Posts in Psych Rock
Jim James // My Morning Jacket

Jim James of My Morning Jacket wants to be a happy songwriter. And a healthy one too.

A fair amount of the songwriters I’ve interviewed extol the virtues of writing while hungover. Others talk about how marijuana helps their creativity. Still others credit sobriety with making them better thinkers. But few, like James, have openly advocated physical exercise as a means to boost creativity. He wants more songwriters to get out of the studio and into fresh air. He’s also sick of the idea that misery is an essential component to writing.

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Courtney Barnett

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?

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Theresa Wayman, Warpaint

Any artist will tell you that discipline is a necessary component of their creative process. Anyone who sits around waiting for the muse is probably not long for the craft. You have to work at it. Theresa Wayman of Warpaint certainly adheres to this idea: she creates something every day, even if it's nothing great. She told me, "Even if you're a creative person, it's important to go to work every day. . . . I have to exercise some aspect of myself, even if I create something that I never want to hear or see again. At least I've accomplished something if I do that. . . . You have get through the crap to create something beautiful."

Wayman wasn't always this disciplined, though. Another component of the creative process is the willingness to change your routine to stay energized creatively. To Wayman, that change meant becoming more disciplined. Using discipline as a way to disrupt the creative process would appear to be a paradox, although it really isn't.

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Carl Broemel, My Morning Jacket (2016)

Carl Broemel is a changed man. 

In 2010, when I first interviewed Broemel, the guitarist for My Morning Jacket admitted that his "crazy lifestyle" unfortunately didn't leave him much time for reading.  Sure, he had plans: he'd gaze longingly at that stack of books on his bedside table, wondering when he'd ever get to read them. But the stack mostly remained untouched.

It's a different story now, pun intended. Broemel devours books. He reads everything, and I mean everything. I always ask songwriters what they're reading, and I get some great responses. But Broemel and I could've talked forever about what he's been reading, and the enthusiasm in his voice was clear.

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Catherine Pierce, The Pierces

The sisters Catherine and Allison Pierce make up The Pierces.  With a musician for a father and a painter for a mother, they've been around some form of art all their lives, so it's no surprise that Catherine has always been creative.  She writes songs, she loves to paint, she's an accomplished ballerina, and she's even a creative writer.  When it comes to inspiration, she takes the active route; in her words, she's "always looking for the muse." As a result, the initial inspiration for a song doesn't come from a melody; instead, it usually comes from a random line that pops into her head. The inspiration for their song "Secrets," for example, came from a Ben Franklin quote that she saw on a t-shirt in a restaurant.

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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."

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Matt Embree, RX Bandits

The RX Bandits sound fuses elements of rock, reggae, ska, and jazz.  Their multi-dimensional approach should come as no surprise, though, once you understand the creative process of songwriter Matt Embree. He writes all the time, and not just songs: Embree is an avid poet. And like any good poet, he finds inspiration everywhere.  He doesn't necessarily seek out inspiration, but he puts himself in situations where it comes easily: he's gone on a 2,000 mile motorcycle ride, and he's hitchhiked all throughout Central America. When you engage with your environment as much as Embree does - whether it's the physical environment of the wilderness or the people in a small village in Costa Rica - inspiration is easy to come by. And the songs that are the product of that creative process are rich in their influences.

RX Bandits are now on their farewell summer tour, though according to band member Steve Choi, they aren't breaking up.  Rather, they are just doing their last tour.  So have no fear, RX Bandits fans, they will not disappear.

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Nicole Atkins

After high school, Nicole Atkins moved to North Carolina to study illustration in college.  This means, of course, that she has the mind not just of a songwriter but of a visual artist. This puts her at an advantage when it comes to songwriting.  As she explained to me, her creative process is a visual one.  For instance, she sees songs in colors: there's a lot of green songs on her new release Mondo Amore. And when she's in the middle of writing a song, she visualizes its landscape.  Actually, she doesn't just visualize it: she inhabits it, from gauging the temperature to feeling the ground. As you'll read in this interview, Atkins discussion of songwriting is at times interchangeable with her discussion of visual art.

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Alex Maas, The Black Angels

Peruse the interviews with songwriters on this site, and you'll find that many of them are also illustrators.  There seems to be a connection between songwriting and visual artistry.  And nowhere is this most evident in Alex Maas, the singer and songwriter for The Black Angels, whose latest album Phosphene Dream was released in September on Blue Horizon Records.

You see, music and images are inextricably linked for Maas.  When he plays music, images race through his mind.  Every time. It's the music that stimulates those images.  And from these images come the lyrics. I have simplified the process here, but what makes this interview unique is the ephemeral quality of Maas's creative process: ultimately, we know not whence the inspiration comes.  And it's not something Maas is interested in knowing, because he wants to retain that "magical quality" of the process. But he is always looking for new triggers, and he's found one in an unlikely place: cooking.

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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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