Ivan Howard, The Rosebuds
Here's the secret to the success of Ivan Howard's songwriting: television, physical activity, and great literature. Sure, at first blush they seem disparate: the vacuous life of the couch potato, the discipline of the athlete, and the intellectual curiosity of the bookworm. But they all legitimately contribute to Howard's creative process and the crafting of those wonderful Rosebuds' songs: the TV (it can't be a show he actually pays attention to) distracts him from the subject matter he's writing about, running and basketball are his periods of creative meditation, and the books are the source of the band's natural imagery.
Much has been made of the story behind the making of The Rosebuds' latest release Loud Planes Fly Low. Howard and Kelly Crisp make up The Rosebuds. They divorced after the release of their fourth album Life Like. But they continue today as a songwriting duo, now just as bandmates and friends. Loud Planes Fly Low is the product of the emotional output and coming to grips with the breakdown of their relationship. It's been covered enough in the press, so I'm not going to do it here. Besides, there's enough wonderfully original responses in this interview to sustain a fresh narrative.
The back story to the making of this album is pretty heavy, but tell me how the two of you actually went about writing the songs.
This record was different. Usually we write and demo songs all the time, then Kelly decides what style she likes. But for this one, we got in a room together with a piano and guitar and decided just to close our eyes and make music together. We've never done it like that before. It's usually way more structured. Like with the song "A Story," I sat behind the drums and told Kelly to come up with something, and she came up with the riff and I came up with the drumbeat. And was like, "Dang, that's kind of good."
So we recorded everything we did for a week. And I took it home and went through all the parts. There were good parts here and there: maybe ten seconds of one thing that sounded good and one minute of another thing. I just picked out what I thought we could build a song from. And that opened the creative faucet.
Did you intend to write about the relationship before you started writing the album?
Not really. We never really know what we're going to write about. My songwriting process is that I write the music first and the words come later.
When did you finally realize that the album was going to take on the theme of your relationship?
We were sitting in the back room writing words, and we came up with some really honest lyrics, like the one that's the album title. That came out of the song "Cover Ears." It was the first time we came up with a lyric that just had to be on the record. It was so strong, and my reaction was that all the other songs had to be that good. And if it had to be personal, that was ok. We never set out to make it that personal. We just loved the songs and the chords, and it just happened.
Did listening to the music evoke an emotional response that resulted in those personal lyrics?
I think it did. And we weeded out the songs that didn't fit that emotion. There were a lot of poppy songs we actually cut off the record that we didn't think fit.
So you never really know what a song is going to be about until you hear the music?
That's kind of what happens when I write a song. I try to make it as subconsciously as I can. Whatever is happening in my life is going to come out, whether I like it or not. It sounds crazy, but if I can watch TV and just sit on the couch, when I'm not really thinking about what I'm doing, that's when my best songs come out. I've always written that way. After that, I record the songs then decipher the words. All these songs started the same way. We'd come up with some skeletons, then I'd work on them. Kelly would hear them, then she'd interpret it her way. It was like constantly reshaping a sculpture until we got songs we could use.
But you were writing a very private lyric about the person in the room with you. Was that hard to do? It's also an intensely private subject matter made for public consumption.
Kelly was way more aware of that than I was. When we wrote together, I just wanted whatever we wrote to sound good. I had to take myself emotionally out of the position of thinking about the subject matter of the song and not care if anyone was going to hear it. I just had to trust that the words and phrases that Kelly suggested were going to work out. I put all the other thoughts about emotion and audience on the back burner. I really wasn't thinking about the fact that the album was about us. As soon as I gave it to a friend, I said, "I guess it's kind of personal, with all these metaphors." She was like, "It's REALLY personal." So I listened to it again and thought, "Holy shit." But the process took a long time to get that honest.
Do you have an ideal writing environment?
The only thing is that I have to be by myself. I don't care where or when. I can't be too aware of what I'm doing. And if somebody else is aware, it's over.
And you need the TV.
Yeah, just not a show I'm not too interested in. And I can't be thinking too much about the subject matter I'm writing about.
So perhaps the TV allowed you that emotional distance and was able to distract you just enough from what you were writing about.
Absolutely. The TV allows me to freewrite, where I can just write and write and not think too much about my subject matter. If I tried to sit down and write the hookiest song ever, I couldn't do it. I'd lose patience, then end up really watching TV.
