Posts in Folk Rock
Marissa Nadler (2011)

It's easy to see how Marissa Nadler's experience as a songwriter is informed by her extensive experience as  a visual artist.  She studied illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she received both her undergraduate and graduate degree.  In fact, she started as a visual artist before becoming a songwriter. The intensity and honesty she exhibits as a visual artist manifest themselves in her songwriting, as you'll read, though poetry also influences how she writes.  Songwriting and illustration, she says, is about "trying to find the beauty or ugliness" in a subject, using the artist's ability to approach that subject from a unique point of view.  It's also about "compressing life into a couple of lines," as a good poet does. 

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Heather Robb, The Spring Standards

It took only a few minutes of seeing The Spring Standards in concert before I knew that this was one creative trio.  I caught them here in DC at the Red Palace when they played with Ha Ha Tonka. It wasn't just the fact that Heather Robb, James Smith, and James Cleare all played every instrument at some point.  It wasn't the fantastic voices or the terrific songs. It was that, as I told Robb, their set was so theatrical.  It was a stage show: the way they played, the way they bantered with each other, the way they bantered with the audience. 

It was like a stage show, as it turns out, for good reason: Robb is an actor by training who still is involved in theatre in New York City.  She attended Syracuse University, where she majored in theatre. (In a true small world coincidence, we were both there in the Department of Drama at the same time: I as a professor and she as a student, though we did not know each other.) Robb claims to be somewhat of an introvert, something not readily apparent in her charismatic stage presence.

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Thao Nguyen, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down

Earlier this week I posted my interview with Mirah, and today it's Thao's turn (of Thao and Mirah, as well as Thao and the Get Down Stay Down). Thao and Mirah begin touring in May to support their album that comes out April 26 on killrockstars. I've interviewed over 80 songwriters for this site, and few (probably enough to count on one hand) mention exercise as an aid and a regular part of their writing process.  But both Thao and Mirah exercise regularly and use it as a way to boost creativity.  Which makes me think that if they haven't already, the should run together if they decide to write and record again.  Maybe train for a 10k together.

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Jonathan Meiburg, Shearwater

It's a telling indication of the depth of Jonathan Meiburg's experience that if you Google his name and search for images, you'll see a lot of birds.  As any professional writer will tell you, what makes for powerful writing is engagement with the world. Good writers engage with their environment and seek out novel ways to interact with it.  Of course, mere interaction with the environment isn't necessarily an indicator that you'll write well about it; to do so, you have to engage and reflect on that engagement. Ernest Hemingway experienced a couple of wars and lots of bullfighting, but it's how he wrote about those experiences that made him great.

All this is to say that this is why Meiburg, the Shearwater singer and songwriter, writes such quality music.  His experience is vast: he's been to the Falkland Islands, Tierra del Fuego, an Aboriginal settlement in Australia, the Chatham Islands of New Zealand, and Baffin Island in Canada.  His masters degree is in geography, and his thesis (which I am reading now) is entitled The Biogeography of Striated Caracaras (Phalcoboenus australis). Not surprisingly, Meiburg is an avid birder.  As you'll read below, he spends a considerable amount of time not only writing about the natural environment but thinking about his place in it with keen metacognition.

Read my interview with Jonathan Meiburg after the video. A special thanks to Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak, who introduced me to Jonathan and affectiontely told us two "nerds" to go at it.

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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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Dave Hause

It's not often that I get to exchange bedtime routines with a songwriter.  But that's what Dave Hause and I did at the end of our interview.  We had been talking for about 50 minutes and established that we had a great deal in common, so it's probably little surprise that it came to this point.  We both read a lot of magazines.  Too many, really, to keep up with.  So they just pile up next to our beds, waiting to be read. The second we finish one, two more arrive.

