The life of a solo artist trying to make a go of a career as an independent singer/songwriter can be bit of a bipolar (in the non-clinical sense of the word) existence. There’s a certain amount of respect and adulation, particularly in this scene, that comes from being able to make a living in DIY-fashion, based solely on an audiences respect for your words and your energy. The reverse side of that coin, however, is where fear, doubt, and insecurity come in; wondering if people will still care what you have to say, wondering if what you wrote will be good enough to put food on the table both literally and figuratively.
Rewind this tape a few years, and that’s where we’d have found Rocky Votolato. The Texas-born, Seattle-bred singer-songwriter had just released his seventh full-length solo album, Television of Saints, and had been able to scratch out a living selling albums and touring regularly in multiple continents. On the surface at least, things should have been rosy. As is frequently the case with most art, however, the story extends far below the surface.
“I was having a really hard time writing,” Votolato says. “I was feeling really burned out, uninspired creatively. I was in a tough spot, and it’s almost like it didn’t seem like there was a point to even making music anymore.” He had recorded a full album of material, but unhappy with how it had come together, he scrapped the whole thing and went back to work. “With Television of Saints, I just recorded for hours and hours and weeks and months on end, trying to get everything just right,” Votolato laments. “By the end of it, I was totally burned out and had no perspective of whether it was good or not!”
While Television of Saints is generally held in high regard amongst the songwriter set and, more importantly, among Votolato’s fans, its release didn’t necessarily prove to be the cathartic moment that it perhaps should have been. One of the scene’s more prolific songwriters (seven full-length albums in a little over a decade) was on the verge of shutting the whole thing down. “By the fall of 2013…I just had decided that I was going to retire from music. I was just going to have a normal life with my family and get off the road.”
While that idea of giving up and walking away might sound ‘crazy’ to the layperson, when the words aren’t coming, there is no more difficult place for a songwriter. “I’ve always depended on music. It’s always been a healing force in my life. It’s something that has been there for me to have an outlet and to put some of that stuff that I’m dealing with, whether it’s just existential suffering or mental depression,” says Votolato. “It’s always really been comforting to have that as a place to go when I need to express that stuff.”
“I was severely depressed,” Votolato tells me, “and didn’t really realize that I basically just needed a shift in perspective. I was relating to the whole creative process in the wrong way.” There’s a fairly well-known (at least among book nerd circles) speech that was given by the late author David Foster Wallace as a commencement address to graduating seniors at Kenyon College in 2005. Wallace opens with a parable of two young fish, out for a morning swim. They cross paths with an old fish, who nods at them and offers the following greeting: “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The two young fish continue swimming on before one looks at the other and says “What the hell is water?!?”
The point of his “this is water” speech is to get us to be more conscious of the unconscious way we go through life, opening ourselves up to our surroundings and to letting things happen. It seems that this sort of proverbial awakening is what Votolato needed to open up the dam again. “When I started to get that, it was a hard thing to go through,” Votolato says, “but when I did start having a good time again playing music and playing with words and having some acceptance from myself, I let go of that controlling attitude and needing everything to be perfect.”
The result of those floodgates opening again is 2015’s Hospital Handshakes. Votolato’s eighth studio album (his first for new label home No Sleep Records) is a departure from his normal work. “I really felt like I needed a new direction to keep things fresh and mix it up a little bit and keep it exciting for me,” states Votolato. “And I didn’t really know what I was going to get going in to (it like) that.” What he got was eleven tracks filled with deeper soundscapes and more rock guitar than any of his prior works, perhaps collectively.
“When songs are good,” says Votolato rather passionately,” it feels like I didn’t write them; they write themselves and you’re just kind of a channel for that. You get your ego out of the way and some cool art shows up and you capture it.” While the focal point of Hospital Handshakes very much remains Votolato’s lyrics and songwriting, he surrounded himself with a small stable of bona fide musicians (Chris Walla, ex-Death Cab for Cutie; Cody Votolato, Waxwing, Blood Brothers; Andy Lum of My Goodness; Eric Corson of The Long Winters) and allowed them the freedom to trust their instincts. That the whole process was recorded on tape meant having to make good decisions, and quickly. Rather than the two-year period of uphill skating that was Television of Saints, Hospital Handshakes came together in two weeks.
