Midland guitarist-vocalist talks headlining Landlock Fest performance, upcoming album

By Emma Weidmann | Arts and Life Editor

Update April 9, 2024: Landlock Festival is canceled, according to an official statement from festival representatives, which reads “We are saddened to announce today that Landlock Festival 2024 is being canceled. This was a difficult decision to make, but due to unforeseen circumstances, and in an effort to do right by our fans, artists, surfers and staff, the decision to cancel the event has not been taken lightly.”

Ahead of twice Grammy-nominated country band Midland’s headlining performance at Landlock Festival in Waco, guitarist and vocalist Jess Carson took some time to talk about the festival and life on the road.

On May 4 at Waco Surf, Midland will headline the second day of the three-day music festival, bringing its distinctly Texan sound to the stage. Carson gave a sneak peek into how Midland writes its music — and what’s next for the band.

Q: What is exciting to you guys about Landlock Fest?

Carson: It just sounds like it’s going to be a spectacle. I think it’s going to be surfing. It’s got a lazy river. We’re of course excited to be headlining. It’s multi-genre, which those types of festivals are actually kind of my favorite, because you get such a mix of people. It’s just always really interesting and diverse.

Q: I know you guys play a bunch of different venues. Do you have a favorite type of venue to play?

Carson: Casinos are fun to play for us because you get to go out and gamble, and I think when people enter a casino, they’re there to party and kind of let loose the inhibitions.

Q: What’s the vibe like for a festival?

Carson: I associate festivals with summer. … People are there to have fun. There’s people camping. There’s really nothing like a summer music festival where people are camping out going to see music. There’s other stuff going on at Landlock, like they’re going to have yoga, and there’s going to be a lot of stuff for people to do. But you know, it’s hot. You’re seeing music. You’re going to check out the different things that are going on at the festival grounds. For us, we’ll maybe jump on a golf cart and cruise around and check out what’s going on at the festival, and it’s just fun.

Q: For a festival setlist, do you prefer to play more deep cuts, or do you like just playing the hits?

Carson: Of course, we got to play the hits, the songs that people know, the most-streamed songs, the radio singles. We play deep cuts, and then we always throw in covers. That’s a fun thing for us to kind of challenge ourselves to learn new covers and see if we can put our own spin on them. That’s probably the most unexpected thing that people are going to see from us, is the different covers that are going to be in there.

Even with deep cuts, I think we’re really blessed to be an “album band.” You know, people tend to listen to the full album, so even on something that would be more of a deep cut, there’s still people singing along.

Q: Where do you get the inspiration for writing those albums?

Carson: The highs and lows of life. Country music’s about stories, you know, real life stories — good times, bad times, heartbreak, love, everything in between. I think we always try to set out to tell a story from an angle that we haven’t heard before. It’s not that interesting to kind of rehash something that’s already been said. … Country music is big on the play on words. Titles are very important in country music, so you a lot of times start with a title and then try to build a story around there.

Q: When you’re trying to find that different angle when writing a song, do you ever get writer’s block or find yourself kind of stuck?

Carson: Writing is always different. … “Life Ain’t Fair” is a song that I wrote by myself and actually started that song years ago and really set it aside. It was just kind of a song that I wouldn’t really have revisited, and then somehow, it got played for Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, who we wrote “Drinkin’ Problem” with and “Burn Out.” And I remember them being very complimentary about that song, but there was stuff that I didn’t like about it. So probably four years after I wrote the first version of that song, I changed a bunch of stuff. I kind of rewrote a lot of the lyrics and ended up finishing it.

I would say writer’s block is probably less a thing in country than in other genres because co-writing is so big. And in country, if you’re not feeling it one day, you might be writing with three other people, and it increases the chance of somebody feeling inspired.

Q: When you guys are writing and recording an album, what’s the point where you can look at the body of work and go, “This is finished”? Is it more of a feeling or something you can define in a concrete way?

Carson: That’s different every time. We just finished recording an album, and this time was different because we worked with a producer, Dave Cobb, that we have a lot of respect for. He’s done all Chris Stapleton’s albums and Miranda Lambert and Sturgill Simpson — so many people who’ve won a bunch of Grammys — so we really gave him a lot of license to listen to 40 songs that we had written and decide which songs are on this album, even if it wasn’t exactly what we thought the album was going to be. … If you have a producer that you really, really trust, that can kind of free you up sometimes to not get so stuck in this vision that you have of the album.

Overall, I think you want to choose songs that go together, that kind of all feel like they should be on an album together and tell a story. Some of the albums, people have said they feel like it’s the story of one person falling in love, maybe getting cheated on, breaking up. Sometimes it can just all tell one story, like a concept album.

Q: Does that mean that sometimes your music is less autobiographical and more of a story that you have in your head that might not have anything to do with you?

Carson: I think it’s both. It’s always autobiographical because I think you can’t help but tell a story from your experience and infuse your experience into it. But that being said, you are telling stories. You are creating a character in this song. It’s not usually completely unpoetic, just literally like your life, and it’s basically never complete fiction either. It always seems to be kind of in the middle.

Q: Is there a Midland song that has a story behind how it was written that you really like?

Carson: I think the way that “Drinkin’ Problem” was written is very special, because that was the first song that we ever wrote with Shane and Josh. So we went from not knowing them, walking into a room and talking a little bit about what our inspirations were, and then writing arguably our most well-known song. It’s weird how that works sometimes.

Q: How does being in the Texas Hill Country area inspire Midland’s music?

Carson: This is just, in my opinion, the gem of Texas. Even Wimberley itself I think is maybe the most beautiful town I’ve seen in Texas. It informs a lot. I mean, there’s got to be a reason why so much music comes out of this area. It’s just so rich with creativity, and it’s just starting to get green again down here. The Blanco River is just right there, and that summer lifestyle here is so inspiring to me — seeing everybody get out and put their lawn chairs in the river — and it’s a very inspiring place to live.

Q: How do you cope with the crazy schedule of being on the road and going from place to place all day long?

Carson: It’s a lot. It wears you down. By Christmas and New Year’s, you’re ready for that break, and it goes by quick because you’re just trying to recover and catch up on sleep. … We travel pretty much every weekend of the year — three, four days a week taking flights, on the tour bus, here in hotel rooms. I try to actually see the places that we go, try to get out and not just be in a hotel room or backstage, try to get around the town and feel like I’ve experienced something.

Q: Do you have any plans for where you might want to go or what you might want to see in Waco when you’re here for Landlock Fest?

Carson: One of my good friends lives there and has a hat shop there called Standard Hat Works, and he makes all of our hats, so I’ll probably go. … Waco has obviously changed a lot from [“Fixer Upper”]. Everybody says that kind of changed Waco, so I imagine there’s a bunch of new restaurants and shops and cool things to see.