Posts in Alternative
Chris Collingwood, Fountains of Wayne

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.

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Matt Embree, RX Bandits

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.

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Jimmy Chamberlin, Smashing Pumpkins

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.

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David Kilgour (The Clean, and David Kilgour & the Heavy Eights)

In the late 1970s, David Kilgour formed The Clean, one of the most popular bands in New Zealand and responsible for the development of the punk scene there.  The Clean were pioneers of the Dunedin Sound and one of the original signees to Flying Nun Records. Kilgour has long been recognized as one of the biggest (and most respected) songwriters and guitarists to come from New Zealand.  But did you know he's also a pretty good painter, a creative outlet that also serves him well as a songwriter?

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Nat Baldwin, Dirty Projectors

Nat Baldwin has two things going for him that are unique among the songwriters I've interviewed. The Dirty Projectors' bassist lives on the coast of Maine, an environment perfectly suited to the ideal writing environment he needs in order to be creative: total seclusion. And his background as a basketball player provides him with the inherent discipline needed to spend hours in such seclusion, immersed in the creative process.

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James Vincent McMorrow

James Vincent McMorrow is nothing if not patient and methodical.  A lesser songwriter might be driven crazy by the snail's pace of his writing process: it took McMorrow nearly six months to write his debut Early in the Morning (Vagrant Records).  Some days he wrote only a few sentences; on others, just a few words.  It would be easy to call this writer's block; after all, if you sit for a whole day and only write five or six sentences, surely your creative spigot is closed.

But this is all part of McMorrow's process, and here's the difference.  Any good writer will tell you that their writing process never stops.  It's happening when they eat, sleep, talk, stare, read, whatever.  The actual pen-to-paper part, the end product, is only a small part of that process. Sure, it's the most gratifying, but it's only one part of many. So it's not that McMorrow writes slowly. (Well, he might, since I've haven't seen the speed of his penmanship.)  Instead, he writes deliberately. And he's fine with that. 

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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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Bill Janovitz, Buffalo Tom

It's not too often that I get to trade lines of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" with anyone.  So when I had the chance to do that with Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom, I jumped, even though the lines we traded spoke of depressing topics like unrequited love and growing old.  Such is the mind of Janovitz, though, an introspective guy whose thoughtful lyrics demand as much attention as the music. Again, not surprising considering Janovitz references Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther in conversation.

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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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Walter Schreifels, Rival Schools

Pedals is the new release (out March 8) from the recently reformed post-hardcore supergroup Rival Schools.  It’s their first since the critically acclaimed United by Fate in 2001, and it shows that the band has not lost its knack for aggressive yet melodic music. Pedals is also a reflection of where the quartet are in life: it's filled with songs about shedding the bad elements in life and ushering in positive change.

I'm reviewing the album for the Washington Post next week, so I've been listening to it a lot. I recently spoke to singer/songwriter Walter Schreifels about his songwriting process, including how songwriting is like bowling

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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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Colin Newman, Wire

And now for a lesson in music history.

It wouldn't be a stretch to say that Wire has had a considerable influence on rock music.  I say "rock," because as songwriter Colin Newman told me, their music "takes the axe to 'rock n roll' and leaves the 'n roll' part out."  Wire has been cited by bands like U2, The Cure, R.E.M., Guided By Voices, Minor Threat, and Black Flag (among countless others) as an influence.  They are one of the innovators of the punk scene of the 70s and 80s, be it punk rock, art punk, post-punk, whatever. With releases like their 1977 debut Pink Flag and later Chairs Missing, Wire were era-defining; if you listen to indie rock in some form today, chances are there's a Wire influence somewhere. 

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