After Hospital Handshakes release, Votolato will be touring the States with a full band (stay tuned for dates, something he’s grown unaccustomed to in recent years. “More than any record I’ve ever made,” Votolato says, “this one deserves to have a full-band treatment, and it really kinda needs that to bring it fully to life.” He’ll also be taking a full band with him on a tour of Europe that’ll span most of May and June. It’ll be his first full-band tour across the pond, though it’s something he’s been looking forward to for quite some time.
Given Votolato’s history as a solo act, the music on Hospital Handshakes still works well when it’s just him. To give some of his hardcore fans a taste of what’s to come, he recently embarked on a 34-date US tour, accompanied by just an acoustic guitar: no PA system, no lights, no stage. Instead, he’s touring fans’ living rooms across the country: “I have such a loyal group of fans and…this only works if you have a dedicated fanbase of people that care about what you’re doing and want to see it in a really intimate setting.” If you live on the West Coast, you may want to check out the upcoming dates on Rocky’s living room tour here; based on the crossover relatability of Hospital Handshakes, it may be your last time to see him so up close and personal.
Read our full Q&A with Rocky Votolato below. We cover a lot of the above-mentioned ground in far greater detail, and also discuss an upcoming split with Chuck Ragan, some advice given to him by Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, and a lot more. Hospital Handshakes is due out April 21st on No Sleep Records. Pre-orders are available here.
Dying Scene (Jay Stone): Where do we find you now? You’re somewhere deep in the heart of Texas, right?
Rocky Votolato: Yeah, yeah, I’m in Houston today. I’ll be heading up to the Dallas area to play tonight. I’m playing in Waco, Texas, tonight…(*laughs*)
Yeah, I know, (Waco) is interesting.
You’re from the Dallas area originally, right?
Yeah, I am. I was born in Dallas and moved pretty early on to a small town somewhere between fifty and a hundred miles away from Dallas. It’s, like, a super rural area…middle-of-nowhere Texas! (*laughs*)
Is driving through Texas the same now as it was when you grew up there, or is it a totally different place?
You know, I think it depends on the city. I don’t know how much some of the small towns have changed, because I just haven’t spent that much time in them, really. A lot of them look pretty similar. I’ve driven through Frost (his former hometown, present population +/- 648) and it’s just kind of a one street town still. They’ve got one little general store still!
So at least the little towns haven’t changed that much. That might be true all over America, you know? Little rural towns can seem stuck in a time capsule or something. A lot of times the culture shifts don’t affect them as much. It’s hard for me to really say, I don’t know many people that live there anymore.
Yeah, we have the same sort of thing in New England where a lot of little towns seem stuck in a time capsule, although a lot of them now are sort of seeing the pull of the Starbucksing and the McDonaldization of everywhere…
Yeah, it’s all becoming just one very similar strip mall in every city, right?
Yeah! And even all the new developments that get put up all kinda look the same, and they all try to look like condo villages…even the little towns all kinda look like each other now.
Yeah, that’s kind of sad. It takes away a lot of the originality.
I think the last of the movies Simon Pegg did in the (Cornetto) trilogy, “The World’s End,” he and his buddies go to revisit a lot of their old favorite pubs, but now it’s all one chain that just has twelve different names for the pubs. So every pub they visit is basically identical, they just have a different, Olde English name. It sorta feels like that up here now.
RV: (*laughs*) That’s funny!
To get started for real, congratulations on Hospital Handshakes, man. (The PR contact) Austin just sent me a preview copy I think Tuesday or Wednesday and I’ve had it on repeat ever since.
Awe, that’s awesome!
