Jesse Tabish, Other Lives

Stillwater, Oklahoma is not the hotbed of indie music in the way that Los Angeles and New York are. But let's face it, the reality of the music business is that many indie artists struggle financially. And living on the expensive coasts doesn't help matters.

So what does Jesse Tabish, the singer and songwriter for Other Lives, do with the rest of the band?  They live in Stillwater, where Tabish pays $370 a month in rent.  It's an easy decision, really: he can spend more time on the creative process and less time making money by teaching guitar lessons.  And that creative process was revamped for the new album, which Other Lives finished last week.  It's their second album on TBD Records, having released their first in 2009.  Whereas Tabish used to begin writing a song with the traditional guitar or piano, for this new album he started with  "a simple medium like a single piano note or some sort of drone." According to Tabish, "I was tired of sitting down with an acoustic guitar and saying, 'I'm going to write a song today,' and falling on the same chord, the same movements."

I first became aware of Other Lives a few months ago.  You may have heard this song on Grey's Anatomy and Ugly Betty. I've obviously been missing out.  This is indie rock at its most beautiful, anchored by a piano and beautiful strings.  Read more about Jesse Tabish's creative process after the video, and at the end of the interview, watch one of their hearya sessions. 

Do you have any other creative endeavors besides songwriting?

I don't really do anything.  I'm actually quite boring. Laughs. I read, but from the time I was little, it's been about songs.  I started writing songs when I was eight.

You were a songwriter when you were eight years old? What got you interested?

My mom was a piano teacher, so she started teaching me early.  Songwriting has always been something I've felt an impulse to do.  I never consciously said, "Hey, I think I'll be a songwriter."

You never had music lessons thrust upon you at an early age against your will?

No, I probably complained about them like anyone else.  I only took them for a couple of years and then started playing by ear.  

You said you read a lot, so tell me about your favorite authors.

I just got done reading Howard Zinn's The Twentieth Century: A People's History. I hold a lot of the same political views.  I don't know that it comes through on my songwriting too much, especially on this record. As far as fiction, I got into Vonnegut about five or six years ago. 

He's very popular among the songwriters I interview.

There's something very psychedelic about his books.  If you've ever read his last book, he wraps up all of his thoughts.  And Mother Night was terrific.  I don't know that it influences my songwriting either.  I see reading more as an escape from the music.

When you sit down to write a song, what happens first?

I almost always start with the music, particularly on this new record.  I started with a simple medium like a single piano note or some sort of drone, and from there I recorded it.  I was tired of sitting down with an acoustic guitar and saying, "I'm going to write a song today," and falling on the same chord, the same movements. 

When you have a physical instrument in front of you, it's somewhat limiting.   Starting with a medium so simple, you have a whole palate that can be explored, so I started with a simple note, then fly in some French horns or a bass clarinet underneath.  And suddenly a chord progression would form, or some sort of movement.  Then on top of that I would layer and layer and layer, then take things off.  Eventually, I would sing some sort of melody to it.  This process was different from the last record, and it was very freeing.  I was able to look outside the physical instrument.

So you just got tired of sitting down with the guitar?

Very much so. I'm a guitar teacher.  I sit down with it for two or three hours a day with kids. I love the guitar, but doing that for five or six years, I started to fall into a 9 to 5 songwriter routine of writing a tune every day.  It's not a bad thing, but when I felt like I wasn't exploring new ways to create a song, it was time to change the medium.

Do you set aside time every day to write?  I think daily practice is essential.  You may not use everything you write, but the 80% you throw away makes the 20% that much better. 

Absolutely.  I write a lot, but most of it is stuff that nobody will ever hear.  I am very much an every day, ten in the morning kind of guy.  Or if I drank too much the night before, noon. I have to have the two to four hours every day, whether it's working on string arrangements or new ideas or the songs from the day before.  I think it's important to flesh out those ideas every day.  It's a muscle that has to be worked.

But in that, there's never any moment of inspiration.  It's all groundwork. So after a while, I'll have four or five ideas in a month,  and it's really nice.  The groundwork is key to being productive.

