Posts in Indie Folk
John Darnielle, The Mountain Goats

John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats was nervous when he saw the word "process" in the title of this site. Process implies routine, and Darnielle doesn't really have a routine when it comes to songwriting. In fact, he eschews the idea. If he writes every day, it's a descriptor of his routine rather than a mandate. Keep a journal? Heck no, because Darnielle feels pretentious writing about himself. He wants to demystify the songwriting process; he doesn't want to see it as something that only happens when certain factors align.

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M.C. Taylor, Hiss Golden Messenger

M.C. Taylor will tell you that he's not a narrative songwriter. There may be a story behind the songs, but they don't really tell a story. And even if they did, he wouldn't tell you what those songs are about because that's not his duty as a writer. Taylor would never dare tell you what meaning you're supposed to glean from his lyrics. "Part of my mission with Hiss has been to make emotionally complex music, where you play it for someone and they can't quite tell whether it's happy or sad. That's the core of my music: using it as a mirror for what my life feels like, because my life is both happy and sad, usually at the same time. My songs are about whatever you want them to be about. You have your idea and I have mine, and I would never disabuse anyone of their notion." he told me.

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Ben Kweller

Ben Kweller is a busy man.  When we talked, he'd just gotten off the road; like the good husband and father that he is, Kweller was cleaning his closets when the phone rang.  Since Kweller has two young kids, he's usually up early, which was why our interview was at the ungodly-for-touring-musicians hour of 10am. But this is Kweller's personality, and it's this limitless energy that makes him such a great songwriter. He finds creative inspiration in everything from hiking to taking his kids to the park to visiting art galleries. (Although, as you'll read, he writes best in Australian hotel rooms.)

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Adam Turla, Murder By Death (2011)

If you go back to the first interview on this site back in June 2010, it was with Adam Turla of Murder By Death.  We talked backstage at Lincoln Hall in Chicago as he lay on a couch in the green room, the victim of a pinched nerve in his back (though you never would have known it a couple hours later watching him play).

I am an unabashed Murder By Death fan.  Turla writes some of the best lyrics around, and the band's music sounds like no one else (Turla describes them as "a rock and roll band with a little bit of country.  There’s a cello, a guy with a low voice, and some piano.  It’s music that can exist at any time. And we tell great stories.”).  I have enormous respect for the reverence with which he treats his creative process. Here's a look into that process after the video as he talks about writing for the upcoming album.

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Kurt Vile

In his own words, Kurt Vile runs around like a "headless chicken" when he's on tour, so it's hard for him to write.  Given that he needs a clutter-free environment ("Open space and open air in my head," he says) this is hardly surprising.  Vile works best when he's away from all of his comfort zones, which explains why a trip to the countryside can often be a salve for any songwriting rut he might be in. Vile's new EP So Outta Reach comes out November 8.  The EP contains five songs recorded during the sessions for his latest LP Smoke Ring for My Halo.  

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Keith Goodwin, Good Old War

It's a good thing that Keith Goodwin of Good Old War is disciplined in his songwriting process (most of the songwriters I've interviewed are, in their own words, not disciplined). His wife is due with their first child in October, so he's only got a couple more months of solitude in the house.  We have four young kids, and as I told Goodwin, being a parent has actually made me more disciplined: I have limited free time, so I know not to waste the little time I do have.  Parenting has a way of enforcing discipline on the writing process. But as you'll read, this may all be for naught, because in true Pavlovian fashion, it appears that all Goodwin needs to get himself writing is a good ol' slice of pizza.

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Taylor Goldsmith, Dawes

In at least one high school English class this year, Taylor Goldsmith's writing has been taught alongside the classics. It's a tribute to Goldsmith's songwriting and storytelling that one English teacher discovered that the themes of Dawes' debut North Hills mirror the themes in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. After talking to Goldsmith, none of this really surprises me.  He's ridiculously well-read, devouring the classics (I have a PhD in English, and I admit that I haven't touched some of the authors he's read). His method of songwriting is unorthodox, at least among the 90+ songwriters I've interviewed: he often starts the songwriting process with the title, he doesn't like to use nonsense syllables as placeholders when he starts crafting the lyrics, and he writes each song with a fixed topic in mind. All of this is what makes him a great storyteller and what draws comparisons to the Laurel Canyon scene.

