How did you get your start in music?
I think we are made with particular inclinations, particular gifts, and I’m certain that from an early age, even before I could talk, I was drawn to be part of music in some way. My step dad played Beatles records, and Rolling Stones and Ry Cooder. My real dad played congas in the living room listening to Soul Train on TV. I remember recorder lessons in first grade. And later, learning to play the oboe in middle school, my sister’s piano lessons, listening in the next room, Methodist church hymns, and finally, in college, spending all summer strumming my friend’s nylon string guitar. I’m sure I’ve developed deep, intimate relationships with these instruments. This is where it starts, with an instrument in each hand. Otherwise, idle hands are the devil’s playthings.
Your music has such intricate, mind-boggling arrangements. How would you describe your songwriting process?
It’s really about listening to what the song is already saying. As soon as you write down a progression of chords, it begins to devise its own voice, a set of musical principles. It’s really a matter of yielding yourself to this new system. I fumble with the guitar, stretching my arms, moving my hands to awkward fingerings, trying something new. As soon as it sounds right, I meditate on the idea. You have to spend hours strumming the same chords.
Sometimes it takes that long to separate yourself from the song. Once it’s on tape, the song is open to unlimited possibilities. I have a heap of borrowed instruments, so sometimes writing a song is about utilizing the sitar before I have to return it. I can’t say too much about this because when you get down to it, songwriting doesn’t look very good at all. Writing songs can look tedious and sloppy in practice. There’s a lot of slouching and not eating and drinking too much coffee and walking around the house in your underpants.
I see on the Asthmatic Kitty site that you are a writer, and certainly your lyrics can attest to that fact. What inspires you to write the lyrics you do?
I do get a lot of help from the principles of fiction, which have been marked in me from years of writing workshops and graduate school thesis papers. I find that a lot of fiction is based on character—real, tangible, full-bodied people encountering tremendous challenges. This is a good starting point for songwriting as well. When we begin singing, we take on a particular voice, a persona—we should fully step into that role (right down to the sleeves, the coat, the hairstyle, the heart), and convey an emotional environment that honors that voice. It’s a tremendous task! A good song makes good use of detail. We’ve heard enough about the aching heart, but what about the broken arm or the burn on your wrist from the wood stove or the way your mother tells you to go to your room. These are abstract things put into tangible form, right down to the mole, and the shirt collar and the hair parted down the middle.
What was your experience with Marzuki like? Are there any talks of a reunion?
Marzuki was like boot camp. Push-ups, wind sprints, jump rope. We got in shape. We all learned a lot about each other, about songwriting, about playing live. I do miss those people. I miss playing with skilled musicians. But I think we were never fully realized, if you know what I mean. We were too uptight, too concerned about things abstractly, without regarding things full on—with both arms out wide. I’m now more interesting in getting into it full on. I don’t think there will ever be a reunion. I love what I’m doing now so much more. And Shannon has gone on to bigger and better things, like marriage.
What are your feelings towards your previous solo releases, A Sun Came and Enjoy Your Rabbit?
I’ve been asked this question a few times, so I’m giving you the same answer I always give. The first record is hard to gauge, because it represents a particular time in my life (when I was at university) that now seems very dated. But it is unfair to condescend to our former selves. Better to enjoy it for what it is. I love my second record, the songs for the Chinese Zodiac. This was a turning point for me, musically. It is still my favorite record. I feel like it was important for me to get away from songwriting and do electronic programming, without my voice. It’s important to try new things. I think I will always be jumping genres like this in the future. I want to write a Broadway musical. And a soundtrack for film. And I want to be in a punk band. These are some options. But I want each thing to sound lively and true, to have eternal value. This is the real test—what will these records sound like twenty years from now? I feel as if I’ve been given complete creative freedom to do what feels natural, to write music that is both challenging and rewarding, to write songs that are generous and joyful. I really want to give my best.
Michigan is a fantastic, fantastic cd…certainly one of the year’s best. Describe for us the creative process that went into transferring physical places into audible sounds (and, are you happy with the result of that process?).
I’ve been doing this kind of exercise for some time, taking geography and putting it to song. The romantics did this in programmatic symphonies written to honor Waterloo or the Seine River. Because the geography of Michigan is so familiar to me, it wasn’t that difficult to do. It requires a lot of listening, to the rhythms of a particular place, the way a river moves around corners, the way a particular city creates noise and pollution, the sun and sand dunes, the highways and waterfalls. These things—natural or man-made—have their own music, their own rhythms. Most of the music we compose is indebted to the natural world. Our ears are monitoring every sound: the cicada, the automobile, the water faucet, the oak tree. We take this in without knowing it. We are constantly in tune to the music of the world.
Where did you come up with the vision to undertake the 50 States project? What State will you profile next?
I don’t really know how I came up with this idea. Perhaps I wanted a project that would finally do me in, once and for all. I like a good challenge. I’m definitely interested in geography, and how landscape affects us, and how we interact with a particular environment. This country was founded on the ideological conundrum of land-ownership. Man taking possession of something that was never his from the start. Native Americans had no concept of this. Which is why they were doomed. We are living in a country that is historical unstable, that is culturally confused, that is driven by materialism and greed. And yet, America is idealized all across the globe for its unlimited opportunities, for its accommodation to all people, regardless of class or color. People come here to make things happen for themselves. The come here to get something done. This is an odd place we live in. I find it both discomforting and inspiring. Not sure what state is next. I’m working simultaneously on Rhode Island, Illinois, Oregon, New Jersey, and Vermont, if you can believe it.
What’s your take on the current Christian music world? How do you feel about the Christian music industry?
I know very little about the Christian music industry. Christianity (or any faith) is not a genre. The existence of a Christian market is problematic from the start. What’s created is best described as a ghetto market that serves nothing but itself.
Who are some musicians that you currently admire?
Steve Reich, Willy Nelson, Henry Purcell, and Neil Young are staples. I admire a lot of Nick Drake’s guitar stylings and vocal melodies, especially on Pink Moon. I feel his songs were squandered by bad production ideas on most of his other albums. I love Deerhoof, a band from San Francisco. They make smart music that is fun and innovative. I think a lot of us are indebted to the work of Dan Smith and the Danielson Famile. There is nothing else like that. I like Stereolab and Cocteau Twins and Yes and Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto no. 2.
Do you have any comments or suggestions for young up and coming songwriters?
For starters, throw away the chord books and the notations for Stairway to Heaven. Stop listening to music, especially anything recorded. Don’t use tradition tunings. When you break a string, leave it off, detune, write a song with the guitar upside-down. Don’t write anything in 4/4 or 6/8. Record something on a 4-track and play it backwards. Try to learn it this way. Don’t use C or G or A or D chords. Find chords that make your hands hurt. Find out how far your hands can stretch on the fretboard. Make up your own language and sing in that language. Don’t use vibrato. Sing the whole song in your head voice, in your falsetto. You should never be completely comfortable. You should always feel a little weird.
Any other comments?
I have a new record coming out in March, called Seven Swans, which was recorded by Dan Smith of the Danielson Famile.