Yukimi Nagano, Little Dragon

Yukimi Nagano of Little Dragon is a book hoarder at her local library in Sweden. She browses the stacks across all subjects, from photography to poetry to flowers. Then she walks out with as many books as she can carry. When she gets home, she peruses those books for both words and images. Sometimes the words make their way into her songs, and other times the images give her ideas to spin off of. "It could be a book about flowers, for example, and I might find a beautiful name for a flower that could be a song title," Nagano told me. And when she gets home, she does most of her writing in the kitchen. There's something about the "nice, soothing hum" of her refrigerator that's conducive to her creativity. 

I have a companion for this interview. Last November I interviewed Theresa Wayman from Warpaint. It remains one of my favorites. I recently read that Wayman was a big fan of Little Dragon, so I asked her if she wanted to interview Nagano with me. Somehow we made this happen: I was in New York, Wayman was in Rhode Island, and Nagano was in Sweden.  We had a fantastic discussion about the creative process.  

Little Dragon's excellent new album is called Season High. On July 20, they'll start touring the United States in support of it. Read the interview that Theresa Wayman and I conducted with Yukimi Nagano after the video for "High."  (NOTE: "BRO" is Ben Opipari and "TW" is Theresa Wayman throughout the interview)

  • BRO: Ben Opipari
  • TW: Theresa Wayman

BRO: Besides songwriting, do you have any other creative outlets?

I usually meet with a couple of friends who live near us. We put on mixes and dance. Besides that, I also like to draw, although there's not a lot of time for that. 

BRO: Does the drawing ever influence your songwriting?

I haven't ever thought about that, but when one thing flows into the other and I do have time to think, I will draw and then start writing. That's interesting, though. I've never consciously done it that way, but they probably are related.

TW: Do you keep a journal?

Yeah, a lot of them. And they're all over the place.

TW: Do they serve different purposes?

The diaries are for personal stuff and the journals contain my songwriting ideas.  I also like to write little poems. And there's a lot of free writing. But after a while it doesn't matter because I just mix them all up anyway.  Sometimes I use the journals to capture a line that I might hear or read, and then I might play around with the word order so that it fits into a song. Do you do that too, Theresa?

TW: I've kept a journal since I was pretty young, though I'm not as diligent as I'd like to be. But when I do, I'm not writing poems or verses. It's more like prose whose idea may come together later to create a song. Does your songwriting process start with the lyrics, or do they come after you've created the melody?

It's both. Sometimes I have an idea for a song, and when that happens, the lyrics come first. But usually, I'm so melody driven that if there's something I really want to say, I'll find a way to say it so that it fits the melody. Melody comes really easy for me. Lyrics are more difficult. I can be really critical of my words, and that's when I'll get stuck.
But when I have a good melody, everything is easy. Sometimes I'll just randomly sing any lyrics I can think of that fit the melody. Parts of those lyrics will evolve as I rewrite and rewrite. Melody is so intuitive for me that it's not even a thinking process. It's about getting the mood out. 

BRO: Are there times when what you write in those diaries leads to song ideas?

Definitely. I think it's because I'm not trying to be creative, so there's no pressure. Sometimes the best things come when you're not trying to write something beautiful or deep.  They come when you just write about everyday things.

BRO: I imagine that forcing the process can be bad for creativity.

TW: Sometimes it's nice to force something to happen. When I feel that wall of resistance in me, it can be good to push through it even if not much comes from it. It can feel good to dig a hole through that wall and get to the other side.  You have to accept that as a part of the process. But sometimes I don't listen to my own advice, and I allow that resistance to make me stop writing or even pick up an instrument. I hate that because it never makes me feel good. I'll be sitting at the computer trying to write, and everything feels wrong. Nothing comes from the session. 

Trying hard is good as well. Even if it's in small pieces here and there, it all adds up even if any individual session is not that productive. That's what I love and I hate about it: the creative process is so unpredictable. It's important to write for other people, but it's also important just to write for yourself and even feel ok with not writing something good. I enjoy getting lost in the process, especially if there's a playful vibe to it.  Once you become involved in the music business, there's an extra layer of consciousness to the creative aspect. You know people are looking forward to what you produce, but you also have to remember to always have fun with it. That's what our first album was like. We had no fans. We were just writing songs so that our friends would like it. 