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Marissa Nadler (2011)

It's easy to see how Marissa Nadler's experience as a songwriter is informed by her extensive experience as  a visual artist.  She studied illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she received both her undergraduate and graduate degree.  In fact, she started as a visual artist before becoming a songwriter. The intensity and honesty she exhibits as a visual artist manifest themselves in her songwriting, as you'll read, though poetry also influences how she writes.  Songwriting and illustration, she says, is about "trying to find the beauty or ugliness" in a subject, using the artist's ability to approach that subject from a unique point of view.  It's also about "compressing life into a couple of lines," as a good poet does. 

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Heather Robb, The Spring Standards

It took only a few minutes of seeing The Spring Standards in concert before I knew that this was one creative trio.  I caught them here in DC at the Red Palace when they played with Ha Ha Tonka. It wasn't just the fact that Heather Robb, James Smith, and James Cleare all played every instrument at some point.  It wasn't the fantastic voices or the terrific songs. It was that, as I told Robb, their set was so theatrical.  It was a stage show: the way they played, the way they bantered with each other, the way they bantered with the audience. 

It was like a stage show, as it turns out, for good reason: Robb is an actor by training who still is involved in theatre in New York City.  She attended Syracuse University, where she majored in theatre. (In a true small world coincidence, we were both there in the Department of Drama at the same time: I as a professor and she as a student, though we did not know each other.) Robb claims to be somewhat of an introvert, something not readily apparent in her charismatic stage presence.

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Thao Nguyen, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down

Earlier this week I posted my interview with Mirah, and today it's Thao's turn (of Thao and Mirah, as well as Thao and the Get Down Stay Down). Thao and Mirah begin touring in May to support their album that comes out April 26 on killrockstars. I've interviewed over 80 songwriters for this site, and few (probably enough to count on one hand) mention exercise as an aid and a regular part of their writing process.  But both Thao and Mirah exercise regularly and use it as a way to boost creativity.  Which makes me think that if they haven't already, the should run together if they decide to write and record again.  Maybe train for a 10k together.

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Jonathan Meiburg, Shearwater

It's a telling indication of the depth of Jonathan Meiburg's experience that if you Google his name and search for images, you'll see a lot of birds.  As any professional writer will tell you, what makes for powerful writing is engagement with the world. Good writers engage with their environment and seek out novel ways to interact with it.  Of course, mere interaction with the environment isn't necessarily an indicator that you'll write well about it; to do so, you have to engage and reflect on that engagement. Ernest Hemingway experienced a couple of wars and lots of bullfighting, but it's how he wrote about those experiences that made him great.

All this is to say that this is why Meiburg, the Shearwater singer and songwriter, writes such quality music.  His experience is vast: he's been to the Falkland Islands, Tierra del Fuego, an Aboriginal settlement in Australia, the Chatham Islands of New Zealand, and Baffin Island in Canada.  His masters degree is in geography, and his thesis (which I am reading now) is entitled The Biogeography of Striated Caracaras (Phalcoboenus australis). Not surprisingly, Meiburg is an avid birder.  As you'll read below, he spends a considerable amount of time not only writing about the natural environment but thinking about his place in it with keen metacognition.

Read my interview with Jonathan Meiburg after the video. A special thanks to Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak, who introduced me to Jonathan and affectiontely told us two "nerds" to go at it.

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Brian Roberts, Ha Ha Tonka

This is not an album review site, since I do that for the Washington Post.  I try to maintain some sense of objectivity when I write these short pieces before my interviews.  But for this, my second interview with Brian Roberts of Ha Ha Tonka, I am suspending that practice to say that Ha Ha Tonka is one of the best bands making music now.  Their new album,Death of a Decade (Bloodshot Records), only futher reinforces my opinion.  It's beautiful, it's soulful, it's energetic.  And the four-part harmonies from these guys from the Ozark mountain region are mesmerizing. Predictably, the reviews for Death of a Decade are overwhelmingly positive.   Their music has been described as indie, roots, alt-country, bluegrass, southern rock, among other label.  It's hard to pin down, but that's probably why they are so good: it's got all those influences.

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