I was surprised when Courtney Barnett told me that she doesn’t like solitude when she writes. Almost all of the songwriters I’ve interviewed have told me that they need to be alone, for the simple reason that they can’t have any distractions. But when Barnett told me why she needs to be around the action, it made sense: how can you be a narrative storyteller if you write while facing a wall?Read More
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, and his Roget's Thesaurus. 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.Read More
Mac McCaughan is a busy guy, but does that surprise you? He's married, has two kids, runs Merge Records (which he also co-founded), fronts Superchunk, and has the side project Portastatic. Now, on May 4, he'll release Non-Believers, his first solo album. As you can imagine, McCaughan has little free time, which is why his creative process is more disciplined than most artists'. His window for creative work on the new album was small: since he made the album at home, he did most of the work in the morning, when the kids were at school. Then he'd head to work at Merge in the afternoon. At night, when the kids were in bed, he'd work on it some more.Read More
At the beginning of our interview, Carl Newman of The New Pornographers said that he didn’t think he had a process. He insisted that he was “absolutely not a disciplined writer.” But as he discovered by the time we finished talking, he does have a process. In fact, it’s happening all the time, probably as you read this.
Newman may not sit down to write every day or may not have structured writing time, but according to him, “There’s an obsession in the back of my head that always makes me think about writing. I’m distracted by the idea of songwriting.” I get the sense that Newman is never not thinking about music. He’s always picking up words or turns of a phrase, and he’s always got melodies in his head. So it’s a nonstop process, even though it’s not a deliberate and conscious one. But the act of actually sitting down to write is “painful,” says Newman.
Read my interview with Carl Newman after the video. We get to the bottom of his creative process, but we also talk about Infinite Jest, his obsession with 10cc, and why lyrics are such a punishing part of his songwriting process. And course, we talk about the role that turn signals and windshield wipers play in his creative process.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More