Posts in Sub Pop Records
Eric Earley, Blitzen Trapper

Wanna be a writer? Easy: read and write. All the time. You can't be a good writer if you don't read. Most songwriters I interview are voracious readers, but I don't know anyone I've interviewed who fits that idea more than Blitzen Trapper's Eric Earley. 

When I asked Earley if he was a disciplined writer, if he was able to sit down and make himself write for a stretch, he told me no. That's a common response to this question, and it's mostly framed as a wistful But I really wish I had that discipline. Earley's reason is different: he doesn't have discipline because he doesn't need it. He writes all the time. He never sees writing as someone that he should do. Instead, it's something he loves to do. In fact, his problem now is that his love for writing may occupy too much of his time. "It's more about scaling back and finding times to do other things," he told me. To wit: Earley has written five novels that he has no plans to publish. And he's always reading. When we talked, he was reading three books at the same time. The result? A songwriter who loves to tell stories, and whose process seems, from an outsider's perspective, to come pretty easily. But that's my point: when Earley isn't writing songs, words consume his life in some other fashion.

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Kristin Welchez (Kristin Kontrol, Dum Dum Girls)

"You can't have purple prose and expect people to get to the core on their own," Kristin Welchez told me as we discussed her songwriting process. Welchez is the leader of the Dum Dum Girls with a new project under the moniker Kristin Kontrol. Welchez told me that she's always been "indulgent" in her words (it's feedback she's gotten since grade school) but that she tries to be as direct as possible in her songwriting. Stripping an idea to its bare essentials is the easiest way to minimize distance between you and the audience; it doesn't matter whether they're readers or concertgoers. To reinforce this idea to a young Welchez, one of her English teachers gave her a copy of the book Writing Down the Bones, and she's tried to follow this precept ever since.

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Ben Bridwell, Band of Horses

Oh, to be a young and single songwriter.  There are no limits to your creative process: without family commitments, you can write anywhere, anytime.  And that's what Ben Bridwell, singer and songwriter for Band of Horses, did.  He went to cabins and cabooses, from mountains to ocean shores.  Bridwell craves that isolation to write, and he thought it was a necessary component to his process. And that isolation, he believed, couldn't be a quiet room in the house. It had to be far away. (Not all songwriters need solitude, though; many have told me that they prefer to be around at least a little bit of action.  There's Cory Branan, who wrote his first two albums in a mall food court.  And there's Rhett Miller, who likes venue stairwells, where it's quiet but he not too far from the hustle and bustle of load in.)

Three daughters and a wife later, Bridwell can no longer pack up his notebooks and head to the hills to write like he used to.  He's got a family now.  But he's found the perfect space: his garage-cum-studio.  No one bothers him there, though admittedly they stay away for more practical reasons: according to Bridwell, "it's dark and there are lots of bugs."  Having this space made Bridwell realize that it's solitude that matters, not where the solitude is.

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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."

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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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Corin Tucker, Sleater Kinney

What is it with the connection between manual labor and songwriting? Corin Tucker becomes the third interviewee (Grace Potter and Lissie being the others) to tell me that working around the house inspires her to write, be it housework or yardwork.  Tucker offers an explanation: the time when brain and hands are moving is "meditative time" that stimulates creativity.  

We know Corin Tucker as the singer and guitarist for Sleater-Kinney.  In October she released a solo album entitled 1,000 Years (KillRockStars) that she called "a middle aged mom record." In her late thirties, Tucker is a mother of two with a full-time job outside the record industry.  And the routine of her writing process reflects that: her day job has given her a healthy respect for deadlines when it comes to writing, even though she often can't work on meeting those deadlines until after she puts the kids to bed.

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Hutch Harris, The Thermals

One of the things I always ask writers to do here is describe their ideal writing environment, where they would be the most productive.  Most mention someplace scenic, whether it’s the water, the woods, or high above a landscape looking down.  Whatever it is, it’s a place of beauty.

Then there’s Hutch Harris of The Thermals, the anti-hero of the picturesque writing environment.  Whatever is in front of him, it’s probably too much.  He doesn’t want the sea, the trees, a gazebo, or a bay window.  He wants nothing.  Just white walls.  Anything else is a distraction.  That’s why I told him that if he ever does time, he could write The Great American Novel.  Or if he ever becomes a monk, that would also work.

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Steve Bays, Hot Hot Heat

Steve Bays, the singer and songwriter for Hot Hot Heat, grew up on the water, and he lives only feet from it now in Vancouver.  But don’t expect him to take his guitar down to the water’s edge on a whim and start strumming, like some free-spirited songwriter with his toes in the sand and the wind in his hair (even though Bays and I did discover that we both share a love of the great guitar strummin’ songwriter Jim Croce).  Like most professional writers, Bays needs structure to his writing process, and in that aspect he is unique among the songwriters I have talked to, who rely more on the inspiration of their muse.  In fact, if you didn’t know better, you might think Bays dutifully goes to his office every day to write.

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