A Conversation With Musician Alexander Shields

Alexander Shields

Alexander Shields

By Robert Masiello

Do you ever stop and wonder how much music you haven’t heard? Have you considered how many albums out there you would love, but were never introduced to? Imagine, for a moment, the hours upon hours of recorded music that hasn’t yet found its way to your ears.

Alexander Shields just might be one of those artists who has slipped under your radar. Since 2009, he has quietly been releasing music under the moniker, A Grave With No Name. While it may sounds like the name of some Norwegian doom metal band, his earnest, fractured songs maintain a certain gracefulness lacking in so much modern music.

With his latest release, “Feathers Wet, Under the Moon,” Shields stepped away from the lo-fi, reverb-laden sound of his earlier work. The songs here are sharply produced, every note aching with mournful intensity. Fans of early Cat Power, Keaton Henson, and especially Carissa’s Wierd (yes, that’s the actual spelling) will find a lot to love here.

“Feathers Wet, Under the Moon,” opens with the hypnotic, ghostly “Nursing Home,” throughout which Shields coos, “Why is she singing all night?” It sets the stage for an elegant, introspective song-cycle. When the pace quickens, such as on “Candle” or “Orion,” the feel is somehow vast-yet-intimate, never succumbing to cheap climaxes or production tricks. Gorgeous imagery abounds, evoking both human relationships and the natural world. There’s nothing so obvious as a straightforward love song or a breakup song, but the album is stronger for it.

Throughout “Feathers Wet, Under the Mood,” Shields weaves detailed, touching stories. Lyrics such as, “people fall away/but I saw your ghost was there by the lake,” which might come off as cloying or maudlin in the hands of a less sophisticated songwriter, are imbued with warmth and sincerity. Even the album’s darkest corners are never bleak or unforgiving.

The album closes with “Natural Light,” a string-laden finale which attempts to answer the question posited in “Nursing Home.” Shields warbles, “You hear her singing every night/and she sings ’til natural light/comes visiting with the morning.” It’s not exactly a happy ending—death seems imminent—but, like all of “Feather’s Wet, Under the Moon,” it’s oddly comforting. And maybe that’s exactly what Shields is trying to tell us: even in the chaos of nature, even in the impermanence of life, there is beauty and hope.

Shields was kind enough to answer some my questions about his writing process and future album plans.

Robert Masiello: I discovered your music completely by accident. While searching reviews for the band Wet, I stumbled upon your album “Feathers Wet, Under the Moon” and was immediately enamored. How long did you spend writing the album? What was the writing process like for you?

Alexander Shields: I began writing “Feathers Wet, Under the Moon” back in July 2013, and the basic songs were finished by December of the same year. My intention was to record the album in my bedroom, however, by April 2014 I found myself far away from home in Mark Nevers’ Beech House studio in Nashville, Tenn.

The writing process was the most disciplined I have ever been while creating an album. I was suffering from insomnia at the time, so I made the best of a bad situation by getting up at 5:00 a.m. each morning, watching a film or two, and then I would spend the rest of the day writing and recording demos. My grandmother was pretty ill at the time, so it also served as good therapy for me to be occupied in that way on a daily basis.

RM: Despite a cleaner, more polished sound than your earlier work, “Feathers Wet, Under the Moon” strikes me as particularly mournful and elegiac. I think that says a lot about the quality of your songwriting; the songs don't need any lo-fi hiss or to be drenched in reverb to convey emotion. How did it feel bringing your songs to a proper studio?

AS: The thought of flying to Nashville on my own, playing with musicians far superior to myself, and working with a producer who has made some of my favourite records was incredibly intimidating, however, I was eager to challenge myself. Anyone who has worked with Mark Nevers will tell you he is a genius, and it was an honour to work in his studio, and to allow him to shape the sound of my music. Previously I had written every single note of each song, and either performed it myself, or dictated exactly how it should be played. Making “Feathers Wet, Under the Moon,” was a very different experience. Mark assembled a local group of musicians, and I would present them with the bare bones of the songs; we’d hash them out a couple of times, then press record, and create the arrangements on the fly. We had the basic tracking down by the end of the first week, and then spent the second week adding more deliberate overdubs, and textures to the songs. It was incredibly humbling to be around such great musicians, and I’m grateful to them all for making beautiful contributions to my album.

RM: I'm especially impressed by how songs such as "Candle" and "Orion" are almost anthemic without losing their sense of intimacy. Did you start with the intention of writing them as "big" songs, or did they just turn out that way?

AS: When I approach a new album, I usually set myself a few guidelines, and for “Feathers Wet, Under the Moon” my one rule was that I didn’t want to incorporate any big rock dynamics into the record, so in fact the demos of those songs are considerably more hushed than their finished album counterparts. We worked hard in the studio to ensure that the songs would swell and ache in the right places, however, I wanted to ensure that moments should not be achieved cheaply by stomping on a fuzz pedal. When the songs feel more expansive on the album it is through the accumulation of the parts coming together in the right way, which maintains an atmosphere of intimacy at the center of their ornate facades.

RM: I've noticed many references to the natural world in your song—landscapes, animals, and geography. How does nature shape and influence your music?

AS: I’m an insular, contemplative person by nature (excuse the pun), so the environments I create in my songs tend to reflect that. For me, these unpopulated, desolate, meditative spaces allow more complex thought and questions to resonate, away from the distractions and minutiae of day-to-day human life.

RM: It seems like some bands are constantly on the road, but touring doesn't seem to have been a huge part of this project so far. Do you enjoy performing live?

AS: I have a complicated relationship with live music. As an audience member I enjoy shows where the method of performance, venue, and players have all been carefully curated, but all too often, bands embark on long tours that serve little purpose other than to commodify their music and maintain their visibility. An undesired side effect of the length and infrastructure of these tours is that they have a numbing effect on the artists where performance becomes rote, and uninspired, and putting out a record becomes just another reason to keep touring. Live music can be transcendental, but the ingredients that allow this alchemy to occur are so ephemeral and multifarious that these days I tend to perform live very infrequently.

RM: I read that you're close friends with Yuck's Daniel Blumberg, and that he lent a hand in recording “Feathers Wet, Under the Moon” (side note: I'm a huge fan of the album he recorded as Oupa, and in some ways it reminds me of AGWNN). What was it like working in the studio with a friend?

AS: Daniel has lent a hand on every record I have made to date, but “Feathers Wet, Under the Moon” is the only one that he has actually played on. We are closely involved in each other’s music, and refer to each other at every step of the creative process. I was thinking about how much I love that Oupa album just a couple of days ago. It’s a beautiful record, and it was inspiring to witness its creation, and be involved in the creative process as a confidant.

Daniel was the one who suggested that I worked with Mark Nevers, and he joined me in the second week of recording to help out with overdubs and offer his guidance. Funnily enough, we ended up having the sole argument in our long friendship over a guitar solo, and didn’t speak to each other for an entire day.