BRO: When you do have an idea for a song, where do those ideas come from?

I don't do that too often, but I would like to write more about things that I'm thinking about, like being inspired by something I read in a book or something someone said. But most of the songs I'm happy with don't start that way. When I do write about things I've read or heard, they don't make it on to the record because most of the time they suck. Laughs.

TW: What do you write to? Do you play to the piano or are you just writing to the music the guys make?

Usually to the music the guys make. Everybody in the band produces, so they give me lots of beats and beginnings to songs. I'll sit and write melodies to that. If there are lyrics already, I try to make songs out of the weirder ones. I don't play an instrument. Yet. Laughs.

TW: That's coming?

I hope so! I do play a little drums, but not that much. 

BRO: Listening to the new album, it evokes many different emotions. Is there an ideal emotion or mood when you get your best writing done?

I wish there was, because then I would know when to write. It goes in cycles: one week I feel like I'm prolific, the next week everything is junk. Then sometimes I'll write something and go Eh, whatever. But then I'll listen to it again later and like it. That's one of the most important parts of the songwriting process for me: giving something time. It could be five days or five weeks later; I'll listen to something again and hear something that I didn't hear before. It always happens. Sometimes things speak to me right in the moment, but it usually takes a while for a song to stick. 

BRO: Do you always set songs aside, or do you only do that when things just aren't clicking?

I always do. Even when it feels good, I always step to the side because I usually don't trust my initial feelings when it comes to writing. It changes all the time: even with songs that I consistently like, I get last minute doubts. That being said, when it does feel good, I allow it to be good, but I still don't completely trust it. 

TW: That's so good to hear, actually. That's something that I've been trying to understand about myself. It's nice to hear that somebody else goes through the same thing. I don't know many people who fluctuate as much as I do when it comes to feeling good about my opinions about my own work. And it's torturous, to be honest. That's such a relief to hear you say that.  But as someone who listens to your music, I like what you end up with. So it makes me have confidence in your process and in my process because of that. 

I don't know what your process is like with the band, but I might write something with one of the guys, and two of the other guys will come in with their energy around it. It doesn't matter how I confident I feel about the song, their reactions are going to affect me whether I want it to or not. But while the band can be confident about a song, management and friends have their own opinion too. And when they don't react the way you want them to react? I wish I could say that it doesn't bother me, but of course it does. 

TW: I agree. It can all get really complicated. There's also the fact that once you release it to the world, there are those opinions too. And they swim around and make noise in my head. I try not to think about them, and I wish I didn't, but they are there as well.  The hardest part is letting all those opinions go when I'm writing. I have to do that, just let all of it go. 

It's a part of the brain that's good to have because it's critical. It pushes you, but if you listen to those thoughts too much, it can kill the process. 

TW: I know people who have done that. They've started with something that felt so alive in the beginning, but they beat the songs to death by being so hypercritical. I've definitely changed songs during the songwriting process, but I don't want to fix things that were raw in a good way and end up making them sound too polished. 

That's a tough one, definitely. It's something that we struggle with too. We want to keep a rawness and not make it too slick. Our first album went directly from the computer monitors, then out. It wasn't even really mixed. The problem with mixing is that you can lose something. Sometimes I think the best mix is the second you wrote the song.

BRO: Would you call yourself a disciplined writer? Do you have any type of writing routine?

Having a routine is important for me. I'm not one of those artists who can write on tour. There's too much to do, and it's too hard to focus. The live show is the most important part of the day. What's strange is that you go out on tour, you talk about the album and the songs, then you come home and all of the sudden have to start writing again. And when the writing doesn't happen immediately, you start to think Hold on, I thought I was good at this. 
I write a lot of junk before I write anything good. I wrote 30 songs before I wrote anything that went on the new album. It's like rehearsing, when you have to play a few shows before settling into a routine. It's the same thing with writing. As far as the routine, at night in the kitchen is when and where I like to write.

BRO: Why the kitchen?

