Evan Felker, songwriter and guitarist for Turnpike Troubadours, has his own version of the nuclear football, the bag that never leaves his side when he's on the road. It contains everything he needs to write a song: his laptop, a composition notebook, and a legal pad. Each serves a specific purpose. The legal pad is for song ideas and random lines, and for this he uses a pen. The composition notebook is for the lyrics, and for this he uses a pencil. Then the computer is where the fully formed song takes shape so that he can copy and paste to see where the lines work best.
As you may have read in the last few days, Turnpike Troubadours have a new album out October 20 called A Long Way From Your Heart. The band recorded most of the album at Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas and finished it up in Asheville. Felker details some of his songwriting process behind the new material in our interview. He decided to write songs with a narrative bent filled with fictional characters inspired by the people he's known throughout his life. Many are from the area around southeastern Oklahoma where he grew up, from places like the factories and mills he worked after finishing tech school. Felker co-wrote one of the new songs on the album, "Come As You Are," with his good friend Rhett Miller of the Old 97s. (I interviewed Miller a couple of years ago, and I have to thank him for putting me in touch with Felker.) Here's what Miller recently told me about Felker:
My favorite songwriters are the folks who approach it as a craft first. No one exemplifies that more so than Evan. He is always studying and always growing as a writer. I've been lucky enough to hear some of the as-yet-unreleased Turnpike record, and I can testify that he has only gotten better, which didn't even seem possible. Also, Evan is a generous collaborator. I'm lucky to count him as a friend.
That's a pretty good endorsement from a songwriter like Miller. Read my interview with Felker after the video for "Come As You Are."
How much writing do you do other than songwriting?
I do some journal writing, though I wish I did more. I've gotten started on some short stories, but I like to use all my best ideas for songs. It's instant gratification for me since I get to play them immediately for people and see their reaction. The feedback is immediate. It's a more living kind of outlet for a story.
When you say you get started on short stories, does that mean you start writing them then at some point realize that the idea is better suited for a song?
Oh yeah, absolutely. A lot of them do. But I think it's hard to write narrative songs. I've been writing a lot of songs like that lately--songs with a beginning, middle, and end--that have characters with feelings. These songs have an antagonistic element to them. It's much harder to do that in such a small space, especially when you include dialogue. That's what I've been into lately.
What made you want to go in a narrative direction in your songwriting?
I've always loved story songs. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Johnny Horton, and his songs were written by a history teacher in Arkansas named Jimmy Driftwood. He wrote tunes like "The Battle of New Orleans" and "Sink the Bismarck" to teach his high school history classes. I thought that was so interesting.
What's the most challenging part of the narrative songwriting process for you?
Character development. There's so little time to develop a character. I've actually taken a route recently where my characters appear in multiple songs, so they already exist. There's already a backstory, so the listener has a sense of what the character might do given their previous actions. Still, it's hard to make characters seem believable in such a short space.
How often do you sit down to write a song about a certain topic, and if so, does that happen more with narrative songwriting?
I want to do that a lot, but it's more about writing about a moment or a space of time in my past that I want to sum up, like being a kid in rural Oklahoma. Or something in my travels might inspire me. I want to let people know what tornado weather smells like in a song. I want listeners to be able to hear the scene in my head. The best person out there today doing that, the greatest song craftsman, is James McMurtry. (Ed. note: read my interview with McMurtry)
What about his songwriting is so inspiring?
The literary aspect, the way he gathers a character's cynicism or hopefulness pretty quickly so that you know what he's after. He finds beauty in some pretty mundane or ugly shit. There's beauty everywhere in his world, not just in the most obvious things.
How much distance do you need from the things you write about?
It depends. I like what Thomas Wolfe said about not writing about people too accurately when they are alive, especially if your portrayal is not going to be what they think of themselves. And I don't write about real stuff until I've had some distance, but if I do, I use fictional characters or I use those events as aspects of a fictional story.
Talk about your ideal writing routine.