RM: You've suggested on social media that a new album is already in the works. Can we look forward to it dropping this year? Are there any stylistic changes in the works?

AS: The album is finished. It’s called “Wooden Mask” and it should be out later in the year. It has a raw, sacred, elemental feel to it. The arrangements and melodies sound as though they have been stripped of their flesh. I was saying to a friend that it’s the first time I’ve made a record that actually sounds like it has been made by a project called A Grave With No Name.

RM:  What recent music has caught your ear? What would your dream collaboration be?

AS: I’m very into the music being put out by Three Lobed Recordings, particularly the Daniel Bachman and Tom Carter albums they released last year. I’m a total Chief Keef obsessive, and find each of his projects fascinating at the very least. My apartment is filled with Mount Eerie records and books, so my dream collaboration would likely be to spend a week or two in the studio with Phil Elverum on production duties.

To learn more about Alexander Shields, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, follow him on Twitter @alaxander, or listen to his Sound Cloud channel.


A Conversation With Lay Down Your Weary Tune Author W.B. Belcher

W.B. Belcher

W.B. Belcher

By Daniel Ford

If I had to review W.B. Belcher’s debut novel Lay Down Your Weary Tune simply based on its title and bitchin’ cover, I’d instantly make it a Writer’s Bone favorite (we run a column called “Bob, Bourbon, and Books” after all). 

However, critics from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal agree that Belcher’s first literary effort is as memorable and artful as any Dylan lyric.

Belcher recently took time out of his book tour (Lay Down Your Weary Tune lands on shelves Jan. 26) to talk to me about his early influences, his writing shed, and his publishing journey.

Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to become a writer, or was that something that grew organically over time?

W.B. Belcher: Well, I think the kids I grew up with would say that I had a habit of stretching the truth, but the thought of being a writer didn’t cross my mind until high school. That’s when I fell in love with literature. I remember reading Long Day’s Journey Into Night, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” and The Stranger. During my freshman year in college, I took a class with Matthew Zapruder titled “Introduction to Imaginative Writing.” At the same time, I was reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills, and I was watching plays by Jean Genet and Arthur Kopit. That’s when the idea of being a writer took hold. Of course, I imagined myself a playwright first and a novelist second, but that order flip-flopped after I moved to Upstate New York.

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

WBB: My earliest influences were probably James and the Giant Peach, The Phantom Tollbooth, and the Stephen King library. Later it was The Great Gatsby, On the Road, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. And there was always Shakespeare. I spent 1998 just reading as many plays as I could, including work by Sam Shepard, Caryl Churchill, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee, August Wilson, and so on. It wasn’t until much later, well after undergrad, that my reading life cracked open, and I discovered a whole new world of writers that would impact my fiction (and my view of the world)—Marilynne Robinson, James Baldwin, Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel, Carson McCullers, and many others. Looking back on my high school and undergrad reading lists, I’m still amazed at the gender imbalance on the big syllabus.

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?

WBB: When I’m in the thick of it, I wake up early (4:41 a.m.), stumble outside to my little finished shed, and work until about 7:00 a.m. Then I come back inside to make lunches for my kids and get them on the school bus. No music—the shed is silent and Internet-free. After the bus, I head out to my day job, which demands a lot of focus and attention. On occasion, I’ll revise or tinker with language during lunch, but that’s a rare event these days. At night, as I’m drifting off to sleep, I like to imagine the scenes I’ll work on the next morning. I don’t outline at first, but I do go back and create an outline of sorts after the second draft. For me, it’s about getting into the right frame of mind, and the routine helps. After a few days, I have access to the characters, and the writing comes easier. On the other hand, if I skip a week of writing, it takes me several days to get back on track.

DF: What was your MFA experience like and would you recommend MFA programs to aspiring writers?

WBB: I attended the low-residency program at Goddard College. As an undergrad, I was an English and Theatre Arts major. While I had decent dramaturgical skills, I was still reading fiction as if I was a literature student. The MFA helped me begin to read as a writer, to see how the work was done, to observe what succeeded (or what didn’t), and to know how to fix it. At the same time, it forced me to fit writing into my daily life. It was no longer about writing on every other Wednesday and sometimes Saturday; it was about a solid routine that balanced my writing time with everything else, including a 40+ hour/week job and two toddlers. It also mirrored the editor and writer relationship, which was beneficial later on. To put it simply, I’d recommend the low-res process to aspiring writers, but only those who feel they are in a position to commit the time and effort to make it worthwhile. It’s not a backstage pass to the concert; it’s just another way to focus your attention on the show.

DF: I’m a huge Dylan fan, so I’m predisposed to loving your novel based on the title alone. Are you a big music fan or did other factors inspire Lay Down Your Weary Tune?

WBB: I love it—I wrote this book for you! I’m a fan of music of all kinds. At any given time, I could be listening to Phantogram or Robert Johnson, Ray Charles or Jenny Lewis, Bob Dylan, or Beck. Because of my role on the board of Caffe Lena, a historic folk music coffeehouse in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., I’m also listening to a lot of emerging Americana artists, which is cool. Actually, a few musicians are joining me during my book tour, including M.R. Poulopoulos, Dennis Crommett, and Krista Baroni. I’m going to have pry myself away from the music to do the actual readings.

To answer the second part of your question, the novel wasn’t quite inspired by music. Not at first. I began by riffing on the themes of masks, myth-making, and reinvention, but the story was adrift. As soon as it occurred to me to layer in folk music, and to have a folk music icon at the center of the story, the idea started to come to life. After I choose the narrator and point of view, it was clear that the music was going to help me drive the book.

DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters in the book? How do you develop your characters in general?

WBB: That’s a tough question. In a way, every action and gesture and detail in the novel stems from some observation I’ve gathered and bookmarked in my head. But to get to the heart of it, none of the characters in the book are based on any one particular person. They stem from a bunch of different details stitched together. Eli Page, folk music icon, is a composite of three dozen different artists, from Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger to J.D. Salinger to professors I know to movie personalities. The town of Galesville is built the same way.

As far as how I develop my characters, it’s all sort of a mystery. I need to step into their lives, I need to understand what’s at stake, and I need to know what’s in their way. It might come from my short life as a playwright, but I ask what does the character want, what or who is in the way, and what tactics are employed to remove the obstacle. More than that though, I try to add texture and complexity to their lives and their motives. Nothing’s simple and straightforward in life. Why should it be any different for them?

DF: When you finished your first draft, did you know you had something good, or did you have to go through multiple rounds of edits to realize you had something you felt comfortable taking to readers?

