Posts in Rock
Jenn Wasner, Wye Oak

There's no doubt in my mind that Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak would be lost without her phone. It's the key to her songwriting. That phone is where she documents all her observations for the day.  She's constantly in touch with her surroundings, and all of her lyrical and melodic ideas that come from this connection go into the phone's voice recorder for later, when she actually writes a song.  Wasner says her "switch is on all the time . . . if you're always looking around and noticing your environment, it's a big help."

What impresses me most about Wasner is that she calls herself a writer, period. And she knows that being a writer takes hard work. Like any good writer, she knows that the time spent actually crafting her words is only a small part of the writing process.  Wasner recognizes that writers are always writing, even when they aren't.  That is, her writing process takes place when she's driving, walking, shopping, anything. During this time, she's inventing ideas, trying out lines, just doing everything except putting pen to paper. In fact, she approaching her writing process with this wonderfully simple mantra: "living is work."

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Teri Suarez, Le Butcherettes

Sure, it might be hard to discuss Teri Suarez (aka Teri Gender Bender) and her band Le Butcherettes without a mention of her performance art: the fake blood, the pig's head, the flour, the apron, all that lipstick, and the broom. But what's onstage is a package, and you have to appreciate the innerconnectedness of it all to realize that this is part theater (and I mean that in a positive way). But once you understand the extent of her creative endeavors, her performance is not that surprising: she writes music, poetry, fiction, you name it.  She's influenced by everyone from Henry Miller to bell hooks to Dostoevsky.   In Suarez's life, art is everywhere, whether she's taking it in or dishing it out. And that manifests itself in both the visual and aural aspect of her music.

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Bryan Giles, Red Fang

This site is woefully short on metal, which surprises me given that I grew up listening to the likes of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest.  My tastes have expanded, but I still love to revisit my roots (and play "Hallowed Be Thy Name" at ear-splitting levels).  Sadly, the only other metal interview on this site is with J.D. Cronise of The Sword.

A few weeks ago I was at the Red Palace here in DC.  Above the din of the bar, I heard a killer riff (you can always hear metal over crowd noise). I was mesmerized. I asked the bartender who the band was.  "Red Fang," she replied.  "They're from Portland, and they're awesome." And she's right.  So last week I talked with Bryan Giles, one of the songwriters and guitarists in the band.  He's in the passenger seat in the video below.  Their new album Murder the Mountains(Relapse Records) drops in April, so read my interview with Giles about his creative process, including how endless repetition is an integral part of his songwriting.

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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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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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J.D. Cronise, The Sword (2010)

When he was a little boy, J.D. Cronise wanted to be a comic book illustrator.  To those familiar with The Sword's lyrics, this should come as little surprise.  Their three albums are filled with images and narratives from ancient mythology and science fiction.  And like a visual artist with an illustration, Cronise, the band's songwriter/vocalist and guitarist, starts his creative process with a single image.  It's a process that he describes as "organic": he never forces himself to write, instead waiting until the ideas come to him.  If Cronise writes because of extrinsic motivation, it's not true art.

The Sword is touring in support of their new release Warp Riders on Kemado Records.  You can read my review of Warp Riders in the Washington Post here

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Matt Cherry, Maserati

In November 2009, Maserati drummer Jerry Fuchs died in a terrible accident.  The band was in the middle of recording their new release, Pyramid of the Sun, when it happened.  They released the album this week, and on it they pay tribute to Fuchs.  Maserati are an instrumental band, so as band member Matt Cherry explains, during the recording process they constantly asked themselves what Fuchs would have done to a song, and they let that idea take precedence.  

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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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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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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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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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