Posts in Indie Pop
Amelia Meath, Sylvan Esso

 

By my count, Sylvan Esso's Amelia Meath is in the middle of reading seven books now. She's reading poetry, fiction, non-fiction, plays, a biography, and I'm sure some others she didn't mention in our interview. I was not surprised when she told me this. Follow Meath and her bandmate Nick Sandborn on any form of social media, and you'll see creativity everywhere. Meath is of course known for her work now in Sylvan Esso, but there's much more. She loves acting and even went to college to study it. (This is not a surprise if you've seen her lithe and theatrical stage moves). She loves to make collages. And she wants to start writing a tv pilot. Oh, and she once did a ton of freewriting about LeBron James. 

Meath's songwriting process involves some routines, even though she does most of her writing "in the air." She eschews computers and prefers pen and paper for her lyrics. But not just any pen and not just any paper: for now it's a Poppin pen and college ruled composition notebooks. Part of her lyrical process involves writing the same verse over and over; in fact, some of her notebooks are filled with just one song. 

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Jenn Wasner, Wye Oak and Flock of Dimes

Regardless of what kind of art you create, some level of self-awareness is important. If you're a songwriter, you may marvel at the miracle of inspiration and how sometimes songs just fall into your lap. But at some point, you have to think about your process: you have to think about the parts that work, the parts that don't work, and why they do and don't. Successful songwriters have that level of self-awareness. It's hard to be productive if you're oblivious to your process. Jenn Wasner knows what works and what doesn't work, and this is one of the reasons why she is so prolific and so talented

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Bethany Cosentino, Best Coast

Put Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast in a hotel bathroom, and she's one happy songwriter. If you're with her and she's in there for a looong time, don't worry. She's creating. Music.

The traveling ways of the songwriter dictate that they can't be too picky with their environment when it comes to writing. They have to adapt to their surroundings and write whenever they can, wherever they can. But according to Cosentino, environment plays a "huge" role in her songwriting process. When she's at home, she writes in her "music room," which contains nothing but music related stuff, from guitars to CDs to posters. She loves to write there because the room's solitude gives her privacy. "I try on tour to write, but the problem is that I don't want people to hear me when I'm trying to write. I like to be able to make mistakes and sing badly and play really bad chords that don't sound good together. It's a very private process for me that I enjoy doing entirely on my own. A place like that is hard to find on tour."

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Alaina Moore, Tennis

The story behind the creative process of Tennis' debut Cape Dory has been told ad nauseam elsewhere. Make that "everywhere else"; the internet seems incapable of mentioning the band without talking about The Trip. And in that narrative, you'll see words like beach and sunny to describe the music of this Denver-based couple (Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley are married).

But that's not what Moore and I wanted to talk about. 

I remember an interview with an author who said that the term "beach read" is an insult because it implies that the writing has no depth and can be consumed with little effort. As you'll see, Moore's songwriting process--really, her life--reflects the anxiety behind that idea. When descriptors like that follow your music everywhere, I imagine it must be frustrating to Moore, whose songwriting has far more depth than that. 

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Ritzy Bryan, The Joy Formidable

What struck me most about my conversation with Ritzy Bryan--the lead guitarist, singer, and songwriter for The Joy Formidable--was the dichotomy of her creative process.  On one hand, it's an abstract idea: she uses words like imagination, inspiration, and mind, all of which are channeled through her stream-of-consciousness writing process.  And yet she explains all of this so well.  It's not easy to talk about vague concepts like these so concretely, but it's a testament to her intelligence and metacognition that she has such a handle on her creative process. Of course, it also helps that she devours books: the back lounge of the band's tour bus is a mini-library.

The Joy Formidable is legendary for their incessant touring schedule.  This means that Bryan does a lot of writing on the road, and she can't worry about finding that right moment to write.  She describes her writing process--even her actual words on the page--as "chaotic." Bryan never, ever forces the writing process; setting aside time to write, she says, will ruin her creativity.  And like any good writer, she recognizes that a large part of her creative process involves soaking up every part of her environment and finding inspiration everywhere, because, in her words, "there's so much variety, even in the most mundane day-to-day schedule."  As a result, her songbook is a "mixture of more fully-realized poems and very chaotic words: just word combinations, wordplay, and imagery."

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Paul Sprangers, Free Energy (redux)

When I interviewed Paul Sprangers of Free Energy in 2010, he mentioned his affinity for psychologist Carl Jung.  It's the only time I've ever heard a songwriter namecheck the father of the collective unconscious. Knowing this, then, you can read some context into our discussion about his creative process when you see words like subconscious, urge, tension, and ego. According to Sprangers, lyrics come from a place unknown even to him; his body is just a conduit for the words and ideas.  "It's all my subconscious barfing lines onto the page," he told me.