WBB: Not at all. I knew I had something interesting, but I also knew it’d take years of revision. I finished the first and second drafts in 2007/2008. That’s a long time ago. I really didn’t know what I was writing about until I’d written it, if that makes sense. After the second draft, I ripped it into a hundred scenes and summaries. It took me another year and a half to piece it back together with a more coherent structure, an emotional arc, and some narrative propulsion. To use a rusty old cliché, it was really like stripping down an engine to all of its individual pieces and then rebuilding it from scratch, while replacing the bad parts along the way. Eventually, I had something that worked, but it still needed fine-tuning. There are scenes that have only been touched three or four times, and there are scenes that have suffered through 18 drafts. Lastly, I should also point out that after the novel sold, I worked with my editor (Judith Gurewich) and the team at Other Press on another revision, one that subtracted 75 pages.

DF: How long did it take you to land an agent and publish Lay Down Your Weary Tune?

WBB: That’s a good question, but I don’t have a clean answer. Ignoring all advice, I jumped into the agent process too early. Luckily, I only dipped my toes in once or twice a year, reaching out to four or five agents who I thought might be a match. I wanted to get a sense of how it worked, but the manuscript wasn’t ready. After the rejections came in, I went back to revising. Within three years of tiptoeing around, I’d racked up 20 rejections or so. A few agents actually took the time to tell me where they’d lost interest. This generosity helped me polish the manuscript. Meanwhile, I’d been keeping a list of agents to query when the time was right, compiled from articles or posts I’d read. When I felt comfortable that I had the manuscript in good shape, I reached out to that tailored list of 14 agents (Christopher Rhodes was one of them). Once Christopher and I connected and he offered representation, a few of those other agents were suddenly interested. That’s the way it goes. But none of that mattered—Christopher was passionate about the book and its future; I knew it’d be in good hands.

DF: Your debut has already gotten rave reviews from the likes of Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist. What’s that experience been like and what’s next for you now that you have a novel under your belt?

WBB: I’ve heard a few authors talk about the run-up to pub day as the quiet before the quiet. It certainly feels like it sometimes, but I’m grateful for those moments that aren’t so quiet—the days when the blurbs come in or when the trade reviews come out or when I get to connect with the fine folks at Writer’s Bone. It’s a funny transition. In many ways, the book is no longer mine. It has a life of its own. When the finished copies arrived, I flipped through the first few sections, and I couldn’t believe how distant it felt. After years of staring and scrutinizing every little detail, I could step back and see the thing as a whole.

What’s next? Well, I’m working on that sophomore outing, and it’s challenging me in new ways. But it’s wonderful to have my head in a different set of characters and to be generating new work.     

DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?

WBB: First, read. Read all the time. Read widely. Second, embrace the process. I know it’s easier said than done, but resist the urge to jump into the fray until your manuscript is ready. Find purpose in the work. Try to understand that your process is unique to you. Third, don’t give in to the self-doubt. Find the fire in your belly to keep going, despite the odds and despite the rejection. Return to the work. Make it better.

DF: What is one random fact about yourself?

WBB: I once met Harrison Ford at a salad bar. He was waiting for me to replenish the lettuce.

To learn more about W.B. Belcher, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @wbbelcher.


Heed Not the Ominous Signs: 9 Questions With The Mallett Brothers Band

Photo credit: Bethany Hayes-Chute

Photo credit: Bethany Hayes-Chute

By Daniel Ford

I hadn’t heard of The Mallett Brothers Band before author Brian Panowich tagged me in a tweet during his “Blue Collar Book Tour.”

After devouring the band’s oeuvre for days on end, I stalked them until one of the band members graciously agreed to an interview.

Will Mallett talked to me recently about the band’s Maine roots, how it developed its distinctive sound, and the inspiration behind its 2015 release, “Lights Along The River.”

Daniel Ford: Give me a little history of the band. What brought everyone together?

Will Mallett: We got together in 2009 in Portland, Maine. My brother Luke and a few of the guys had been in a band together that had just wrapped up, and I moved down from the home town up north to get a foot into whatever the next project would be. We knew we wanted to start with acoustic guitars and some instruments with an old fashioned country sound; Nick Leen our bass player and spiritual guide recruited the personnel he thought would have some good fun together and we went from there. There have been some changes in the lineup and the sound over the years but overall it’s been a pretty steady charge.

DF: How much does being based in Maine influence your music? Do you think you’d have the same sound if you were based somewhere else?

WM: Maine doesn’t necessarily have a definitive sound attached to it and I think that can be a good thing in terms of shedding requirements or expectations. There have been some amazing rock acts out of Maine, some amazing folk and indie acts, some amazing country, jazz acts. But there’s no real strong genre attachment like you need to be a country act to get anything happening here, or a rap act, or a rock act or a DJ or whatever. Your chances are about equally…dismal/hopeful. The winters can also be a little bleak around here and I think that that dark and cold can creep into any of the music that comes out of a colder climate. But Maine is a unique place, sort of a frontier state with huge unsettled areas in addition to the ocean, the Appalachian Mountains, a rich and varied musical tradition, a little more French influence than the rest of New England, gargantuan income disparity, drug problems, moose, etc. We would no doubt sound completely different if we came from anywhere else.

DF: Your website claims your style “spans across country, rock and roll, Americana and ‘alt-country’ genres.” How did you develop that sound and who were some of your musical influences?

WM: When we first got together the goal was to maybe get a gig or two and make a record if we got real lucky, so we didn’t set out with a goal in mind in terms of fitting into a radio format or a genre or anything like that. To get to the point where that would have been required might have been a little far-fetched. So it was really just a default thing, with somebody or a couple guys bringing a song to the table, and seeing where the group took it. We came from a lot of different musical backgrounds so you had something like a folk song getting a punk rock drumbeat with psychedelic guitar sounds and country style harmony vocals. A lot of fun. Right now we’re basically a rock band with country influences, but the acts we most closely identify with are for whatever reason put into those categories, so we sort of identify with the Americana and alt-country genres to make it easier for people who might dig our stuff to find us.

Our influences are definitely all over the map. The first music I remember hearing would have been Gordon Lightfoot, Creedence, Bob Dylan, and such, but I was born in 1984; Brian (Higgins/drummer) was touring the country with a heavy metal band at that time and Wally (Wenzell/guitar) was living in London hanging out at punk rock clubs around that era. So you get all of that mixed together and a bunch more and it’s a pretty eclectic stew.

DF: You’ve played with acts such as The Josh Abbot Band, Blackberry Smoke, Charlie Robison, the Turnpike Troubadours, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Charlie Daniels, and .38 Special. What did you learn about your own music from touring with these musicians?

WM: It’s great to see the power of a good old-fashioned rock show and the energy an audience can bring to the table, and that’s a very inspirational thing. .38 Special was off the hook, and nice guys. Keeps you aware of the need to bring the heat and to be a cooler dude. But we’ve been pretty honored to get some great gigs, and they’ve definitely provided a lot of motivation to keep traveling the road we’re traveling. And the more you play with other bands that tour a lot, whether younger up and coming bands or old road dogs, it does tend to demythologize the whole rock and roll thing and reminds you that it’s still possible to be a touring band and make it happen.

DF: What’s your songwriting process? How does each member of the band contribute to any given song?

