Posts in Merge Records
John Darnielle, The Mountain Goats

John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats was nervous when he saw the word "process" in the title of this site. Process implies routine, and Darnielle doesn't really have a routine when it comes to songwriting. In fact, he eschews the idea. If he writes every day, it's a descriptor of his routine rather than a mandate. Keep a journal? Heck no, because Darnielle feels pretentious writing about himself. He wants to demystify the songwriting process; he doesn't want to see it as something that only happens when certain factors align. He considers songwriting, or any creative. Darnielle isn't too keen on the idea of writer's block.

That's not to say, of course, that when things are going well he won't stick to what works: Darnielle wrote almost all of All Eternals Deck at his dining room table "because it just seemed to be coming out good there."

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M.C. Taylor, Hiss Golden Messenger

M.C. Taylor will tell you that he's not a narrative songwriter. There may be a story behind the songs, but they don't really tell a story. And even if they did, he wouldn't tell you what those songs are about because that's not his duty as a writer. Taylor would never dare tell you what meaning you're supposed to glean from his lyrics. "Part of my mission with Hiss has been to make emotionally complex music, where you play it for someone and they can't quite tell whether it's happy or sad. That's the core of my music: using it as a mirror for what my life feels like, because my life is both happy and sad, usually at the same time. My songs are about whatever you want them to be about. You have your idea and I have mine, and I would never disabuse anyone of their notion." he told me.

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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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Mac McCaughan, Superchunk

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-Believershis 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. 

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Heather McEntire, Mount Moriah

I've interviewed close to 150 songwriters for this site, but no one has a songwriting approach quite like Heather McEntire of Mount Moriah. Once McEntire has a song topic, she researches it. That's right.  She researches.  Whereas many songwriters rely on the inspiration of the muse, her approach is methodical and deliberative; in fact, she says that when she sits down to write, it's almost akin to a college professor's office hours.

McEntire was a creative writing major in college, something that informs her songwriting process. Once she has an idea for a song, she reads as much as she can about the topic, because, well, she likes to learn. But if you read her lyrics and recognize the depth of her imagery and even her attention to geographical detail, none of this is surprising.  And I haven't even mentioned her voice yet, one of my favorites in music today. (Full disclosure: I reviewed the latest Mount Moriah album Miracle Temple on Merge Records in the Washington Post a few months ago.)

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Kurt Wagner, Lambchop

Salon magazine recently called Kurt Wagner of Lambchop the "greatest working American songwriter." But Wagner is not only a terrific songwriter, he's also one hell of a painter who has received considerable notice for his talents as a visual artist. In fact, Wagner was a painter before he was ever a songwriter (he has both an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree in sculpture). And these two creative endeavors constantly inform the other: not only do their processes overlap, but a visit to an art gallery might inspire Wagner to write a song. In that sense, then, this is not just an interview with songwriter. It's an interview with an artist. 

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Eric Bachmann, Crooked Fingers and Archers of Loaf

Sure, Eric Bachmann is strong: he benches 240 lbs, according to his bio on the Merge Records site. But what I'm more impressed with is his mental strength.  The Archers of Loaf and Crooked Fingers frontman has been known to exist on a torrid two-week writing schedule, aided by lots of coffee and easy-to-prepare food: 40 hours of writing followed by 6 hours of sleep, then repeating this cycle for up to 14 days. And it's not like he's looking over a wonderful vista while he's writing, since his ideal writing environment is a small room with confining walls painted in a dark color.  But this desire for confinement is at odds with how Bachmann lives his life: he never stays in the same place for more than six months, always moving from place to place in his van. So while he's in Athens, Georgia now, he'll be gone by spring. This nomadic lifestyle is reflected in his creative process as well, because Bachmann never likes to stay too comfortable with the same method of creating songs.

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Richard Buckner (Part One)

There's something wrong when Ke$ha is filthy rich and Richard Buckner had to drive a forklift to make ends meet.  It's proof that talent isn't a great equalizer.  But herein lies my ethical dilemma: I think I want Buckner to have those crazy jobs (besides driving a forklift, he's held road signs and worked for the U.S. Census), because it's those experiences and the characters he encounters there that make him a storyteller.  You can't be a writer if you don't have authentic experiences. It's why megastars like Ke$ha and Katy Perry are no longer individuals: they've become corporations who are so insulated from people like you and me that all they can do is sing about overwrought and cliched topics.

Buckner lives in Kingston, New York, not far from Woodstock in the Hudson Valley. Our conversation went far longer than I had expected, so I'm posting the first part today and the second part next week. Buckner is a joy to talk to; he's got a wonderful, hearty laugh and an intensity that reflects the dedication to his craft.  It's a cheerful intensity, though; he talks with a smile on his face at a pace that suggests that he has so much to say but only a limited time to get it out.

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Ivan Howard, The Rosebuds

Here's the secret to the success of Ivan Howard's songwriting: television, physical activity, and great literature. Sure, at first blush they seem disparate: the vacuous life of the couch potato, the discipline of the athlete, and the intellectual curiosity of the bookworm.  But they all legitimately contribute to Howard's creative process and the crafting of those wonderful Rosebuds' songs: the TV (it can't be a show he actually pays attention to) distracts him from the subject matter he's writing about, running and basketball are his periods of creative meditation, and the books are the source of the band's natural imagery. 

Much has been made of the story behind the making of The Rosebuds' latest release Loud Planes Fly Low.  Howard and Kelly Crisp make up The Rosebuds.  They divorced after the release of their fourth album Life Like.  But they continue today as a songwriting duo, now just as bandmates and friends.  Loud Planes Fly Low is the product of the emotional output and coming to grips with the breakdown of their relationship.  It's been covered enough in the press, so I'm not going to do it here. Besides, there's enough wonderfully original responses in this interview to sustain a fresh narrative.

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David Kilgour (The Clean, and David Kilgour & the Heavy Eights)

In the late 1970s, David Kilgour formed The Clean, one of the most popular bands in New Zealand and responsible for the development of the punk scene there.  The Clean were pioneers of the Dunedin Sound and one of the original signees to Flying Nun Records. Kilgour has long been recognized as one of the biggest (and most respected) songwriters and guitarists to come from New Zealand.  But did you know he's also a pretty good painter, a creative outlet that also serves him well as a songwriter?

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