In 2007, Sebastian Blanck's brother drowned. Soon after, his first son was born. It would be nearly impossible, then, for him to write an album about anything other than the juxstaposition of these two events. "Alibi Coast" is the result.
Sebastian Blanck is not a typical songwriter. He's also an accomplished painter who's had exhibitions all over the world. Besides talking about how the death of his brother and the birth of his son affected his writing, we also talked about the similarities in the creative processes between painting and songwriting.
What was your first experience as a writer?
Probably as a songwriter, actually. I started playing guitar in high school, and whether it was through lack of patience or lack of focus, I didn't spend much time learning other people's songs. I only tried writing my own stuff. Once I knew a few chords, I created a melody and tried putting together a story. That being said, most of it was really terrible.
As far as writing in a more traditional genre, I'm pretty self-conscious and not very confident as a writer. Somehow being able to put words together with a melody, where the music dictates the cadence and rhythm of the words, really helps me find what I want to say. A lot of times I'll have a few lines, come up with some music, then improvise what would be next. I hardly ever write the words out; I just start singing and the words come that way.
You have two young kids, a three year old and a ten month old. How does having kids affect your writing process?
Some songs on the record were written about my first son and the hope of what it means to have a child. They were actually written before he was born and right after my brother died. So during the writing of the whole album I was consumed with the hope of a new life and the loss of someone close to me, and with being a parent along with empathizing with my parents. I was listening to the final mix, and my son looks up at me during one song and says, "Is this song about me?" I was so taken, so in shock, that I just started crying. The song was about losing a child and about how horrible it would be.
Does having kids make you a more disciplined writer?
Music is a little different than writing a novel. I might have eight lines and a chorus, and I only need four more lines. And I can usually come up with 20 or 30 minutes to do that. I don't need a long sustained block of time. But having children means that the time you used to spend watching TV is now time you probably have to spend writing.
I'm a believer in having the painting or the song direct me where to go, so it doesn't require time for me to get into that mindset.
Do you ever try to carve out time to write?
When I was writing this album, there were days I blocked out and devoted just to writing music. So when the boys went to bed, I'd stay up late and work as much as I could. I don't know that I am super-disciplined, but I am good at taking advantage of the time I am given.
A lot of songwriters rely on inspiration, and they wait for it before they write. But because you have kids, sometimes you just can't write. So are you a night owl?
I used to be. But now that I have kids, I wake up around 6am and sometimes work then. As a painter, I am very much into the idea of studio practice: going in each day and putting in the hours. More like a traditional writer, really. So that influences my songwriting. It doesn't matter if I have inspiration; I have to find it, given my time constraints. I have to find the lyrics, the melody, the guitar parts. It's already there; I just need to respond to what is going on. With this album, I certainly was not in need of inspiration. It was more about tackling these emotional issues in my life.
When I was a professor, I had a student once who, only five months earlier, lost several of her best friends in the Columbine massacre. She wanted to write about it, and I told her about the pitfalls of writing about something so raw, that it can become too melodramatic or even cliched. How did you manage that when writing about the loss of your brother?
I definitely wrote a number of songs that were too up front and literal about the experience. I took choice lines that I felt were good metaphors from those songs and put them in other songs. Since the record is about loss, I did a lot of songs in a duet with a female singer, so in my mind a lot of it is a dialogue between my brother and me, or between him and his wife, who he was separated from when he died. So I tried to put myself into what he was going through, but with my own experience when it came to creating the imagery. That duet format would make someone who doesn't know the backstory think that it's a love song. I didn't want to make a bunch of self-pitying and overexposed songs.
When you write, what happens first?
I start with guitar, then I come up with a quick demo, then I sing to it. I turn to my notes of what I wanted to write a song about, even if it's just a single lyric, and I'll go from there.
Where do you keep your ideas?
I do the audio recordings on my iPhone. I make iMovie recordings as well so I can see the guitar part I am playing. I'll sit down with my guitar and play an opened tuning, like a G chord. I'll figure out a way to open the tuning even further, which requires me to play in a way I haven't thought of. I record that so I can remember it for later.
So when you play, do you have the lyrics handy?
It depends. Sometimes I have emails to myself with the lyrics or I have notes in my iPhone. But sometimes I make up lyrics on the spot as I hear the music progressing.
How similar are creative processes behing painting and playing music?
The subject matter, as far as finding material from my life, is consistent through both. And I give myself plenty of time with both: my collages take a month or two, and I don't put a deadline on my songs. But the greatest similarity is that both give me time to reflect on what has happened in my life. Some are more literal: my collages are basically portraits of people in my life, but the songwriting is in a funny way more abstract and can be very metaphorical. It's nice to have the openness that language provides.
But are both are related to storytelling?
I remember at some point finally realizing that truly great songs are those that can provide you with an image. With both, I want to give the audience an image. If I can give the listener one or two good images per song and let everything else fall into place, that's when I am happiest.
How do you know when a song is done?
At certain times, since a lot of the album is duets, there's a transformative thing when it goes from my voice to hers. The songs that are the most satisfying ar those when someone comes in and plays drums in a way I never would have, or will sing in a way I just couldn't. That usually finishes a song off for me: when someone adds something that I couldn't have anticipated.
What do you do when you have writers' block?
I try to write more. It's different for a novelist, but with instruments you can always do things like change tunings, add someone else, add an instrument. It's a much more flexible process, and you always change things around to sound different. What's funny is that when I am blocked in my painting, I'll turn to songwriting and it makes me realize that I can still create in that genre.