Part 2

What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?

There is a four way map of head, heart, body, and spirit and a good song reaches into one or more of those fundamental aspects of life and shows you something you didn’t know before. A pop song is not an IDM track is not a folk song is not a club anthem.

Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman”, which, lyrically, is perfect (or Josh Ritter’s “Last Temptation” or Patty Griffin’s “Long Ride Home”) - those songs live in the heart and in the mind. No-one wants that dance remix. They weren’t written to be toe tappers. Something like Sia’s “Chandelier” or Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” or Beyonce’s “Halo” occupy the opposite end of this map - something that connects to body and spirit. Different styles of music demand different things from lyrics. It’s those that are trying to grab more than is expected that I go back to as examples of good lyric writing.

Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend” is a body song - four on the floor dance drum beat, but it also shines as a really clever and heartfelt song from a lyrical perspective. With different production, you could strip it down and it would still work as a narrative country song.

A good lyric is a well narrated hallucination, and a great lyric can wear multiple hats in different spaces.

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?

The less I’m in control the better. That’s why half drunk and sleep deprived sometimes is the best as lends itself to revealing the deeper, richer, stranger fruit. Most days I have to settle for caffeinated and on a tight schedule.

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?

All the time.

I liken the songwriting journey, now that I’m into my second decade of it, to running a chop shop. I don’t mind spending all day making a car that never gets off the factory lot. Over the course of years, those dead cars add up to a whole warehouse of spare parts - maybe a bridge that you wrote years ago fits perfectly with today’s idea. If it doesn’t make it out in the 1% of work that actually gets recorded, it goes back into the chop shop to be the perfect missing piece of a song tomorrow.

Nothing is ever lost, and that should give me the confidence to fail more boldly every day. But I still wrestle with the editor all the time.

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?

Plato says that we’re born with a soul- that that soul has orders, and that we pretty much don’t ever get to know what those orders are (Book 10 of The Republic / The Myth of Ur).

The Genius if you’re Latin (or Daimon if you’re Greek) is a separate entity that stands in the doorway between your ego and the teleological aims of Life (aka God) and translates. The Genius is what inspires and fills the arena. It is what provides the divine spark in human art (not the artist). The artist’s job then, is to devote himself to the Daimon - sacrifice and labor and wait and meditate and listen - because that’s where the gold comes from.

The true creative state then is slightly less filtered through the ego than normal waking life. The daily aim of the artist is to tend to this relationship and not put too fine a point on the peaks and valleys of it - to count the seeds planted rather than the harvest.

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 would argue that in every age the process tends towards the infinite.

There  is the horizontal tension of the individual and society or “my group” versus “your group” and then there is the vertical tension of the individual life and life itself. These two tensions encompass all art, all myth, all religions throughout history.

Man against infinity is Beowulf and Don Quixote and Moby Dick and The Gospel of Mark and Oedipus Rex. The introduction of quantum theory (ie all the meta verse plots in Marvel / Everything, Everywhere, All At Once or even plots like Groundhog Day or Palm Springs) is just another frame for the same existential questions of mortal life that we’ve been beating our heads against since the world began.

Perhaps the digital age is just ever present proof that we have yet to find satisfactory answers as a society.

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?

Because I’m a process oriented rather than project oriented songwriter, I’m much more comfortable writing 500 song sketches - finishing 100 songs and recording 10 songs. This seems to be the most generous to the audience (and anyway, they don’t know about the other songs that they didn’t hear). That way I don’t have to put the pressure on the song to make it a perfectly distilled object because that is what the album should be.

In practice this  looks like having a Bandcamp subscription where I write and record demo quality songs every month and don’t put too much pressure on any one song, and then picking the best 10% of songs that flow together as a cohesive thought (this is where the curator becomes helpful).

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?

I was philosophically born into the Three Chords and The Truth school of songwriting. In retrospect this probably is why I’m still writing songs. I always bit off the hardest part first and became acquainted with the misery and injury in that all encompassing pursuit of the blank page. Then, after the song was written, I assumed that there would always be some producer somewhere to make it sound ok when the time came.

If you start out as a producer, with the benefit/detriment of plugin presets and sample libraries, you’re always starting with one and making that a two - meaning you’re always combining elements that already exist. As a songwriter you start at zero and try to get to one - a literal blank page and a jumble of thoughts and experiences that you have to figure out how to make intelligible and compelling - which turns out is a more specialized skill.

I know lots of producers who spent a decade or two honing their ears and production tools who are finding it hard to make the leap to songwriter. It’s just a different playbook.

After I made a few records with other producers, I realized that I’d always be trapped in someone else’s musical taste. Initially this was fine, but as I grew in my own taste, I wanted to make something that sounded like what I wanted to sound like. There’s one part of me that really cares about economizing and doing only that thing that you do and letting the professionals handle the rest, but during the last few years, I’ve found a ton of pleasure and inspiration in music production.

I’m not good at it yet, but I’m excited for the chance to grow into my voice as a producer 15 years into my music career.

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?

Albums are funerals for friends. Usually by the time a record is finished, I’m already half into the next project.

Sometimes the rush of feedback and attention gives a creative burst that I can put into the next thing. Seinfeld has a joke “which joke is my favorite? It’s like breathing. My favorite breath is the one that gets me to the next one.” This is the same for me and my projects.

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?

As I’m learning to mix a record, I find that it is such the analogue for cooking a meal. The low to mid range - the salt and fat and umami - the airy highs - the addition of citrus or balsamic. It’s the same quest - to balance and hold the tension of opposing energies.

I think it’s all the same. A DJ doesn’t write a song - he doesn’t have his field recorder out by the train tracks trying to capture something hidden in nature. He chooses songs. A producer fiddles with kick drum. A lyricist fiddles with meter. The cup of coffee has so many potential variables - country of origin -unique flavor profile - roast type - method of preparation. People spend their  whole lives deep diving into just one of those variables.

A record collector is no different from a gallery curator. A Whiskey snob (which I am) and a student of ethnomusicology and a watch maker and a craftsman who makes wooden benches - they are all trying to master different variables, trying to combine them in interesting ways, trying to play with life. Joseph Campbell’s “follow your bliss” line is the same as Bukowski’s “find what you love and let it kill you.” We are all drawn to different types of care, and thank goodness, because life is to short to try and master it all.

Within these play grounds, we hope we can learn the variables well enough to do the craft technically well, but the fun happens later when you get to do it musically, with an imprint of your own identity of the craft.

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