When I'm really trying to write for a deadline, I'm disciplined. But if there's no deadline, I can be pretty lazy. I'm just writing stuff down, like two or three lines a day or even just a title. I'm much more productive under deadline.
I like writing on the porch at my parents' place in southeastern Oklahoma. I'd say that my favorite place to write is any place that I don't have to take care of or where I don't have chores. Laughs. If I have anything to do, I'm easily distracted. That's why hotel rooms work so well for me: there's not much to do. I try to write in the morning with some coffee for two or three hours until I'm sick of it, then I'll go goof around. When I was writing Goodbye Normal Street, I was down where I grew up at my mom and dad's place. I'd write in the morning, then go drink beer and eat dinner with my buddies, then write again at night in an altered state of mind. Laughs. That repetition really helps.
Why the porch at your parents' place?
I think it has to do with the nostalgia of it, especially in the spring or fall when the weather is nice. Being a kid who grew up in the country, there's something about the changing of the seasons that gets me thinking about the anticipation of new activities about to happen. As an outdoorsy family that did a lot of hunting and fishing, there was always something new about to happen in the transition of the seasons. The songs are a bit different when I'm down there because it makes me think about different things.
I haven't talked to many songwriters who write at night, only because they don't do too much in the morning. When you write in the morning, are you also going over what you wrote the night before?
Oh yeah. I'm often working on the same song. I might come up with something stupid from a conversation and write about it that night, but I can't really trust myself after a few beers so I have to reign it in and edit the next morning. It's almost like having a co-writer. Laughs.
Is there an emotional state when you get your best writing done?
Anxiety is a good one, to be honest, because there are so many scattered thoughts. Sadness is one that leads to a lot of output. During the record we just finished, a good friend of mine passed away. I called a mutual friend, John Fullbright, and he came over. One of my favorite songs is Willie Nelson's "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," and we worked out a rendition to play at the funeral. Then we found out later than almost everyone else was working up a rendition of the same song. So the day before the funeral, we started at noon and wrote from scratch. That song is on the new record and it's called "Pay No Rent."
Paying tribute to someone while on a deadline was like a one-two punch when it came to writing a song. John is one of my favorite people to co-write with because he always gets stuff done.
It sounds like you write well under deadline.
Yeah, most of the time. We wrote and recorded part of our new record in Asheville. I just stayed in the hotel room the whole time. I didn't even have any songs when we first got out there. And as we were finishing up, we still needed two songs. That would normally take me between two months and two years to write, but I got in there and knocked those out in a couple of days. We tracked most of the songs on this album with no lyrics, or maybe just one verse and a chorus. I'd finish the lyrics as the guitar was finishing tracking.
Do you try to write every day?
I don't, but I'm thinking about writing every day, whether it's picking up my guitar or jotting down ideas or running through melodies in my head. We just finished our new record last week, so I'm not worried about writing now. I want to fill up the well a little bit. Just get out and do stuff like visit friends, watch old movies, read books. I might even take up some home improvement projects at home so I can actually write here. Laughs.
I hear the phrase "filling the well" a lot from songwriters. Do you try to find periods where you will deliberately not write?
Yeah, sure. You're eventually going to run out of stuff to write about. Some people can be prolific and just write a lot of material. To them, it's all good enough quality. But I can't do that. I can't put out a record every year. Rhett (Miller) can, and he writes at really high level. He's one of my favorite songwriters, but most people who write that much aren't able to put out such consistently high material. He's pretty dialed in. But for me, writing every day doesn't work unless I've got enough material to start writing a new record.
When it comes to writing lyrics: pen and paper, or computer?
Ok. I've finally got it all figured out. I have a computer so that I can compile things to see how they look together. Then I have a composition notebook and a pencil, and then a legal pad and pen so that I can jot things down quickly. They all serve their own purpose. I try to write the song with a pencil. Then when those lyrics are done, I transfer them to the computer so that I can cut and paste and move things around. The legal pad and pen I use just to jot down quick ideas like lines or titles or even phrases. All three things--the computer, the composition notebook, and the legal pad--are on the table at the same time. Having all those things in front of me keep the process moving.
