Posts tagged interview
Nils Lofgren, Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band

When talking about his songwriting process, Nils Lofgren, guitarist for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, espouses a view shared by successful long-form writers. To many of them, writer's block is merely a failure of courage: it happens when writers expect perfection whenever they put pen to paper.  They're afraid to write badly. But any good writer will tell you that you cannot be afraid to write badly, because writing badly makes you better.  Some writing is better than no writing, and with work you can turn bad writing into better writing.  If you wait for perfection, you won't get much accomplished.

Lofgren follows this precept in his own process.  He has two modes as a songwriter: amateur mode and professional mode.  The amateur mode comes first; it's when he writes ten or so what he calls "stupid, corny love songs" to prepare for the real songwriting. Because he can't get much writing done on the marathon Springsteen tours, this amateur mode helps him clear the cobwebs and shake off the rust.  After amateur mode, he enters professional mode to write in earnest for a new album, and by this time his skills are razor sharp and kink-free.

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Nick Reinhart, Tera Melos

There’s nothing like a big ol’ crustacean to get you in the songwriting mood. That’s right.  If you're a songwriter and need a creative nudge, you should try seeking inspiration in a nice lobster dinner. Because that’s what Nick Reinhart of Tera Melos did. At a restaurant.  With his parents.

What’s fascinating about Reinhart is that he never lacks for inspiration. He has, in his words, “a vat of inspiration” in his head.  When he mentioned that inspiration is everywhere for him, I couldn’t help but think that he talks like a poet, who sees wonderment in the most mundane of objects. So besides his crustacean-centric creative process, he gets inspired by going to Disneyland: Reinhart has an annual pass, and every time he returns home from a visit, he can’t wait to pick up his guitar.

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Brian Fallon, The Gaslight Anthem

The next time you come across a song by The Gaslight Anthem, see it.  And I don't mean watch it on YouTube.  When it hits your ears, don't just listen to it.  See it.   Because I have a feeling that's what Brian Fallon wants. He may be a songwriter, but he talks like a poet.  He says that "imagery is more important than content" in his songs.  Most all of his songs start with scenery, and his job as the songwriter is to describe what it looks like, to get you the listener to see the imagery that Fallon conveys with his words.  It's no surprise he writes this way, once you know his favorite poet: Dylan Thomas.  As you'll read, Fallon used lines from a Dylan Thomas short story to describe his new side project Horrible Crowes.

I'm assuming that the whole Gaslight Anthem thing will work out for Brian Fallon.  He writes great songs and they put on a great live show. But there's a part of me that thinks he'd make one hell of a poet. Sure, this inteview is long.  I even trimmed some.  But every introspective answer is a window into a fascinating creative process. 

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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.

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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. 

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Carl Broemel, My Morning Jacket

Carl Broemel, guitarist for My Morning Jacket, reads the New Yorker.  His favorite poet is e.e. cummings.  And there's a song on his new record All Birds Say (ATO Records) called "On the Case" about the frustration he feels looking at the stack of books on his bedside table, unable to finish them. He sings, "Scary how easy it is to waste the day/Staring at a screen/While gathering dust the stack of unfinished books/That I'll have to start again."

If only the general public read such terrific magazines, admired such great poets, and expressed frustration at not being able to read more.  His affinity for the printed word should give you an idea how much he invests in the craft of songwriting.

I talked with Broemel when he was somewhere in New York between tour stops.  You'll learn why e.e. cummings makes him a better songwriter, how being a parent affects his songwriting, what book he is dying to read, and where he does his best writing.

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The Reverend Peyton and Washboard Breezy, The Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band

It’s hard to describe something when you have no frame of reference, when you have no means of comparison.  Such is the case with The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band.  When I wrote this review of the band’s latest release The Wages (SideOneDummy records) last week in the Washington Post, I was asked to name a couple of acts that the band might sound like.  I was stumped. Because in The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, we may finally have found that one band in rock and roll who truly sounds like no one else. 

The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn band consists The Rev on bottleneck slide guitar (his oldest guitar was made in 1935), his wife Washboard Breezy on the washboard, and his cousin Aaron “Cuz” Persinger on drums (and five gallon bucket).  They hail from rural Brown County in Indiana.  The Rev’s songs are all true stories; he writes about what he knows.  So yes, his mother’s fried potatoes really are the best (“Your Mama’s Fried Potatoes”), a cousin really was on Cops (“Your Cousin’s on Cops”), and The Rev’s brother really did steal a chicken from a zoo (“Fort Wayne Zoo”).

 When it comes to The Reverend Peyton and his songwriting, one thing matters above all else: melody.  That’s why, as I wrote in my Washington Post review, it’s impossible to stay still at one of their shows.  They play front porch, gather-round-and-dance blues with aplomb. 

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Laura Burhenn, The Mynabirds

First year writing courses, those introductory classes that many students are required to take in their first semester of college, can sometimes be a challenge for teachers. I taught it as a TA when I was getting my PhD.  To be sure, I always loved it because I got to expose first-year students to lots of great writing from a variety of genres.  I wanted my students to be as enthusiastic as I was about writing and about great works of literature. But the reality is that not everyone shared this enthusiasm.  However, every so often a student would show up on that first day of class whose obsession with literature matched mine, whose eyes also lit up at the mention of a Galway Kinnell poem.

Enter Laura Burhenn, leader of the Mynabirds, her new band.  I was Laura’s first year writing teacher.   Laura and I caught up on the eve of the tour to support the band’s acclaimed debut What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood on Saddle Creek RecordsGiven the amount of literary references she drops in this interview and the impressive awareness of her writing process, I’ll take credit for most of her success!  Ok, that’s a bit of a stretch, but you won’t see many songwriters who claim Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop as influences.  Laura’s writing process is very animated—literally—and she is a big believer in freewriting as a way to generate ideas (she thanks one of her college professors below—ahem—for teaching her about it).  As you’ll see, she has a keen sense of what works for her. 

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Tim Jones, Truth and Salvage Co.

You need only spend a few minutes talking to Tim Jones, one of the four songwriters in the band Truth and Salvage Co., to realize that he is a man without a generation.  And I mean that in a good way.  Read the book Hotel California: The True Life Adventures of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell, Taylor, Browne, Ronstadt, Geffen, the Eagles, and Their Many Friends by Barney Hoskyns, and you'll see what I mean.  It's about the singer/songwriter scene in southern California from the mid 60s through the 70s.  The artists in that scene valued the craft of the song, sat around and played a lot of guitar and piano, and spoke of the emotional connection between them and their instruments.  This is where Jones belonged.

He lives a bungalow in LA--an obvious connection to the 70s singer/songwriter scene.  There is a close bond, a spiritual connection, between him, his musical instrument, and his song.  It's a genuine affection, to such an extent that he writes only when he needs his instrument or it needs him.  Theirs is a symbiotic relationship.

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