WM: They’re all different but the bulk of our tunes were written by one or two of us with a real basic idea of the direction it would take, and then brought to the band and exploded into whichever direction the wind was blowing on a particular day. Nick and Brian, our bass player and drummer, have a pretty unique aggressive sound between the two of them, and Wally has a distinct style of dobro and guitar, so most of our tunes end up having a pretty distinct Mallett Brothers Band flavor by the time they’re all worked out.

DF: What was the inspiration for the songs on your latest album “Lights Along the River?”

WM: That one came out about two years after our previous record, so a bunch of those songs had been hanging around for a little while. A lot of them were skeletons and we filled them out up on the lake where we recorded in Piscataquis County, Maine. It was October in an old lake lodge accessible only by boat, so we tried to capture that combination of beauty and emptiness and I think that comes through in most of the tunes. The metaphor of the title track, with this image of a character beat to hell and hanging on for dear life, and then seeing signs of hope in the distance, seemed appropriate for the general vibe of the record.

DF: If you had to pick one of your songs that defined the band forever, which one would you choose and why?

WM: For me it would probably be “Low Down” at this point, just because that one seems to have caught hold in a few pockets up in rural Maine in its own little way and that just means a hell of a lot.

DF: What advice would you give to up-and-coming musicians?

WM: Keep some Schopenhauer in your back pocket, heed not the ominous signs, make records and hit the road; eat rice and beans; spend your money on strings and gas; keep in mind the small chance that somebody out there might just need to hear that shit right now, or that a simple turn of a phrase could make somebody’s whole damn day. And cheaper beer = better gear.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about the band?

WM: Bands love pizza, and we love pizza.

To learn more about the Mallett Brothers Band, visit the band’s official website, follow its Facebook page, or follow @MallettBrosBand on Twitter.


A Conversation With Musician Eddi Front

Eddi Front

Eddi Front

By Robert Masiello

There’s a timeless quality to Eddi Front’s music, which is particularly impressive given that she’s only released a smattering of tracks to date. While it wouldn’t be accurate to call her sound “retro,” she channels a certain authenticity, which feels increasingly rare in the music world. Her songs are refreshingly devoid of vocal effects, electronic flourishes, and irony. There are no overwrought attempts to conjure up a shadowy ambience, and no cryptic press releases. The sense of yearning that permeates her tracks is purely a result of honest lyrics and sophisticated instrumentation, not cheap studio tricks. While listeners seeking belted choruses and dramatic bridges might be left cold, those who appreciate a more nuanced approach to confessional songwriting will be entranced.

Front (real name Ivana Carrescia) was kind enough to offer some insight into her upcoming record for us folks here at Writer’s Bone. While she admits that we’ll be waiting until 2016 for her proper debut, all signs indicate that the wait will be worth it.

Robert Masiello: You seem to have sprung up out of nowhere in 2012, but a couple articles indicate that you recorded music under different aliases beforehand. Is Eddi Front a character you're playing, or more simply, just the name you've chosen to record music as?

Eddi Front: Well, I released a lot of music under a couple different names before EF, mostly two- minute long demos and a few EPs. I was making up songs in my room and then putting them up on the Internet like the next day. It was nice and simple. I made some studio recordings with friends who wanted to produce the songs, but the “production” experience was just kind of alien to me—to add a lot of sounds/a bridge, repeat a chorus, etc. Like, “I already said that.” A lot of producers lost their hair. Then around 2012 I started wanting to create a mood with instrumentation/structure and it started making sense to spend some time with the songs. Actually it was like a world opened up. The first song that clicked like that was “Texas.” I worked with pianist/producer Dan Chen for the EP. So the studio recordings came out under Eddi Front.

RM: You satisfied fans hungry for new tunes by dropping "Elevator" earlier this year, but have been mostly quiet since. Can we look forward to a proper LP before the year ends?

EF: It’ll be out in early 2016 with more music to follow. Was hoping to make it happen this year but my dog died.

RM: Did you write most of the new album following the release of your EP, or is some of the material older?

EF: It’s about a 50/50 mix.

RM: How would you say your sound has evolved over the years? Does your sound on the upcoming LP take any major shifts?

EF: Well, when I went in to make this record it was late 2013. It’s the same production style. It’s like an extended version of the EP, I’d say. I played a lot of electric guitar on the record but it still carries that same feeling. The recordings I’m makings these days however, and probably in the past year, do have a different feel. I am producing myself now and playing all of the instruments. The new(er) recordings will come out in 2016 as well.

RM: Your music typically sounds sparse and lonesome, but there's also some memorable kiss-offs and humor in the lyrics. Is that an intentional part of songwriting for you?

EF: It’s probably intentional. This was a hard question. I guess I write like how I speak/think, in a way. And sometimes, you know, it makes me laugh.

RM: I distinctly remember hearing your music for the first time in December of 2012. It was a perfect winter soundtrack for me—desolate and elegant, but somehow still warm and empathetic. Do the seasons impact your mood or songwriting?

EF: Yes I prefer the winter/fall. I feel calmer and just better all around when it’s cold out. There’s one sort of manic song on the record, which was written one summer about baseball.

RM: In a 2012 interview with Line of Best Fit, you mentioned some artists who have really inspired you as a songwriter. I'm curious, what are some of your biggest non-musical sources of inspiration? Any particular books, poems, movies, or events that have influenced your songwriting?

EF: I’ve always loved e.e. cummings. My top three are probably JD Salinger, Charles Bukowski, and Raymond Carver. One song on the upcoming record is loosely based on one scene in “Franny and Zooey.” I love Lydia Davis. Her Collected Stories and The End Of The Story played a role in the song “Gigantic.” I watch a lot of Forensic Files, the Kardashians’ shows, other reality shows, and documentaries. My favorite doc is “The Cruise” with Timothy “Speed” Levich.

RM: What new (or newly discovered) music has caught your ear in 2015?

EF: Let me take a look at my list. I listened to “Champaign Kisses” by Jessie Ware 45 times this month, and Circuit Des Jeux’s “Fantasize The Scene” 30 times. I’m new with Kanye West and I love him. The band Disappears. Fasano and a lot of the Godmode Record artists. He is not a musician, but Chris Dankland’s videos/writing have been very inspiring. I listen to a lot of the same stuff over and over, so I'm back with The Shins in these days.

To learn more about Eddi Front, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, follow her on Twitter @EDDIFRONT, or check out her YouTube channel.


Sweet Awkwardness: Musician Matt Pond On Songwriting, Literature, and Rock ‘n’ Roll

Matt Pond (Photo credit: Derek Cascio)

Matt Pond (Photo credit: Derek Cascio)

By Daniel Ford

There’s a song titled “Take Me With You” on Matt Pond PA’s recent album “State of Gold” that has begun to haunt my writing playlist. The driving, angsty beat boils over each time the band’s front man, Matt Pond, exclaims, “It feels good to be gone.”

