Alain Johannes

In Macbeth, Shakespeare writes, "Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak/Whispers the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break." Faced with loss, we must give voice to our feelings so that we can begin some semblance of recovery.  For Alain Johannes, there was no other option.  In 2008, Natasha Shneider, his partner in every sense of the word--in romance, in friendship, and in music--died of cancer at the age of 42.  They had been together for 25 years. 

Out of this grief came Jonannes' solo release Spark (Rekords Rekords).  On display are all of the emotions Johannes felt after Shneider's death, from grief to anger to celebration.  The album was completed in only four days; in his words, Johannnes was "pregnant" with the inspiration and ideas for it.  It just had to be made, because the lyrics were ready to burst forth.  He made Spark much for his own benefit: to heal, and to pay tribute to Shneider. But while the inspiration part of the process was easy, it came from a very raw state.  As Dante wrote, "No greater grief than to remember joy when misery is at hand."

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Patrick Stickles, Titus Andronicus

There were only a few times during my talk with Patrick Stickles, singer and songwriter for Titus Andronicus, that our conversation felt like an interview.  Instead, it really felt more lit an upper-level lit seminar.  This is what we talked about: Camus, Faulkner, reader response literary theory, and whether a text has any inherent meaning.  The depth of our conversation reflects not just Stickles' concern with the songwriting process but the anxiety of being a writer and his concern with whether the audience (and by audience, I mean the people hearing or reading his words) understands his authorial intent. It takes Stickles months to finish a song, and indication of the care he takes to craft that message. The result is an album like The Monitor, a concept album loosely based on the Civil War and civil war: it's about both the historical event and Stickles' existential angst.

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Wes Miles, Ra Ra Riot

Remember all those physics majors in college who spent their time holed up in labs?  If they are anything like Wes Miles, the songwriter for Ra Ra Riot, they might very well be writing songs as well as working with spectrometers.  That's not to say that Miles (a physics major and 2006 graduate of Syracuse University) was writing music when he should have been working with mass and magnets; instead, it's pretty clear that being a physics major has made Miles a better songwriter.  This is not the first time a songwriter has told me that, as you'll read, and it's something that I find fascinating.  It's easy to see the link between, say, writing lyrics and reading literature, but I'm intrigued by the link between music and mathematics. 

So read my interview with Wes Miles of Ra Ra Riot.  You'll learn more about how being a physics major helps him as a songwriter, how many of his lyrics start as pure gibberish, and why he likes Wuthering Heights.

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Grace Potter, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals

Ah, the topics of inspirations for songwriters: love, heartbreak, the wind, the trees, the water, the conversations around them . . . and, in Grace Potter's case,  the Plan B contraceptive pill

Sure, the frontwoman of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals gets inspired by the usually bevy of songwriting topics, but she gets inspired everywhere—even, as you’ll read, by a Plan B birth pill commercial that she saw while in her hotel room.  Of course, the theme has universality—the “doings and undoings” in life—but Potter’s ability to be inspired anywhere is a part of her songwriting talent.  Perhaps it started in her high school English class, where she found great value in the brainstorming technique called freewriting, those bursts of five minute stream-of-consciousness writing sessions where you never stop writing.  Even if you can’t think of a topic, you write, “I can’t think of a topic.”  High school, as you’ll find out, was also a place where Potter staged a mini-revolt against the computer as a symbol of technology.  She preferred to compose on a typewriter, so she typed a manifesto of sorts to the students and taped it up around the school, advocating something to the effect of “kill the computer.”

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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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Josh Carter, Phantogram

This is how I know Josh Carter of Phantogram is at home in in the rural environment of upstate New York:  he's recorded the sound of his car driving over a bridge.  Not the Tappan Zee bridge, but probably one of those small two lane bridges over the lonely upstate streams and rivers. Having once lived in rural New York near Syracuse for four years, I know what he's talking about.  It's the sound of one car on a bridge, with nothing else around.  Just you, the car, the bridge, and nature.  The sound is pure and unadulterated.

Yes, Carter and Sarah Barthel, the members of Phantogram, live in New York.  With their hip hop beats and electronic rock, this is hardly surprising.  It's a great place to live if you want to make that kind of music, since you are surrounded by like-minded people.  Only it's not New York City I'm talking about.  It's upstate New York.  And I am not talking about the 30 minute drive from the city that residents of New York City consider to be upstate.  I'm talking about Saratoga Springs, New York. (photo credit: Doron Gild)

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Orenda Fink, Azure Ray

If you are an Azure Ray fan, you can thank a psychic.  Not just any psychic, but a single online psychic back in the internet's infancy of the mid 1990s.  We don't know this person's name--we know it's a man, at least--but he told Orenda Fink to start writing songs as a method of catharsis to deal with some issues in her life.  This was during a time when she was writing what she calls "sugary pop," so it was quite a shock for someone to suggest this sea change in her songwriting themes.  But she listened to him, and you are reading this now.  And if he really is a psychic, he'll know about this interview and read it too.

The newly reformed Azure Ray, consisting of Fink and Maria Taylor, drops Drawing Down the Moon on Saddle Creek Records this month. 

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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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Bethany Cosentino, Best Coast (2010)

Sure, Best Coast is bikini beach lo-fi pop, and Bethany Cosentino says that she doesn't think too much about her lyrics.  But she is a huge fan of David Foster Wallace, arguably one of the most influential and creative writers of the past twenty years, and that gives her instant street cred in the literary world.   

Best Coast is one of the hottest indie bands of the summer, and their album Crazy For You dropped at the end of July.  You can read any one of the endless interviews with Cosentino on the internet, but this may be the only one without a mention of her cat.  I chatted with Cosentino for a few minutes this week about California, creative non-fiction writing, David Foster Wallace, and how the weather affects her creative process.

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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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Jack Tempchin, Eagles songwriter

For many of the songwriters I interview, the digital revolution has always been a part of their lives.  So it would be easy to think that they embrace technology in their songwriting process.  Not so.  All of them use journals, diaries, little black books, even typewriters.  Heck, one even still owns a Sony Discman.

Enter Jack Tempchin, from the southern California singer/songwriter scene in the 1970s.  When he started writing, people used yellow pads and pencils.  So we might excuse Tempchin for sticking to his original method. But what does Tempchin use?  An iPhone.  This is the bizarro world of songwriting, where twenty-somethings use typewriters and diaries, and singer/songwriters from the 70s use iPhones.  

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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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