At the beginning of our interview, Carl Newman of The New Pornographers said that he didn’t think he had a process. He insisted that he was “absolutely not a disciplined writer.” But as he discovered by the time we finished talking, he does have a process. In fact, it’s happening all the time, probably as you read this.
Newman may not sit down to write every day or may not have structured writing time, but according to him, “There’s an obsession in the back of my head that always makes me think about writing. I’m distracted by the idea of songwriting.” I get the sense that Newman is never not thinking about music. He’s always picking up words or turns of a phrase, and he’s always got melodies in his head. So it’s a nonstop process, even though it’s not a deliberate and conscious one. But the act of actually sitting down to write is “painful,” says Newman.
Read my interview with Carl Newman after the video. We get to the bottom of his creative process, but we also talk about Infinite Jest, his obsession with 10cc, and why lyrics are such a punishing part of his songwriting process. And course, we talk about the role that turn signals and windshield wipers play in his creative process.
Newman opens the interview:
Speaking of songwriting, being home with a quiet house reminds me of how my life used to be before I had a family, before I was on the road all the time. This was it: me, by myself, pacing around the house, drinking coffee
Rhett Miller told me that you are a voracious reader. Miller reads all the time, but he says you read more than he does. I travel a lot too and find that it would probably take me months to finish a book, so I stick to pieces from magazines.
I read books more than anything else. My wife reads a lot of things like the New Yorker, which I wish I could do more of. My reading goes in waves. When I'm busy with other things, I may not read for a long time. I went for about two and a half years one time where I tried to average a book a week. And I did it. I got back on the horse this last tour and started reading a lot again.
The end of the day is the best time for reading. Or a time like today when there's no one around. I am reading a pretty amazing book now called A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. It came out in 2014 and it's about Jamaica in the 70s, at least the part I'm reading now. It's fictionalized, but it centers around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley. It's told from multiple first person narrators. It's fantastic.
Does your reading ever inform your songwriting process?
Sometimes a word or a turn of phrase excites me. I’ll see a word and think, Hmmm. That’s a cool word. Like hipshot, that’s a cool word. I think I used that in a song once. That's why I like reading. I'm hoping through osmosis I’ll become a better writer, since you have to read a lot if you want to be a good writer.
Even if I'm reading something way over my head, I'm hoping it will just sink in. Who cares if I'm reading Gravity’s Rainbow and it’s going way over my head? I hope that I'm learning even though I may not know I'm learning. But when I'm heavy into making a record, I’m not reading as much.
Are there periods when you deliberately don't write? I've had artists tell me that they stop writing for a period so they can “fill the well.”
My process is so crazy, I don't know that I even have a process. In a way, I'm always writing. If I'm driving down the road, I might get an idea, so I sing it or hum it into my phone. Then I forget about it, because it’s in my phone and I know that it’s recorded. I’ll listen to those voice notes at some point and think, I've written some decent things here. But that’s more just brainstorming. As far as sitting down to actually write? That process is very painful. When I go to my studio to work for a few hours, I'm suddenly staring into the depths of my own mediocrity. I think, I can’t do this!
Because I have to start from nothing. It’s hard to start from nothing when I look back at what I've done in my life and see a finished product. I look back at something I've done and realize how much effort it took. It’s hard to spend a few days working on something only to realize that it’s not there yet.
I'm also always trying to figure out what I can do differently. I don't go into writing thinking, Let’s do more of that thing I do. I'm always trying to figure a different approach. Even if I can't avoid my style and the finished product still sounds like me, I'm always thinking about getting there in a different way.
Maybe that’s not the smartest way to be a songwriter. But it makes the process more bearable for me. For example, instead of sitting down and playing a bunch of chords and writing some words, I might just start with a noise, like a beat or a sound effect. For me, it’s all about approaching music from a different angle.
That reminds me of what Josh Carter of Phantogram told me a few years ago. The sound of his car going over covered bridges in New York inspired some of the beats on their album.
Isn’t that how “Jive Talkin’” by the Bee Gees started? That shuffle? I thought I read that it was inspired by the sound of a car driving over the Brooklyn Bridge. I can certainly see that. When I'm thinking about songwriting and I get in a car, the rhythm of the wipers or the turn signal might stir something creatively. It would be interesting to see how many songs have the same tempo as windshield wipers or turn signals.
With all these melodies you record on your phone, do you go back at some point and go through all of them? Or do they just sit there waiting for a time when you need to be inspired?