I usually listen to things on my laptop first, in the background at work, but I burned a CD of this one and I put it on in the car as I was driving home from work yesterday, and I turned it up real loud, and I was struck by the fact that it’s such a great sounding album. It sounded so great that I actually kept driving by the house and I went to meet up with my wife and my daughter at her karate class! I had to keep driving until it was over because I couldn’t bring myself to turning it off, it sounded that good!
Nice! That makes me feel good, thanks buddy! (*laughs*)
It’s certainly different than (2012’s) Television of Saints was…is that a conscious decision now to maybe not reinvent yourself, because that may be overstating it, but to keep pushing different boundaries like that?
Absolutely! I feel like even the word ‘reinvention’ is applicable for this one. For me, it feels like some kind of a rebirth, you know? Going for a totally new sound, of course I still wanted to have the foundation there, of my songwriting and the kind of songs that people know me for. So to have quality songs there and then build an environment around them to really explore and push boundaries and just come up with something new. I really felt like I needed a new direction to keep things fresh and mix it up a little bit and keep it exciting for me.
And I didn’t really know what I was going to get going in to (it like) that. It’s always an experiment, right? I really just embraced the spirit of collaboration and got guys around me that I trusted and just let everybody follow their instincts, and that’s what we landed on. It was really fun. I was really excited as it was coming together. I was like “oh, wow, I’m making a rock record!” (*both laugh*) It was fun, you know?
Did that just sort of happen organically while you guys were recording? I’m assuming, or at least I’m picturing, that you had the skeleton of most of the songs fleshed out, but did the bigger rock songs or especially the heavier, atmospheric stuff, did that come from the studio or was that already in your mind?
You know, everything was really impulsive, but we did have three days of pre-production, where Chris Walla and I and the band that we had put together all got in to a practice space and just kinda ran through the songs and came up with ideas. That was really valuable.
I kinda had an idea, and Chris had really solid ideas of where he wanted to take the songs, so we stated fleshing out those pieces in the three days of pre-production. And then we went into the studio and had I think four days with the band. We just tracked most everything that ended up on the record, like a lot of that atmospheric stuff was done live. Walla played a Moog and he played some piano and different keyboards. That’s his specialty, he’s really good at building those soundscapes. He’s been doing that for years with Death Cab.
We had tape loops and that kind of stuff, really cool atmospheric things that I hadn’t played with a lot. And that’s pretty much how it came together. It all happened really fast like that. And that was important to me. That was a conscious decision. I wanted to have the record feel impulsive and urgent and not over-think everything. I feel like that’s been a pitfall of mine in the past, especially with Television of Saints. I just recorded for hours and hours and weeks and months on end, trying to get everything just right.
You had a whole album done that you scrapped just before Television Saints, right?
Yeah! That was a very difficult, slow moving process. Always. Not just the songwriting but the recording as well. I feel like I reached the end of that spectrum of where you can be doing some recording and just overthinking every single thing you’re doing. It’s not always bad to put that much time and energy in to something, but I think I had just gone too far with it.
I recorded that whole album once and wasn’t happy with it, so I scratched it and then went back to the studio and did the whole thing again. Some new songs and some of the same songs, and by the end of it, I was totally burned out and had no perspective of whether it was good or not! (*laughs*) I think that’s a dangerous pitfall, to become too attached and too controlling over the recordings. You lose that spontaneity. And this was a reaction to that, and I feel like every album is really a reaction to the last album.
You’re usually going to try to apply some of the lessons you learned. And on this one, I just really was in a completely different headspace and just wanted to let things flow.
And you nailed it, if I can be so bold…
Oh, thanks man!
…so it’s interesting to hear you say that a lot of it was done in three or four days because this sounds like the kind of album that you could have put an almost indefinite amount of time and energy into tweaking, especially because it’s a bigger sounding rock album at times. It’s really cool to hear that the amount of overthinking that you feel like could have gone into an album like this really didn’t, and it just kinda happened.
