Kurt Wagner, Lambchop

Salon magazine recently called Kurt Wagner of Lambchop the "greatest working American songwriter." But Wagner is not only a terrific songwriter, he's also one hell of a painter who has received considerable notice for his talents as a visual artist. In fact, Wagner was a painter before he was ever a songwriter (he has both an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree in sculpture). And these two creative endeavors constantly inform the other: not only do their processes overlap, but a visit to an art gallery might inspire Wagner to write a song. In that sense, then, this is not just an interview with songwriter. It's an interview with an artist. 

I want to start by asking why you think so many songwriters are also visual artists.

The way I look at it, they are just artists. Whether it's visual artists, songwriters, dancers, whatever. They have ideas and love to realize them in some way.

How do you think being a visual artist affects your songwriting process?

I think it depends on the background in visual arts.  Some people just paint and draw without any other background. They just pick up a pencil and do it.  Other people go to art school. When they do that, they learn to be more analytical about what they are doing. That's what going to school gets you to do: it gets you to think about what in the hell you are doing.  And it makes you question why you do what you do.

I imagine that a beautiful place like Montana, where you went to school, is conducive to the creative process.  How does environment affect your creative process? Does where you create matter?

For me, it does.  Where I live is a feature of what I create, because an important part of the process is observing what's around you.

When it comes to songwriting, are you flexible with where and when you create?

I need space in order to create.  I can start to write when I'm on the road, whenever I have idle time, but I do need focused and uninterrupted time.  I am open to writing at different times and places, though, because it seems that whenever I think I've established that ideal writing environment, it doesn't work and I prove myself wrong.

Would you call yourself a visual songwriter? When you write songs, do you see images?

I wouldn't say that's the case.  What I do as a songwriter is more about the process of observation and perception and how I deal with those perceptions once they come out the other end, whether it's in the form of song or a painting.  To me, it's not that literal.  It has to more with how I process my experiences.

Do you have a typical songwriting process?

Over the past twenty years, I've tried a lot of processes.  in fact, I'm fascinated with going about the idea of making things, whether it's painting or music.  I try a lot of different techniques to get things going, and it's fun to come up with new ways to get the process started based upon what my general life experiences are. As far as the actual nuts of bolts of making a song, I've tried everything, from writing a song a day for a year to not writing at all and working on one song for a year.  In a way, there's not a set method, but it's more about allowing myself the time to realize something, whether that takes a year or a day.  And those limitations can be arbitrary.

Many writers talk about the importance of writing every day, even if it means writing badly.

Exactly. In fact, writing bad shit was something I really understood when I first started. Laughs. The exercise was never about writing something good.  Instead, it was just about completing an idea each day, then hopefully by virtue of time going by, I'd come up with something good.  That worked out fine for a while.  There's a similar notion in painting, that it has to be a part of the artist's life each day. You don't have to be painting 12 hours a day.  You just have to go to the studio.  Even thinking about the process, not even actually doing it, is time well-spent.  Sitting in the studio and just staring at stuff is part of the creative process.

Yes.  And that's the same thing with writing.  Thinking about what you're going to write is still part of the writing process.  A big part of the creative process is the brainstorming.

But writing is a good example of something that you can do every day.  I think I came up with the idea in graduate school when I was studying with David Dunlap.  His method was all about drawing every day, just carrying around  a little pad.  He had bookcases full of notebooks full of drawings.  

The idea of life and art coexisting daily is very fulfilling.  There's not a lot of pressure to make something great.  It's about a continuum of art just being a part of your life.  If you do it like that, just by virtue of living, you are making art.

Nils Lofgren of the E Street Band told me recently that when he starts writing a new album, his first month of writing is just about getting the rust out.  It's pretty bad stuff at first, so that the rust is gone when it comes time to record.

The scary thing is that some people are so ultra gifted that a lot of what they do is great.  I'm not one of those people. Laughs. I have to work hard at what I do, and what I have going for me is the determination to continue regardless of my limitations.  The super talented people I know are ironically the least motivated. That's the way it is.  For some people, it doesn't come as easily; for them, it's about determination or dedication to the notion.

Do you have to work at inspiration? Or do you let it come to you?

I can see both points of view.  When I was younger, I approached things differently.  But a lot of it has to do with the context of the time in which you are working and what's going on around you.  That's where I draw my best stuff now.  I mean, Hemingway didn't have the internet, and that's a big difference, because that's all the young people of today know. They have a different perspective.  But you've interviewed people who have been writing for over 30 years, and I'll bet they would tell you that they write differently now, not just because they are older, but because the world is different. No longer are songwriters just songwriters.  There's so many other things that go along with being a songwriter.

On a practical level, are you able to write for long stretches of time, or do you need to take frequent breaks?

I can do that sometimes, but I'm too much of a victim to other things that go on in my life. I guess that's what I was alluding to when I was talking about the way things are now as opposed to the way things were when I started writing. I was asking myself this because I wonder if it's because I'm getting older and slowing down, or is it because things have changed? I think it's more because of what happens when I create a body of work and suddenly I have to do things like promote this body of work.  That was the only thing that concerned me when I first started writing, because just writing songs and recording them was enough for me.  I wasn't doing it for any other reason.  It was just like painting for me: I'd create something, then hang it on the wall. The wall is bigger when you talk about songwriting.

photo courtesy Merge Records

photo courtesy Merge Records

Do you have an ideal emotion when you write?

