Name: The Felice Brothers
Members: Ian Felice, James Felice, Will Lawrence, Jesske Hume
Interviewee: Ian Felice
Occupation: Singers, songwriters
Current release: The Felice Brothers' From Dreams To Dust is out 9/17/21 via Yep Roc.
If you enjoyed this interview with The Felice Brothers and would like to find out more, visit their expansive offical homepage for everything you ever wanted to know about them – including current tour dates. You can also find them on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
The impulse to create art and music has always been there for me, since I was very young. I like to get lost in what I’m making, it takes me out of reality for a while, so I guess it’s a distraction in a way. People have asked me where I look for inspiration, but I can’t really answer that. I think it comes mostly from curiosity to understand the world around me, to work through things or to express something that I can’t express without the help of music or poetry.
All of the sources of inspiration that you mentioned are important for me of course. I love dreams because of their lawlessness, anything can happen at any moment, and although it can seem arbitrary and nonsensical, more often there are disguised meanings behind what’s happening, I’m interested in that, but so many people are. I think poetry is the purest, most immediate and effective form of art that people make. So I think that all forms of art should start with poetry. Other forms of art are of course very important to me as well. When politics become unavoidable, intrusive and disruptive in my life, that’s when they can enter into the song writing, but it’s always reluctantly. It’s more like, “Why the hell do I have to write about this bullshit right now,” but nevertheless it feels unavoidable.
I really admire some political lefty folk songs, particularly from the labor struggle years, songs about the union and workers rights and exploitation, I’m very often moved by these relics, but writing about politics in a genuine way is very difficult, and if it flops it flops pretty hard.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
There is never a literal idea at the outset of writing that I’m trying to express, the work is intuitive and the balance is heavily skewed toward chance. Because I work like this however, there is a lot that is discarded. I’d say maybe 80% of the songs that I write never make it out into the world.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
The process is very different for each song or project that I’m working on. The song itself will generally dictate the terms.
There are times when something resembling research is done. If for example a song is using a particular historical setting, I will get inspiration from other sources. My work has wandered deeper into the abstract however, so this is becoming less and less common.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
I read a lot of poetry. I don’t exercise unfortunately, although I do go on long walks. I live in the country, surrounded by farmland and forests so the walking is pretty nice. I drink coffee, probably too much, but by the time I get done making breakfast for my family and cleaning up and all the chores of daily life, I think the coffee’s magic has waned significantly.
I have a studio on the property where I live, so it’s my daily practice to go into the studio and work. I turn off my phone generally, and start to paint or work on music.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
The first line is always the easiest line, it’s the one that comes without thinking at all and seems to work so perfectly well, it’s the lines that follow that can cause a bit of trouble. Once the idea enters your head that what you're doing could be actually good, it can be paralyzing.
The great painter Luc Tuymans said that the first few hours of painting for him are always hell. For me it’s not so. The beginning always seems to come easy, it’s when I start to revise and scrutinize and analyze too much that difficulties can arise.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
Either way really, it depends on your own process. For me, my process has changed a lot over the years.
I used to develop the lyrics along with the music, so that they were codependent upon one another to exist. I’ve changed a lot as a writer though, more recently (over the past 5 or so years ) I've been writing a lot of poetry and prose. When I have a poetic idea in mind that I think would be a good song, I can develop the ideas separately and move the phrasing and meter of the poem to fit into the melody of the song. The melodies can be developed independent of a lyrical concept for me at this point, but this has not always been so.
Music and melody is becoming less and less of a driving factor in the creation of songs. I love the simplest melodies. I often write a complex musical piece and then try to simplify it as much as possible, reduce it’s most essential elements. My ideal song has 3 chords. At this point it’s just a setting, an atmosphere for the poetic idea to be realized.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
I think lyrics are good when they challenge the listener. Cliches must be avoided at all costs, unless the cliche is being used knowingly for effect. Lyrics are good when they question assumptions that listeners have, when they make you laugh, when they compose a scene that is believable and transports you. They are good when they can express a complex idea very simply, when they engage the listener’s own imagination, when they are open to vast interpretations.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
There is no one answer for this. All work has a different life. Generally, a seed is planted in my mind and I allow it to grow naturally. I don’t try to rush or force the song into being or else it will probably feel contrived. That being said, I don’t sit around all day and wait for inspiration to strike like a hammer. I’m constantly going through creative processes. The work that emerges is more like the ash of those processes.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
Yeah, I suppose writers want to think that their work is being dictated by a higher power, I think this is a symptom of egotism. The only power creating the work is the author so of course they have strict control over how it ends up.
I think the key is to allow for mistakes, mistakes are maybe the most important part of the artistic process, especially in the visual arts. It is important to take chances and to not be afraid of destroying what you’ve worked so hard on.
There should be no preciousness in the art. What emerges and survives, should have the resilience to stand up to what time will subject it to.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
Of course! This is the most important part of writing for me. Most of the avenues that you go down will be dead ends or will lead to labyrinths that you can never escape, where you will wither in a dark corridor in search of a nonexistent minotaur.
This is the process of discovery that makes writing such a vital part of my life. Sometimes a song idea can branch off and become 3 songs or 2 different songs can merge to make just 1. The process is fluid and there are no rules. There are too many rules in other aspects of life.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
The creative state is not one state for me, it’s being frustrated, being exalted, being bored, being worried, bring exhausted, being numb, being ecstatic, lovesick, lonely, paralyzed, paranoid, speechless, in love, it’s everything that is life. Life is the creative process for me.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
I know when a song is done, it just feels right. Either I stop hating the song, which means it’s done or I throw it in the garbage, which means it’s done.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
Generally speaking, it's best not to overwork a piece, so I’d say once it's finished initially, to set it aside for eternity. However, to get space from a work can be beneficial, many things can reveal themselves that you didn’t see before. The downside to this is it can become quite difficult to return to the mindset you were in when you created the work originally. Getting back into the work to make the changes can be arduous and counterproductive.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
This is the least important part of the process for me.
Writing takes up most of my time. Once the composition is completed, I see the recording process as more or less a means to document the song. Im not good at the technical aspects of recording, this is more my brother James’ side of the street.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
I don’t experience that sense of emptiness, I’m always on to the next thing. Anyway, it takes a long time for a record to come out from when you recorded it. So I am already knee deep in new ideas when the thing hits the street.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Yes, it’s very different. Art is the most important thing in my life. It’s how I relate to the world, understand it, how I express my feelings and ideas. It’s everything. Making a cup of coffee is just making a cup of coffee.