, and the way I’ve proven that over the years is by incorporating other lyric writers, not just Lucca.
Like others, even outside of the band?
Yeah, kind of like the Grateful Dead and how they had poets around all the time. We’re bringing a poet, Mark Cline Bates, on the next tour with us. He’ll be like our Robert Hunter. I want the music to be flowing and continue to be written, and you need a really robust and deep stack of lyrics constantly being put before the band to do that.
This new record starts with ‘Fallen Angels of Rock ‘n Roll’. It feels as though a lot of the lyrics tie back to your adventures with Atlantic Records and Carson Daly. What’s your take on that?
It’s a song about myself — a failed, bald loser who had the whole world before him, took it and instead turned into a monster because I had no discipline and no preparation on how to handle what was coming.
I remember walking down an alleyway in Hollywood to go to Hotel Cafe, a place that lots of songwriters get their start at, and I’d skipped it all together. But here there I was, after having been on a major label and seeing my own billboards on Sunset Boulevard and Times Square, walking the alley into the back door of Hotel Cafe where all these young folks were starting out. It was crushing. What are you going to do? Drink 10 whiskies.
On that note, would you say that ‘What is Wrong’ is you coming to terms with some of those obstacles you faced earlier in life?
Yeah, I’m talking to myself again going, “what’s the problem? Oh, you don’t have one? Then go sing. Or don’t. Whatever you do, just be free enough to do it on your own.” It was a calling out not just to me, but the whole band. It’s about not looking at things in terms of what’s wrong, but what you can try harder and do better at.
Is ‘High Roller’ inspired by some high-stakes backroom card game, or is there something else going on in the song?
First off, it’s easily one of the two or three best written Cordovas songs. That’s one that our resident poet Mark and I worked on that shows what he and I are capable of when we get together. He’s gonna write some big songs in Nashville one day.
As for the song, it’s about the time leading up to and just after I signed with Atlantic. For 10 months we negotiated a deal meaning I didn’t have any money yet, so in the meantime I was borrowing money from everyone I knew to pre-party before I ever officially had anything to party about. It was like getting ready to be drafted into the NBA. Once the contract was executed and I got my first payment I remember going to the bank, getting my first ATM card and withdrawing the full $200 limit. I showed the receipt to my friend and soon after we were on our way to Vegas.
It went from a guy who was a really dedicated studio rat to being completely distracted by money because it was something I’d never had before. I spent around $20,000 our first two days there, trying my best to be a real high roller.
Are the lines “deep river, deep sorrow / let’s forget it ‘till tomorrow” in ‘Deep River’ about learning and growing from past indiscretions?
You’re spot on. It’s about letting the river carry the things down it that can’t be undone. There’s some other meaning in the lyrics too, like “a mind wasted is only for the young.” I wasted too much of my intelligence, genius and artistry by sitting in the bar and drinking time away. I had already gone through this big record deal and was sitting there catatonic and stunned by how Hollywood dropped me on my head. That was it — big river, big sorrow, big deal. But I can move on and forget it until tomorrow, and here’s why. Because your heart can bloom and it never will wilt. If you show true beauty then it’ll always be there.
Aside from learning from your past to become a better person, are there any other big themes that stand out to you or that you hope listeners will pick up on?
I don’t even know if I'm a better person. We didn’t harm anybody, we’re just making rock. I think there’s a thread of not having a completed form yet, so the work to get better must continue. There’s also the chance you’ll never work to your potential. What I’m trying to say with this record is that I haven’t done anything yet. Maybe you can step away and look back at some of your past failures and sing your chorus, all the fallen angels of rock ‘n roll, but the spirit is supposed to be embedded in there. They’re supposed to be able to see the changing of the man, the blossoming of the human and whether it is tight, strict or free through the way the music sounds.
One last thing… you previously mentioned your love of surfing. Are there any parallels between the sport or music that crossover and apply to both?
Only jazz music. With rock and most other kinds of music it doesn’t matter because it’s all played from memory. If you want to watch a guy with an incredible amount of talent, pay $25 to watch him play from stage by memory. He better be a triple virtuoso, and even then I don’t think I’d be very impressed.
Surfing is like jazz music, but that doesn’t mean the rock boys can’t do it either. The Grateful Dead showed that you can get a little taste of everything in there, you don’t have to do it the same way every time. Why? Because the waves are not the same every time. You must react to it that day, that ripple, and that is how we play music. You must react to life that day. You have to play your emotions and be good enough at music to play how you feel. You don’t just choke that down in the trash can and go out and perform by memory. That’s a big thing for us. You want that surf, that musical line on the board that tells you where to go.
Cordovas’ The Rose of Aces is out Aug. 11 via ATO Records.