Matt Lowell of Lo Moon grew up playing hockey. "I was obsessed with it," he told me. Lowell was at the rink every day, but part of this obsession can be traced to how much he watched the sport. It was a natural extension: the first thing Lowell wanted to do after watching hockey on television was play it.
The same can be said for Lowell's love of reading. When he reads a lot, he writes a lot. And when he's not reading, writing is difficult. It's an easy connection. For the songwriters or writers reading this interview, you won't be a good writer unless you read. It's impossible. The songwriters on this site are voracious readers, and Lowell knows this. He knows that his talent as a songwriter depends on his exposure to other people's words. "I’m not really inspired by everyday life," Lowell told me. "I’m not that inspired by the things around me. But when I’m reading something, or if I see an amazing film, or if I’m jamming with my band mates, that’s when the sparks come." By his own admission, the band's schedule has kept him away from his books, and that bothers him. "I'm upset that I haven't been able to read that much," he said.
Lo Moon's self-titled debut album came out in February 2018 on Columbia records. For fans of the band, it was a long time coming: they released their first single "Loveless" in September 2016. That's an eternity to the hype machine in music today. In that 18 month gap, they released the single "This Is It," and "Loveless" racked up over a million views on youtube. Read my interview with Matt Lowell about his songwriting process after the video for "Loveless."
Besides songwriting, what type of writing are you doing?
Most of the time, my writing is spontaneous. If I hear someone say something or if I read something, I write it town. Or more accurately, it goes in the Notes section of my iPhone. Sometimes I write a lot, other days I write nothing at all. And it's on those days that I writing nothing when I realize I need to read more because that's where I draw inspiration.
I find writing incredibly hard. Sometimes I might write one line a day. For the song "This Is It," that's all I wrote down. One line. When I was a kid, I used to write poems and short stories all the time. That's where I started. When my sister was looking at colleges, we drove around as a family, and the entire time I was writing short stories in the back of the car. Then when I got to high school I took a bunch of poetry classes and wrote a lot of poetry. Sadly, with the schedule that the band has been on, I'm upset with myself that I haven't been able to write or read as much.
I just watched "The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town," and in the documentary Bruce was just writing on notepad after notepad. A lot of times, it wasn't even songs, just random lines. And I remember watching and thinking about how jealous I was because I used to be like that too.
So when you hear or see things and you do write them down, are you writing down what you've seen or heard, or are you writing down your reaction to those words?
It's a mixture. If I have an idea like a melody of a chord progression, and I'm thinking the line "this is it," I''ll write it down even though I have no idea how those words and that music fit together. I don't even understand why I'm saying that. But when I take a step back and start writing lyrics, I'll ask myself where I can fit that line in. In the beginning, it's more about drawing words from the subconscious or writing down something I've heard. Then I write down my reaction that, and that's where I get the song. It's a two step process.
At what point do you go back through these ideas?
When I think a song is starting to take shape, I'll take a look at my notes to see if I have anything that relates to that. It's mixing and matching.
Let's take "This Is It." That's hardly a unique line. How did that come to you?
Interestingly, I was with a friend, someone I do a lot of writing with, and I just kept on saying this is it over and over. And I agree: my first reaction was well, you can't really say that. But it was sticky. I couldn't get it out of my head. so I thought that counted for something. And to be honest, I couldn't think of anything else that meant the same thing but was as direct.
I tweeted this Hemingway quote at you the other day and told you we would discuss it, so here goes. He said, "I learn as much from painters how to write as I do from writers." What do you think about that?
There is so much a songwriter can learn from other artistic disciplines. Hemingway is also one of my favorite authors, and I have a picture of him in my studio. I learn a lot about songwriting from novels. I think there has to be a journey in a song, just like in a novel. You have to unravel the characters and the feeling gradually; you can't give everything away in the first chorus. As a songwriter, you have to think about how the listener feels at the beginning of the song and then how they feel at the end. If you change one chord, will that journey change too? That's how novels are to me. At the beginning, you don't really understand the characters, then you learn about them over time.
Who else do you like to read?
Fitzgerald is another one. Right now I’m reading Christopher Mr. Norris Changes Trains. It’s quite good.
So you go straight for the classics then?
Yeah, just like in music, but I recently read Dave Eggers' latest book and loved it. I want to read the new Jennifer Egan book. I loved her book Visit from the Goon Squad. But my next reading project is to tackle David Bowie’s book list. These are the books he said that you have to read.
Do those writers affect your songwriting?
Maybe. It’s incredible how those authors weave words. Most of the time it’s just a sentence or a paragraph that moves me. I’ll dissect it and maybe try to make my own version of that for a song. When I’m reading a lot, that’s when I’m writing a lot. And when I’m not reading, I’m not writing. That’s why I always need to read.
I know it sounds kind of vain and weird, but I’m not really inspired by everyday life. I’m not that inspired by the things around me. But when I’m reading something, or if I see an amazing film, or if I’m jamming with my band mates, that’s when the sparks come.
We talked about hockey earlier, but it’s the same thing. When you were a kid and just finished watching a hockey game, what did you want to do? You probably didn’t want to quilt. You wanted to play hockey. So reading and writing are no different.
That’s a great example. And that’s how it was with me. That’s how music works with me, and that’s how I was growing up. I was at the rink every day.
Let’s talk about your writing environment. How important is that to you?
I have a shed in the back of my house. It’s basically a two car garage that the owners never used as a garage. They used it as a screening room, so we turned it into the Lo Moon studio. Before we started touring, that was our haven. I wrote in that space every day. That’s when I realized that environment makes a huge difference to me. So much so that we left LA to record and went to Seattle to record because we thought the environment would suit the music better.
When do you like to write?
I like to write in the morning before all the distractions. And I’m talking like 6:30am. When I get sucked into life, I lose it. Now, that’s when I’m by myself. But if I’m with the band, I can write any time.
Environment and ritual go hand in hand, don’t they? A ritual can give you confidence. And that leads to my next question. I’ve found songwriters to be enormously loyal to a specific type of pen when they write.
I used to be into the space pen. That’s the pen that you can use upside down and underwater. But now I use my phone, probably more often that I’d like. It’s pathetic.
Do you revise a lot of your lyrics?
I do a fair amount of revising. I revised the verses to our song “All In” like twenty times. I never felt comfortable singing the lyrics, so I’d revise them. They have to feel genuine when I sing them.
Is there any ideal emotion when you at your most prolific?
Oh wow. Sometimes I have to force myself to write when I’m stressed out, and in those cases it feels like I've unlocked something. But other times I’m not sure how I’m feeling emotionally, which is why I start writing in the first place. So in that case I’m using writing as a way to work out my emotions. Then I'll sit down to jam and something will come out and I'll think Why am I playing that? That's fucking weird. Or I'll go back and listen to the voice memos on my phone, most of which are just gibberish, and I'll work through them, noticing when I keep repeating a line or a word. That's when I start analyzing the emotion: by listening to what I'm feeling.