Yeah, thank you! I’m excited for that fact too. I feel like this is really going back in touch with when I started making records. We made this whole record in, like, two weeks. There were a few additional overdubs that were done after the initial two-week tracking period, but most of the tracking was probably about four days. Everything else was, you know, some vocals or cleaning up and retracking a couple things. It did all happen really fast. Two weeks is…like…I spent two years on the last record! (*both laugh*) This is, like “damn, we’re gonna do this!”
And that was fun. It made it where you had to make decisions really quickly, so you couldn’t overthink things. I think that sometimes that’s a really good thing. I think that’s why a lot of Steve Albini punk records are so great. The bands are live off the floor, people are just following their instincts. When you start to overthink, you can really start to kill the vibe of what you’re doing. So I feel like we did a good job of trusting that, and the fact that Chris Walla is so good working on tape… That’s a big part of why I wanted to work with him on this record too. We did the whole thing on tape.
Oh, okay, I didn’t realize that.
That makes it where you have to make decisions quick. I feel like that just adds to everything we’ve been discussing, that sense of urgency. It’s not the same as with a computer where you can basically have an infinite number of takes of something, and there’s a process where you can always go back and change things. You kind of have option overload because you have so much freedom to go back and change, and fix, and correct.
On tape, you get a take and you trust your ears. When you go over something, it’s gone! There’s no ‘Apple Z’ to undo! (*both laugh*) With tape, it’s just “well, that’s gone!” (*both laugh*) And that happened several times on the record, where we thought ‘oh, wow, we’re moving really fast here!’ But that felt good and it just focuses your attention on making good decisions.
So this was really, then, more of a collaborative effort than past albums…not to compare everything to Television Saints (Editor’s note: in fairness, I referred to Television of Saints as Television Saints on more than one occasion, and Rocky was gracious enough to not get on me for being wrong…Television Saints would be a cool album title, though.) but this sounds like it relies a little more on just trusting the guys that you’re working with. I know Chris Walla has certainly got his own reputation, and well-deserved, but this makes you rely on trusting them and trusting that everybody is on the same page and knows what they’re doing, huh?
Yeah, that’s it. And that was totally what I wanted. I feel like you surround yourself with people that you trust and let them do their thing. That was my philosophy for this record. I feel like it worked out. I’m really happy with all of Cody’s (Votolato, Rocky’s brother and fellow Waxwing bandmate) guitar work. He’s got such a high batting average where the first thing he comes up with is awesome! (*laughs*) He’s used to working in those kinds of environments. Andy Lum, who Cody actually recommended, is on drums. He plays in a band called My Goodness. He was so good in the studio. You can tell he’s a real pro too. Definitely one of the best drummers I’ve ever worked with. He’s a killer, amazing rock drummer, super solid. And then Eric Corson played bass. He played in The Long Winters. He’s been around the Seattle scene forever, and he’s also just a seasoned veteran in terms of studio work.
So everybody just was a pro and knew what they wanted to do. It didn’t take a lot of coaching. If there was something I didn’t like right away, I just spoke up and we went down a different road. But yeah, man, I couldn’t be happier with the energy we were able to capture with the record.
Does that sort of make you nervous or change your approach in how you go out on the road, particularly a tour like you’re doing now, the ‘living room’ tour…does that change how you approach some of those songs now that it’s just you and a guitar?
You know, what’s interesting is that I wrote the whole record pretty much just me and an acoustic guitar and then we built these environments around the songs. So, the nice thing about this record is that the songs work really well as acoustic songs too. So for a tour like this, it’s fun, it’s great. … When the album comes out, when I tour the US after the release, it will be with a full band. I really want to bring that full sound to people. I‘m really excited for that too.
More than any record I’ve ever made, this one deserves to have a full band treatment, and really kinda needs that to bring it fully to life. But that being said, the songs also work really well alone with the acoustic guitar because that’s how they were originally built. You know, I’ve played in punk bands in the past, or whatever band I was in, and if a song isn’t built from the ground up with an acoustic guitar, it’s a really tough thing to translate back into that without all the other band stuff.
