Posts in Indie
Yukimi Nagano, Little Dragon

Yukimi Nagano of Little Dragon is a book hoarder at her local library in Sweden. She browses the stacks across all subjects, from photography to poetry to flowers. Then she walks out with as many books as she can carry. When she gets home, she peruses those books for both words and images. Sometimes the words make their way into her songs, and other times the images give her ideas to spin off of. "It could be a book about flowers, for example, and I might find a beautiful name for a flower that could be a song title," Nagano told me. And when she gets home, she does most of her writing in the kitchen. There's something about the "nice, soothing hum" of her refrigerator that's conducive to her creativity. 

For today's interview, I have a companion. Last November I interviewed Theresa Wayman from Warpaint. It remains one of my favorite interviews. I recently read that Wayman was a big fan of Little Dragon, so I asked her if she wanted to interview Nagano with me. She gave me an enthusiastic yes, and somehow we made this happen: I was in New York, Wayman was in Rhode Island, and Nagano was in Sweden.  We had a fantastic discussion about the creative process.

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John Darnielle, The Mountain Goats

John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats was nervous when he saw the word "process" in the title of this site. Process implies routine, and Darnielle doesn't really have a routine when it comes to songwriting. In fact, he eschews the idea. If he writes every day, it's a descriptor of his routine rather than a mandate. Keep a journal? Heck no, because Darnielle feels pretentious writing about himself. He wants to demystify the songwriting process; he doesn't want to see it as something that only happens when certain factors align.

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Amelia Meath, Sylvan Esso

 

By my count, Sylvan Esso's Amelia Meath is in the middle of reading seven books now. She's reading poetry, fiction, non-fiction, plays, a biography, and I'm sure some others she didn't mention in our interview. I was not surprised when she told me this. Follow Meath and her bandmate Nick Sandborn on any form of social media, and you'll see creativity everywhere. Meath is of course known for her work now in Sylvan Esso, but there's much more. She loves acting and even went to college to study it. (This is not a surprise if you've seen her lithe and theatrical stage moves). She loves to make collages. And she wants to start writing a tv pilot. Oh, and she once did a ton of freewriting about LeBron James. 

Meath's songwriting process involves some routines, even though she does most of her writing "in the air." She eschews computers and prefers pen and paper for her lyrics. But not just any pen and not just any paper: for now it's a Poppin pen and college ruled composition notebooks. Part of her lyrical process involves writing the same verse over and over; in fact, some of her notebooks are filled with just one song. 

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Theresa Wayman, Warpaint

Any artist will tell you that discipline is a necessary component of their creative process. Anyone who sits around waiting for the muse is probably not long for the craft. You have to work at it. Theresa Wayman of Warpaint certainly adheres to this idea: she creates something every day, even if it's nothing great. She told me, "Even if you're a creative person, it's important to go to work every day. . . . I have to exercise some aspect of myself, even if I create something that I never want to hear or see again. At least I've accomplished something if I do that. . . . You have get through the crap to create something beautiful."

Wayman wasn't always this disciplined, though. Another component of the creative process is the willingness to change your routine to stay energized creatively. To Wayman, that change meant becoming more disciplined. Using discipline as a way to disrupt the creative process would appear to be a paradox, although it really isn't.

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Jenn Wasner, Wye Oak and Flock of Dimes

Regardless of what kind of art you create, some level of self-awareness is important. If you're a songwriter, you may marvel at the miracle of inspiration and how sometimes songs just fall into your lap. But at some point, you have to think about your process: you have to think about the parts that work, the parts that don't work, and why they do and don't. Successful songwriters have that level of self-awareness. It's hard to be productive if you're oblivious to your process. Jenn Wasner knows what works and what doesn't work, and this is one of the reasons why she is so prolific and so talented

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Kristin Welchez (Kristin Kontrol, Dum Dum Girls)

"You can't have purple prose and expect people to get to the core on their own," Kristin Welchez told me as we discussed her songwriting process. Welchez is the leader of the Dum Dum Girls with a new project under the moniker Kristin Kontrol. Welchez told me that she's always been "indulgent" in her words (it's feedback she's gotten since grade school) but that she tries to be as direct as possible in her songwriting. Stripping an idea to its bare essentials is the easiest way to minimize distance between you and the audience; it doesn't matter whether they're readers or concertgoers. To reinforce this idea to a young Welchez, one of her English teachers gave her a copy of the book Writing Down the Bones, and she's tried to follow this precept ever since.

