Loose Talk

On songwriting

For me, writing a song is sort of a process of receiving dictation, a participatory dictation. You get in the right frame of mind–you clear the mechanism–and things just start to come, like some kind of channeling. Often there comes a moment like half-waking from a dream, when you realize you are in the middle of it, it’s still coming, and you think, “Oh no, please, don’t stop.”

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So much of music is about tone and feel. I have always loved Eric Clapton’s work for its tone and feel.

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I write songs to please myself.

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Songs drive the music business.  Nashville is the new Tin Pan Alley, with its insatiable need for new material,  but most artists are self-contained units now, writing their own songs, often to good effect.  The world can always use a great new song, whether it’s a hit or not.  Writing reviews for the webzine, Minor7th, I am struck by the fact that many younger artists are not swinging for the fences in their songwriting.  They’re more focused on the sound.  That can be a mistake.  The song is the driver.

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On the craft

I like to record alone. It’s more personal that way, like I imagine painting would be. You can get a little obsessive and get caught up in musical cul-de-sacs. But it’s a very satisfying way to work.

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On playing guitar

A lot of my friends over the years have been into meditation…TM, or zen or whatever. From what I could gather, the state of mind they sought was exactly what I achieved playing guitar.

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On playing in bands

Bands arise from the pack instinct. It’s a primordial thing that replaces the hunt. That’s why bands never last. You get older and you don’t need that anymore—unless it becomes your meal ticket. You quit the band and voila…you’re a singer-songwriter.

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I decided it was time to hang it up when I’d place an ad for musicians and the callers would tell me I was older than their dads.

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A band is like a five-way marriage.  Very complicated.

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On music careers

Being a musician and working at a “real” job is a hard way to go. My advice is to keep your overhead as low as possible as long as possible. It helps to be a minimalist.

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The important thing is just to keep doing it.

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On the music scene

I have always been on the alternative side of music, like most artists who couldn’t make it commercially. You can parade that as a virtue. Springsteen, Sting, those guys defined alternative rock before they achieved massive commercial success and came to define the mainstream. Alt Rock, or whatever it’s called in now, sounds like canned angst.

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I’m encouraged by the vitality of the non-commercial or semi-commercial music scene. Greg Brown, Dar Williams, Ani DiFranco, Gillian Welch, Martin Sexton, the Nields, and Stephen Fearing are just a few examples. In this category, if you sell 30,000 albums it’s a tremendous accomplishment and you are a big star.

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When the movement to self-production in home studios and third tier studios began, the majors implied that the output would all be garbage, because if there was any talent out there, they ‘d already signed it.  Today the indies have the artists and the majors have Clay Aikens.

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There’s a tremendous amount of musical talent in Canada. I think one of the reasons for that is that there’s less mainstream economic opportunity there, which is an incentive to just go for it as an artist.  You can afford to live in most of the cities. If you want to live as a musician in San Francisco you’d better have a girlfriend with a very good job.

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Many people confuse validation with success. If you need external acclamation to give your work  validity, and then somehow achieve it, you’ll simply end up as another insecure successful artist.

guitar&Drum-copyOn Packwood

It’s not useful to explain songs. That’s the job of critics, it’s an entirely different thing. Packwood, for example, is the story of family, a place both imagined and real, based on stories my father and others told me—and things I remember from my childhood. But the tone is mine. My dad was entirely upbeat about his experiences growing up there. I shaded it a little darker.

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I took seven years to make Packwood. I’m more than a little embarrassed by that. I felt I had to do it all myself. So I built a studio in my basement. When I moved to Minneapolis and I had to do it all over again. It took me forever to complete the Montreal sessions. My mixdown dates got bumped by Lucinda Williams. The CD even had to be manufactured twice. I don’t know why, but it was supposed to take seven years.

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I am tremendously appreciative of the radio airplay I’ve received for Packwood. These are college or public radio folk stations and the deejays that host them are incredibly dedicated. They know a lot about the music. You can’t fool ‘em. They don’t make any money at it, but they bring a real passion to their work. It becomes a bond they share with the musicians.

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On folk music

I’ve always had trouble with labels. The new singer-songwriters are sometimes based in folk, but it’s not folk with a capital “F.” There’s this confusion between “real” folk and “contemporary” folk. Of course you have to call it something. The “Winnipeg Semi-commercial Music Festival” wouldn’t work at all.

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I dislike the term “Americana” to describe a genre of music. It sounds like knick knacks.

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I was turned off to folk music for a long time. Coffeehouses felt like church.

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On poetry and music

Lyrics are not intended to stand alone. They aren’t poems. They have to be considered in the context of their musical settings. The only reason to print lyrics is to help you follow the song a little better.

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The great poet Robert Duncan was one of my teachers, and a friend. He was always riffing for the angels. To hear him speak was like listening to jazz. He considered himself a big time contender, and he was. His arguments were with people like Dante.

 

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