I like the atmosphere, and it has a great view. Outside you can see the trams passing, and there's water. I like it because the view is always the same, but there might be small differences each day within that view. There are always different smells too. But we've been there so long that it's like our bubble. We feel comfortable there. And I can get coffee and tea anytime I want. Laughs. The refrigerator has a nice, soothing humming sound. Especially when it's dark outside. That's when everything is so chill.
photos by IB Kamara

photos by IB Kamara

BRO: Do you try to write every day?

I try to, even though it doesn't always happen. But when I start to write, I dive into it and I write a lot. There are notebooks and big sheets of paper everywhere. I try to make a mess.

BRO: What do you mean by "make a mess"?

I try to feel free. There's a table in the kitchen. I put all kinds of paper out, drawing paper and notebook paper, and all different kinds of pens. There might be one word I love, and I'll write it everywhere. It may never end up in a song, but it can inspire a song. I might write something I overheard, or I might write about an experience I want to share. But I try not to make whatever I write sound too obvious or too literal. 

BRO: When you talk about the words that inspire you, where do you get those words from?

A lot are from books. There's a library close by, and sometimes I'll go over there and just check out all kinds of books from all different subjects, but especially poetry. Than can be really inspiring. 

BRO: This is for both of you. Do you have a favorite type of notebook or a favorite type of pen? Songwriters can be very picky about their writing instruments. 

TW: I like to write in a blank journal without lines. I completely understand the need to be messy and how that can really let the ideas flow. That can even mean messy handwriting, where there's no emphasis on perfection or on even being correct. If I have a bigger journal, I might write large letters and move them across the page differently, maybe not even left to right. I like to write with Prismacolor felt tip pens. I like the way they bleed on the page. I like to write quickly and without really thinking about what I'm writing.

I like to do that too. An important part of my creative process is turning off the critical mind. I'll randomly write a passage without thinking. That really works for me. If you look below my mic when I'm in the studio, you'll see papers strewn all over the place. 

TW: Have you ever tried the cut-up process that David Bowie used to craft his lyrics? That can work really well. He would write out a bunch of different sentences then cut out the words and rearrange them. It creates these abstract images, like those word magnets on your refrigerator. That can make for some interesting lines, especially ones that like you said that aren't so obvious. There can be a hidden meaning that's almost absurd, but in a good way. 

BRO: Both of you have talked in the last few minutes about being self-critical, so I'm curious how much revising you do to your lyrics?

Sometimes something makes more sense word-wise if I revise it because the first version sounds lazy word-wise. But that first version is better sonically when you sing it against the music. That first version is often the better and more important version for me, because the first thing that hits me when I listen to music is how it sounds, not what the words are.  I don't like it when the melody feels choppy and weird because the words don't flow. The words might be perfect as far as meaning, but that's usually not what I'm after. Simplicity is usually better. Sometimes I want to use a word that I've already used, but it sounds good so I'll use it again. But I know when I'm being lazy.

BRO: What do you mean by lazy? What is a lazy word to you?

It's when you use options that are too easy just because they rhyme. Say like when you rhyme night with flight. They might feel perfect when you sing them, but it's really too cliche, too typical. There has to be some other rhyme that's a little more difficult that has the same message, or even a better message. That's when I need to start thinking about other words and other images.

BRO: How often do you get writer's block?

My strategy is definitely not to stop. I expect that feeling of funk when I start writing, so it doesn't scare me off. I just keep writing. But I do get that feeling where I think Nothing is good. I can't think of anything. I suck. That happens with a lot of things that I do, but at this point in my life I know it's going to happen so it doesn't bother me. My strategy is to just keep working.

BRO: Let's end with this. You already mentioned the library, so who are you reading right now?

Right now I'm reading a Swedish poet Johannes Anyuru. He's a beautiful writer. I'm also a fan of fantasy books, so I like the Lord of the Rings series and I love Ray Bradbury. When I go to the library, I just randomly pick a big stack of everything: photography books, poetry books, nature books, novels. I like to have things as wide as possible because it gives me a variety of images and words to spin off of. It could be a book about flowers, for example, and I might find a beautiful name for a flower that could be a song title. 

BRO: Do the images themselves inspire you?

Certainly, because sometimes the images themselves tell a story. Or you can make your own story from the image.