Hause's songwriting process and reading material reflect his high level of engagement with his environment. And this level of engagement makes for one thing: Hause is a smart and introspective man.  He doesn't just give me answers, he tells me why he does what he does.  And he's able to do this because he's constantly thinking about his place in the world.  He reads Rolling Stone for the political articles and GQ for the non-fiction.  He's constantly picking up auditory and visual cues for song ideas, and he has an endless supply of notebooks and Blackberry files to show for it.

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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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Joy Williams and John Paul White, The Civil Wars

One of the reasons why The Civil Wars work so well is the effortless collaboration between its two members, Joy Williams and John Paul White.  And it had better work well: they travel without a band, playing their music with just guitar and piano.  Plus two beautiful voices.

What I found most unique about their creative process is its genesis.  Most artists start with the music, and the words flow from that.  A few, but not many, start with the words.  The Civil Wars begin with both: when Williams and White get together (both are veteran songwriters and are not married to each other),  White "noodles" on the guitar as they talk about what's going on in each of their lives. It's that combination of noodling and conversation that leads to the ideas for their songs.  (Of course, I'd also argue that prolific output like this is due to their love of William Faulkner and Flannery OConnor, but that's another story.)

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Brian Fallon (2011)

The next time you come across a song by The Gaslight Anthem, see it.  And I don't mean watch it on YouTube.  When it hits your ears, don't just listen to it.  See it.   Because I have a feeling that's what Brian Fallon wants. He may be a songwriter, but he talks like a poet.  He says that "imagery is more important than content" in his songs.  Most all of his songs start with scenery, and his job as the songwriter is to describe what it looks like, to get you the listener to see the imagery that Fallon conveys with his words.  It's no surprise he writes this way, once you know his favorite poet: Dylan Thomas.  As you'll read, Fallon used lines from a Dylan Thomas short story to describe his new side project Horrible Crowes.

I'm assuming that the whole Gaslight Anthem thing will work out for Brian Fallon.  He writes great songs and they put on a great live show. But there's a part of me that thinks he'd make one hell of a poet. Sure, this inteview is long.  I even trimmed some.  But every introspective answer is a window into a fascinating creative process. 

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Michael and Kevin Bacon: The Bacon Brothers

recently interviewed Michael and Kevin Bacon (yes, that Kevin Bacon) for the Baltimore Sun in advance of their sold-out shows in Annapolis performing as the Bacon Brothers.  This is no hobby for these guys; the Bacon Brothers have been together since 1995 and have put out six albums.  They've been playing music for most of their lives, and Michael is a sought-after composer. Keeping in line with this site, I interviewed them about their songwriting process.  I imagine they were relieved; one commenter on the site said that it was the first interview he had read with the band that didn't mention Footloose.

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Nathaniel Rateliff

Ah, the solitary life of the singer/songwriter.  Crafting songs in isolation, writing about deep introspective topics like love, loss, and life's meaning. We imagine them toiling away at their craft, going it alone until they get the song just right.

Nathaniel Rateliff does all these things.  And he certainly goes it alone; after all, he does a lot of his writing in the bathroom. To be precise, he does a lot of his best work "on the shitter." And while he might write songs that make people cry when performed live, he'll talk about fried chicken between those melancholy tunes. It's hard to capture the mood of my interview with Rateliff; we spent a good deal of the time laughing. But when the guy tells me that he needs "a clean house, lots of sex, and no dogs" for a productive writing session, or that sometimes he's too lazy to finish a song in the studio, it's easy to laugh.

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Are you in the market for a  great songwriter who doubles as a fantastic cleaning lady?  If you need someone who can clean your cabinets and pen a mean chorus, look no further than Lissie.  You see, Lissie likes organization.  She needs things to be clean and orderly in the space around her.  For example, she likes to put things in pouches.  Then she puts those pouches inside other pouches.  

The irony in all of this obsession with order is that her writing process is anything but organized.  Lissie is all about the stream of consciousness process, where she just lets everything flow out in one giant mess that she organizes later.  For thirty minutes, she'll just write, with little regard for how it looks or what's coming out.  For someone who insists on the proper placement of the salt and pepper shaker at the dinner table, this can be surprising. 

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