Chris Collingwood, Fountains of Wayne

My family and I lived in upstate New York for four years, from 2002 to 2006, before we beat a hasty retreat back to our hometown of Washington, DC.  We lived in the small town of Hamilton, New York, near Syracuse, where winters can start in October and end in May. The snow never ends and the cold is unrelenting (we had 190 inches of snow our last winter there).  Yes, the countryside is beautiful, and the other three seasons are sublime--but they are far too short to really enjoy.

For some writers, this situation is ideal.  The forced isolation (unless you have snowshoes) and creative output go hand in hand: armed with bottomless hot chocolate, a pen, and a not unreasonable desire to stay warm, you can really crank out the words.  Pete Yorn, for instance, told me that if it weren't for the brutally cold winters during his undergrad days at Syracuse University, he may not have become a songwriter.

But for some, the winters can be depressing, literally.  You get in a funk so deep it's hard to do anything.  Which is why Chris Collingwood of Fountains of Wayne wants to move from western Massachusetts to sunny Los Angeles. Sure, he's written songs about sunshine and warm weather, but that's only because it's a fantasy in which he'd like to immerse himself, not because it's something he has all the time. The weather affects not just his mood, but the content of his songs.  ("Valley Winter Song" addresses those winters.) So if you are a Fountains of Wayne fan, do what you can to make sure Collingwood makes it out to southern California for good.  It'll be a boon to his songwriting.

Fountains of Wayne's new album Sky Full of Holes comes out August 2. Read my interview with Chris Collingwood after the video. (And I'll also be reviewing it in the Washington Post next week.)

Do you have any other artistic endeavors besides songwriting?

I'm pretty into photography.  I do it mostly for myself, taking pictures of my friends' bands around here around Northampton.  When I lived in New York, I belonged to one of those darkroom co-ops, where I'd pay a monthly fee that would allow me to go in and develop my own prints.

How do you think that artistic process influences your songwriting?

It's a completely different set of mental tools, but it's still about trying to figure how something is laid out. You could say that both have a level of appreciation of form.  I'm not into the kind of photography that's about something.  I don't like pictures for the subject matter; I like them for how they are composed.  As a result, I like a lot of the photographers from the 60s and 70s who were called "straight shooters."  In that sense, what makes a really formal composition is similar to the knowledge you'd need to have to write a good song. 

Jimmy Chamberlin recently told me that he doesn't want to write about a place, but about how he feels in that place. That sounds like a similar emotion that you want to get out of a good picture. Do you try to tell a story in your pictures?

Not really.  My appreciation is about formalism, where you learn to appreciate the shapes, the composition, and the way it's framed.  It's not about the subject matter in a  picture. And I think that understanding why some photographs are better than others, even when they are of the same subject, has to do with composition.  A photograph of a bench can be as beautiful as a photograph of a person. It just depends on the perspective.

I think it's important to appreciate art in any medium, not for what it's about but for how it makes you feel.

That's an interesting idea. I was talking about Robin Hitchock yesterday, and I think I compared him to T.S. Eliot because Hitchcock's words and the way they are stacked together are a collection of emotions and observations, rather than a concrete boy-meets-girl narrative. That's true of both men.  Your brain hasn't quite figured out what's going on and you're still being tugged emotionally one way or the other. There's something to be said for describing an experience and how it makes you feel instead of what happened in that experience.

Do you have a typical songwriting process?

I wish I had a good answer.  Adam is a lot more disciplined than I am.   There's no pattern whatsoever with regards to what I go with. I can't sit down and say, "Now I'm gonna work." The only way when I can be sure of maintaining a steady stream of things to finish is to keep enough things on the burner that I can go back to when inspiration strikes.

What do you keep on the burner?

Ideas.  My phone allows me to write things down wherever I am, then when I get back to my house I play them back.  And I have notepads with lyrical ideas that are tied to little snippets of audio in my phone. Sometimes I love playing with a literal idea and going with it, while other times I wait until the right combination of stacked images is in place. 

If you are going to divide the Fountains of Wayne songs, mine are more oblique and less directly about something. The literal ones for me are the easiest to write, like the song on the new record called "Dip in the Ocean." That came out all in one sitting.  It's about riding around in a car with the top down.  "Cold Comfort Flowers" and "Someone's Gonna Break Your Heart" were written over long periods of time, where a bunch of notes I've collected found their way into the songs somehow.  I reject the notion that a song has to be about something.  Sometimes it can be just a collection of ideas that all fit the same theme. 

 How do you find inspiration for your songs?

It depends on the time in my life.  A lot of the songs on the first record were set in New York, since I had just moved there a few years before.  There's certainly a sense of wonderment, just taking in the city, that comes out in that album. It's true that a lot of our later records are influenced by the traveling we did. Half of that first record is fascination with seeing so many things, and the other half just reflects the exhaustion. This new record is the first one I've done where all of my writing was done completely sober, so there's a little more pensiveness and a lot less recklessness.

Is environment important to your creative process?

Not at all.  A long time ago before the band even existed, I went to a songwriting symposium with Marshall Crenshaw, Jules Shear, Don Dixon, and James McMurtry.  A woman asked that same question, and Jules Shear said that the best place to write a song is in your head.  It depends on the song. Sometimes the golf course is a great place to clear my head and write, but sometimes I don't want my head to be clear. I can function well sometimes with the T.V on, the stereo playing, the air conditioning on, three pots of coffee.

