Ted Leo

Every writer has a ritual, some consistent part of the writing process that brings them the comfort or confidence to be productive. Ted Leo has one: stacks. Stacks of things. When Leo is around the house, he carries with him from room to room a stack of pads, some pens, his phone, his Roget's Thesaurus, and maybe some other stuff. And when he sets them down, they are each their own stack, not one giant stack. Almost like a fortress of words around him. 

Leo's lyrics have been rightfully praised for years, and I have to think that much of this has to do with his voracious reading habit. It's not possible to be a writer unless you read. It's just not. Leo is a good example of that; he goes down rabbit holes of genres or authors or topics, especially while on tour. And these are some pretty dense topics. That's why, after one tour, Leo was able to riff about 70s urban planning in the UK and Russian constructivist architecture with ease. And while he may not have written any songs about these topics, he says that on some level all of that reading made him a better, and a more thoughtful, songwriter.

Ted Leo's new album is called The Hanged Manreleased in early September. He's out on the road now in support of the album. Read my interview with Leo about his songwriting process after the video for "Can't Go Back," the first single off the album. But first, we discuss the intermediate hurdles. Literal, not metaphorical. 

Let's begin with the obvious starting point: I ran track in college and was a track coach for a time, and I read that you were a hurdler in high school. I was a 400m runner but was too short to get over those hurdles.

I didn't have that quick turnover on the ground, so I had to be a hurdler. Laughs.

Did you run high or intermediate hurdles?

I ran both. As a high hurdler, I was not super competitive, but my 4x100m relay was state champions. I was more competitive as an individual in the 400m intermediate hurdles, though.

All I know about the intermediates is that after you've run 350m, that last hurdle looks about ten feet tall. 

I couldn't really run a great open 400m, and like I said, I was never that competitive in the high hurdles. But I had a good long, open, stride, so I was able to really shave a couple of steps from the average number of strides between hurdles. That made a big difference. Hurdles is so much about form and efficiency.

Let's talk about music and writing. Do you try to write every day, whether it's songwriting or something else?

It varies. I've gone through phases of trying to write every day, usually in a non-songwriting capacity, whether it's journaling or little writing experiments, like one of those books that gives you a new topic each day. Or I'd get one of those word-a-day calendars and see if, at the end of the day, I can write something about my day and involve that word.

But I'll be honest: it's been a long time since I kept that up with any frequency. I find that the busywork side of my musical life has been so busy that it's hard to write. I still read a lot, but I wind up doing not as much writing.

So when you went through those phases with those writing experiments, did you like doing it or was it something that you thought you had to do because other people tried it? Or was it an urge?

It was never really forced. I like writing, and I like how it helps me order my thoughts. Those exercises are a way to make it interesting and to challenge myself. That being said, there have also been times where I've tried to make it more like a routine. I've read about writers who have those daily rituals: they get up in the morning, write for three hours, then have lunch. I've tried that, but being a touring musician makes it hard to keep to that schedule. Again, I hate to be coy or equivocating, but it really does come and go. Sometimes it's an urge, and other times I see a songwriting deadline that's a year away and if I'm behind, I just methodically move towards that deadline.

When you write in a capacity other than songwriting, are you writing with an idea that maybe what you're writing might lead to a song?

I think it's an undercurrent, although it's pretty rare that I'd start writing something with the express idea of turning it into a song. But as a songwriter, any bit of writing that I do has the potential to lead to a song.

I know you were an English major and I know you read a lot. I don't care what type of writing you do, if you don't read, you can't be a good writer. To that end, I've found that the most prolific songwriters I've interviewed have been voracious readers. How does all of the reading you do make you a better songwriter?

Photo by Mindy Tucker

Photo by Mindy Tucker

Hmmm...that's interesting. I think that reading gets your mind skipping along to different ideas than the one you might be reading about. The way I read is probably not the best. I go down these rabbit holes with a topic or a genre or an author. I love getting involved in the specific voice of one writer. I find that I usually pivot to a non-fiction jag or a detective fiction jag when I'm full up with the other thing and need a break. One tour many years ago I carried with me a bunch of books that I had found at a used bookstore. They were all about topics like early 70s urban planning in the UK and Russian constructivist architecture. Nice and dense. And when I got back from the tour and having read all of those books, I kept thinking, "Would someone just tell me a story!" Laughs.

I do a lot of pendulum swinging in my reading habits, as you can tell. I think those things just get your mind buzzing in different ways. I would say this about art theory in general too, not just reading: things that do not always seem applicable to another discipline, whether it be theories of greenbelting outside of Glasgow in 1972 or Dadaist art theory, there are ideas in all of these topics that get you thinking about how you can construct songs.

How often have you read someone and thought, "Oooh, that's a great line"? You might not use it, but it gets you thinking. You might like the way the words sound.

That's a good question. I'm not so sure about that. Going back to reading fiction, not that it doesn't pry my thoughts, but it's more in a general sense of thinking about society or human interaction and how topics might work their way into my lyrics. I once read the Swedish police procedurals series, ten novels, about a character named Martin Beck. The books were by Maj Sjowall and Wahloo. They gave an amazing glimpse into changing and modernizing Swedish society in the late 60s and early 70s. It comes from a bit of a leftist point of view on the police and the military. Just getting those perspectives on things we grapple with today can broaden your mind and think about how the larger topics I want to write about affect people.