A little of both. Sometimes if I know something is good, I’ll listen to it soon after. But usually I don't know the difference between a good idea and a bad idea. So I put that idea down and not think about it again. I listen to it a month later, having forgotten that I even did it. And if I like it, I think, It must be good because I like something that I don't even remember creating.
Do you write lyrics and set them aside as well?
Definitely. Lyrics are the most punishing for me because I always start with the music. It’s very important that the lyrics fit around the melody in a certain way. And that makes lyric writing difficult because I can’t always say what I want to say, or at least it’s very hard to. I have to reword things all the time. It’s like writing haiku. The line has to start with a certain syllable and has to have a certain number of syllables. The last word has to sound a certain way.
I wish I was one of those people who took lyrics and put them to music. That would be easier for me. I’m pretty sure Neko (Case) just writes prose and then puts music around it. That would make my life so much easier.
Have you tried that?
It doesn't really come naturally to me. I think you have to be a different kind of performer or artist to do that. Someone like Neko can write songs that are a little more rambling because she has that voice. People are more willing to follow her when she’s rambling. But I can’t do that. There are enough guys out there ramblin’. We don't need another. Both Neko and Dan (Bejar) have that quality. They can both write open-ended songs. Not long or sprawling, but their songs are a little more amorphous. I’m always trying to write things that are compartmentalized or segmented.
So the sounds of the words must be crucial then. Is that more important than their meaning?
It often is. In another time, I was not concerned with the meaning of the lyrics. I am more so now, even though realize that a lot of people still don’t understand what I'm talking about.
Why are you more concerned now?
I want the songs to have more of a narrative. Even if no one else knows there’s a narrative, it’s important that I know there’s one. But people want lyrics to mean something. It’s like the last Bon Iver record. It’s brilliant. You can tell that the lyrics are just there for sound. You read them and think, What the hell? It doesn’t matter, because it’s part of an amazing piece of work, where people will listen to it and create their own meaning. And that’s just as good.
Is there also a place where you keep all of these words and turns of phrases that you come across?
I use Evernote on my iPad. It’s great. I can connect my lyric ideas with my melody ideas there. I rarely write things down on paper.
Would you call yourself a disciplined writer?
I’m absolutely not a disciplined writer. But there’s an obsession in the back of my head that always makes me think about writing. Even if it’s just conceptually, it’s always in the back of my mind. I'm always distracted. I’d like to see that as a strength: I'm distracted by music. I'm distracted by the idea of songwriting. But when I have to sit down to finish something, that’s when it becomes painful. Then it’s work. They say that genius is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration? I hate that perspiration part.
The songwriters I’ve interviewed who have been around the longest always dismiss the idea of the muse. They say you can't sit around. You have to work at it.
The idea of the muse is a nonsensical idea to me. If you can sit around waiting for genius to strike, good for you. More power to you. When we’re in the studio, we have to plow through. Even if you're having the worst day and everything you’re doing sucks, you have to keep going. You keep playing guitar or laying down vocals. Then you listen a few days later and realize you did some pretty good stuff that day.
There’s one song on Brill Bruisers called “Wide Eyes.” I remember starting to demo it on acoustic guitar, and halfway through I remember thinking, Just stop. This sucks. I really wanted to give up, and I was so close to saying to John, “Let’s just do something else.” But I got through it and did a few other overdubs and realized it was pretty good. I had to get through that I hate my life, everything sucks moment.
Is that song more gratifying because you plowed through and finished?
It was, but I don't look forward to that happening. Laughs. John’s coming here in a few weeks to do some more recording. I’m thinking it’s going to be fun because I know there will be some eureka moments when we create something, but I also know there will be maddening moments when I want to give up. I'm not complaining, because it’s all part of this great job I have. I'd rather have these internal struggles than have a boss I can’t stand.
With all those distractions you mention, how consciously aware are you of your environment when it comes to mining for song ideas?
I look at my life and we have a pretty quite life around here. I'm a married guy with a three year old. And I think, I don't really want to write about this. I'd rather create some short story. When it comes to books, I don't want to read about everyday people. I don't want to read about people like me. I don't want to write about me either. I'd rather write about something more strange.
Does your environment make a difference?
I do like some solitude, but it doesn't matter where that is. I'm in Woodstock (New York) now and could write if I wanted to, but I just need space. When we first moved here I wandered around the woods on a spring day with an acoustic guitar, but I don't think it inspired me. Nothing seeped out of the Woodstock ether. The spirit of Rick Danko did not move me.
Does time of day matter?