You don’t have to tell a creative person much more than “take me with you” with that kind of vibe.

Pond graciously talked to me before the start of his upcoming tour about songwriting, literature, and his love of rock ‘n’ roll. (Bonus points were awarded for his bourbon selection and his discussion of Neil Young’s “A Man Needs A Maid.”)

Daniel Ford: First things first: What’s your favorite bourbon and how do you drink it (on the rocks, neat, one ice cube, etc.)?

Matt Pond: I once had a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle in Bed-Stuy that was mind-blowing. I didn’t almost take it all in until it was done, until days had passed and the experience and the taste still stuck with me.

So I can’t tell you the age or the batch. But I can tell you that it was the stuff of dreams.

Recently we had a house party record release show. It was intense, with all these semi-strangers coming to my place to see me play. Almost everyone brought a gift—a bottle of Eagle Rare really got to me and since then, that’s been my go-to.

I enjoy bourbon any way it’s served. In the summer, ice. In the winter, neat. A cocktail or two in the fall and spring. (Reverse all these seasons and restrictions and I’ll probably be fine.)

I have no hifalutin pretenses with any of this baloney. If someone serves me a Miller High Life, I will drink a Miller High Life. As much as I want to cultivate my senses, respect for my guests or hosts soar above the needs of my palate.

DF: When did you first realize you wanted to be a musician and who were some of the artists that influenced you early on?

MP: I still haven’t totally realized that I want to be a musician. There isn’t a morning that I wake up and wonder what the hell I’m doing with my life.

The day I moved to New York was when it seemed like a reality. I knew no one, I was girlfriend-less. My only purpose and point was to finish our album “Emblems.”

The people that I look up to were so over my head that it’s hard to think of them as human. So they’re influences, yes. They also make me and my life look minuscule from on high. John Lennon, Jeff Lynne, Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, Neil Young, Bob Dylan. These were, and still are, my heroes.

DF: How would you define your sound? How did you go about developing it?

MP: My sound originates from my love of rock ‘n’ roll combined with a similar love of classical music. When those two lines of thought met inside Jeff Lynne, I was awestruck.

I can’t even approximate his production or his talent or songs. But I can shoot in the general direction and hope for the best.

I like layers. I like finding more within every listen. When music is truly great, it blocks out the rest of the world and creates a three-dimensional feeling inside me.

It’s orchestration and arrangement that speak to me. The interplay between what’s being said and what’s not being said. That’s when I’m floored.

DF: I’ve heard from a reliable source that you’re a big reader. Your lyrics, as well as your superbly written blog posts, have a real literary quality to them. How has your love of reading and literature shaped your music?

MP: I honestly appreciate the complimentary portion of your paragraph. Thank you.

I don’t know, I think repetition is actually the key. With both writing and even reading. (My figurative forehead suffers greatly from the repeated symbolic blows.)

It requires focus, time, and energy. Which all happen to be my weakest attributes. So for me, this whole life is like coming from behind. Perhaps something close to the main character in the terrible movie “Meatballs?” Or maybe like Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling?

I’m trying. That’s all I can gasp and grasp.

As far as literature and how it relates to my music, I think that I think about it too much sometimes. Because it’s not only the word choices, it’s meaning and larger metaphorical meanings—but it’s the sound of the word itself. The word has to sound right to me as a guttural iteration.

I apologize if I’m coming off slightly mad. All these processes are thrown out the window when a better idea comes along and sits in your lap.

DF: Being a literary website, we’re always looking for worthy additions to our bookshelf. What are some of the books currently cluttering your nightstand?

MP: I’m wrapping up Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which I loved. Stories woven into stories, she has the ability to go from the seemingly mundane to full-on fantastical action in a short breath.

Kingston: City On The Hudson by Alf Evers is next. It’s history wrapped in anecdotes.

I love my new town. I believe in the short time I’ve been here, I’ve become a better person. I’d like to repay the favor by knowing what’s what.

DF: There’s real honesty in your lyrics that is sorely lacking in today’s music scene. What were some of the themes you wanted to explore with the group of songs that make up your new album, “State of Gold?”

MP: After months of the listlessness of trying to live in Oakland, I reacquainted myself with Chris and upstate New York.

The album began composing itself by hurdling a huge case of writer’s block and how that miniature triumph spread like a fracture through the rest of my life.

The general theme digs deep and hard into the idea that everything great is found through loss. “A Second Lasts A Second” is where I boil that idea down to the core. Because if there’s only one second of greatness, then I’ll take it.

I’m constantly trying to convince myself that I’m valuable to myself. Strangely, I do it through singing songs. Like a constant rock ‘n’ roll lullaby.

Once music is recorded and released, it’s about relation and distance. This whole operation is supposed convince the listener that we’re valuable to one another. Maybe I understand you. And maybe you understand me.

DF: “Don't Look Down” features a lyric that I’ve fallen in love with: “You showed me how sleepless dreamers come together.” Sums up so much about life, love, and the creative process. Was your writing process any different with this album and how do you summon the muse during those sleepless dreams?

MP: I’ve actually written music in my sleep and woken up singing it. A part of the song “New Hampshire” came to me that way. (It is vital to have recording devices, guitars and pens and paper wherever you rest your head. Songs are sneaky, there’s no direct way to the answer or ending. You just have to keep unwrapping unraveling it all with your mind. Because it’s “there”—it just needs a little cognitive archaeological love.)

Songs are so elusive and so easy. I’m glad that they come at crazy times. They almost seem like animals unto themselves.

DF: There’s a line in your first blog post that was published in May that I think a lot of creative types can relate to: “My problem hasn't been about desire or gumption—it's always been about the platform.” Is it harder to connect to an audience with so many different channels available or has it given you more exposure to fans that you might not have found otherwise?

MP: I honestly like the communication when it can happen on the open plane. I’ve now embraced all the conventional manners of media in which I can stay true to my voice and my thoughts.

Still. I do bite my virtual tongue a few times a day. Criticism, derogations are everywhere and it’s not always easy to navigate.

The negatives are that there are some diminished ethics on the Web. There’s a separation and an invisibility that almost encourages evil. I wish there were a way of upping the ante on the way we virtually treat one another.

Perhaps worse in it’s small, simple way. It’s hard to be lost in a moment when you’re looking at a phone or screen.

All I’m looking for in this lifetime is to be happily lost.

DF: Your upcoming tour starts in Lancaster, Pa. on Sept. 17. What can your fans expect (besides “sipping whiskey in the early autumn and singing together in an unfamiliar host's house”)?

MP: There’s a sweet awkwardness to playing in someone’s home.

Let me clear, I’m a fan of sweet awkwardness. It’s a condition that runs parallel to honesty. Chris and I’ll be playing as a duo, trying to interpret our songs in a way that works best in your home.

Surprisingly, we bring a lot of amps. But they’re all at a low, low volume. Think of the quietest, heavy show you’ve ever seen. That’s us.

DF: What advice would you give to up-and-coming musicians?