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Sadie Dupuis, Speedy Ortiz

It's great paradox, right? Sadie Dupuis, songwriter and frontperson for Speedy Ortiz, has an MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts. She's been writing poetry for several years. Yet she insists on writing her song lyrics in prose form. They look like paragraphs. She even hates when anyone writing about her music transcribes her lyrics in verse form. "It really does drive me crazy when I see my lyrics reprinted in stanza form. I mean, I'm giving it to them right here. This is the way it should look!"

But it should come as little surprise that Dupuis treats song lyrics this way: her poetry writing and song writing have nothing in common. Her poems start with words and with an idea she'd like to write about, but her songs almost always start with a melody. Sitting down to write poetry and instead coming up with a song "would almost be as if someone sat down to create an oil painting and wound up choreographing a ballet instead," she told me. 

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Bethany Cosentino, Best Coast

Put Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast in a hotel bathroom, and she's one happy songwriter. If you're with her and she's in there for a looong time, don't worry. She's creating. Music.

The traveling ways of the songwriter dictate that they can't be too picky with their environment when it comes to writing. They have to adapt to their surroundings and write whenever they can, wherever they can. But according to Cosentino, environment plays a "huge" role in her songwriting process. When she's at home, she writes in her "music room," which contains nothing but music related stuff, from guitars to CDs to posters. She loves to write there because the room's solitude gives her privacy. "I try on tour to write, but the problem is that I don't want people to hear me when I'm trying to write. I like to be able to make mistakes and sing badly and play really bad chords that don't sound good together. It's a very private process for me that I enjoy doing entirely on my own. A place like that is hard to find on tour."

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Mac McCaughan, Superchunk

Mac McCaughan is a busy guy, but does that surprise you? He's married, has two kids, runs Merge Records (which he also co-founded), fronts Superchunk, and has the side project Portastatic. Now, on May 4, he'll release Non-Believershis first solo album.  As you can imagine, McCaughan has little free time, which is why his creative process is more disciplined than most artists'. His window for creative work on the new album was small: since he made the album at home, he did most of the work in the morning, when the kids were at school. Then he'd head to work at Merge in the afternoon. At night, when the kids were in bed, he'd work on it some more. 

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Alaina Moore, Tennis

The story behind the creative process of Tennis' debut Cape Dory has been told ad nauseam elsewhere. Make that "everywhere else"; the internet seems incapable of mentioning the band without talking about The Trip. And in that narrative, you'll see words like beach and sunny to describe the music of this Denver-based couple (Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley are married).

But that's not what Moore and I wanted to talk about. 

I remember an interview with an author who said that the term "beach read" is an insult because it implies that the writing has no depth and can be consumed with little effort. As you'll see, Moore's songwriting process--really, her life--reflects the anxiety behind that idea. When descriptors like that follow your music everywhere, I imagine it must be frustrating to Moore, whose songwriting has far more depth than that. 

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Carl Newman, The New Pornographers

At the beginning of our interview, Carl Newman of The New Pornographers said that he didn’t think he had a process. He insisted that he was “absolutely not a disciplined writer.” But as he discovered by the time we finished talking, he does have a process. In fact, it’s happening all the time, probably as you read this. 

Newman may not sit down to write every day or may not have structured writing time, but according to him, “There’s an obsession in the back of my head that always makes me think about writing. I’m distracted by the idea of songwriting.”  I get the sense that Newman is never not thinking about music. He’s always picking up words or turns of a phrase, and he’s always got melodies in his head. So it’s a nonstop process, even though it’s not a deliberate and conscious one. But the act of actually sitting down to write is “painful,” says Newman.

Read my interview with Carl Newman after the video.  We get to the bottom of his creative process, but we also talk about Infinite Jest, his obsession with 10cc, and why lyrics are such a punishing part of his songwriting process.  And course, we talk about the role that turn signals and windshield wipers play in his creative process.

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Johnathan Rice

By his own admission, Johnathan Rice has a "mysterious" writing process.  He doesn't think he's ever written the same way twice.  Yet his best songs have always come fully formed; that is, they don't even appear until he sits down to play, when they pour out of him all at once. Of course, this doesn't happen very often: he's been working on a song about the race horse Barbaro for a few years now, and despite all of his tinkering, Rice still hasn't released it because he's not happy with it yet. 

Rice is a "voracious" reader, and I love his answer below about how all that reading has made him a better songwriter.  Rice has also learned a great deal about himself through his many collaborations, including with Elvis Costello and of course Jenny Lewis with Jenny and Johnny.

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