Carl Broemel, My Morning Jacket (2016)
Carl Broemel is a changed man.
In 2010, when I first interviewed Broemel, the guitarist for My Morning Jacket admitted that his "crazy lifestyle" unfortunately didn't leave him much time for reading. Sure, he had plans: he'd gaze longingly at that stack of books on his bedside table, wondering when he'd ever get to read them. But the stack mostly remained untouched.
It's a different story now, pun intended. Broemel devours books. He reads everything. I always ask songwriters what they're reading, and I get some great responses. But Broemel and I could've talked forever about what he's been reading, and the enthusiasm in his voice was obvious. He reads fiction and poetry; we shared our mutual adulation for Anthony Doerr's book All the Light We Cannot See (best book ever) and e.e. cummings. But Broemel is especially fond of books that ponder the meaning of human existence, whether it's about space exploration or deeper existential meaning. He cites Joseph Campbell, Alan Watts, Chris Impey, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson as his favorites. In short: Broemel is always reading.
Besides the obvious benefit of being a Worldly Man of Letters, Broemel's reading habit has done two things. One, in his eyes (and I agree), it's made him a much better songwriter. This is hardly a stretch: you cannot be a writer unless you're a reader. That through line is easy. He's a more confident lyricist because the writing comes easier. Two, Broemel is a father, and he's passed his reading habits down to his son. He told me, "My son is inspiring to me. He reads like crazy. It’s an infectious thing around the house now. Everyone is just tucked away with a book. And those are wonderful moments in the house. We also read a lot together."
As a father of four young kids, I know the feeling because our kids are the same way. But I also know this too: kids do have to sleep, and we shared our anxiety over having to practically pry the books from our kids' hands at the end of the night. Broemel says, "He would stay up all night for sure. It’s heartbreaking. I'll say, 'I'm sorry, dude, it’s time. It’s time to go to bed.' And he’s like, 'Daaaaaad.'” But we both agreed that it’s a good problem to have.
Carl Broemel's new album 4th of July comes out August 19. I've been listening to it over the past month, and it's fantastic. It's a significant progression in Broemel's songwriting. You can pre-order the album from different outlets on his website. And listen to "Sleepy Lagoon," off the new album, below.
Where did you write the songs for the new album?
I wrote a good chunk of them in my basement studio, late at night, kind of like what I did with the last album. But one song, “Fourth of July,” probably was the most different in its process. I had just the music parts figured out, roughly, then I brought them to my pals and we just improvised different takes of each instrumental section. We took it to some weird places. I put all the takes into my computer and listened to each of them, one by one. I wrote the lyrics based on my favorite instrumental bits that ended up in the song. So that told me how many stanzas I needed. It was a fun way to push myself.
Was that your favorite song to write on the album?
I think so, because it was less planned out. It was more like our collective intuitions. It felt more like it wasn’t mine. I'm selfishly proud that we were able to pull something off like that because I'm kind of like a control freak in many ways. Laughs. I like to be prepared. I need to know what’s going to happen. This song went against all of that. It was a fun change of pace. I’m trying to evolve and be less of a control freak, but trying to evolve is kind of impossible. Laughs. Because if you’re trying, then you’re in control of it.
That’s the song I’m most stoked about, but I love the other songs too because while they came from the same place as the last record, I tried to embellish them musically and make them more of a musical experience than a singer/songwriter vibe.
How many co-writes are on the album?
Bo (Koster, the keyboardist for My Morning Jacket) and I wrote the music for two songs. One is “Landing Gear,” where Bo came up with the cool bubbly piano part. The second is “Best Of.” For that song, we were sitting around a piano at a session for My Morning Jacket. We were recording in a gym, and everyone around us was shooting baskets. I had my sax, and Bo was playing cool chord changes that reminded me of an old Mills Brothers song. Tucker, our engineer, recorded it on his phone and emailed me the recording.
What was the easiest song on the album to write?
I think I wrote “Snowflake” the quickest. I wrote it at a vacation rental in Tybee Island, Georgia. We were there for a family vacation and I was by the pool. It was two sittings for probably 40 minutes each. It’s not a long song. Some of my favorite songs also really short, like “Junk” by Paul McCartney. It’s basically a poem.