MP: This is work. And it never stops. You have to be both humble and believe in yourself and your songs more than anything.

That balance is mostly beyond me. Maybe sometimes I’ll see it peaking in the window and run outside to chase it down. I’ll never give up on trying.

For me, there are questions about how to move forward. I’m not sure if I’m going to submit to the classic tour-release-tour grind anymore. It’s rough.

DF: Normally we ask our guests for a random fact, but musicians get special treatment. If you had to pick one of your songs that defined you forever, which one would it be and why?

MP: Okay, so I initially read this as what song would you want to define you forever. And of course, I chose someone else. But both answers follow:

From my music, I’d probably pick “New Hampshire.”

I’d moved New York to Philly. I didn’t know a soul. I would wake up in the middle of night, missing everyone and everything I knew. I slept with my acoustic guitar in between bursts of writing.

“New Hampshire” is about when I first left the state and the simultaneous breakup with my high school girlfriend. We were a horrible match. We fought over every single breath. But in between the battles, we used to babysit for a couple who had bona fide mafia friends. They once told me that they liked how I knew when not to speak. That’s one of the only compliments that actually made me proud.

Can I also pick “Bring On The Ending,” which was composed at the same time?

At first, the move to New York seemed like a terrible idea. Philly’s geographically close. But they couldn’t be more different. The high energy and style of the city made me embarrassed to be in my own skin.

At a certain point while writing the song, I realized that I was supposed to love and accept my own stupidity. “Don’t get caught dancing, even if you’re drinking.”

I mean if you love me, I always want to get caught dancing and drinking. Please and thank you.

But I honestly prefer the songs of those outside my mind. Neil Young seldom goes the wrong way. “A Man Needs Maid” moves me massively.

“My life is changing in so many ways/I don’t know who to trust anymore/There’s a shadow running through my days/Like a beggar going from door to door.”

People may talk and balk at my response. I can take it.

Some will always interpret “A Man Needs Maid” as sexist. I don’t. In fact, I believe it’s the complete opposite. The song exposes loneliness and helplessness in such a strange and beautiful way—a subjugated maid isn’t what he seeks, he’s just looking for a way to survive himself.

I love how the metaphor is divisive because it allows people to see what they want to see. Even so, the orchestration and arc of the song are undeniable.

I feel like I’m always my worst enemy. While I’ve written and performed songs I love, I’ve push myself into a frenzy over this lifetime. My next pursuit should find me making whiskey and serving food in an equitably based establishment.

I need to find a balance. That could come from loosening my grip on reins. I love it when I give myself a break. 

To learn more about Matt Pond, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @mattpondpa.


Tumbleweed Tendencies: A Conversation With Author Brian Panowich About His Debut Novel Bull Mountain

Brian Panowich (Photo credit: David Kernaghan)

Brian Panowich (Photo credit: David Kernaghan)

By Daniel Ford

I became friendly with author Brian Panowich after I crashed a Twitter conversation between him, David Joy, and Michael Farris Smith about music, bourbon, and writing. That exchange led to the creation of Writer’s Bone’s “The Writer’s Guide to Music” and an advanced reader copy of Panowich’s debut novel Bull Mountain (which comes out July 7, and will be reviewed in this week’s “Bruce, Bourbon, and Books”).  

Panowich was also nice enough to talk to me about being a comic book kid, how he developed his writing style, and the inspiration for Bull Mountain.

Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Brian Panowich: I think I knew when I was a little kid that I wanted to write. I lived in my head a lot and read books more than I did anything else. I was terrible at sports and I was pretty geeky. But as I got older, my endless string of other interests distracted me from writing and dragged me all over the place. I definitely wasn’t the guy that stayed focused his whole life on one goal and is now living his dream. Once I got my tumbleweed tendencies under control, I returned to writing as a plausible medium for me to create something. So although the seeds were planted when I was a boy, it took nearly thirty years for me to actually nurture them.

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

BP: I was a comic book kid. I still am, to be honest. Frank Miller, George Perez, Chris Claremont, they were the guys that taught me how to tell a story. As I moved forward, Edgar Rice Burroughs became a huge influence via my father’s bookshelf, and of course I went through a Stephen King phase, but then I found Elmore Leonard and Cormac McCarthy and nothing was really the same after that.

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?

BP: I devour music like food. It’s as big a part of my everyday life as breathing, but I need total silence when I write. I can’t even tolerate a television in the background, so writing at home with my wife and four kids is pretty tough. I wrote the entirety of Bull Mountain locked up in a spare room at the fire station where I work. I’m lucky to have the kind of job that afforded me that extra time alone at night to write, or else it would have taken me a lot longer to do it. I applaud the folks that work a nine-to-five job, come home to a family, and still find the time to write.

Nowadays I use the few hours I have to myself while the kids are at school to write and I try to do it everyday, even if it’s just to jot down a few lines. I have to write something everyday or I feel unbalanced, like I wasted daylight. I don’t anyways want to, but once I start I usually end up engrossed with whatever I sit down to accomplish. And I do outline—to a degree. With Bull Mountain, I wrote a sentence or two summarizing each chapter that fit on the front of one sheet of paper. That was my road map. I veered from the map quite a bit, and that’s the point I think, to let the story tell itself, but that road map was there to steer me back on track if it got out of hand.

DF: How did the idea for Bull Mountain originate?

BP: I always liked the idea of everyone thinking they are the heroes of their own story. The bad guy never thinks he’s the bad guy, so I wanted to write something to that end, but didn’t know exactly what about. I like to ride mountain bikes. I’m not very good at it, but I ride a lot and that’s where I do a lot of my plotting and scheming. I was out one day riding and listening to The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek,” and the first line hit me like a hammer. “When I get off of this mountain.” I know that’s not a lot of lyric, but that line struck me for some reason and within the next few miles, I had the general plot of Bull Mountain fleshed out. I wrote two short stories that night from two opposing points of view, one from my protagonist and one from my antagonist, with the idea in mind of not really knowing which was which. Those two stories got me my agent and became this book.

DF: The crime genre has certain built-in tropes that can deter some writers from taking the plunge. How did you ensure that your tale was original?

BP: I think it helped that the crime aspect of the novel was secondary. I wanted this book to speak more about the family dynamic of these people than the actual crimes they commit. I wanted to build a saga around that idea on par with something like The Godfather, and I didn’t spend a lot of time researching if the angles of the mystery had been used before. In fact I was positive they had been. With the billions of stories that exist in the world, written or spoken, it’s hard to believe any idea can be completely original, but it was still a story I wanted to tell with my own unique perspective, and I think that comes through. I also thought I was on to something by setting it in a part of the country I feel goes unnoticed. There’s a rich history in the North Georgia Mountains that I’m proud to be a part of now.

DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters? How do you develop your characters in general?