But luckily, these songs all just feel like my songs, my songwriting, but in a new direction in terms of the recording and the approach. I’m really looking forward to the summer. I’m going to have a full band, full US tour, so you can look forward to that too!
Excellent! Is it a full band tour you’re doing in Europe after this US run is over or is that just you?
That’s full band too, yeah. I’ll have a band for the first time in Europe, which I’m really excited about.
What brought the living room tour about as a build up to the album? I can imagine that sort of thing being tougher, especially with the hidden, secret nature of the shows. With social media, I can see that getting tricky to navigate pretty quickly.
You know, it’s been amazing. I have such a loyal group of fans and really, this works if you have a dedicated fanbase of people that care about what you’re doing and want to see it in a really intimate setting. All the shows on this tour so far have been just really, really amazing. Like, I played in Houston last night and it was a pretty packed house and everyone had a good time. I did one of these last year and that was what made me want to start the year off with it. That was one of my favorite tours I’ve ever done. I think it was September of last year.
It’s just this really super grassroots connection thing with fans, and I find it to be just a super organic way to connect with people. I just show up with an acoustic guitar, no stage, no PA system, no lights, you know? It’s the most absolute, stripped down, DIY way you could be doing this. People responded really well to it last year, and I didn’t want to wait until the record was out to get back out on the road. I just wanted to kick it off this year. So we just did this to start out and build up momentum for the release. It wouldn’t make sense to do a tour like this once the album was out.
It’s just a preview of a few of the songs, which is what I’m doing every night. Mostly I’m playing a different mix of my whole catalog and my favorite songs from each record, then I’m just previewing three or four of the new songs on this tour. It was kinda my last chance before this record cycle started to do something like that. It felt really good, it’s a good way to get back to work and get the year started.
I’m gutted that I had to miss the show up in Haverhill, I had a couple of people out at work and I wouldn’t have been able to make it from where I work to Haverhill in a reasonable time.
Oh man! Sorry to hear that. That was a really fun show. That’s Jim and Becky’s house, they’ve hosted me several times at this point.
It must be cool to have the sort of network. Where you could even think about doing a month or a month-and-a-half’s worth of living room shows, and that you have a network like that that you can rely on. That’s got to be a pretty fulfilling thing as an artist.
That’s the best word, I think, to describe these kinds of tours. They’re totally fulfilling, because it’s that really intimate, organic connection that you have with people, and it’s all about the music. All of the distractions are stripped away. My closest fans or my biggest fans and the songs. That’s just what the evening becomes.
It’s just a very pure way to do it, everything’s distilled down to the essence of why I started playing music. There’s definitely something to the club shows that I love, and I’d miss it if it wasn’t there; the excitement of putting on a bigger show and having it be louder. But it’s a completely different kind of experience. I’m really grateful to the Undertow guys and to all my fans who host these for making this possible for me.
What’s the draw like when you do these smaller shows across the country? Is it more from the punk, DIY world or is it more from the songwriter crowd, or have those two circles overlapped completely at this point?
I think it’s definitely overlapped for me. It seems like there’s younger people, there’s older people, there’s younger punks and then sometimes people in their 50s who just like folk music and songwriter\ stuff. It’s definitely a mixed variety of different people, and I’m happy for that. I think that makes me feel good about what I’m putting out there. I want it to be able to appeal to a lot of different kinds of people.
It’s interesting…I don’t even see it as much, I just see people, I don’t think as much about what kind of scene is interested (in my music). I used to, because back when I was starting out with music, you’d have meetings with labels and they’d ask “what demographic do you think your music would appeal to?” and that kind of thing. And now I just think, wow, if there’s a person there and they’ve got a heart and they showed up, I’m stoked! That’s all that matters! (*both laugh*)
I think sometimes writing for a site like this, the punk world can get obviously pretty narrowly defined sometimes. I have a tendency myself to focus on some of the singer-songwriter, “ex-punk” music, like somebody referred to it as the “tree of Chuck Ragan” once ..
