Building something out of nothing

I have the utmost respect for people who write (good) songs.*

It’s one of the hardest things to do well, creatively: to not only compose music which snaps into your skull and chest but to also guide someone through your thoughts in a way that fits that sonic environment (or vice versa) and then actually sing those words well. That is hard. For me, anyway. 

I can’t write lyrics to save my life. It does not come naturally to me. Words and music are still separate kingdoms to me, and I'm trying to learn how to make peace between them. I've been spending time listening hard to the musicians I really love to get clues to how to do this. I have so many talented friends who are incredible singer/songwriters and can piece together both intimate narratives and catchy melodies. Somehow they make it feel so effortless. But of course there's effort.

I remember listening to this really wonderful episode of Songexploder where my friend John Roderick talks about how he wrote of my of my favorite songs from his band The Long Winters. "The Commander Thinks Aloud" is a solemn ballad about the final moments of the Space Shuttle Columbia. It is haunting, human and unexpected. It guts me every time I hear it. To hear John talk about the inspiration for it and the process of making it is revealing and inspiring; he found a way to transform a tragic global event into a tiny slow motion Polaroid photo of a song, wrapped lovingly in evocative sounds. Doesn't hurt that he's an eloquent, warm storyteller who can articulate his process so well. He's also a smartass. ("I don't publically out myself as a utopian and and a people-lover. It's not my brand."). Take a minute, this is really great:

I also recently stumbled on this great little documentary from 2013 produced by about Modest Mouse’s amazing second album The Lonesome Crowded West. I’ve always had a weird fascination with Isaac Brock; he’s kind of that idiot savant stoner you knew in school who is unquestionably brilliant, who could wax about god and life and his shitty job with words you would never imagine stringing together, all over an Orange Julius at the mall food court. Take this line from Never Ending Math Equation:

The universe works on a math equation
that never even ever really even ends in the end
Infinity spirals out creation
We're on the tip of its tongue, and it is saying
We ain't sure where you stand
You ain't machines and you ain't land
And the plants and the animals, they are linked
And the plants and the animals eat each other

Early Modest Mouse (unlike the bloaty version he's got on at the moment) was full of so many questions and naked observations about America from the grubby seats of Greyhounds and shitty touring vans. Listening now to The Lonesome Crowded West is like listening to a beautiful prizefight - violent, bouncy, clumsy and raw, all best experienced from a safe distance. Isaac cuts through the bullshit and somehow gets to the emotional spine of things with super personal, sometimes awkward, always engaging words. Dann Gallucci (Murder City Devils/Modest Mouse) said it best: "I could listen to the lyrics and hear things that were going on in our lives that he would not say to me just in conversation. I've always felt like he's more honest in his lyrics than he can be conversationally." It's fun to see how the record came together from their personal rearview mirrors almost 20 years on

Directed by RJ Bentler as part of the "Pitchfork Classic" series, presents a 45-minute documentary on Modest Mouse's classic 1997 album The Lonesome Crowded West. Produced in Association w/ Vans.

And beyond writing introspective lyrics, I'm also really fascinated with how producers and DJs compose the soundscapes around the words. How do people get inspired with sounds? What do they do when they hear something amazing, the way a turn of phrase could turn into a lyric or a song title?

Wonder no more: Jonathan Dagan, a.k.a. jviewz, is putting together an electronic album of found beats, sounds and collaborations right before our very eyes. The DNA Project is a stunning example of where songwriting is today: it's open source, it's interactive, it's collaborative. Most of all it's public.  jviewz is taking us along his journey to discover inspirations which he converts into musical expression. He's uploading videos of his experiences, posting samples for us to download and play with and inviting us all to contribute to his thing. It's an ambitious project, but an extremely personal one and inspiring as hell. Watch the bit with him and Gotye messing around with a Wurlitzer Sideman, an ancient analog drum machine from the '50s, on Song 6. That looks like a perfect day to me.

Songcraft is something I'm going to keep digging into. It's the same as good design to me: something takes hold of you which emotionally compels you act on inspiration. It is a sloppy, unpredictable process. Yet it demands attention to details, to the construction and assembly of the pieces and to the refinement of the outcome. And it's really hard to do it well.

I started writing my own music since 2008, and while I'm nowhere near proficient as an instrumentalist or as a songwriter, it is so satisfying to build something out of nothing, to work it until it snaps into my skull and my chest.

*There are infinite other examples of great songwriters out there, and I don't claim to be a music historian or scholar by any stretch. These are the guys in my ears at the moment. There's already enough pixels and ink devoted to the Dylans, Springsteens, Mitchells, Lennons and McCartneys of the world, anyway. And don't get me started on Q-Tip.