A few months ago, I sat in the dark Columbus Theater listening to Convinced Friend while thinking about a conversation Austin Wilson and I had had about his record and journey to Providence. We explored the convergence of seemingly unrelated topics: New Orleans, North Carolina, mental health, divinity school, and Quakerism. It seemed fitting to hear songs that felt acoustic, a bit ethereal in nature, played on electric guitars; two separate but related things, disparate parts that came together through music.
Mayté: Give me a little bit of background on yourself and how you got to Providence.
Austin: I grew up south of New Orleans in a pretty small oilfield town, spent all of my childhood and teenage years there, and went to college near Chicago. Then I lived in North Carolina, which is where I was in Divinity School (considering becoming a professor). I was there until the end of 2018 when I moved to Providence. I moved primarily because my partner started a program at RISD. I’ve bounced around a lot, but I’m not the kind of person that likes to do that. I really like having a small community, having a rootedness, so I really like Providence. It’s funny, compared to other projects I’ve been in, this has gone the opposite way. Usually I’m in a band, we’re playing a lot, then we have a record out or something. And while I initially moved here thinking about taking an academic route, I was always a musician. At the time I was questioning what I wanted to do in life, what I was finding my identity in, and I was kind of returning to songwriting with bigger motivation, maybe a greater seriousness. That kind of started in earnest when we got to Providence. It was a brand-new place, I didn’t know anyone. I spent a lot of that time either applying for jobs or writing this record, and I eventually started to meet some folks in the music scene. I met Casey Belisle (of Burr, Nova One, the Paper Moon Jazz Band), and he became one of my first friends here. As you probably know, Casey is like the mayor of Providence in terms of knowing everyone (so true!) We met, I told him about this record, we practiced I think once, and then the pandemic happened. So, in a sense, getting connected in the music scene has taken a weird amount of time.
M: Given your reflections on community, what would you say, as a person who came into the Providence music community, about it now? Do you feel like you’re in it?
A: Yeah, that’s a great question. I do. I feel like I’m in it, I think I’m getting there. What I love about Providence, and it actually kind of reminds me of Durham, North Carolina, is it’s a pretty small city. That can sometimes be a challenge in that there’s already these tight-knit circles, but I think the benefit and what I found, once I kind of got connected say, with Casey- is that I immediately got connected to all these other people. And they were super welcoming, super interested and it was pretty easy to find our way in that. So, now the live band has Mike Dantowitz playing bass, he plays in another band with Casey called Burr (an instrumental coffee themed doom metal band!!), and our guitar player Nate Halda. Nate had also recently moved here from California. I’m starting to feel more connected, and I think what I like about it is that the size (of Providence) makes that manageable. There’s still new stuff to find, a ton of cool people, a ton of weirdos in the best sense.
M: When I was preparing for our conversation, I thought this was a solo project. But then you mentioned the band. So, would you say that the band is Convinced Friend or…?
A: This is a question we continually ask. This first record does feel very much like a solo project. I am deeply indebted to Casey and Brad (Brad Krieger of Big Nice Studio) for flushing it out with me. I brought the project not fully formed, but the songs were pretty much there. Then I started releasing things just under A.S. Wilson, basically using my name, but not entirely. And when I was working with the label who put it out, Relief Map, Jim (who runs said label) asked, ‘Have you thought about using a project name?’ The record was already going to be called “Convinced Friend” and then we toyed with it on and off as a name, and I decided to go with it. It was born as a solo project because I didn’t know anyone, you know? But we’re writing stuff now. I’m bringing the songs but I’m not walking in and being a tyrant, ha! I’ve always been the focal songwriter in bands, but I definitely see this as a collaborative process and hope that continues moving forward. I don’t want to be too definite, just because I don’t know. I think that giving it a name (that wasn’t his) was in some ways, giving it space for it to live in and outside of me.
M: Now tell me about the Quaker connection.