Don't you think it can be dangerous to wait until inspiration strikes, instead of being more proactive in the creative process?

I do. I feel too insecure to ever let that slip.  I don't trust myself enough.  And I am consciously thinking about staying on top of myself.  Particularly with bands, it's tough to write on the road.  And that's why I was so scared of going on the road: I wouldn't have time to write.  But I got a lot done.  A lot of bands who write a record won't write again until it's time to make another record. I don't understand that. 

But be honest: do you find that writing every day wears you down?

 Sure.  I'm very hard on myself, and there are days I'm low about last week's progress or how a tune is going, but I push through those feelings.  It's out of a necessity.  Not for a record or anything else.  It's ingrained as part of my life. 

Does teaching guitar make you a better player or songwriter?

Absolutely.  When I first started teaching, I didn't know too much about theory, and teaching theory has made me understand the language of music, whether it's communicating to other players or just being able to dissect chords.  I don't know that it helps the creative process, but it helps in having other members of a band get your idea out.

When do the lyrics enter your creative process?

I'm really nonchalant about lyrics.  Ninety percent of the time, they come from natural things that I am just spouting.  I'll be humming a melody and singing gibberish.  Half the time I am trying to convince myself I should keep the gibberish. Laughs.  Because for me, it's so natural, those first syllables and vowels. There's a real balance and flow to them. After all that, and the melody is there, the lyrics are the last thing.

You probably don't approach songwriting with a topic in mind.

Not very often.  Usually there's topics on my mind, these broader ideas of what I want to say, and I find meaning in the gibberish.  

 Photo by Emily Ulmer

Photo by Emily Ulmer

So when you start with the gibberish, there's a topic behind it?

Kind of.  A lot the themes are observational in the sense that they are from an outsider's point of view.  There's a lot of "we" and looking at things from the outside, so it lends itself to an ambiguous point of view.  It's not really a first person take.  There are themes on my mind that naturally come out, so when the gibberish comes out, there are two or three topics, and then it forms.

What kind of themes?

One is this relationship with nature.  We are from Oklahoma, so the Dust Bowl has always been a theme.  There's the human side of the dust bowl, like the hardship, and there's the natural side. One thing we talk about is nature reclaiming its former glory, destroying us because we've been too shortsighted to live in accordance with nature.  The Dust Bowl is a good medium for that theme to talk about.

What's your ideal writing environment?

In the van, even though I hate highway driving. I write during those eight hour drives in the van.  I came to look forward to those drives because it meant I could write.

Are you a night owl?

Mornings are best for me.  I like the clarity of morning, like around 10am.  A few months ago, I tried to do a 6am thing, every day, and it lasted about three days. 

Do you ever get writer's block?

I don't really get it.  I go through periods where I don't write, but if I get stuck I just hum a melody and do something.  If I'm not feeling like writing, I just won't.  If no good tunes are coming out, I'll work on an instrumental or some strange drone.

How do you revise lyrics?

It varies.  Usually I write lyrics with my other songwriting partner.  We'll get together and find missing words. If it feels right when I sing it, it's right.

Then how do you know when a song is done?

That's where I've become risky.  I used to need the perfect song ready to go, but I found that a little limiting because there was no room for play.  So this time, some of the ideas would be a whole section of a four chord progression and maybe a B section.  Throughout the recording process, it's been a new songwriting tool.  Through it, we'd find the song and follow it.  We just worked and worked until we found it.  

How is living in Oklahoma an advantage to your creative process?

It's purely an economic thing.

That's not the artistic answer I was looking for!

Laughs. What I mean is that I have so much time because the cost of living is so low.  I am able to spend as much time as I want on music and not really have to worry about rent, which is $370 a month.  So it gives me all the time in the world.  I would like better food, but I don't need a lot of city life stimulation.  I have time and space to create here.

How have you matured as a songwriter over the past two albums?

Musically I've found a process that's original to me.  Like I spoke before about those simple mediums and following whatever I felt.  This time I was really creating music out of thin air.  There was real freedom in that, instead of starting with the usual guitar or piano.  Also, lyrically, it's a certain aesthetic I've wanted for a long time.  It's less personal.