You know, the whole Revival Tour crew and then following how all of those branches lead out. But it’s always interesting to hear when people have no knowledge of, say, Hot Water Music or Waxwing or The Loved Ones, but they just know of Chuck or you or Dave Hause independently of how so many people know of them.
Absolutely. It’s like worlds colliding, right?! If somebody doesn’t know that tree, like you say…it’s interesting, I’ve got a split ten-inch coming out with Chuck Ragan this year…
Yeah, I’m really excited about it. It’s coming out on SideOneDummy, and it’s actually some of the B-sides and things that I recorded from the Television of Saints days, and it’s going to be his B-sides from his last album, Till Midnight. I’m really excited about that. I love working with Chuck on anything, he’s such a good guy.
He really is, and it’s interesting because, not that your two newest albums sound anything alike necessarily, but I think for him too, Till Midnight was the big, band album, and wasn’t a typical Chuck Ragan record in some ways. When I talked to him a year or so ago about it, he said kinda the same thing that you said, about that he had the songs fleshed out and then just trusted that everyone knew what they were going to do and followed their instincts.
That’s awesome. That’s Chuck’s style, man. I love that guy, it’s really inspiring to be around him. I did two Revival Tours, one in Europe and one in the US, and they were both kinda life-changing and awesome. He’s one of my best friends now, I really love that guy.
Getting back to the album a little bit, you’ve talked before about the idea of questioning your own songwriting and battling depression on and off through the years. I think those ideas come through (on Hospital Handshakes) but I think it’s also such a bright and positive sounding record some times; when do you find yourself writing the best, when you are in the throes of what may be a depressive period as a way to pull yourself out, or once you’ve come out of it, do you start writing more (about the experience)? If that makes any sense whatsoever? (*laughs*)
Yeah, I get the spirit of what you’re going for with that. To me, it was more of the first thing that you described. It was more of…I’ve always depended on music. It’s always been a healing force in my life. It’s something that’s been there for me to have an outlet and to put some of that stuff that I’m dealing with, whether it’s just existential suffering or mental depression, which is something that I’ve struggled with a lot in my life. I feel like having music there has been really healing, and it’s always really been comforting to have that as a place to go when I need to express that stuff.
I think for this record especially, music was there for me as a way to deal with that stuff. I was definitely in the throes of a lot of that when I wrote most of these songs, and just to give you a background of what was going on in my life when I made the record: even around the summer of 2012, around the release of Television of Saints, and even before that, doubt was creeping in. I was having a really hard time writing. Like I mentioned, that record was kinda tough. I was feeling really burned out, uninspired creatively.
I was in a tough spot, and it’s almost like it didn’t seem like there was a point to even making music anymore. I was wondering why I was even doing this, and I’d lost touch with that. So, by the fall of 2013, I think it was in October, I just had totally decided that I was going to retire from music. I was just going to have a normal life at home with my family and get off the road. It took almost a full year from then, because music had always been an outlet for me, once that was blocked off and there was a dam there, it built up into this huge, painful thing. I wasn’t expressing this part of myself. Since I was 13 years old, I’d been writing like crazy; at least an album’s worth of songs every year, so to kind of remove that part of my life was extremely painful.
I think I realized after the fact that that had happened because I was just being way too hard on myself; way too self-critical and judgmental, creatively controlling, a real perfectionist about the process and not letting it flow. I think that’s why it stopped. And like I said, I just couldn’t see the point in trying to go on with that. When I started to take the whole thing less seriously and I started to have a good time playing with words again, it just kind of broke open. And that was at the low point.
I was severely depressed, and didn’t really realize that I basically just needed a shift in perspective. I was relating to the whole creative process in the wrong way. And when I started to get that, it was a hard thing to go through, but when I did start having a good time again playing music and playing with words and having some acceptance from myself, I let go of that controlling attitude and needed everything to be perfect. I just started surrendering and allowing things to come out and not judging it so harshly, so critically, always saying “oh, what will they think” or “oh what’s the point, this isn’t as good as other things I’ve done.”
