"You can't have purple prose and expect people to get to the core on their own," Kristin Welchez told me as we discussed her songwriting process. Welchez is the leader of the Dum Dum Girls with a new project under the moniker Kristin Kontrol. Welchez told me that she's always been "indulgent" in her words (it's feedback she's gotten since grade school) but that she tries to be as direct as possible in her songwriting. Stripping an idea to its bare essentials is the easiest way to minimize distance between you and the audience; it doesn't matter whether they're readers or concertgoers. To reinforce this idea to a young Welchez, one of her grade school English teachers gave her a copy of the book Writing Down the Bones, and she's tried to follow this precept ever since.
Welchez has been around words all her life. She's kept a journal ever since she was child, she majored in library science in college, and she is a voracious reader. What I love is that she sees herself as a writer, not just a songwriter. She recognizes the value that reading plays in her life as a (song)writer, telling me, "It's important to read if you're a songwriter. It's how you introduce new ideas, new words, new perspectives, and new writing styles into your own writing. When I go through periods of not reading as much as I like, I think my work reflects that absence." And in true writerly fashion, she has incorporated a writing routine into her life. She doesn't write when she feels like it, or when she has time, or when the muse strikes. She writes every day, often at the ungodly (for touring musicians) hour of 10am. "it's going to be better if I sit down and work at it. I want it to be seen as a piece of work. . . . Even if I don't have a great idea, it's still important to write something. Spoken like a true writer, indeed.
There's no doubt it's paid off: her new album X-Communicate is fantastic. Listen to the first single by the same name below, but check out the rest of the album as well.
What other writing do you do outside of songwriting?
I do a lot of diary writing. I've kept a journal ever since I was really young. I still have it, and it's been both horrifying and awesome to read at the same time. I dabble with short stories and editorial-type writing now too, but haven't been able to put too much time into it. I went to college (UC Santa Cruz) to study library science. I always thought of myself as a writer and that I was always going to be a writer.
I also felt very compelled as a performer, but I had a lot of self-confidence and self-esteem issues that took me much too long to work through. So because of that, I thought I would end up doing something with writing or even library science but that I would have a creative non-fiction outlet too. I eventually realized that it would make the most sense to combine all of those impulses.
Do you try to write every day?
It's pretty sporadic when I'm touring, but I try to be more regular about it when I'm at home. In writing this album, for the first time I took much more of a disciplined approach. I know there are a ton of writers who talk about their daily schedule and how they write every day, even if it's not connected to their current project. And for this album I felt like because I was starting on a new endeavor and one where I really wanted the bar to be a lot higher, I was going to get up and start writing at 10am every day because this was all so new to me. I ended up writing about 40 songs, most of which weren't good enough, but it was a really cool feeling to have that relationship with songwriting where I was around it every day.
I was much more interested this time around in establishing myself, even if it was just for myself, as consistently working and trying to get better. It's a practice-driven idea. I mean, even I come up with a perfect chorus while grocery shopping, which does happen, it's going to be better if I sit down and work at it. I want it to be seen as a piece of work.
That's a unique answer. Most songwriters tell me that they are incredibly undisciplined.
I'm lucky that I've never really had writer's block. I've always been able to be disciplined to sit down and see an idea though, then do it again and again and again over a period of a few months. But this new album really compacted that process into a much smaller timeframe. Even if I don't have a great idea, it's still important to sit down and write something.
What's your ideal writing environment?
Fortunately, I'm able to write in a lot of different places. I just need a comfortable space to write. I do need privacy, though, to eliminate the anxiety that comes with always wondering who can hear you when you're writing songs. That's tough in New York, where it's not easy to find isolation. A big turning point, when I crossed from writing unusable songs to writing songs that I like, came when I got out of my bedroom studio setup. It wasn't really conducive to writing, so I went across town to my best friend's apartment on the upper west side. He has a huge, beautiful place and he works during the day, so I transported my setup over there. It wasn't so much that I needed a big, beautiful space to write in; I just needed a space where I could feel comfortable.
That move really changed things. After that, I ended up moving to a different apartment with a dedicated music room, and that's where I did the bulk of the work on this album. All that being said, it's really more of a privacy thing. When I'm writing on the road, because I'm a singer I need to be able to use my voice when I write. And that's hard to do in a van. If I demo something somewhere else, I can work on it in the van. But I'm much more of a hotel room writer.
Many songwriters tell me that they don't write on the road, that they use that time, to "fill the well," to quote a phrase they like to use. But it's important to remember that the writing process takes place even when you aren't writing, isn't it?
That's very true. There's that age-old cliche that you have your whole life to write your first record and that your second record is all drawn from the period after your first record. Obviously, touring can make it hard to be productive on the road, but maybe there aren't a lot of big thoughts on the road. I've done it how you explained before, where I get home and tell myself it's time to write. So I'd rent an apartment in, say, Los Angeles to do some destination writing. And that works sometimes.
With Kristin Kontrol, I really wanted to do something different, to break out of the mold that Dum Dum Girls set for itself and for me. I had little control, for the most part, over my writing process and my art. I wanted to get out of that stop-start cycle and to establish a routine that wasn't so inconsistent. One of the hardest parts about being a working and touring musician is that you have an A/B life: you have touring, and then you have home. They can be really different. And you find yourself going through highs and lows, whether it relates to energy or perspective or the emotional strain of travel. I wanted to shake that perspective. So what I established while writing more regularly, with a routine, is something that I wanted to sustain all the time, not just while I was off the road.
I want to be consistently writing, because that's not something that I've ever done. I don't feel the same way now that I used to when I toured, where I was hyperfocused on touring. The performance part is fun and freeing, and it's the cherry on top of being a musician. But now I'm interested in writing consistently, whether at home or on the road.
How much reading do you get to do, and does that influence your songwriting?
For many years, I had trouble reading on tour because of motion sickness. And that was too bad because reading was such an escape for me, and it was something that I wasn't able to do too often. I always bring my Kindle with me, and I try not to take my computer into my bedroom and just take something to read instead. Right now I'm toggling between Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami and Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo.
It's important to read if you're a songwriter. It's how you introduce new ideas, new words, new perspectives, and new writing styles into your own writing. When I go through periods of not reading as much as I like, I think my work reflects that absence.
Do you read much poetry?
I do, and I've been reading a lot of Ariana Reines, a contemporary poet. I've religiously studied her poetry. As a teenager and a young twenty something, I was obsessed with Patti Smith. I had never come across anyone who hit me so powerfully and personally and whose work I could read on the page and see her perform it too. My favorite musicians are often writers, people like her, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave.
Is there a certain emotion when you get your best writing done?
I'd say the more extreme the emotion, the better, whether I'm enormously happy or excited or whether I'm overwhelmingly depressed. But I don't think there's a dominant mood I need to be in. My perspective has changed a lot, so songwriting is no longer the dominant outlet for my current emotional state. I'm trying to approach it as an outlet for many things. It could be an emotion, but it could also be a comment on a larger world perspective or a narrative of something that happened to me.
How much revising do you do to your lyrics?
I do a lot, and it's usually because I come up with the refrain or the main phrase spontaneously. It can happen anytime, and it doesn't need to be distilled any further because it's coming out as a catchy pop lyric. And then I use the verses to expand on that idea in a less direct way.
My whole life I've always been indulgent with my words, and that was always a criticism I got from English teachers: they told me that it was much more effective to articulate something profound in a simple and understandable way. One English teacher gave me a writing guide called Writing Down the Bones. It was about how to distill what you're trying to say into the bare essentials, because that's what your reader or audience will relate to. That's how you connect with them. You can't have purple prose and expect people to get to the core on their own.