Ben Fox, Dinosaur Bones

At the end of my interview with Ben Fox, the singer/guitarist and songwriter for the Toronto-based Dinosaur Bones, he was noticeably relieved that I did not make any reference to paleontology.  And I think I promised him that I wouldn’t even discuss dinosaurs or prehistorical times in this introduction.  But Ben, I have to go back on that promise, because after listening to our interview, I must say that a dinosaur analogy is perfect here. So bear with me.

When we call people or companies “dinosaurs,” it’s not a compliment.  What we mean is that they are behind the times, old-fashioned, stale.  And therein lies the irony with Dinosaur Bones the band, because Ben Fox’s creative process is anything but stale. In fact, as you’ll read, what’s unique about his songwriting is that he turns the whole thing on its head. While most songwriters begin their creative process with chord progressions, with Fox that part always comes last.

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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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Sonny Smith, Sonny and the Sunsets

It would be a gross understatement to say that Sonny Smith of Sonny and the Sunsets is merely a songwriter.  The man writes everything: novels, short stories, poems, plays, songs.  Even comic books and illustrations.  And what's interesting is that all these genres are linked.  He might start writing a short story, and that eventually becomes a song. Or a song might become a comic book.  Regardless, it's obvious that his many different creative outlets impact each other, and he is good precisely because of his talents bleed all over each other.

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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 Pryor, The Get Up Kids

The Get Up Kids formed in 1995 in Kansas and were a major player in the second wave of emo. They enjoyed considerable success, both in worldwide touring and record sales, before disbanding in 2005. Relatively speaking, back then life was pretty uncomplicated for singer and guitarist Matt Pryor.  Sure, he was busy touring the world and writing music.  But at least he didn’t have kids.

The Get Up Kids have reunited for a new tour and record.  And now, Pryor is the married father of three kids ages eight and under.  His family informs—in a good way—everything he does now as a songwriter.  He is a devoted family man.  He takes the kids to school in the morning and writes when they are gone.  He puts them to bed and writes when they are asleep.  His band schedule revolves around his wife's graduate school schedule.  He’s even written two children’s records.  As the father of three kids ages seven and under, I can appreciate Pryor's life.  But as Pryor told me, people ask him, “Well why can’t you just find time to write?” To which he responds, "Unless you have kids, you just don’t understand.”

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John O'Regan (Diamond Rings)

Sure, when you first see the face of John O'Regan, aka Diamond Rings, you might notice all that colorful makeup across his face.  And you might notice the shiny lips as well.  And you might call him "glam" and not pay attention to much else.

But I think you'd be missing the point.

Because, you see, this is about a lot more than a guy wearing makeup.  It's about theatre, and while Diamond Rings is, in his words, "fastidious" in his songwriting process, he also likes to engage his audience in the visual aspect of his craft.  After all, he's been an illustrator for longer than he's been a songwriter.  It's a creative outlet that, as you'll read, informs his songwriting process. For one, the way he approaches the subject of a painting resembles the way he approaches the topic of a song.  But what's interesting is that he has no idea what a song is going to be about until he picks up a guitar and starts playing.  He's not one to approach songwriting with a ready-made idea.

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Scott Hutchison, Frightened Rabbit

The literary history of the British Isles is filled with writers for whom the water played a major role. There's Virginia Woolf, William Butler Yeats, Dylan Thomas, James Joyce, and Shakespeare, among many others.  This is hardly surprising, of course, given that they lived on an island and were surrounded by water.

So it made sense that Scott Hutchison, singer and songwriter for the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit, took to the seaside to write their latest album, The Winter of Mixed Drinks on FatCat Records.  Hutchison wrote the songs only about 100 meters from the water.  Unsurprisingly, the water had a powerful effect not just on his inspiration, but on the finished product itself: he noticed, upon listening to the album, that many of the songs had a cadence and rhythm that matched the crashing of the waves onto the beach. 

Hutchison's success as a songwriter also depends, as you'll read, on his ability to make songwriting a routine, something that many songwriters are loathe to do.  He sets aside time to write instead of waiting until he feels like doing it.  Hutchison finds that this method of enforced discipline yields the best songs.  It's a habit that began in college, when he was studying art and illustration; Hutchison was often done with projects in the late afternoon, while his friends toiled well into the night.

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Corin Tucker, Sleater Kinney

What is it with the connection between manual labor and songwriting? Corin Tucker becomes the third interviewee (Grace Potter and Lissie being the others) to tell me that working around the house inspires her to write, be it housework or yardwork.  Tucker offers an explanation: the time when brain and hands are moving is "meditative time" that stimulates creativity.  

We know Corin Tucker as the singer and guitarist for Sleater-Kinney.  In October she released a solo album entitled 1,000 Years (KillRockStars) that she called "a middle aged mom record." In her late thirties, Tucker is a mother of two with a full-time job outside the record industry.  And the routine of her writing process reflects that: her day job has given her a healthy respect for deadlines when it comes to writing, even though she often can't work on meeting those deadlines until after she puts the kids to bed.

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Dave Davison, Maps & Atlases

Dave Davison doesn't really understand the label “math rock” that some people have given his band Maps and Atlases. Math rock the music, like mathematics the subject, after all, requires “coldness and calculation,” according to Davison. But the four members of Maps and Atlases met at Columbia College in Chicago—an art school.  Davison majored in cultural studies, Erin Elders and Chris Hainey were film majors, and Shiraz Dada majored in sound engineering. As a band, they’ve been called math rock because of their complex rhythmic structures and unconventional time signatures.  But with their debut release Perch Patchwork (Barsuk Records), they've written what critics have called a more accessible sound.  Regardless, Maps & Atlases plays some wonderfully unique and creative music.  But that's what you get when four guys from art school start a band. 

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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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Rocky Votolato

It might not be a stretch to say that writing saved the life of singer/songwriter Rocky Votolato.  After the release of his previous album The Brag & Cuss, Votolato suffered bouts of depression and anxiety so severe that he barely left his apartment for a year.  To overcome this, he did two things: he read and he wrote. 

What struck me most, as I talked to Votolato backstage before his show at the Black Cat in DC two weeks ago, was how writing, for him, was an act of survival.  While he wrote his latest album True Devotion (Barsuk Records) to appeal to his fans, of course, he found that he needed the album even more than they did.  Writing became an act of therapy for Votolato, who told me, "I used to see suicide as a viable option for existential suffering.  I used to think it was a fine choice, a justified choice." Votolato no longer feels that way, but those were dark times, made bright by the power of the written word.

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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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