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Jeremy Messersmith

Quick: what do cooking, Dungeons and Dragons, bike riding, Jerry Seinfeld, art galleries, and Jeremy Messersmith's wife all have in common?  Answer: they are all an important part of Jeremy Messersmith's creative process. No one can accuse Messersmith of passively participating in the creation of his songs.  In some manner, he's always at work at crafting them.

And it's a process that has served him well:  Messersmith's latest release The Reluctant Graveyard received universal praise, including a spot on NPR's "Top Ten Albums of 2010" list. And it is a great album. 

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Josh Epstein, Jr. Jr.

Josh Epstein and Daniel Zott have gotten a good amount of ribbing (and worse) in the music press for naming their band Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.  But how is it that while Epstein and Zott get ribbed, plenty of indie rock darlings get a pass for their names?  We have bands named after racquet sports, punctuation marks, makeup, and primates who live on the North Pole. There are artists named after zoo animals. I mean, I'm a huge Echo and the Bunnymen fan, but come on!

All band names have meaning in their own way.  There's an element of absurdity in many of them, but there's also creativity in that absurdity. Which was kind of the point when Epstein and Zott named their band. And if you miss this point, then you've missed the very reason why they named the band Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. in the first place.

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Mirah, Thao and Mirah

One thing that distinguishes artists from everyone else is their hyperattention to their surroundings. Specifically, good lyricists (and that means songwriters and poets) see beauty in even the most mundane of things.  And there's no better example of that than Mirah, who maintains a Tumblr account that features nothing but pictures of discarded banana peels she finds on the streets of San Francisco.  She claims on the site that she doesn't think this has anything to do with her music, but I must disagree.  It's all part of her creative package. This is exactly what makes songwriters artistic: they see purpose in everything, even (really, especially) in things that most of us never notice.

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Jenn Wasner, Wye Oak

There's no doubt in my mind that Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak would be lost without her phone. It's the key to her songwriting. That phone is where she documents all her observations for the day.  She's constantly in touch with her surroundings, and all of her lyrical and melodic ideas that come from this connection go into the phone's voice recorder for later, when she actually writes a song.  Wasner says her "switch is on all the time . . . if you're always looking around and noticing your environment, it's a big help."

What impresses me most about Wasner is that she calls herself a writer, period. And she knows that being a writer takes hard work. Like any good writer, she knows that the time spent actually crafting her words is only a small part of the writing process.  Wasner recognizes that writers are always writing, even when they aren't.  That is, her writing process takes place when she's driving, walking, shopping, anything. During this time, she's inventing ideas, trying out lines, just doing everything except putting pen to paper. In fact, she approaching her writing process with this wonderfully simple mantra: "living is work."

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Sherri DuPree-Bemis & Stacy King, Eisley

Last Friday I caught Eisley at the Rock n' Roll Hotel here in Washington, DC.  I'm a newcomer to their music, so after interviewing sisters and bandmembers Sherri DuPree-Bemis and Stacy DuPree-King, I wanted to check them out live.  Leading up to the show, what struck me about their music was its strong melodic element.  And live shows by a band whose lyrics I don't really know are a way to confirm this; the music just sounds good even though I may not be able to make out the lyrics. And that's what happened at the Eisley show that night.

What I heard Friday confirms what DuPree-Bemis and DuPree-King told me: that in the first stages of their songwriting process, melody comes naturally.  It's so effortless, in fact, that DuPree-Bemis even writes songs in her sleep, literally, as you'll read.  And according to DuPree-King, "The melody is a language in itself." Of course, it's not as if the four siblings and their cousin who make up the band are short on lyrical content: the band went through a professional divorce (from Warner Bros.) and a personal one as well (DuPree-Bemis divorced in 2007 before recently remarrying).

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Chris Farren

Chris Farren, the vocalist and guitarist for Fake Problems, is a disciplined man when it comes to songwriting.  When he's in one of his "writing cycles," he gets up early, eats, takes care of distractions, then sits down to write. In fact, he compares this process to an "office job."

And when he writes, he almost always begins with a single line in his head, not music.  That's something that I haven't heard too often from the songwriters on this site, who usually begin a song with a guitar and music, letting the lyrics emerge from the chord progressions.  And this discipline is reflected in how Farren's songs are created: he writes them in a linear fashion, in the same manner you hear them as a finished product.

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