BP: I think it’s impossible not to inject yourself into the people you write all the way across the board. Your good guy is the way you’d want to be at your best, and your bad guy is still a product of what you yourself define as bad, but at some point they stop being you and take on lives of their own. Clayton Burroughs started out very similar to me, but as the story became more about him, he became his own person. My villains are the same way. They might start off as bad as I think I could be, but before long I’m shocked at what they can do on their own. The bit players are largely based on people I’ve met over the years. I file away mannerisms and turns of phrase and blend them together to form new composites accordingly, but if a character progresses, I don’t see the person I based them on anymore. Kate Burroughs, Clayton’s wife, is a great example of that. Her character grew and grew as the story developed and before I knew it, she was dictating to me how she would act. I love it when that happens.

DF: What are some of the themes you tackle in Bull Mountain?

BP: Family. Dysfunction. Loyalty. Take those three and crank it up to eleven.

DF: When you finished your first draft, did you know you had something good, or did you have to go through multiple rounds of edits to realize you had something you felt comfortable taking to readers?

BP: I knew I had a pretty good starting point, but it was a good five or six drafts later before I was comfortable sending it to my agent. Even then, I think comfortable is the wrong word. It was more like, at some point I just needed to stand back and let go. That was tough for me to do. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at a manuscript and say it’s done. I could revise and revise and revise forever and always find more things I could do to improve it. I think some authors get stuck in that and end up standing in their own way. That sucks, but I can understand how it happens.

DF: How do you balance writing and marketing your work (i.e. book tours, engaging with readers on social media, etc.)?

BP: I’m blessed in that department for two reasons.

1. I love running my mouth. I was born with the gift to gab and in most cases, when not mixed with copious amounts of bourbon, it works out for me in social settings. I enjoy connecting with people and talking about art, music, books, whatever. Social media is fun. It can be a little tedious and makes me feel a bit pretentious sometimes, but over all I enjoy it. I’m finding out that that makes me a touch different than a lot of other authors out there who are generally more secluded that I am.

2. I’m also working with a top-notch team at Putnam who knows exactly what they’re doing. That’s great because it allows me to focus on the fun part—the writing. Knowing I have the best marketing and PR people on the planet in my corner makes that balance incredibly easy.

DF: Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next?

BP: I just turned in a second book in the McFalls County Series that features a lot of the same characters from Bull Mountain. That should be published by Putnam next year. I’m also in the process now of plotting out a third one. I love the idea of writing about different characters, and different eras even, that all share the commonality of place. The fictitious McFalls County is the only guaranteed recurring character. Bull Mountain acts as a springboard into that.

I also just finished a comic book script for a Hawkeye story I want to pitch to Marvel…(Hey Marvel, are you listening?)

DF: What advice would you give aspiring authors?

BP: Mainly, be wary of other author’s advice, especially those that make their money solely by giving it. There really are no rules. I’m not saying don’t ask questions of the writers you admire (I did) or that all “how-to” books are snake oil. Studying your profession and using the bits and pieces that make sense to you are essential, but any book, seminar, or pay-to-play contest that promises the moon can be downright predatory. Only three things are going to help you produce art for a living. Producing art, letting people see it, and doing both of those things with fearless tenacity. And none of that will cost you a dime.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

BP: I rub my feet together like a cricket when I sleep. It makes my wife crazy.

To learn more about Brian Panowich, check out his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @BPanowich.


Finding A Place to Land With Singer-Songwriter Mark Whitaker

Mark Whitaker

Mark Whitaker

By Daniel Ford

Music is constantly being shared back and forth at Writer’s Bone.

The common themes that tie together all of the artists and genres we listen to are honesty and originality. After recently devouring his album “Nowhere to Land,” I can definitely say that it doesn’t get more honest and original than singer/songwriter Mark Whitaker.

Whitaker, armed with a banjo and a voice as smooth as a single malt, tackles heartbreak and the human experience in his beautiful album, which has been on repeat more often than not in my office.

“Forgive me for trying to love you the best I can,” he sings. “Cuz I’ve been flying around for a lifetime with nowhere to land.”

I think I can speak for most of the Writer’s Bone crew when I say, “Amen!”

Whitaker graciously took some time from planning his upcoming tour to answer a few of my questions about his early influences, the inspiration behind “Nowhere to Land,” and the art of songwriting.

Daniel Ford: When did you realize you wanted to be a musician?

Mark Whitaker: It’s hard to say. There’s no distinct moment in my life where I consciously decided to become a musician. I’ve just always been active with music in one form or another since my early childhood. My current situation feels the same. I’m writing songs and seeking opportunities to perform, but I still tend to think of myself as just a guy who likes playing music, rather than a bonafide musician.

DF: Tell me a little about your love for the banjo. When did you start playing it? Did you have posters of Steve Martin on your walls as a kid?

MW: I started playing banjo around 2002. My friend’s mother gave me an old banjo she never played and I immediately fell in love with the sound. It had a sharp, metallic texture, but also a warmth that seemed to scratch an itch I didn’t realize I had. No Steve Martin posters, but I had plenty of his movies on VHS.

DF: Who are some of the artists that influenced you early on?

MW: My earliest music influences were Michael Jackson, The Beatles, George Winston, Danny Elfman, and Brahms. I also had a good amount of Andrew Lloyd Webber drilled into me because my dad would cue up the “Phantom of the Opera” soundtrack for dinner each night, which contained some oddly frenetic pieces for dinner music.

DF: You lived in a couple parts of the country and now make your home in Boston. Why did you make the decision to move here and how has the city influenced your music?

MW: After I graduated from Earlham College in Indiana, some friends and I took a road trip along the East Coast looking for cities to potentially live in. We were looking for a decent-size city with a rich music scene. We settled on Boston, and it has been home ever since. The Boston music scene has had a huge influence on me. No matter what style of music I’m interested in, there seems to be a surplus of musicians to connect with and learn from. I feel both grateful and spoiled.

DF: You’ve played in a variety of groups, but have focused more of your energy on writing and solo work the past couple of years. What are the advantages and disadvantages of both?

MW: The advantage of being a sideman in someone else’s group is that you get to show up and play music without the burden of writing the songs, booking the gigs, coordinating rehearsals, etc. And if you pick projects with music and people you enjoy then there isn’t much of a downside. Leading your own project is more work, but in return you get to realize your own musical ideas.

DF: You sell your album “Nowhere to Land” directly from your website. Why did you decide to distribute it yourself rather than going through more traditional channels?

MW: You can purchase my album through places like iTunes and Amazon, but I decided to make it available from my website as well and to direct people there first. I figure if people are considering downloading it, then why not cut out the middleman. There’s something simple and sensible about buying music directly from the musician, especially now that technology makes selling directly more convenient. But this is all an experiment for me and may not be the most effective way to share my music.

DF: Speaking of “Nowhere to Land,” I had that song on repeat for most of a recent Friday afternoon. What was the inspiration for the song? 

