Ben Knox Miller, The Low Anthem
Of the many songwriters I've interviewed for Songwriters on Process, they are divided into two camps when it comes to discipline in writing. Most believe that carving time out of their day to write is not the "organic" way to do things and thus leads to subpar creative output. They prefer to rely more on the inspiration of the muse. The other camp, a smaller one, believes in the importance of discipline in writing. They write on a regular basis. This routine, they feel, will make them stronger writers and will boost their creativity. So perhaps we can say that the former group is more reactive, waiting for inspiration to strike, while the latter is more proactive, actively seeking out creativity. Both groups have offered persuasive explanations for their method.
But for Ben Knox Miller of The Low Anthem, this discussion of discipline in writing is irrelevant. Sure, he writes every day. Usually upon waking, for reasons he explains below. But Miller doesn't write because he needs to or because it's part of being a songwriter or because it's a cathartic release. He does it because he likes to. He looks forward to writing. So his songwriting process really requires no discipline at all.
Ben Knox Miller's love of writing and the discipline he brings to the process gives us some fantastic indie folk music in The Low Anthem, whose album Smart Flesh will be released February 22 on Nonesuch Records. Read my interview with the wonderfully introspective Ben Knox Miller after the video.
Do you have other creative endeavors besides songwriting?
I do other things, but not stuff that I publish. I wrote poetry before I became a songwriter, but nothing to be published. Just for my amusement, really. And I was a painter.
So many of the songwriters I've interviewed started as visual artists. Any idea why?
It seems like there is some similar intuitiveness about visual art and songwriting, a common tolerance for abstraction that might appeal to authors of songs and to painters. There's much more tolerance for abstraction in songwriting and poetry than in other kinds of creative writing.
Do you have a typical songwriting process?
I try to write some kind of a song every day, regardless of whether I have a song in mind or not. This helps me stay fluid with the process of writing and making things come out, the hope being when the right moment happens and I have something to write, I am more deliberate and have the mechanical ability to do it.
I try to write in the morning, before I've engaged in any practical conversations in the day. I find that in the morning, when I've just woken up and come out of dreams and all the nonsense that you come up with in your sleep, language is much more abstract and intuitive. As soon as you open your mouth to try to communicate a desire or talk about the day's schedule or log into email or read the newspaper, you are just jolted out of that state and into this literal, specific, and goal-oriented use of language. I try to avoid that as long as I can.
When you say morning, how early?
Laughs. Today I woke up just in time for this interview. I've been up since 7am every night the past few nights. I don't know why. I've been off the road for a while, just keeping to myself and working on a bunch of new songs.
So are you trying to access the unconscious when you wake up?
I'm not trying to say that in waking up, I have access to magic or some unconscious. But in waking up, I still have access to some abstraction of language. It's not about content, but about the way I am processing language. Even in my deliberate moments of writing, I try to retain it. It's a technical distinction. It's not like I want to catch a dream before it fades.
How much writing do you do on the road?
A lot. I don't get carsick, so I do a lot of writing in the van. I love hotel rooms and the anonymous space that they give me. There's no shortage of ideas on the road as long as I am not completely exhausted. On the road, we have a five hour ride that is a meditative time, where for the most part I can zone out.
How does environment affect your process? Can you write anywhere?
I can't say there is one formula that is better than the other, but regardless of where I am, feeling good and creative is nearly impossible to keep up continuously. It comes and goes. I have moments when it feels natural, then long stretches where it feels like a grind. It's pretty inevitable, regardless of the control I have over my environment.
That's why I like to write. It's not just an exercise. I do it for enjoyment. I like to keep the process going, whether it's going well or not, and I try not to think about that. I'm not judgemental about the things I am writing; that kind of self-criticism can be halting.
You write every day, whereas most songwriters I talk to loathe the idea of a writing routine and prefer to let the muse guide their inspiration.
I definitely do not think about muses. There is a lot of foolishness and emotion in people's songwriting and in my songwriting as well. You can't think what you've written is magic. That's ridiculous. Some people have delusions that they are sitting around waiting for lighting to strike. They think that something emotional that came without effort is the result of some magical inspiration. But really it just comes from brain chemistry and feeling good about what you've done, and the fact that the images you've written have some personal connection. So much of what is beautiful in writing just comes from working on it.
Where do you write?
Certain places have been good. In one apartment, I was on the third floor overlooking Providence. The sun would shine in the window in the morning. I could literally wake up, turn over, put my feet on the window, and write. It was a great scene, a moment to myself before even getting out of bed.
Do you write every day in hopes of getting a song, or because practice will make you better?
I write every day because I enjoy it. Of course I am hoping to get a song, but I try not to think in a goal-oriented way.
When it comes time to write a song, do you start with a guitar and let the music create the lyrics?
