Posts in Indie Folk
Ryan Sollee, The Builders and the Butchers

The Builders and the Butchers' third full-length LP, Dead Reckoning, contains lots of talk of physical calamities and destruction by wind, water, and fire.  There's not much optimism in Ryan Sollee's storytelling as he explores the darker side of human nature.  He explores these themes while he's fishing around the beautiful city of Portland, where he lives.   The solitary act of fishing begs for solemn contemplation (at least it does for me, since I never catch anything).  Sollee doesn't do any writing here; it's where the well of inspiration fills as he sits quietly.  The writing comes later in a process that he calls "subconscious." It's also worth noting that Sollee used to be a biologist, and the creative process often had its genesis during his many walks in the woods.

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Pete Yorn

It's not that often that a songwriter says that majoring in the humanities was the perfect preparation for being a singer/songwriter.  But that's what happened for Pete Yorn.  He was a speech communications major at Syracuse University  (it's now called "communication and rhetorical studies" there).  He had planned on going to law school and figured that a major emphasizing public speaking was good preparation.  Yorn was "petrified" of getting in front of a group, so the major helped him work through that fear and become comfortable with public performances. 

Yorn's college experience honed his songwriting skills in another way.  If you've ever spent any time near Syracuse, one image comes to mind: snow.  The area is closing in on 200 inches of snow this winter. I spent four years living in the Syracuse area. The cold and snowy winters there are soul-crushing.  But ask Yorn about his time as an undergrad at SU, and he'll tell you that if it weren't for all that snow, he might never have become a songwriter.  What others might see as limiting--the fact that you can't really go outside--Yorn saw as the perfect opportunity to stay inside and do some writing.  "I credit those winters," he says, "as a catalyst to my songwriting."

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Ben Ottewell, Gomez

Ben Ottewell, vocalist and guitarist for Gomez, released his solo album Shapes and Shadows this month. It obviously offered Ottewell much more freedom in his creative process: as you'll read, everything went "a lot faster" since the buck stopped with him.  Read my interview with Ottewell about his songwriting process after the video.

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Ben Knox Miller, The Low Anthem

Of the many songwriters I've interviewed for Songwriters on Process, they are divided into two camps when it comes to discipline in writing. Most believe that carving time out of their day to write is not the "organic" way to do things and thus leads to subpar creative output.  They prefer to rely more on the inspiration of the muse.  The other camp, a smaller one, believes in the importance of discipline in writing. They write on a regular basis.  This routine, they feel, will make them stronger writers and will boost their creativity.  So perhaps we can say that the former group is more reactive, waiting for inspiration to strike, while the latter is more proactive, actively seeking out creativity.  Both groups have offered persuasive explanations for their method. 

But for Ben Knox Miller of The Low Anthem, this discussion of discipline in writing is irrelevant.  Sure, he writes every day.  Usually upon waking, for reasons he explains below.  But Miller doesn't write because he needs to or because it's part of being a songwriter or because it's a cathartic release.  He does it because he likes to.  He looks forward to writing. So his songwriting process really requires no discipline at all.

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Scott Hutchison, Frightened Rabbit

The literary history of the British Isles is filled with writers for whom the water played a major role. There's Virginia Woolf, William Butler Yeats, Dylan Thomas, James Joyce, and Shakespeare, among many others.  This is hardly surprising, of course, given that they lived on an island and were surrounded by water.

So it made sense that Scott Hutchison, singer and songwriter for the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit, took to the seaside to write their latest album, The Winter of Mixed Drinks on FatCat Records.  Hutchison wrote the songs only about 100 meters from the water.  Unsurprisingly, the water had a powerful effect not just on his inspiration, but on the finished product itself: he noticed, upon listening to the album, that many of the songs had a cadence and rhythm that matched the crashing of the waves onto the beach. 

Hutchison's success as a songwriter also depends, as you'll read, on his ability to make songwriting a routine, something that many songwriters are loathe to do.  He sets aside time to write instead of waiting until he feels like doing it.  Hutchison finds that this method of enforced discipline yields the best songs.  It's a habit that began in college, when he was studying art and illustration; Hutchison was often done with projects in the late afternoon, while his friends toiled well into the night.

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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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Adam Turla, Murder By Death (2010)

We'll get the obvious out of the way.  Murder by Death is not a metal band. Not even close. In the words of songwriter/singer/guitarist Adam Turla, it's "a rock and roll band with a little bit of country.  There’s a cello, a guy with a low voice, and some piano.  It’s music that can exist at any time. And we tell great stories.”

There you have it.  Murder By Death—named after the 1976 Neil Simon movie—is a rock n’ roll band.  And a damn good one. Turla and his bandmates met at Indiana University.  A religious studies and English major, Turla has been obsessed with the craft of writing since his college days, when he started writing poetry.  A self-professed lover of the classics, Turla can dish about everyone from Hemingway to Gabriel Garcia Marquez with the best of ‘em.

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