I just threw all that in the garbage. I just said, man, I don’t care what it sounds like, I want to have a good time, I just want to write music. That’s why I started. It’s like kids that just want to create art. If you’re standing over their shoulder constantly judging everything they do, they get shut down. They can’t just flourish and let that natural creative impulse flow. That’s the biggest lesson for me; to let things happen and not be so critical so quickly.
Of course you have to edit, and there’s tons of songs that I wrote for this album that I didn’t record. But I think that’s part of the process too; realizing that it’s okay to write something that’s not perfect. It’s okay to make a song that’s not even that good. You have to get through those kinds of songs to get to the ones that are good. If you stop that process of thinking that everything you do has to be perfect, you don’t get anything?
Was there sort of a watershed moment in going through that that made those floodgates open again? Did you dip your toe back in the water to see how it would be, or was there a thing that happened that made you say, you know what, screw this, I’ve gotta start writing again?
I think it as a combination. It’s hard to point to one thing, but there was a period last summer when things really broke open. I feel like a few of the things that led to that were that I was in intensive therapy for depression and had been doing that for a couple years to try to get that under control. I finally started to see some of the fruits of that. And then also, it sounds funny, but I listened to this record called Sam’s Town by The Killers. I had never really heard that band. Cody played it for me on tour last summer, and it was definitely at the low point.
It kinda made something click for me. I love Brandon Flowers’ lyrics and how he plays with words. And it reminded me that, oh, this is what I got into music for. I loved it. I started writing like crazy, like just writing in my notebook. Just writing words, playing with words. I went to the University of Washington and got my degree in English literature before I got serious about a life in music. I’ve always felt like a writer trapped in a musician’s body, you know? (*both laugh*) I really relate to words, that part of it has always been fun for me, and lyrics have been the focus for how I relate to writing.
That was where it started. And then, there was this huge creative flood of writing, and then I started catching up with the music part. I was like, okay, I have this idea, I really want to put this to a song. I don’t really care what the music sounds like, let’s just throw some chords at it! (*laughs*) When that driving force was there, it was easy; everything started to fall in to place.
I think you’ve always been an amazing songwriter anyway but in listening to this album in particular, there are a lot of lines that really, really stick out. You talk a few times about being way too hard on yourself and there’s a line in “The Hereafter” about digging up more bones, and that the broken teeth are teaching you something; that idea when I first heard it really resonated with me. Do you ever have the experience where you write a line or an idea and you think, you know, “not to pat myself on the back or anything, but that’s a damn good line”?
(*laughs*) Absolutely…I think it’s fun when something shows up and you’re like “how did that happen,” you know? It’s like I always say, when songs are good, it feels like I didn’t write them, they write themselves, and you’re just kind of a channel for that. You get your ego out of the way and some cool art shows up and you capture it.
It’s almost like automatic writing. When things are going really well for me, it’s fun! It’s almost like you’re pulling things out of the ether that are already there, so I definitely don’t take any credit for it. All I get credit for is getting myself to be in a place where I can capture those kinds of things. Having the discipline to work on it and make myself available for the creative process to happen.
That’s got to take a lot, though, especially if you’ve been going through a period of self doubt; that’s a huge leap of faith to open yourself back up to that and trust that it’s going to come and that you just have to be the conduit.
Yeah, and you have to keep trying. And that’s one thing I’ve had to realize, that if the first thing you do doesn’t work out, you have to keep showing up. That’s one thing actually that Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie, The Postal Service) told me that was so helpful; he gave me some advice and helped me through when I was finishing up the album, and he said that one thing his dad always said to him was “90% of life is just showing up!” (*laughs*)
You have to keep showing up, and that’s something that I’m really embracing right now with my whole career in general, whether it’s writing or touring or whatever aspect of it I’m handling. It’s like, okay, I’ve decided I want this kind of life. Take the good with the bad and keep showing up. Keep trying to write songs and eventually you knock a couple out of the park and you feel good about it!