After reading this interview with Franz Nicolay, you'll want to do two things: brush up on your classic works of literature and practice your detective skills. Because according to Nicolay, his songs are like puzzles: he fills them with literary references waiting to be discovered and word games waiting to be solved. Nicolay is a voracious reader, so it comes as no surprise that his lyrics contain many references to works of literature, and he's constantly mining those works for a line or a reference he can stick in a song. Given the methodical nature and intensity with which he approaches his songwriting, the depth of his lyrics comes as no surprise.
Nicolay was the keyboard player for The Hold Steady from 2004 to 2010, and last year he released the solo album Luck and Courage. I interviewed Nicolay a couple of weeks ago one sunny day on the deck of his mother-in-law's house here in suburban DC. Read my interview with Franz Nicolay after the video.
Many songwriters tell me that when they write, the meaning of the lyrics is not as important as how the words sound.
That's a realistic assessment of how people consume songs. If a song is catchy enough and has a certain emotional tenor from the interplay between the chords and the melody, people can bring to lyrics a depth that doesn't normally exist. Because the music strikes emotional chords in the listener that have nothing to do with the lyrics.
It's a question of what makes music such an emotional experience in the first place.
This is exactly why I've been so interested in Tin Pan Alley songwriters. They fall smack in the middle of that continuum I was talking about. A lot of times you're dealing with a separation of responsibilities when there's a songwriting team. Especially when you have the melody first, you're like a classical poet working within constrained schema. Or you're like a haiku writer: you still have to inject meaning into those confined parameters. In a poetic sense, your stresses are already there for you.
Do you subscribe to the belief that true creativity emerges from boredom?
You need downtime to process things, which is why so many people say that epiphanies come to then in dreams. If you don't have stimuli, though, it's hard to create. I would rephrase that and say the key to creativity is structure and deadlines.
How disciplined are you as a writer? Are you more disciplined now than you were in your 20s?
I heard Louis C.K. taking about this. He used to be undisciplined in his routine until he finally said to himself, "I'm a grown man, this is my job, and I have to treat writing like a job or else I can't feed my kids." I wonder if that thought depends on how long people think they are going to be doing this. There are people who are lifers and people who aren't thinking that far ahead. But if you are a songwriter at a certain level and you are a public figure to a certain extent, you don't have to produce that much material. If you produce 12 songs every two years, your career isn't going to end. So you can get away with not writing so much if you just keep touring.
I also think it depends on your subject matter. You can trace a trajectory in people's subject matter as they continue to write. The first 50 songs are about girls and heartache, then you run out of material. I really think you grow out of that at a certain point and you start writing narrative songs or third person songs about things unrelated to romantic troubles. I may be projecting out of my own experience, but a lot of people have one album's worth of songs in them. They all have one big story. A lot fewer people have three big stories.
How active are you when it comes to seeking inspiration?
I'm more active about it now than I used to be. I used to be one of those people who wrote about the typical songwriting topics. I was producing a huge amount of songs when I was 18, 19, 20 years old. I would write 30 songs in three months. But it doesn't come as fast now. Part of it has to do with quality control: most of those songs were shitty. And the other part of it is that I tour a lot, and it's hard for me to write on tour.
Why is it so hard to write on tour? Is it a time issue or a focus issue?
It's both. I tour by myself, so I get up, drive 300 miles, soundcheck, have dinner, relax, play the show, go to a friend's house to socialize, then go to sleep. There's no time there. I have a giant text file on my laptop that's just place names, scraps of overheard conversation, weird signs I saw, or something I read. All this random stuff that piles up as I tour. If my schedule is 9 months of touring and 3 months of writing and recording, on the road I assemble huge scraps: phone recordings of a melody, some little lick, some chord progression, then a huge text file of lyric ideas and inspiration. So when I have time to sit down, I open up the file of music and the file of lyrics and start mixing and matching.
When I was younger, I wrote much the way Dave (Hause) told you he works: I'd come up with a melody, then start hanging vowel songs on it and try to make the songs meaningful. Then I got interested in the Tin Pan Alley stuff in my early 20s, so I'd try to hang lyrics on those melodies.
