Posts in Folk
Sera Cahoone

I normally use this space before my interview transcripts to tell you something I learned from my conversation with the featured songwriter.  But I'm going to forego that for a minute and drop all objectivity to tell you that Sera Cahoone has one of my favorite voices in music.  It's a voice that gives me goosebumps.  I'm a relative newcomer to her music; the first song I heard was "The Colder the Air" a couple of years ago off her second album Only as the Day is Long (Sub Pop Records).  Cahoone's voice had me after the first few notes.  Her 2012 album Deer Creek Canyon, also on Sub Pop, is one of my favorite albums in the past year. 

My conversation with Cahoone about her songwriting process revealed more than just how she writes her songs.  Cahoone started out as a drummer, not a songwriter, and for a long time she saw herself solely as a drummer. Only recently has she begun to see herself as a songwriter. And by her own admission, she's an introvert, so she finds writing to be the best way to express herself. She told me, "I think that's why it took me so long to be comfortable with people hearing what I'm saying, because my songs are pretty personal."

Read More
James Vincent McMorrow

James Vincent McMorrow is nothing if not patient and methodical.  A lesser songwriter might be driven crazy by the snail's pace of his writing process: it took McMorrow nearly six months to write his debut Early in the Morning (Vagrant Records).  Some days he wrote only a few sentences; on others, just a few words.  It would be easy to call this writer's block; after all, if you sit for a whole day and only write five or six sentences, surely your creative spigot is closed.

But this is all part of McMorrow's process, and here's the difference.  Any good writer will tell you that their writing process never stops.  It's happening when they eat, sleep, talk, stare, read, whatever.  The actual pen-to-paper part, the end product, is only a small part of that process. Sure, it's the most gratifying, but it's only one part of many. So it's not that McMorrow writes slowly. (Well, he might, since I've haven't seen the speed of his penmanship.)  Instead, he writes deliberately. And he's fine with that. 

Read More
Ben Ottewell, Gomez

Ben Ottewell, vocalist and guitarist for Gomez, released his solo album Shapes and Shadows this month. It obviously offered Ottewell much more freedom in his creative process: as you'll read, everything went "a lot faster" since the buck stopped with him.  Read my interview with Ottewell about his songwriting process after the video.

Read More
Joy Williams and John Paul White, The Civil Wars

One of the reasons why The Civil Wars work so well is the effortless collaboration between its two members, Joy Williams and John Paul White.  And it had better work well: they travel without a band, playing their music with just guitar and piano.  Plus two beautiful voices.

What I found most unique about their creative process is its genesis.  Most artists start with the music, and the words flow from that.  A few, but not many, start with the words.  The Civil Wars begin with both: when Williams and White get together (both are veteran songwriters and are not married to each other),  White "noodles" on the guitar as they talk about what's going on in each of their lives. It's that combination of noodling and conversation that leads to the ideas for their songs.  (Of course, I'd also argue that prolific output like this is due to their love of William Faulkner and Flannery OConnor, but that's another story.)

Read More
Rocky Votolato

It might not be a stretch to say that writing saved the life of singer/songwriter Rocky Votolato.  After the release of his previous album The Brag & Cuss, Votolato suffered bouts of depression and anxiety so severe that he barely left his apartment for a year.  To overcome this, he did two things: he read and he wrote. 

What struck me most, as I talked to Votolato backstage before his show at the Black Cat in DC two weeks ago, was how writing, for him, was an act of survival.  While he wrote his latest album True Devotion (Barsuk Records) to appeal to his fans, of course, he found that he needed the album even more than they did.  Writing became an act of therapy for Votolato, who told me, "I used to see suicide as a viable option for existential suffering.  I used to think it was a fine choice, a justified choice." Votolato no longer feels that way, but those were dark times, made bright by the power of the written word.

Read More
Lissie

Are you in the market for a  great songwriter who doubles as a fantastic cleaning lady?  If you need someone who can clean your cabinets and pen a mean chorus, look no further than Lissie.  You see, Lissie likes organization.  She needs things to be clean and orderly in the space around her.  For example, she likes to put things in pouches.  Then she puts those pouches inside other pouches.  

The irony in all of this obsession with order is that her writing process is anything but organized.  Lissie is all about the stream of consciousness process, where she just lets everything flow out in one giant mess that she organizes later.  For thirty minutes, she'll just write, with little regard for how it looks or what's coming out.  For someone who insists on the proper placement of the salt and pepper shaker at the dinner table, this can be surprising. 

Read More