Can you write in a public space?

Definitely not. I can't sit and hum things to myself and know that people are looking at me when I'm doing it.  I need to be by myself. I'd like to preserve the illusion that the songs came out as a pristine pearl.  I don't want people to hear all the abandoned versions. Laughs.

Did you do all your writing for the new album out there in western Massachusetts? I spent four years living in upstate New York near Syracuse, and I found the weather unbearable.  Was it hard to write during those cold dark winters?

Absolutely. I've taken medication for seasonal affective disorder, and now I have fake sunlight lamps that I turn on during the day.  They're very effective. The weather affects not just my mood but the content of my songs.  There's a song I wrote called "Valley Winter Song," which is about being stuck in your house and not able to go outside. That's something I deal with every winter, definitely seasonal depression.

Pete Yorn told me that when he was an undergrad at Syracuse, he loved the winters. Since he could never go outside, all he did was stay inside and write. Do you think moving to LA might cause too many distractions to your writing process?

Maybe, but I'm not so disciplined anyway.  It's not like I get a ton of work done because it's miserable outside.  Who knows, maybe I'll start writing songs about sunshine a lot more. I write songs about that now, but they have to do with escapism, not with really being in the sunshine.

photo by Chris Strong

photo by Chris Strong

You've had a lot of non-traditional song topics.  Was it a conscious revolt against what the typical song topics are out there?  

I wouldn't say that.  I'm trying to recall what I was thinking when our first record came out. It's easy in retrospect to ascribe a motivation to it, but really it was just a snapshot of what was going on at the time.  We were in New York City, and I had a computer programming job that earned me a lot of money. I had a lot more money then.  I was young and living in the city and drunk.  I don't think that came out of any desire to make a grand statement about the types of songs other people were writing.  I can appreciate stupid songs, I can appreciate oblique songs, and I can appreciate poetic songs. I'm a big fan of Aztec Camera, for example.   

Since you mention poetic songs, who are some of your favorite authors?

Nabokov is my favorite writer, but in that same vein I also love Martin Amis. He aspired to be a young Nabokov.  At least in the early days, he wrote with such fire, right up through The Information.  Sam Lipsyte, who teaches at Columbia, is another favorite.  His characters are dour and miserable. My taste in books is really different from my taste in songs.  If you applied my taste in books to songs, I would like songs with someone soloing virtuously the entire way. A song that makes no sense at all.  I like to read writers who are adept at their use of language, like the way Nabokov invents words all the time. I love writers who are challenging with words more than I love a good story.

Do you read much poetry?

I have a bunch of poetry books.  I like Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams. I went on a Wallace Stevens kick right when we reconvened to make this record. I wouldn't say that he's directly influenced my songwriting, but he has made my brain work in different ways.

What do you when you get writer's block?

I had horrible writer's block for Traffic and Weather, and as a result I only had three songs on that album.  In that case, I was consumed with alcohol and depression, so I stopped drinking and started writing.  I've never confronted it when there wasn't a handy explanation for why it was happening. 

The block was caused by external factors?

Yeah, I was drunk all the time. 

So you don't get blocked as much anymore?

I don't know.  I went through a pretty big phase of writing for this record, and as a result there are songs I've written that didn't even make the album.

How important is it for you to start and finish a song in the same sitting?

That almost never happens. I always go through a number of revisions.  Sometimes I'll forget how a song started and go back to listen to what it was before I started fucking with it. And the leaps and changes are amazing, how fast I got away from the original idea.  I do a lot of revising now. 

What are some of your revision techniques?

I concentrate on words.  I don't really add of words or ideas that weren't there in the first place, but I'll sacrifice the meaning just to make the lines sound good.  The emotion is more important than the facts of the case, as they say. Sometimes it's a simple as walking away and having fresh ears later. With "Dip in the Ocean," I wanted to use the line "Burning a hole in a gold afternoon" somewhere, and to do that I had to write a whole section around it.  So sometimes there are scraps that just have to make it into the song because I like the way a phrase sounds. 

Giving a piece distance is the best revision technique I know.

That's true with everything.  I don't know if you do crossword puzzles, but I do them every day.  I'll put it down when I'm stuck, I can pick it up an hour later and finish it in like five minutes. That's pretty instructive about how the brain works.

Do you ever work on something for so long, really struggle with it, and you just feel like maybe it's not meant to be?

If that ever happens, I try to salvage something from it.  I might save a turn of phrase or melodic idea to use somewhere else.  I won't bang on the door for too long if it's not working.

 As a songwriter, what have you learned about yourself working with Adam?

Adam's skill is in simplifying things.  And sometimes that's a good thing, but we butt heads when we disagree on that.  I remember something he said in an interview years ago that sums up the difference between us.  He said something like "You can't go in trying to change the world with every song." I have a different opinion about that.  The songs that really move me are those that are really ambitious, like "Born to Run."  It gets your blood flowing and your heart pounding.  You can't come out with a song like that if you're starting with no ambition whatsoever. But a lot of times, in the early days, I'd walk in with a complicated arrangement and we'd end up stripping stuff down, though that's not so true anymore.  We've influenced each other so much that a lot of people can no longer tell who's writing what songs. The prevailing wisdom used to be that he wrote the literal songs with punch lines and mine were the confusing ones.  But now that line is blurred.

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*photo by Chris Young