I don't think it's ever happened twice the same way. It can start any number of ways, from some kind of line in my head, someone else's melody that I don't even know the words to, or from a news article. Really anything. I try not to impose too many goals on songwriting, but just do it. I am very suspicious of overly specific intentions in songwriting. I don't want to be too intentional in any respects, so there hasn't really been any pattern to my songwriting.
For all the songs we end up publishing, there are dozens of incomplete ones or ugly songs. Most of the songs we publish are ugly; I think of it as a flawed process.
Putting a piece of writing into a complicated world is an idea that flirts with delusions of importance in a dangerous way. It seems strange and artificial that certain songs are published and celebrated and performed, because it's hard to justify the distinction between a song you publish and some conversation you hear on the street. At best, writing should have the same naturalness of a conversation in which the authors don't consider themselves authors, where they have no intention to write anything that is specifically created. I celebrate that naturalness. It's a hard thing to try to do.
How often you say you are going to sit down and write a song about a specific topic?
I think that the topic, the abstract thought, and context precede the music for me. Some people always have a melody in their head, but I am more limited musically. I have to work harder at that. It starts with the ideas. For example, right now I am trying to write a collection of songs for my own amusement, a long-form fiction that's like a surreal murder mystery. Almost sci-fi. It's not the kind of thing I listen to or like, but I am trying out new processes. I've never tried that kind of specificity or long form narrative before.
Doing something like that out of the box will probably expand your creativity.
I hope so, but I also really enjoy doing it. I get up every day and feel like writing.
Do you write your lyrics with pen and paper?
I tried writing on a computer recently for the new album, and I really enjoyed it. It was the coolest thing. I've been pen and paper my whole life. I probably liked it because it was a new tactile process. And since it's new, my brain worked differently. Also, I can type a lot faster than I can write by hand, and revision is easier. I've since gone back to pen and paper, but I was pleasantly surprised.
Do you have a favorite author?
At the moment I've been reading a lot of Jorge Luis Borges, but my favorite author is John Steinbeck.
For his maniacal intensity, and yet he can write things that are so charming and natural, things with the grace and simplicity of a conversation on the street that aren't overtly motivated. He has such a plain, yet intense, way of doing things.
Do you read much poetry?
I go through phases. I've been reading a lot of Dylan Thomas and Leonard Cohen. I am more interested in novels, in something where I can spend a long time with an author's thoughts.
You recorded the new album Smart Flesh in a large abandoned warehouse. Did you know you were going to be recording there before you wrote the album?
It was the other way around. We found that building for the collection of songs. We had the songs written first.
How did that space affect your creative process once you started recording?
We chose the space for the songs, and the space then did something to the songs. I think also a lot of the songs died in that space that would have flourished elsewhere, for musical reasons more so than lyrical reasons. That space had a long, lethargic reverb; if you had something rapid and percussive, it was a wash. There was little isolation of sound; you couldn't really play a fast staccato part and hear the clarity of it. It would always bounce around and become muddled.
But with things that moved sparsely with a lot of time between them, there was a beautiful feeling of hearing each sound decay. And then hearing the next one come and overtake the decay of the previous one. The space became such an important part of the process in terms of how we evaluated the success of the recording. Once the space started to get eaten up, things felt non distinct and imprecise. So a lot of songs that were written with that kind of rhythm in mind end up on the back burner.
When do you know a song is ready to be recorded?
Something specific about my writing is a song's proximity to other songs. Our records don't have singles. They are sketches of ideas, almost all of them incomplete, that sit next to each other and cast shadows. Even harder for me is knowing when the collection of songs is complete. I struggle with that.
Would you call yourself a thematic writer?
I try to not call myself anything! Yes, but not with a lot of intention. There are certain threads on my mind in certain periods of my life, and they creep into all my songs. On Smart Flesh, there are little vignettes, like one about a person who lost her mother and is fighting with her siblings over the ashes. And she is paralyzed by these ashes. It's divorced from some of the sweeping bombastic worldview that you might find elsewhere on the record. But there is a common thread about ashes in a lot of the songs, whether it's this song or another one that references chimneys. I'm not trying to write them, but I notice them afterwards. There's the idea of living a life when really people are cleaning up after you.
Sometimes an album has a song that is too big, and it interferes with what I call the spider web of related ideas. There's a delicate balance between the songs and this interrelated system, and that one song might be too heavy because it specifically addresses the ideas in the other songs. It's like a giant rock in the water that interrupts the ripples created by all the little pebbles around it. And this can happen often because it's the catchiest or the most revrealing. We took out some of the songs that everyone thought were the centerpieces, but by taking them out all the other songs bled into that open space and became more ambiguous. That's what art for me is about: seeing how the songs are interrelated.