A lot of different emotions, though I do find that studying and enjoying other people's work is an inspiration.  It reinforces the idea that I'm not completely crazy going about this thing that I'm doing.  When I'm moved by someone else's work, it makes me want to create work as well that moves others.  I never say to myself, "Oooh, I should be writing a song about that." To me, that's the kiss of the death for an idea to articulate it in that way. Things get filed away in my "experience locker" in my brain, and eventually they trickle out depending on how an idea first got started.  Often times, it isn't until much later, when I've decided that it's complete, that I even know what it is.  Sometimes I never know.

When you write, do you use a computer or do you compose longhand?

When I started, I wrote on a typewriter, but then I got into word processing because I loved the cut and paste aspect. I love the visual aspect of being able to copy something and move it around and the notion that the words are fluid.

Do you do a lot of revision to your lyrics?

Oh God yes.  That's the way I've been writing songs lately, just spending a lot of time on revision. Drawing another correlation to the way I paint, I have a very odd technique to the way I paint. It takes a long time. It's not unusual for me to spend a year on a painting. Oddly, songwriting rarely labors anywhere near that long, though lately it's taken longer because I'm more about revision and allowing things to settle.  That's different from when I first started, when it was an immediate construction and I never messed with it after that first draft. It just seemed fine and strange and quirky, so I left it alone.  But I've actually learned to be a better writer by trying different ways to write and learning how others do it, whether it's a novelist or a songwriter. The process part is so interesting to me.  Just thinking about the idea of the process can lead to something interesting.

And you have to read good writing to be a better writer. But you have to also analyze why it's good. Being a good writer is hard work.

You're absolutely right, and that goes back to being analytical and asking yourself why a piece is good and why it's bad. I would amend what you just said to say that you should read bad writing to know why it's bad.

What do you do when you have writer's block?

Not write! Laughs. There's no trick.  It goes back to the process part of it and the fact that being an artist is always a part of my life.  There are days when things happen and days they don't.  But I don't look at it as writer's block.  Sometimes it comes, and sometimes it doesn't, and that's part of my day. If you think about writing every day, it's not always the writing you do that's important, but the "not writing" that you do. And allowing that space to be what it is.

When I think of writer's block, I always think of some Hollywood writer in a bungalow, trying to get that damn screenplay done because they're shooting the next day.  But it doesn't need to be that way. I think about the songwriters you've interviewed, people who had great success in the 80s but who are still writing. And I wonder if they even get writer's block anymore since they don't have the same demands they once had. I don't take it for granted, though.  At any given time, that might be it, and I might have no more to say. That's also something to think about: maybe on that day you don't have anything else to say.  And is that bad? No, because it will come again, and it really depends on opening yourself up to the notion that you are human and things happen for a reason and that you can't control it.

The poet William Stafford once said that if you have writer's block, lower your standards.  What he meant was that we shouldn't think that everything we have to say is so important to the world.

Laughs. Yeah, there's that. And that's a good thing to keep in mind as any type of artist. Sometimes you don't have to be so damn serious about what you're making.  If you're getting something out it, some sort of fulfillment, that's often good enough.

Some of the songwriters I've interviewed who are also visual artists tell me that when they get stuck writing, they start to draw, which helps them write again.

That's interesting.  I was trained to be a painter, and then somehow I got into music to the point that I realized I wasn't painting anymore. But I knew I would come back to it at some point, so about three years ago I decided that I would make a dedicated effort to make painting a part of who I am as a creative person. I focused on it a lot, and the songwriting didn't happen as often.  But at some point I knew they would co-exist, so I found a way to do that.  And it was great, even though I think it was important that I didn't write songs for a while. When I came back, it was great.  I never worried when I wasn't writing songs because I knew it would come back once I started again.

Do you start and finish a song in same sitting?

I tend not let it stretch out over a period of time.  I was always open to the idea when I was younger, but I was more impatient because once I started something I wanted to see it finished.  I would push myself, but songs have always been different.  Some happen immediately, others take a lot longer to realize.  It has to do with how much weight you want to give an idea.  Because in painting and in visual art, there are immediate ways of expressing that idea, and there are elongated ways of doing things.  Gesture drawings can be done in twenty seconds, but I can also spend a year on a painting.  And they can be equally important.

How do you know when a song is done?

What I think is cool about songs as opposed to other types of writing is that they are living things meant to be performed.  And they can be varied throughout the course of their lives once you introduce them to the world.  It's up for grabs.  The possibility of it changing, even drastically, is always there, and that's not the case with a painting or a book. Songs are alive.

One thing I've noticed in my interviews is that songwriters are so much more well-read than the general public.  How much reading do you get to do?

I'm probably one of the least well-read people you've talked to! Laughs. But when I read, I'm all over the map.  What I'm reading now is Love Saves the Day by Tim Lawrence. It's a historical overview of the disco movement in the 70s.  It's incredible. It focused on David Mancuso, who started these house parties, and out of that arose disco.  It shows how something so simple can take hold of a generation and generations to come.

When you are on tour, do you try to visit art museums?

It's an intent of mine, but it's a rare treat because I usually don't have time.  I tend to hang out in art museums for a while and it's hard to make time for it.

Does visual art inspire you to write songs?

Oh yeah.  It's not a literal thing where I see a picture of a landscape and decide to write about it.  It's more about the emotional residue that I carry away from the experience of taking the time to look at a painting.  Films move me a great deal in that sense as well.  It seems to unlock certain emotions, and I feel like I've entered some sort of sharing circle with the filmmaker, and I feel obliged to share that experience with someone else.

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