What was the hardest song to write?
Sometimes I’ll end up with pages of lyrics that are horrible. Laughs. “Fourth of July” was at first about some woman in Paris. My subconscious was picking up on this idea. She was a dancer or something. But the song ended up about me coming home from college, between my junior and senior year, to live at home that summer. It was about that existential dilemma, similar to the one in “The Graduate,” which is one of my favorite movies. He (Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman) comes home and nothing really makes sense to him. Everyone feels like they know everything, but he knows there’s no way that’s true. That song took a while because first it was about two ideas at once.
You mentioned “horrible lyrics.” Are those lyrics in a notebook somewhere?
I think the notebooks have mostly the good ones. The bad ones happen when I'm improvising. For me, the process seems so unnatural sometimes that I have to be very non-judgmental. I have to let those bad lyrics happen and sound like a total amateur first. And between those lyrics are glimpses where I think, “Ok, I'm capable of coming up with something good,” then I take those words and run with them.
The last time we talked, you mentioned that during your revision process, you’ll stack two or three words on top of one of the words in a line. Then you’ll sing a variation of that line with the different word each time. Do you still do that, especially with the songs that happen quickly?
I still do a lot of quick scribbles. Lots of experimenting. The sound of the right word really is as important as the meaning. Even changing the the to an a or an it can make a difference. Those little words can be tricky to make them work rhythmically.
Here's another thing I'm trying to do. I'm trying to record the music, then write the lyrics. I'm no longer holding a guitar as I write. The rhythmic actions I make when I play the guitar sometimes mess with my mouth and my mind, just that internal rhythm. I find that if I've already recorded the guitar part or any music, the melody can be a lot freer. It sounds so simple, but it changed everything for me. I didn’t have to keep playing the guitar. Once I put it down, I turned into a different person when it came to writing melodies.
Sometimes I’ll write lyrics on my phone that come to me at random times, or it might just be one word I see or a line that I find interesting. I save it on my Notes app. So the phrase “Hello moon” is on my phone. The song title “Sleepy Lagoon" on the new album is stolen from a big band hit from the 40s that I heard on the Sirius/XM 40s station. I loved that title, so I wrote it on my phone.
The last time we talked, I remember telling you that I didn’t read too much. That’s very different now, so maybe that’s helped me become a better lyricist. Laughs.
So who are you reading now?
I'm a gadget person. I needed to get a Kindle to get back into reading. I love that there are so many cross references and that everything seems to be connected. But then I started missing holding a real book. I started going through the boxes of books that I've been carrying around forever. Lately, some of my favorites have been Joseph Campbell books and all the things he was interested in. One of my favorite discoveries was Alan Watts. He was active in the 1960s. He started out as an Episcopalian priest and become a philosophical speaker in the Beat generation and beyond. I love his stuff.
I've also been reading non-fiction books about space, though I also love the fiction of Philip K. Dick. I've been reading Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I also just read an awesome book by Chris Impey, an asrophysicist who teaches science to the exiled Tibetan monks. Being in music school, you miss out on a lot of stuff like that sitting in a practice room. There’s so much going in with space exploration now. It’s mind bending. It’s a great time to get into it with everything going on. I like thinking about that stuff.
What about fiction?
I really liked All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.
That’s one of my favorite books. It’s amazing. You have to also read his other books, like The Shell Collector and Memory Wall.
Yeah, it is. When I was reading it, I kept on thinking Damn, this is what a classic book feels like. Wow.
How about poetry?
e.e. cummings is still my man. But I also like Basho and his haiku. I just read the Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. I don’t even know what it’s about, but it’s so beautiful.
How do you think all that reading has affected your songwriting?
Good question. All the philosophical ideas I've ingested have affected the way I look at everything. My son is also inspiring to me. He reads like crazy. It’s an infectious thing around the house now. Everyone is just tucked away with a book. And those are wonderful moments in the house. We also read a lot together.
How often does something you read directly make its way into your lyrics?
