There's something wrong when Ke$ha is filthy rich and Richard Buckner had to drive a forklift to make ends meet. It's proof that talent isn't a great equalizer. But herein lies my ethical dilemma: I think I want Buckner to have those crazy jobs (besides driving a forklift, he's held road signs and worked for the U.S. Census), because it's those experiences and the characters he encounters there that make him a storyteller. You can't be a writer if you don't have authentic experiences. It's why megastars like Ke$ha and Katy Perry are no longer individuals: they've become corporations who are so insulated from people like you and me that all they can do is sing about overwrought and cliched topics.
Buckner lives in Kingston, New York, not far from Woodstock in the Hudson Valley. Our conversation went far longer than I had expected, so I'm posting the first part today and the second part next week. Buckner is a joy to talk to; he's got a wonderful, hearty laugh and an intensity that reflects the dedication to his craft. It's a cheerful intensity, though; he talks with a smile on his face at a pace that suggests that he has so much to say but only a limited time to get it out.Read More
My family and I lived in upstate New York for four years, from 2002 to 2006, before we beat a hasty retreat back to our hometown of Washington, DC. We lived in the small town of Hamilton, New York, near Syracuse, where winters can start in October and end in May. The snow never ends and the cold is unrelenting (we had 190 inches of snow our last winter there). Yes, the countryside is beautiful, and the other three seasons are sublime--but they are far too short to really enjoy.
For some writers, this situation is ideal. The forced isolation (unless you have snowshoes) and creative output go hand in hand: armed with bottomless hot chocolate, a pen, and a not unreasonable desire to stay warm, you can really crank out the words. Pete Yorn, for instance, told me that if it weren't for the brutally cold winters during his undergrad days at Syracuse University, he may not have become a songwriter.Read More
David Bazan had me at "Galway Kinnell." You see, Kinnell is one of my favorite poets, one of the best around. Before my interview with Bazan, I interviewed Jeremy Messersmith and had mentioned that songwriters should read more poetry and that they should start with Kinnell. After talking to Messersmith, I had some time to kill, so I opened one of my Galway Kinnell books and read. So when Bazan told me later that day, unprompted, that he was a Kinnell fan, I swooned all the way out of my chair.
There's so much to Bazan's songwriting process. He's one of those songwriters who sees himself as a writer, not just a songwriter. Had he seen me on the other end of the phone when he told me about his creative process, I would have been nodding my head vigorously, because so much of what he said is what I tell other writers:Read More
Quick: what do cooking, Dungeons and Dragons, bike riding, Jerry Seinfeld, art galleries, and Jeremy Messersmith's wife all have in common? Answer: they are all an important part of Jeremy Messersmith's creative process. No one can accuse Messersmith of passively participating in the creation of his songs. In some manner, he's always at work at crafting them.
And it's a process that has served him well: Messersmith's latest release The Reluctant Graveyard received universal praise, including a spot on NPR's "Top Ten Albums of 2010" list. And it is a great album.Read More
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.Read More
Ah, the life of the rock star: adoring fans, packed gigs, fame, global travel, and . . . Montessori schools? Such is the happy life of Jimmy Chamberlin. He's been involved in music for 38 years, most famously as the drummer for the Smashing Pumpkins and most recently with his new band Skysaw. His time as a musician has given him a unique perspective on the role of the songwriter in society, a role that transcends merely traveling from city to city playing music. For Chamberlin, it's much bigger than that.
According to him, the songwriter, like any other writer, has a duty to "put the sophistication back in society." Chamberlin does his part: he reads constantly, often three or four books at a time, and makes sure that his young children see him reading so that they follow suit. As a result, they've become bookworms (his 8 year-old has read The Hobbit). And this brings us to his children's Montessori school, where he sits on the board of directors and champions the importance of reading. Chamberlin's love of the written word is not surprising, given that his favorite writer is Emily Dickinson.Read More
With an empty house and some much deserved peace and quiet, what's an empty-nester to do after the kids are no longer running around the house? Some want to travel the world. Others want to just enjoy the domestic tranquility.
This is not what Neil and Sharon Finn did. In fact, they did the opposite.
Instead of globetrotting or listening to the sounds of silence, they made more noise. To be sure: when it comes from the voice or the pen of Neil Finn, it's never noise. You can dispute the talents of many people in music, but of this fact there is no arguing: Finn is one of the most talented songwriters ever (listen to any Crowded House album and you'll see what I mean). The Finns' new project, Pajama Club, is the result of red wine and lots of time. With the kids gone, Neil and Sharon needed something to do. Maybe the house was too quiet. So Neil picked up the drums and Sharon the bass--instruments out of their comfort zone--and began jamming. Playing the rhythm section is an odd way to start an album, but if anyone can pull that off, it's Finn.Read More
After close to 100 interviews for this site, artists have given me a variety of answers as to why they write songs. Some just enjoy playing music, a pleasurable experience as an end in itself. For others, it was probably rooted in those Suzuki method piano lessons that their parents made them take. And, of course, for still others music is an emotional outlet, as it is for Laura Stevenson, of Laura Stevenson and the Cans. Music has helped Stevenson through some dark times, times so dark that she did nothing: her phone went unanswered, her bills went unpaid. But songwriting is a cathartic process for her; she expresses topics that she hasn't even told her therapist. I don't think writer's block will ever be an issue for Stevenson, since, in her words, she has "decades" of material from which to draw.Read More
Here's the secret to the success of Ivan Howard's songwriting: television, physical activity, and great literature. Sure, at first blush they seem disparate: the vacuous life of the couch potato, the discipline of the athlete, and the intellectual curiosity of the bookworm. But they all legitimately contribute to Howard's creative process and the crafting of those wonderful Rosebuds' songs: the TV (it can't be a show he actually pays attention to) distracts him from the subject matter he's writing about, running and basketball are his periods of creative meditation, and the books are the source of the band's natural imagery.
Much has been made of the story behind the making of The Rosebuds' latest release Loud Planes Fly Low. Howard and Kelly Crisp make up The Rosebuds. They divorced after the release of their fourth album Life Like. But they continue today as a songwriting duo, now just as bandmates and friends. Loud Planes Fly Low is the product of the emotional output and coming to grips with the breakdown of their relationship. It's been covered enough in the press, so I'm not going to do it here. Besides, there's enough wonderfully original responses in this interview to sustain a fresh narrative.Read More
In at least one high school English class this year, Taylor Goldsmith's writing has been taught alongside the classics. It's a tribute to Goldsmith's songwriting and storytelling that one English teacher discovered that the themes of Dawes' debut North Hills mirror the themes in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. After talking to Goldsmith, none of this really surprises me. He's ridiculously well-read, devouring the classics (I have a PhD in English, and I admit that I haven't touched some of the authors he's read). His method of songwriting is unorthodox, at least among the 90+ songwriters I've interviewed: he often starts the songwriting process with the title, he doesn't like to use nonsense syllables as placeholders when he starts crafting the lyrics, and he writes each song with a fixed topic in mind. All of this is what makes him a great storyteller and what draws comparisons to the Laurel Canyon scene.Read More