I've got all those things in one bag, along with sharp pencils and pens. It's with me at all times on the road. That organization really helps the mental part of it. Oh, and I carry a knife with me to sharpen my pencils. All those things give me comfort, and that helps me write better. It's like having the comforts of home with me on the road.
I think I've finally cracked the code with that process. There's a song about a tornado on the new record that I probably spent 18 hours on, just writing the lyrics. That's a long time, but I did it with that routine I just mentioned. But then I wrote another song on the album the same way, and it only took me four hours.
Do you have a favorite type of pen?
Yeah, I think the gel-tipped Bic pens. They come in big bags. They write fast and they don't make a mess.
What are your thoughts on writer's block? Real or imagined?
I'm not sure that it's a real thing. We all have periods when we write less. I subscribe to the input-output mode: you can only put out what you take in, and if you're not out there gathering experiences, you won't have much to write about. If you're always thinking about putting something in a song form and you're always thinking about how to improve it, then that pressure will lead to writer's block. That's why I don't put pressure on myself to write every day: it's hard to come up with a novel idea every day. I'd rather put out a reasonable amount of songs that I'm really, really proud of as often as I can. Maybe every couple of years. Then I'm less likely have writer's block.
Talking about gathering experiences, how often do you hear lines in conversations that strike you as a song idea?
It's not so much in random conversations, but I have many friends who are good at creating idioms in conversations just to be entertaining. Where I grew up, everybody talks like that. That's how I got one of my favorite lines on "Long Drive Home," One of my friends was going on a big trail ride, and they're getting everything that morning. Some of the guys that were supposed to help got drunk the night before and never showed up. So my friend is out there all by himself hitching up the horses, having a heck of a time. He says to me, "I'll tell you about these people: everybody wants to be Hank Williams. Nobody wants to fuckin' die." And I said, "Ok, buddy. I'm taking that line." That's the kind of stuff I hear.
Let's end with this. Who do you like to read?
I've been on a long Hemingway and Fitzgerald binge. I'm just about finished with Tender is the Night. I usually buy the audiobook as well of whatever I'm reading, so if I can't read because of noise or other distractions, I'll listen to it to make sure I finish it.
I love the concision of Hemingway, but I also like the poetry of Fitzgerald that seems almost musical. And I know it's a cliche, but Hemingway's brevity appeals to me because that's how songwriters write. It's the iceberg theory: we'll give you just a little bit, but it's your job to make meaning of it and plumb the depths. I can appreciate Hemingway's cynicism too, and I love his description of the outdoors in his Nick Adams stories.
I've also been reading a lot of Breece D'J Pancake. His short stories keep me on the edge of my seat. The culture in his stories is so bizarre too. I grew up in southeast Oklahoma, and I can identify with some of the culture in his stories.
Prolific writers, or really any writers, have great backstories. Their experiences are what make their writing so rich.
That's true. I went to tech school to become an electrician, then worked in factories for a while before taking the plunge in music. I worked in paper mills, food plants, and Mercury Marine in Stillwater. And it's experiences like those that gave me some guts. They make me feel confident in my songwriting because I know I'm writing about people who are real. I've had to work with these guys, drink beer with them. And there are repercussions for portraying people incorrectly. Laughs. I wrote a folk song when I was kid about the local saw mill that was going to close. I got a lot of praise for getting that song right, and that was important to me. I want to get these stories right. Ultimately, I want to make somebody proud back home. Isn't that the point of a song anyway, trying to impress somebody? Laughs.
You've been around a cast of characters. That gives you such rich experiences to draw from in narrative storytelling.
Normally, my characters are first person because it's easier to tell. It shortens everything because he's able to perceive things without me having to explain it. He's just feeling out the world. I would say a lot of my characters are composites based on people I know.