“Landing Gear” incorporates a little bit of Watts' wisdom, I think. I hate to paraphrase him because the way he explains his ideas is so beautiful, but he talks a lot about what a human being is. What’s an analogy to help us understand what we are? We’re a combination of voluntary and involuntary actions. He says we are more like a flame or smoke that swirls into a pattern that comes together, then disappears. The song is kind of about losing a friend, and there’s a line about how we are smoking embers that can't be caught.
Do you have a writing routine? An ideal environment?
Morning has been good to me lately. I like to wake up and take a quiet moment before anyone else wakes up.
Define morning, because to some songwriters that 1pm. But you have a kid so I imagine it’s legit morning.
Yeah, it’s around 5:45. It’s a precious time, those few minutes. Drink some coffee, maybe do some yoga. Morning is more when I get my brain set though, then I’ll write at night. A lot of times, after I take my son to school, I’ll practice the guitar. I have to keep studying the guitar and studying other songs. When you're younger, you're open to learning everything because you think you need to learn more. And right now, I'd like to take more time to study other people’s music. You can’t help but let chord changes and guitar parts seep into whatever song you’re about to write. If I sit down and listen to some Ronnie Lane records and learn a couple of the songs, I definitely take a chord change from him. No doubt. It really helps the creative juices.
I’m building a studio in my backyard that’s not connected to the house, so that might change things.
When you write songs, how often do the words come first?
A lot of times the melody comes first. But with that scrapbook I keep on my phone, sometimes I do start with lines. And then I push them on to the melody. Sometimes the lyrics determine the melody, sometimes it’s the other way around.
Do you have a lot of discarded songs or songs that you set aside if they aren’t working?
Yeah, there are a lot of aborted missions. And I might use some of those instrumental sections later. I think it can be both good and bad to take your time when making a record. I took enough time making this record to realize that there were some songs that I just didn’t want to play. There’s a song called “Coffee and Wine.” It’s a good song and I wrote it so fast, just sitting on the couch. It’s not on this record, but maybe it’ll make the next one.
The last time we talked, you mentioned that you liked to write in Moleskine journals, but now you use your phone. Look what technology has done to you.
It’s cool, though, because my notes are connected across all my devices. I use Evernote to keep my notes and ideas. It keeps my various chunks organized.
Is there an ideal emotion when you get your best writing done?
I need a clear head, and I need to be alone. But I think I work best at random times, like that moment I talked about earlier by the pool. There are times when I might be with my family and then need to step outside for a moment because I get an idea. That’s what I mean about random times. I mean, I'm really not writing from a heartbroken perspective. I'm not depressed, but I do get tired being on tour a lot. I think that inspires some of the music: being disconnected from family and heartbroken from that perspective, not heartbroken from the “breaking up” point of view.
That’s one of the things about the new album: somebody passes away, or you miss a wedding, or your kid’s tooth falls out and you only see it on Facetime. And I'm not there for any of those things. That hurts. That’s what I mean about writing from a heartbroken perspective.
We have four kids, and I've found that having them has made me more disciplined as a writer because my time is more limited. Is that the same with you?
I think so. I also need deadlines to do anything, and deadlines also make me more creative. Sometimes I’ll book studio time even though I'm not ready, and that deadline forces me to finish. Ironically, before I had a kid, even though I had so much more free time, I still didn’t do anything. Laughs.
But it’s also about maturity and growing up, because you realize that you have unanswered questions about the universe, and so do the people around you. You're going to have to come up with answers for those people. That’s one of the things about hanging with my son: he already has so many interesting things he wants to discuss, and I can only imagine that when he has the existential crisis that I've had in life, I'm gonna be the guy to talk to him. And what am I gonna say? That’s another challenge.
Our kids all love to read, and there are times when we practically have to unplug their bedside lamps to get them to go to sleep. We never have to tell them to read. They do it because they see my wife and I read.
Laughs. He would stay up all night for sure. It’s heartbreaking. I'll say, “I'm sorry, dude, it’s time. It’s time to go to bed.” And he’s like, “Daaaaaad.” I can’t believe I'm doing this to him. But it’s a good problem to have.