Right now I'm in the middle of a process where I'm more interested in the words. That came out of writing those short stories in the Complicated Gardening Techniques (Nicolay's short story collection). I became a lot more verbal with the stuff I was producing. The last summer I was touring with the Hold Steady, I wasn't really happy, and I also wasn't drinking for the first time in a long time. So I was getting up really early. We were on a bus and we'd arrive somewhere first thing in the morning. I'd wake up at 8am, drink a pot of coffee and have all day to just write in the front lounge of the bus or in a coffee shop while everyone was still asleep. Some of those words became stories, some became magazine pieces, and a lot became songs. But it was all written as prose first, then it became that mix and match process.
Does the discipline of writing long form pieces make you more disciplined as a songwriter?
It made me more rigorous about the literary construction of the lyrics in the sense that I would go through line by line and make sure that everything was serving a purpose within the narrative. I'd make sure those words weren't there just because I needed a line for the melody or they weren't just placeholder words.
So when you start to write, do you think about the genre that the piece might best fit in?
I don't. There are stories that I know I want to tell, and I'm not sure if they are going to be a prose story or a song.
How do you decide?
It depends. For example, there's a song on Major General called "Word/Inferno Vs. The End of the Evening." The story is about this one night that I always see as the apex of my World Inferno experience. We were in New Orleans playing in front of no one except this troupe of anarchist clowns in this club. The bartender had been fired and it was pouring rain, and the owners asked him to finish his shift. So it was basically us playing to 13 people in clown makeup. The bartender was getting wasted, and he collapsed as he was helping take down our stage after the show. He told us to take whatever we want and passed out. So we took over the bar, poured shots, and broke down the bar and loaded pieces into our vans. It was a story that I knew I was going to have to tell. It ended up being in that song, in the space of just one stanza. I didn't think it needed to be any longer than that.
There are some songs, like one on Luck and Courage called "Felix and Adelita," that are more narrative based. That song came to me in a dream. It reads like a Raymond Carver story; it's a vignette about a couple. Things aren't really working out for them, but I never explicitly say that in the song. I didn't have access to what it was in my subconscious that puked up this story. These were names out of the blue, though it turns out that in Latin "Felix" means luck and "Adelita" in Mexican folklore has a connotation of courage. So I wrote another song that was a companion piece to that song called "Luck and Courage" because I wanted to expand on that story. At some point I would like to revisit those characters in a prose form.
photo by Miles Kerr
How sensitive are you to your environment in your waking hours? Are you constantly mining the sights and the sounds for song ideas?
I'm always looking for them now, as opposed to ten years ago. That's a form of discipline for me. When I was younger, I was always blithely confident that I'd have something to write about. Now, I'm realizing how rich every day life is with detail, especially when I travel. If you sit around waiting for inspiration, you'll end up with songs that aren't that full of detail. There's a Tom Waits quote that I don't remember exactly, but he says something about every song needing the name of a town, a ship, and a train. His point is that specific detail, like any name of a town or a person, brings with it this penumbra of associations that can aggregate to your songs that you can use to your benefit without having to spell it all out. You're immediately in a place when you hear those names.
I'm situating a lot of my songs in the American southwest. I don't know why, since I don't spend a lot of time there except for driving. Geographically, it's a blank slate, so that might be one reason. And there's this aspect to it now about the borderland that has some sort of weight to it. And there's the Cormac McCarthy aspect to it. I've set a couple of songs in Tuscon and a couple in San Diego county. Maybe because the names are Spanish and have this euphonic quality to them.
Sam Shepard writes a lot about that area, the frontier quality and open space of it.
I think that's it, the open space quality to it. It's the last vestige of the American west, where you can go there and disappear.
One of the topics that comes up with songwriters is whether song lyrics can ever be considered poetry.
Lyrics can be poetic, but they aren't poetry. Music is different from poetry because it involves the craft of putting chords together. That's one of the things that makes it more of a four dimensional chess game: you have to choose what kind of melody or chord structure you are going to hang the lyrics on. There are people all over the spectrum, from the power pop thing, with complicated chord structures, specific melodies, and vowel sounds that you hang on those melodies, all the way to hip hop or even Craig Finn. He edits a little bit to fit the musical necessities, but not much. He operates a lot more like a rapper than anything else.
You grew up in a small town and now live in Brooklyn. Do you think any part of your writing changes when you write in the city?
I write different kinds of songs when I'm not in New York. My sense is that it's more verbose and supercharged songs when I'm in New York. And I'm also more creative there because of the competitive aspect of it. When I'm home, every day is a long list of to dos all over New York, and then I start to wonder what my friends are doing. It's a supercharged competitive energy.
