Carl Broemel, guitarist for My Morning Jacket, reads the New Yorker. His favorite poet is e.e. cummings. And there's a song on his new record All Birds Say (ATO Records) called "On the Case" about the frustration he feels looking at the stack of books on his bedside table, unable to finish them. He sings, "Scary how easy it is to waste the day/Staring at a screen/While gathering dust the stack of unfinished books/That I'll have to start again."
If only the general public read such terrific magazines, admired such great poets, and expressed frustration at not being able to read more. His affinity for the printed word should give you an idea how much he invests in the craft of songwriting.
I talked with Broemel when he was somewhere in New York between tour stops. So read my interview. You'll learn why e.e. cummings makes him a better songwriter, how being a parent affects his songwriting, what book he is dying to read, and where he does his best writing.
Many of the songwriters I've interviewed started out writing something else besides songs. How did you get your start as a writer?
Yeah, I started writing poetry probably concurrently with my first song. There was a time in high school when we were studying poetry. We had to pick a poet, and e.e. cummings was my choice. I did a couple of presentations on him, so that's probably when I started writing poetry. I copied his style because I thought it was so cool and weird. He's still my favorite poet.
How much reading do you get to do now?
Not much. I kind of fell out of literature in a way, just purely from the crazy lifestyle I lead. I read the New Yorker. I try to read books on the plane, but I end up getting halfway through one and have to go on tour, and I hate to start over. It's kind of disjointed. There's a song on the new record where I talk about looking at this stack of books on my bedside table, staring at them longingly and wondering when I am going to finish them.
Is there a book out there that you are dying to read?
What is the What by Dave Eggers. It's this amazing book and it's just sitting next to my bed. I need to start reading it again.
Back to the poetry. How do you think reading and writing poetry makes you a better songwriter?
It's probably just about subtly gleaning techniques. Particularly with e.e cummings, he has this simple way of creating stanzas, with irregular beat and rhythm, that really intrigues me. I like the fact that they are simple yet difficult. And they are short and sweet, so I can go back to them. They're like songs, if you really think about it. Topics like spring--you can go back to them five years later and revisit them and see that he really gets it. But the way he crafts the poems is so complex.
Talk about your songwriting process. How do you compose?
It depends. A germ of an idea can come even when I don't have a guitar, like when I am taking a walk or even drifting off to sleep, when I'll drag myself out of bed and record it. I think it is crucial to make time, to clear space, for songwriting to happen. Otherwise, I'll never do it.
So I'll sit down with a guitar, even just carrying it around the house or playing for my son. Just sitting around. I'll usually pick out a melody and start from there and organize the musical ideas next, just start singing along. Then I'll get the chord changes and the melody down. For me, the lyrics are the hardest part because I still consider myself a beginner in the sense that when I am writing I am borderline insecure about the whole idea in the first place. So it takes me a while to get my songs to a place where I think they are good with regard to the lyrics. The music part comes easy.
Sometimes I'll start with a cool combination of words that I would have written down. I'll stumble upon it later when I am writing a song, and I'll insert those and get somewhere.
Do you find being a parent makes you more disciplined as a writer, because your free time is more precious?
Absolutely. I think it goes for everything when it comes to being a parent. One of the reasons why my record got finished is because I knew the baby was coming. I had a deadline. I devoted a lot of time to the record, to overdubs and getting it mixed, because in my first-time parent mind, I thought, "I'm never gonna have time to do this." So it gave me a deadline.
But now that he's here, I know what you are saying. It's all about time management. It's not necessarily about the fact that you can't do anything that you want; you just have to take all the time that you just wasted and put what you have to good use.
So would you say you are a disciplined writer who sets aside time to write every day? Or do you wait for inspiration?
A little of both. There's no easy answer to that. Sometimes I'll go through periods where I am studying other songs. I'll sit down and learn a ton of songs that aren't mine. Not because I am trying to steal things, but because I want to expand what I think is possible. So I find that if I do that for a few weeks, songs will come on their own.
It's hard to write when I am on tour. It's a lot easier for me to write at home than in a hotel room. It's too distracting on the road. I need to find that really quiet, almost empty, space to start. So I do a lot of writing at night after everybody goes to sleep and I am feeling very relaxed. I'll pick up the guitar, record something, then go to sleep. The next morning I'll wake up and listen to it.
Do you write your songs on computer?
I like the Moleskine books. They are nice and portable, so I scribble things in there. I'll write the lyrics, then revise them the next day, then again the next day, and so on. When I think it's done, I'll write it on a separate sheet of paper outside of the notebook.
Speaking of done, how do you know when a song is done?
Laughs. Sometimes right away, other times not until I record it and can get that distance of an observer until it feels complete as a performance, both as a song and lyrically. It's a hard thing to do, to sign off on things. I guess you know it's done when you turn it in. Otherwise, you might get a burst of energy at the end and say that you are going to turn a good song into an even better song, then the process starts over. That's a tendency that a lot of people have, including me. It can make for an endless process.
What about when you have writer's block? What do you do?
Either meditate or take a walk. Or just let it go. There is really no rush for me. It might be different now that I have a record out and people expect certain things from me. But I think I need to forget about all that stuff. The songs you hear on the record are pretty much there because I wanted to do it, not out of any bigger ambition. But that's the crucual thing for me now, to forget about it all if I am going to keep doing it. Just get back in that same space where nobody expected anything from me.
One of the things I noticed on your website was why you decided to write this record. You make some pretty grand philosophical pronouncements, trying to assess your place in the world. Why was this the right time in your life to address these issues?
Laughs. I don't know. It just happened that way. I had a group of songs five years ago that I recorded and just kind of posted on the internet. I had songs, but I felt like they were more like a work in progress. So I've been working on it for a long time.
Timing is strange. We took a year off from touring with My Morning Jacket, and I felt like this was the right time to do it.
When you write, is there anything you must have with you so that you are in the right frame of mind to write?
Not really. The only thing I need is one particular guitar. I've never tried to write on anything else but that one guitar for a really long time.
And you said you need peace and quiet to write. If you could pick your ideal writing environment, what would it be?
Any place where I don't always get a knock on the door. Where I can feel free to goof around and not have any repercussions for anything I am going to try. I need to be totally alone.
When you go to revise your lyrics, how does that work?
I like to experiment with different nouns. You can really change the meaning of a song if you have options, so I'll have three or four words stacked on top of each other on the piece of paper, then I'll just start scribbling them out when they don't work. A lot of times when I come up with a song idea, or a few words come to me, if I just start improvising and recording then listen to it, I'll pick out things later that I like that I didn't remember I was doing. So even if I can't understand what a certain word was, I'll write down every possibility of what that word might be. The very first time I play through something, if I can just lay down four different passes of singing and playing--and not judging--and just keep going, those seem to be the most fruitful demos to pull lyrics from.
Once I get out of the nebulous improvisation and can feel the focus or point of the song, then I can start embellishing on it and start getting a couple of cool verses.
I think what you said earlier is that you start with a melody and the lyrics just flow from that.
Yeah, they just come out of singing and playing the guitar. Making words and seeing what words and sounds work, then picking things out of there that work. Once I find the direction, I just start writing verses and find three or four that are cool, that say enough but not too much. I think I am pretty explicit compared to most people, in that I write lyrics that people can understand.