Who are you reading right now?

I'm actually reading a book called The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan, and it's fascinating.

How did you find it?

I read a review of it somewhere. It sounded interesting, and I like the Great Lakes. It's less a geological history and more a history of the lakes beginning with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. And how drastically it changed the lakes.

Let's talk about your writing process. Can you write anywhere? Do you have an ideal environment? 

I think I can say with years of experience that the right environment is important. I've written entire songs in my head stuck in traffic, but those lightening bolts are rare. For the most part, and I hate to frame it this way, I need to hit a level of ennui that makes me feel crappy about having such ennui. That feeling then galvanizes me to write again. But to hit that space, I need to be in a comfortable space with not a lot to do for at least a few days.

That's where I can sit and get some work done. It's about tapping that vein. Once it starts to flow, it really flows. But until that happens, I can stare at a blank screen or page for days on end.

When you say "space," do you mean headspace or physical space?

I mean physical space, but they really go together. I do write well at home. Over the years, I've managed to create a comfortable space that works for me. I also have to build in some time to walk around.

Do you have a favorite room at home where you like to write?

It's changed quite a bit because we recently made a bunch of renovations, and I built a soundproof studio. The building that my wife and I live in is an old Grange hall. It was a rather dilapidated meeting hall from built around 1890. It has a very high peaked roof, but there was a dropped ceiling and it was unfinished up to the roof. We took out the dropped ceiling and finished it, and floated these two bedrooms at either end that were connected high up by a catwalk. They're very high up in the eaves of the roof in an airy spot. It's going to sound corny, but I started going up to one of the rooms to write because it was so isolated, but there's an amazing energy there because things rise to that spot and my brain feels really good in that peak.

Do you write the best in a certain time of day?

Not really. Once I get ideas started, I'm able to sit down in a workmanlike fashion. I can be pretty disciplined once the idea is there. I think I've always been able to write for long stretches, but the hard part for me is when a vocal hook or a phrase doesn't come to me in the initial melody I'm going to build a song from. That hard part is drilling down to what that first lyrical piece will be. Once I hit that piece, I'm disciplined. But until I get to that spot, I can be pretty undisciplined. it's the part where I'm trying to figure out that first vocal hook when I have the most trouble sitting down because it's frustrating to think and think and think.

When it's not happening, do you set it aside or push through it?

Both. I'll push through until I know it's not fruitful. I'll bust out a thesaurus, but I don't want to push too hard and ruin the song.

Do you write with a pen or a computer, and do you have a favorite pen?

I can write with both. As far as pens, I favor the medium tip Uniball, but I'm not above using anything at hand as long as it's black ink. What I'll often do is get started, or even get most of it done, on a notebook or a pad, then when I need to start editing and reworking, I do it on a computer. Moving stuff around is just easier there.

What about writing rituals? Do you have any?

The closest I can say is that I carry a stack of stuff around with me from table to table or room to room. I'll carry a couple of different pads, a handful of pens, my phone, an a very old Roget's Thesaurus that was a gift from Aimee Mann. She turned me on to the value of that. I must have all of those things with me. It would be very easy for me to leave it in one room and go get it when I need it, but to feel like I'm in a productive place I need this stack right at hand. And they must be stacks. Kind of like they are protecting me. Laughs.

How much revising do you do?

These days I pay a lot more attention to finding the right rhyme and meter, and not cramming syllables in. It's not always the case that the first idea is the best. I start writing by building something around a hook or a phrase, whether it's the first line of the song or the core of a chorus. Because of that, anything that comes to mind after that is never the first thing that comes to my mind. At that point, I'm already considering what I'm going to do with each new line. It's much more deliberate after that first one and rarely that sui generis thing.

When you say "phrases," where do they come from?

Usually internally. I'll be noodling on a guitar or piano and something will come to mind because of the melody, and that melody speaks certain words. Or before I start playing, the phrase will just be in my head. I have a lot of lines written down that I've heard or seen, but to be honest, they don't really work for me. Laughs. I mean, I have all these incredibly pithy or cheeky statements written down in a journal, but I never use them because I don't really write songs that would include lines like that. I'll sit down and try to build a world around them, but it's pretty useless.

Does one song stand out on the new album that was the easiest to write?

Yes. I had a body of about 30 songs to pull from for this new album, stretching back about a decade. Most of it was completed, at least tracking-wise, about a year ago. I wrote about four songs that made their way to the album in November of last year and the first couple of months of this year. And three of those four were pretty easy to write. They were easier than any of the older songs. I wrote them in one sitting. I actually dreamed the chorus to "Let's Stay on the Moon." I woke up with the chorus and the general idea for the song already in my head.

And which song was the hardest to write?

Probably "Anthems of None." The song is literally about giving up on the process of writing that song. There were a lot of placeholder words in there for years. I didn't know what I wanted to say. Each verse had some meaning to me, but as a whole it didn't stick together. Plus, I had a hard time editing it, and there really was no chorus. Then I finally realized that the song was about the process of songwriting. I came to the chorus as a challenge to myself to let go of my own preciousness about it, and by extension other things. One of the things that bothered me initially was that it was too mired in this pop punk thing. I found ways to unearth the more upbeat, almost 60s rhythm and blues core of it. I had the music fully formed and was trying to fit words to it for literally years. I only came back to it because I felt that there was there that needed to come to light.