A: Yeah, I’m not Quaker. I studied religion, and not simply in an academic sense. I come from a religious background, growing up in the rural south, certainly a complex thing. Religion has been a big facet in my life in different ways. I don’t want to overstate that, but I think if you listen to the songs on the record that makes sense… Now in terms of the name, I have some friends who are Quakers, and they were talking about this term. Quakers are the friends, right? (Quakers are known as the Religious Society of Friends). But there’s a number of different terms they use. If you’re born into a Quaker family, you’re a birthright friend, but if you’ve converted, you’re a convinced friend. They have some other names too. There’s like a weighty friend, there’s some great ones.
M: A weighty friend?
A: Yeah! Which is someone who is spiritually weighty, they have some sort of moral authority. You should ask them for advice, basically.
M: The wise friend.
A: Yes, and what kind of stuck with me, and was running through my head as I was writing a lot of the songs, was the idea of becoming convinced. I was in a time in my life where I felt a lack of direction, very much also tied to various mental health things. Realizing, being convinced of life, in a way that lets you know that this is worth doing. Not in a too dramatic of a way, but just like committing to like a place, or a person, or what you’re doing. That phrase just kind of stuck with me. I’ve just found it kind of quirky and lovely in a way.
M: This might feel like an obvious question, but are you trying to convince the listener of anything?
A: Ah, hahaha! No, I have no agenda. I think a big thing for me, especially as someone with a penchant for writing sadder songs, and this is just part of being an adult or a good person in the world, is that your own suffering, shouldn’t close you off from the world. Obviously, it can make you very kind of navel gazing and solipsistic, but I think the goal is for that to actually broaden you to the world and broaden you to other people. That’s not really something you could convince someone of, but at least that’s something the songs are rattling around about, I think.
M: When I listened to your songs I noticed forward movement, unexpected beginnings, and cohesive themes. You’ve described it in some press as “indie rock,” but the record didn’t feel like it fit into one particular genre.
A: I appreciate that. It’s always fun to know what people hear in it. In terms of the genre thing, totally. I hate talking about my own music in terms of what it sounds like or doesn’t. It’s not something I’m really thinking about. One thing that’s happened with some of the press I’ve gotten is, “Oh it’s twangy, alt-country, he’s southern so…” and that is not at all what I’m thinking. There’s one song with pedal steel on it. I really was just trying to focus on writing really good songs. It does kind of throw a lot at the wall and I hope it all fits together. Some things are kind of loud, and others are extremely sparse. Lyrically, I think writing them was a way to feel a number of different ways. Reckoning with certain things in my life (like a change in vocation), experiences from a young age, getting married which brings up lots of things in yourself and in your past. I had let a sense of my own suffering, which is very real, isolate me from the world; and in the creative process, there was a sense of trying to open up. There’s a line in the poem “A Brief for the Defense” by Jack Gilbert where he says, “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.” That was the line that I kept in my back pocket as I was writing: the world is a furnace, life can be that way, aging can be that way, work can be that way. There’s a stubbornness that’s required to still be open to life. That’s a big theme, and there are relationships in there too. There’s no breakup song or anything, I’ve been married for seven years. So, there are marriage songs on the record for sure.
M: Oooh tell me more about that! What’s a marriage song on there?
A: Let me see, “Safeway.” I went through some fairly significant mental health struggles and seeing how that can affect your partner is there. We’ve known each other for a very long time, we met when we were 19. That song in particular has some elements of feeling like being a burden to someone.
M: Is that the one where you say, “You should just leave me in the car like a dog?”
A: Haha, yeah that’s right! Safeway and other songs on the record (like “White Collar”) have what we’ve been talking about, learning to accept life, opening yourself up to life.
I could’ve talked to Austin for hours that day, and I’m sure you’d feel the same after listening to Convinced Friend. He mentioned a mini-East Coast tour coming up in August/September, so follow him on Instagram at @convincedfriend and get his introspective record on Bandcamp (https://convincedfriend.bandcamp.com/album/convinced-friend), if you’d like to keep the conversation going.