Last Friday I caught Eisley at the Rock n' Roll Hotel here in Washington, DC. I'm a newcomer to their music, so after interviewing sisters and bandmembers Sherri DuPree-Bemis and Stacy DuPree-King, I wanted to check them out live. Leading up to the show, what struck me about their music was its strong melodic element. And live shows by a band whose lyrics I don't really know are a way to confirm this; the music just sounds good even though I may not be able to make out the lyrics. And that's what happened at the Eisley show that night.
What I heard Friday confirms what DuPree-Bemis and DuPree-King told me: that in the first stages of their songwriting process, melody comes naturally. It's so effortless, in fact, that DuPree-Bemis even writes songs in her sleep, literally, as you'll read. And according to DuPree-King, "The melody is a language in itself." Of course, it's not as if the four siblings and their cousin who make up the band are short on lyrical content: the band went through a professional divorce (from Warner Bros.) and a personal one as well (DuPree-Bemis divorced in 2007 before recently remarrying).
Eisley's new album The Valley (Equal Vision Records) drops March 1. I've been listening to it a lot over the past couple of weeks, and I think you should grab a copy. Read my interview with DuPree-Bemis and DuPree-King after the video.
Sherri, talk about your other creative outlet besides songwriting.
Sherri: I do illustrations and tattoos for our fans. I've been drawing for a while, since we started the band. It's something I am passionate about, so incorporating it into the band's business like t-shirts and album art is very fulfilling.
Can you think of any reason why so many songwriters are also talented visual artists?
Sherri: Creative people always need stimulation and an outlet for it. I have sleeping issues because I'm always thinking about ways to create. I grew up loving art; our dad is a graphic designer so it was always around. Books and music were always around our house.
So you begin songs with an image, the way a painter might begin a painting?
Sherri: Sometimes. With the characters I draw, I imagine their backstories. That helps give them deeper meaning and makes it so much more than just a simple illustration. I've written songs based on my art, so there's the connection.
Stacy: I don't draw, but I always dream up music videos for my songs so that it's playing in my head as a write.
Take me through your songwriting process.
Sherri: The biggest thing for me is melody. I'm not a great musician, so the music part for me is usually secondary to the melody because the melody comes so naturally. I don't have to be handy on guitar or great on the piano to write a melody. However, the way the melody sounds will move me to write the lyrics.
Stacy: Lately, I've been the same way. The melody is a language in itself. It's an indicator to what is going on inside you emotionally. You can get a picture for what direction the lyrics should take just by listening to the melody.
Then how often do you approach songwriting with a specific topic in mind?
Sherri: It's always the melody for me. Our lyrics usually come from life experiences, so I've never needed to say, "I need to write a song about this." I don't have a choice. It's what I know.
Stacy: It just happens. Whatever is in me has to be expressed, and it just comes naturally. It's really never a deliberate process.
Are gibberish sounds an early part of the creation of your lyrics? I always like to tell the story of the time I interviewed the Eagles songwriter Jack Tempchin. He told me that when he and Glenn Frey sat down, to write they'd always start with gibberish rather than real words. And they named that gibberish voice "El Blurto."
Sherri: Oh, that's great. We are all Eagles fans, and I love that story. Whenever I write a song, I make gibberish when I am trying to write lyrics. You can create the perfect lyrics if you just create sounds phonetically that match the lyrics.
How disciplined are you as writers?
Stacy: I am very sensitive to my process. It's my muse. I wait for it to come to me, and I don't try to force it. I wait around for it to hit.
Doesn't that worry you?
Stacy: Nah, it's like a pet. You know it's going to come back.
Sherri: It's the same way for me. We do have to write, of course, during our recording cycle, and I can just write and write when that happens. I think that makes a more coherent album too; if you take a bunch of songs that have been spread out over a couple of years as you've been touring, it's never as good.
What's your ideal writing environment?
Stacy: I can write songs in bed with just a microphone, actually.
Sherri: I need absolute seclusion. If anyone can hear my creative process, it stifles me. My husband is a songwriter (Max Bemis, the singer and songwriter for the band Say Anything), and he can write anytime, anywhere. He can be in a restaurant and go into the bathroom and record. But I need to make sure no one can hear me. I need to be in my own world for the emotions to really come out and to get into the song.
photo by Chris Phelps
Do songs ever come to you as you are falling asleep?
Sherri: Just a couple of days ago, I was napping in the back of the van, and just as I woke up I had a perfectly concise melody with lyrics come to me. It happens a lot. I've dreamed the chorus to one of the songs on our new record. It happens randomly, but it's cool to think that my brain created something without me being conscious of it.
Do lyrics ever come before music?
Sherri: I know that so many writers do that, and I'll use my husband as an example. He'll think about something he needs to write about, so he'll write all the lyrics and put it to a song. But we've always been about melody first. I write a lot too, in my journal, but those words rarely see a song.