On the flip side though, do you ever think about writing in a cabin in the White Mountains of New Hampshire?
That would be a different kind of writing. I'd write a lot of prose and a lot of the chamber music that way. When I write for Anti-Social Music or some of the other chamber music groups, that requires discipline of hours at the piano. It requires an absence of stimuli that I'd otherwise need for lyric ideas. It requires calmness, and I can't write it in scraps.
What do you do when you get writer's block?
I read. It's problematic to get inspiration from other people's lyrics. I will take inspiration from someone else's lyrical cadence, and those are the people who tend to write their lyrics first. John Darnielle is prolific and particular, and a lot of his songs share an emotional tenor of paranoia and impending doom, and they share a similar lyrical cadence. When you get a rhythmic cadence in your head in terms of the rhyme scheme, if you don't have music that you know you are going to set it to, it can become too predictable. I don't think he repeats himself, but his rhythmic cadence is similar.
The second answer is that I will give myself genre exercises, where I write something in the style of someone else musically. It will not sound like them, but I might tell myself to, say, write a Motown song and explore that genre's conventions as far as figuring out how the chords work. It'll end up sounding like a new, more interesting version of me. When I'm stuck, and I have a verse and a chorus but need a bridge, this really helps. I found that to be useful when I was writing music for the Hold Steady, because Craig is going to write the way he writes regardless of the musical underpinnings.
The third writer's block cure is just reading. I read a lot anyway, and there's another file on my computer that's just quotes from things I read. Those quotables come from all over the place. I don't like to spell them out all that much because I think it's fun for people to discover, to leave these little Easter eggs and references in lyrics, quotes from lyricists and writers. I want to be elusive about it.
What do you read?
The New Yorker all the time, but I've gotten a lot of song ideas from the New York Review of Books. I've said this before, but my favorite writers are people like Nabokov and Calvino and Borges, people who include games and allusions and hidden stuff for the reader to puzzle over. I like to think of some of my songs as musical versions of acrostics. A guy emailed me once to tell me he actually figured out that the first two chords of "Felix and Adelita" are F and A.
Do you have any ideal emotion when you get your best writing done?
Yes, and I've thought about this. My songs are aiming for a specific thing, somewhere between poignancy and pathos. In one word, bittersweet. There are all sort of arrows aiming at the pinprick in the middle. I am usually at my best when I'm somewhere in the middle; so it's deadpan black comedy meeting existential melancholy.
Some songwriters tell me that they write their best when hungover.
My wife tells me that I'm funnier when I'm hungover, but I don't think I'm a good songwriter when I am. It's the same thing when it comes to being stoned. I don't understand how people can write good songs in that state. Hangovers and weed both do keep people from overthinking. When I'm drinking, my lyrics devolve pretty quickly, but I think I write more broadly in that state, like writing a sloganeering chorus. My first glass of wine is often good for loosening my tongue, but after that fourth glass? Not so good anymore.
Is there a time of day when you are most productive?
I've done my most fluid and verbose writing when I'm not drinking, I get up early, have a pot of coffee, and work from 8am until noon. But working with instruments is an after midnight thing.
How has your writing process changed over time?
When I was a teenager through college, I was writing a lot of first person songs with a similar routine: chords first, then melody then lyrics, so the lyrics were often a byproduct. Then I went through those genre exercises, and now I'm at a point where I write a lot of the lyrics first. Writing lyrics first is about the novelty of working with a new tool. I've always been most inspired by things I'm not that good at, tools I'm not proficient at. I write the most songs on instruments I'm still learning, so the process of learning the instrument is also the process of writing the songs. When I was learning to play guitar between the ages of 16-22, most of those songs were written on guitar. Once I reached a proficiency where I was no longer having discovery moments of finding new chords, I picked up an accordion and wrote a lot of songs on that. Once I reached a level or proficiency with that, I moved to the banjo, which is where I am now.
From a verbal point of view, I figured out how to use irregular rhyme schemes, internal rhyme, assonance, things like that. That's part of why my new songs are so verbal: it's the new tool I'm playing with now. You want to always be expanding your palate while still enjoying the simple pleasures of songwriting. Playing a G chord and C chord on piano is not new to me, but on the banjo it is. For something to be new, I need to find new ways to play that combination.
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