I don't think it does. Laughs. Talking to you makes me realize what an undisciplined writer I am. It’s amazing I get anything done.
I find that as long as I know that I have things to write about, I'm ok. That thought gives me peace of mind.
I was just reading a quote by some writer who said, “Thoughts fly, but words go on foot.” And I think that's the most concise way to communicate the problems of a writer. You have ideas, and you have to get them down.
Rhett Miller told me to ask you about your habit of ending your choruses on vowel sounds.
Yeah, I do that a lot. For a while I was obsessed with the song “Dreadlock Holiday” by 10cc. The way he hit consonants so hard that they became vowels. Like, “I don’t like cricket-aaah/ I love it-aaah” So I've started adding vowels, in a very exaggerated way, to the end of words because I thought it sounds cool. But there’s something very musical about ending with a vowel sounds. It worked very well with “Hallelujah.”
How much do you revise your lyrics?
I revise all the time. I've found that for most of my songs, I write ten verses. I just write and write and write, trying to find the voice of the song. Because when you start with the music, you don't know what the song is about. You're waiting for something to tell you.
That’s got to be nice. You have all those verses to choose from!
I don’t know about that. It can also be depressing. You can also look at it as having ten verses for a three-verse song, and all of them suck. It’s more like What are the three least shitty verses I've written?
To a great degree, when I decide to make a record and begin my creative process, it’s instantly a revision process when I listen to those voice memos or look at the random lines I've written. It’s like building with Legos. I’ll think, This part here is great. If I combine it with that other thing I wrote, it might work. Once I get to the studio, I don't even worry about having the lyrics written, because I know I'm going to change them. A few years ago I stopped worrying about it since I knew the song was going to take a different form when I got to the studio. The whole process of recording involves revision.
Does that make it the initial writing process less stressful, knowing you’re going to change the lyrics anyway?
Well, it’s nice to be inspired by something. I love hearing a song come together and thinking, This sounds great. I work better when I'm excited, I don't work well when I'm depressed.
That was my next question: what’s your ideal emotion to get your best writing done?
I’d say content. Some people say that they write best when they're sad or depressed. I don't get that. I want to say to them, “You must have it a lot better than I do. Because when I'm sad or depressed, I'm crippled beyond writing.” So it must be nice to be one of those people who can be really sad and still work. I think that means you're not that sad. I think people who write when they're depressed are ironically the happiest people.
On a related note, many songwriters have told me that they get their best writing done when they are hung over. It’s something about the solitude and listening to your head when you’re hung over.
I could see that. It’s slightly different, but last year I was going through something really stressful. I was very unhappy and stressed out. I found myself during those few days just writing as a means of self-defense. I was stuck and on the road, and remember thinking, What else am I gonna do? Some of the stuff I wrote was pretty good. I was amazed how much I wrote.
What was the easiest you've ever written?
That’s very simple for me to answer. There’s a song on Electric Version called “The End of Medicine.” I wrote it in a way that I've never written before or since. The label needed a B side for a UK single, so I wrote the music one day and the music the next. It’s one of the few songs I can recall the time and place I wrote and recorded it.
I honestly can't tell you where and when I wrote most of my songs, since they take shape over a period of time. I think that’s a big part of my process: trying to find a home for different pieces of songs. I’ll have a little piece of music and think, This doesn't work on it’s own, but it can be amazing if I find a song for it.
Come to think of it, that’s a big part of my process: bits and pieces here and there, then finding places where they fit.
We started at the outset talking a little about books, but who are some of your favorite writers?
I love a lot of the postmodern writers, in the same way I love modern art. My favorite authors are people like Thomas Pynchon, John Haawkes, Steve Erickson, Boarez. I love writers who reach for something beyond me, where I can't quite figure them out. Like Ficciones by Borges. I can read that book fifty times and it would still be like reading it the first time because it’s such a mind-bending piece of work that I will never quite understand. But I will always enjoy it.
Have you ever read Infinite Jest?
I think I got about 100 pages into it. Remember when I told you I was on that “one book a week” kick? The books that I kept putting back on the pile were the bricks. Like Infinite Jest and Underworld by DeLillo and those 1,000 page William Vollmann novels.
Do you get to read much poetry?
Not too much. I find it hard just to read poetry. I don’t know the proper way to read it. Do you just sit down and read 100 pages of poetry? I feel like I should read one poem a day and just meditate on it. But I'm fascinated by poets who just use the sound of language, like ee cummings. Some of his poems, I just love the sound of the words. It doesn't matter what It’s about. The sounds are just so beautiful.