You both are around songwriters all day. Do you bounce ideas off them for affirmation during the process?
Stacy: I do that, especially with lyrics. Lyrics are the hardest for me, and they always come last. So I've become more focused on lyrics in the past year.
Sherri: When you get older, you naturally become more self-possessed and know more about yourself. You've been through more. Before, we'd write more fictional songs, but now we have more of a vision about life.
Stacy: there is something about being a great storyteller and being able to explain an in-depth story or idea.
Sherri: Growing up, books were my life. I read every book I could get my hands on. I went to the library every week. I always really admired the writing, but I knew I would never have the patience to write a complete novel. Songwriting was an easy way to write short stories.
What books have influenced you?
Sherri: When I was a kid, the first books I got into were The Chronicles of Narnia. It was like going into a totally different world where these characters were so unique. And the language was so vibrant. I started reading them when I was seven, and I've probably read them at least ten times. When you are a kid, you appreciate the fantasy aspect, but as you get older, you recognize that there is something a lot deeper going on.
Ray Bradbury is my other favorite. I think the way he describes the most mundane thing with such vivid language is amazing. He always pushed me to be more creative with my writing. Right now I am reading a lot of Neil Gaiman; he's incredible as a modern day fantasy writer.
Stacy: We share the same authors. What I love about those three authors is the way the words can make you feel nostalgic and sentimental, and they make you feel imaginative but also safe. I remember Sherri reading The Chronicles of Narnia when I was a little kid. She read to all of us.
How much do you revise your lyrics?
Stacy: If I really like the way something sounds phonetically, I'll keep it and find a way to work around it. You have to trust yourself. You have to turn down feelings of anxiety and trust yourself as an artist.
Sherri: That's true. This industry makes it hard. When you are on a major label like we were, there's a lot of cliches things that they want you to incorporate, like changing lyrics to make them more broad. That's frustrating as an artist. We are open-minded as a band and know that things can always be improved upon, but when you have a gut feeling about something, it's hard when a conglomerate comes in, who doesn't know crap about us or music, and wants us to change things make it fit on the radio. We are finally learning to trust ourselves. We went with our gut on a lot of things. So to answer your question, I tend to stick with what I first wrote because it's the truest thing. If you start taking away from what was the original intent, the art suffers.
What do you do when you have writer's block?
Sherri: I have to take a break. After we wrote our last record and went through this crazy label change where they didn't like the record, I was like, "I just poured my whole heart and soul into this record, and these people told us that it was not worth anything." I did not take that well. I am a sensitive person. I haven't written a song since then, but luckily I haven't needed to because we haven't needed any new music. But I know when the time is right, it will come and I know it will happen.
When you compose lyrics: computer or pen and paper?
Stacy: I like to have a recording device just in case anything comes. I have trouble using pen and paper because I don't like seeing the words that were crossed our or rejected. I just want a clean slate.
How has your songwriting changed over the years?
Sherri: When we first started, all we had was an old Wurlitzer and a cassette deck, and we recorded the songs as we played them. But all the technology now is so helpful. You can focus more on the process now and less on all of the things you must have to make it happen.
Stacy: I've become less timed and more confident at showing my emotions.
When you write a song, you're obviously writing for yourself, not just for other people. Sherri, when you wrote about the breakup of your first marriage, were you writing because it was great subject matter, or were you writing to make yourself feel better?
Sherri: A little of both. When I was going through my divorce, I realized that so many people had also gone through it. I wasn't afraid to talk about it because I knew it would strike a chord with so many people. A bunch of fans emailed me to tell me that they had been through something similar, and their support just really helped.
There are so many bad breakup songs, though. How did you ensure that what you had written wouldn't just be the same as the million other songs about the same thing?
Sherri: I wasn't thinking about how the songs were going to look. It was just a therapeutic and cathartic process to write about those feeling and stages of grief, then coming out better in the end. I put each emotion in a new song, and each one was a step to help me come through on the other side. The funny thing was that I did not think about the process too much when it was happening, but I noticed how it turned out when I looked back.
What's the hardest part and easiest part of songwriting?
Stacy: On this record, the easiest part was the topic, because we all felt what everyone else was going through. We're siblings, so my heart was broken for Sherri. That's how "Ambulance" came about. I wasn't even consciously thinking about her situation, but I was so knee deep in it with her. Whatever is inspiring me at the time is the driving force, but that's also related to the hardest part, which is finding a way to explain it in an artistic way.
Sherri: The hardest thing for me is believing that I have the ability to create a new song. I still need more confidence. I am a songwriter, but I have more confidence in my other artistic abilities like illustration. That might be because it's an easier process. I don't really know how I am able to create a song, but I think if I did know, it would be less honest. I mean, I haven't sat down to write a song in at least a year, yet in my sleep I've written at least three or four. And the easiest part is my ability to stretch myself vocally and create melody.