How important is it for you to start and finish a song in the same sitting? Would dragging the process out make the song lose its emotional power?
I don't think I've ever finished a song in one sitting. A friend told me that if I just took the extra 15 minutes to finish a song, my life would be so much easier. Once it starts coming, I have to put it on my iPhone before I forget it. The skeleton of the song is what matters. That initial sound and melody is so important, I just want to record it and move on to something else. That's my theory. I don't want to spend two hours on one idea when I can have six ideas in the same amount of time and I can go back later to pick what's really good.
Do you write any songs that are so hard to finish that you think they weren't meant to be?
Lyrically, I work as hard as I can. But musically, it's not the same for me. One song we recorded for Night of the Furies I think is still one of our best songs, but I couldn't put the right horn part on it when we were writing. I couldn't understand why it didn't work, and I had been using different horn parts on it for a few years. I did give up on it, or at least set it aside to revisit it.
I do believe that the initial ideas should be easy. If you're honest, they come out easily. It's not a true statement if you had to spend three years creating a guitar melody. If the music doesn't come out easy when you're writing it, the listener is going to hear that it's klunky.
How active are you in seeking topics to write about?
I've started to try to seek it a little more, but I don't know what inspires me. I look at art magazines, and it's inspiring to see what other people are doing. I just try to surround myself with artistic people. All the bands here in Raleigh are amazing. I want to make good records because they do; they're all my friends and I want them to like my records. But I get just as inspired thinking about childhood memories and about my family.
Some songwriters I've talked to go to art galleries to help the inspiration process.
Painters spend so much time on one piece, it's amazing. Yeah, on this last tour I went to every art gallery I could, anything I could to to avoid sitting around. That way, when I'm sitting around watching TV writing a song, I can think about those images. Laughs.
When writing this album, how important was emotional distance from your subject matter?
Distance was better because it allowed me to reflect on what was going on. I could transport myself back to that time with more of an objective eye. It's way easier than to write that way, instead of being overwhelmed with what's happening right now in my life. I'm just trying to write when I'm ready to write.
I like this interview because it brings up points of maybe what I should be doing. Like maybe I should be journaling about what's going on in my life now. But there's usually a six-month lapse for me, where I write about what happened six months ago, or the music that I listened to six months ago will just now seep into my songwriting.
What do you do when you get writer's block?
I quit writing and stop trying to force it out. I usually don't have a problem with that because I just won't write for a while. We're going out on tour now for two months, and I don't plan on writing songs.
When it's time to do a record, I give myself enough time so that I don't have to force it. That way I can be honest with myself. That's why all the Rosebuds records sound different: I have to be really excited about the music I'm making. Otherwise, it's not worth doing. But that excitement is what carries me throughout the process. It's an amazing feeling when you are creating something like that, because you don't really care if anyone else sees it. It's for you.
Do you notice a difference in the quality of music you make when you're not that excited?
Definitely. And I won't even be interested in hearing it.
Can you sit down for long stretches at a time and write?
Absolutely. I've done it for weeks before. When Kelly and I lived together and wrote The Night of the Furies, I'm pretty sure I was in a room alone for a week solid before I saw anybody. That was when I discovered that I could write songs. I had been wanting to do it all my life but didn't know how to do it, and all of the sudden it happened.
Do you have any other creative outlets besides songwriting?
I painted until I was about 12, then I started focusing on writing songs. I live two opposite lives. I work out really hard and will play basketball four hours a day. It's not creative, but it's more like a meditation process that allows me to be creative when it's time. If all I did was write songs every day, I could never sustain that. I need movement creativity. Other people might use yoga, but that's what basketball and surfing does for me.
Do you run? There's a lot of research that shows how running leads to intense periods of creativity. And there's also the power walking skills of Stu McLamb of The Love Language.
When I was putting together the live band for our new record, that's what I did. I would just run. And since my iPhone has a notepad, I'd just stop in the middle of my run and start typing. Ideas, lyrics, anything.
How much reading do you get to do? Does it influence your songwriting?
I'm a Hemingway guy. The Sun Also Rises is one of my favorite books. But I think my favorite is Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. I was never a big reader and never made time for it until Kelly started telling me to read all these books. A lot of the Rosebuds' lyrics come from the nature imagery I've found in books.
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