Posts in Indie Rock
Jana Hunter // Lower Dens

Every writer imagines that every other writer at that very moment is composing with grace and efficiency, where words pour effortlessly from the pen or keyboard without hesitation. In this world, drafts are completed in no time.

But this is not the case. It’s hardly ever the case. For most of us, writing is intimidating. For Jana Hunter of Lower Dens, lyric writing is usually his least favorite part of the process. “It feels like toil,” he told me.

Read More
Sadie Dupuis, Speedy Ortiz

It's great paradox, right? Sadie Dupuis, songwriter and frontperson for Speedy Ortiz, has an MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts. She's been writing poetry for several years. Yet she insists on writing her song lyrics in prose form. They look like paragraphs. She even hates when anyone writing about her music transcribes her lyrics in verse form. "It really does drive me crazy when I see my lyrics reprinted in stanza form. I mean, I'm giving it to them right here. This is the way it should look!"

But it should come as little surprise that Dupuis treats song lyrics this way: her poetry writing and song writing have nothing in common. Her poems start with words and with an idea she'd like to write about, but her songs almost always start with a melody. Sitting down to write poetry and instead coming up with a song "would almost be as if someone sat down to create an oil painting and wound up choreographing a ballet instead," she told me. 

Read More
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."

Read More
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.

Read More
Carl Newman, The New Pornographers

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
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."

Read More
Hamilton Leithauser, The Walkmen

It wasn't easy to talk at first with Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen about his creative process. There was something else on our minds: we spoke on the phone the same day that RGIII, the quarterback of the Washington Redskins, had his reconstructive knee surgery.  And since Leithauser and I are both Washington DC natives (I still live here while he now lives in New York), we are Redskins fans.  So what you won't read here are the first ten minutes of our interview, which reads like an ESPN amateur hour.

Much has been made of the growing maturity of the the members of The Walkmen, friends since childhood who now have families and who are settling into a bit of domesticity. Leithauser has a 21 month old daughter, whom he had just put down for a nap before we talked.  He gets his best writing done early in the morning. Early, as in after he gets up at 6am, not early as in 1am or 2am before many songwriters go to bed.

Read More
Tim Kasher, Cursive

Tim Kasher of Cursive is a multidisciplinary writer:  he writes songs, but he also writes screenplays and short stories.  It's no surprise that the process of songwriting and the process of writing long form pieces influence each other.  What does surprise me, though, is that the process of the former has made him more disciplined when it comes to the latter: Kasher has long been able to sit for long stretches and write songs, something that's more common to fiction writers.  Then again, Kasher's songwriting process is somewhat unconventional: this a guy whose ideas come best in the morning after a good night's sleep. That's rare among the 120+ songwriters I've interviewed, most of whom say they work best in the late hours of the night. The phrase "in the morning after a good night's sleep" is not often associated with indie songwriters.

Read More
Derek Miller, Sleigh Bells

"You asked me how I was doing at the beginning of the interview and I said I was good, so can I retract that and say that I'm well?" asked Derek Miller of Sleigh Bells when I told him that I used to be an English professor. He explained that his 7th grade English teacher told his class that if anyone said, "I did good," he'd make them write "I did well" hundreds of times.  On one hand, that's a horrible teaching technique. But let's look on the bright side: it was good practice for Miller, who creates all the time, everywhere, wherever he can.

My interest in interviewing Miller was piqued after reading the recent Sleigh Bells cover story in Spin magazine.  He touched on his creative process a bit there, but I was taken by the intensity with which he approaches it.  And when he told me that he's an enormous Henry Miller fan, I was not surprised; Derek's music and Henry's writing are both intense sensory experiences.  

Read More
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.)

Read More
Adam Thompson, We Were Promised Jetpacks

We Were Promised Jetpacks' second album In the Pit of the Stomachrepresented a bit of a departure for the band's songwriter, Adam Thompson.  He wrote their first album These Four Walls in a rather spontaneous fashion: not paying too much attention to the lyrics, just playing the music and, in his words, sometimes "mumbling anything to get the song done." The lyrics were almost an afterthought.

But that changed with Pit, because with this second album came expectations from the music world that were absent from their debutAfter all, you don't get that "it's time to make another album" feeling before you've ever done anything. So Thompson's lyrical process, and in turn its content, became more deliberate: though he still never sits down with the express idea of writing a song, on Pit Thompson tried to string together themes across the songs while spending more time on his laptop crafting the words (and drinking some good rum, I might add).

Read More
Adam Granduciel, The War on Drugs

After talking to Adam Granduciel from The War on Drugs, I want to thank his utility company for still sending him a paper bill each month.  You see, Granduciel eschews the traditional notebook favored by most songwriters as the place to write his lyrics.  Instead, he uses scraps of any paper lying around, which oftens happens to be the back of retail receipts, parking tickets, and electric bills.  He piles these scraps into a heap on the table in his studio (and warns his girlfriend that it isn't trash), where they form the basis for his songwriting.  

What I found most interesting about Granduciel's process is that he favors imperfection.  As a teenager, he was immersed in photography and painting, and just as he does in those creative endeavors, he finds that the "unintentional little mistakes" that emerge from the creative process of songwriting often produce the best work.  Those scraps of paper I mentioned above only contain lyrical ideas, because Granduciel tends to hold lyrics in his head and "write" them in that space until he's ready to sing them.  He doesn't do much revising: much of what you hear in his recordings is a first take improvisation after the lyrics have stewed in his head.  With "Brothers," for example, eighty percent of the lyrics were improvised; it went, in his words, "from nothing to something in six minutes."

Read More