MW: I’m so glad you like it! “Nowhere to Land” is meant to capture the sense in which life is a constantly changing process. We strive for stability in our careers, our relationships, our identities, etc., and it’s perfectly reasonable to do so. But no matter how stable our lives become, time doesn’t stop for us. We’re still always going somewhere. It’s just a strange feature of our circumstance and “Nowhere to Land” is my way of acknowledging it.

DF: If you had to pick one of your songs that defined you forever, which one would you choose and why?

MW: My first instinct was to pick “Nowhere to Land,” but I think I’ll go with “Nightlight.” I like that it’s simple, straightforward, and perhaps more widely relatable. It’s basically just a song about having a tough time and finding consolation in loved ones.

DF: What advice would you give to up-and-coming writers and singer/songwriters?

MW: I think it’s important to find your own relationship to songwriting. Many people have strong opinions on how to write good songs. Some have strict views on third-person narrative versus first-person songs, whether to show versus tell, coherence of lyrics, etc. Some think you should always be writing songs to keep the writing muscles in shape. These are all ideas worth exploring, but your own creative instincts should be the driving force for your own music. If you like writing intermittently, that’s fine. If a certain tense speaks to you more than others, that’s fine too. Be willing to follow your instincts even if it parts ways with conventional wisdom. You never know what interesting things you might discover.

DF: Name one random fact about yourself.

MW: I have an irrational fear of frogs.

To learn more about Mark Whitaker, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, subscribe to his YouTube Channel, or follow him on Twitter @MarkSWhitaker.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Loving the Music of Language: 9 Questions With Novelist Peter Heller

Peter Heller (Photo credit John Burcham)

Peter Heller (Photo credit John Burcham)

By Daniel Ford

I can’t tell you how many times I picked up Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars while frequenting bookstores in New York City. I may have read the entire book in aisles and walking around stores figuring out if I had enough money in my account to buy it (I didn’t).

I wasn’t the only one who fell hard for Heller’s post-apocalyptic story that centered around a man, his dog, and an airplane. It was a New York Times best-seller, the 2012 iTunes novel of the year, and an Atlantic Monthly best book of 2012.

Not bad for a first novel.

Heller took a timeout from promoting his new book The Painter to talk to me about loving the music of language, his early influences, and who he bases his characters on.

Daniel Ford: When did you start writing? Was it something that came to you naturally or was it developed over time?

Peter Heller: My father read to me every night before bed. Started when I was very small. I remember him reading e.e. cummings poems to me when I was six, “Buffalo Bill’s defunct…!” He was a writer and loved words and from that time it was all I wanted to do. When I was eleven, my school librarian handed me In Our Time, that beautiful collection of Ernest Hemingway stories, mostly about Nick Adams in Upper Michigan. My jaw dropped. I wanted to do that.

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you outline? Listen to music?

PH: I write in a coffee shop. Music or no, it doesn’t matter. Something about the hubbub hones my focus. I write fiction starting with the first line. I just love the music of the language, and I let that music carry me into the story. I don’t plot much. I want to be as surprised as the reader, and I know that if I am thrilled, shocked, surprised, she will be, too.

DF: The Dog Stars put you on the map as a writer and was on a ton of best of lists in 2012. How did you go about publishing it and how did it feel to experience that kind of positive reaction for your first novel?

PH: I wrote the book in a white heat in seven months. My agent was bowled over and sold it in a week to Jenny Jackson at Knopf, who is the most wonderful editor. I was blown away by the response. First from the people at Knopf, then from Random House reps who travel the country to booksellers, then from the booksellers and readers. It hit a chord that people responded to in a very powerful way. I was amazed and kind of awed, deeply humbled, and grateful.

DF: The literary landscape is saturated, and in a sense always has been, with apocalyptic stories. During your writing process, what decisions did you make to ensure that The Dog Stars stood out?

PH: I didn’t! I just listened to Hig’s voice and wrote it as fast as I could. About three pages in, I realized, “Holy crap, I’m writing a post-apocalyptic novel. I don’t want to write a post-apocalyptic novel!” For one, I didn’t, as a first time novelist, want to be compared to Cormac McCarthy and The Road. But I could see that my character Hig had a certain joy of life and a sense of humor an that this was a different project, so I persisted.

DF: Your most recent novel, The Painter, is a genre switch, but also focuses on a character trying to survive and overcome the events surrounding him. What was the inspiration for the novel and was the writing process different the second time around?

PH: The process was similar to The Dog Stars. I began with a first line and let it rip. Soon it became apparent that the character narrating the story sounded a lot like my painter friend Jim Wagner. A lot. He has a similar backstory: he is a famous artist from Taos, he shot a guy in a bar, etc. And my character looked and sounded like the real Jim. So I had to call him up and ask permission. He is a huge hearted generous soul like the fictional Jim Stegner, so he laughed and said, “Keep going!” I had to thin a bit more in structuring this book; thought about what might happen next. But only in the broadest terms. The rest, as in The Dog Stars, was about letting the character tell his story, following the music of the language.

DF: Given the nature of The Dog Stars and The Painter, the readers spend a lot of time with your main characters. How much of yourself, or those you interact with on a daily basis, do you put into each character? How do you go about developing your character once you have him or her in your mind?

PH: Hig spoke and I listened and wrote. I suppose he is a lot like me. Except that he can cook! Jim Stegner, as I said, is wholly based on my artist friend Jim Wagner. It’s interesting to experiment with characters who are very similar to real people, characters who are composites, and characters who are wholly invented.

DF: Now that you have two well-received novels under your belt, what’s next?

PH: I’m beginning the third. Once you begin making it all up, there’s no going back.

DF: What advice do you give to up-and-coming writers?

PH: Write a certain amount of words every day, and once you hit that mark, continue a bit until you can stop in the middle of an exciting scene or thought. That way, you can’t wait to get up in the morning and begin again.

DF: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

PH: I learned to catch trout by hand a few summers ago. A kid in Paonia, Colorado who is a master tracker taught me how. I’d always thought it was a myth.

To learn more about Peter Heller, check out his official website or like his Facebook page.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Discovering the Magic City's Musical Bermuda Triangle With Otto von Schirach‏

Otto von Schirach

Otto von Schirach

By Danny DeGennaro and Sean Tuohy

Miami is, by its very nature, scuzzy, gaudy, intoxicating, and driven by hedonistic, selfish principles. One can either denounce the city, or draw inspiration from it. Otto von Schirach, like some ultra-zealous sexual anthropologist, drinks deeply from Miami's sewer water reservoir.

That his songs deal with debauchery isn't to say they aren't sincere. On the contrary, von Schirach's obsession with putting the squish and the viscera back into music and art is indicative of someone who's honestly interested in exploring the physical and psychological impact of relationships. For every errant beat, every tempo change, every breakneck yelp, the listener is pushed into self-awareness. His music demands user input, particularly when there's a funky ass break. Booties will most definitely shake. When von Schirach cites a Prince song, it's not to debase the original; it's to elevate it, to demonstrate that the high and the low aren't far apart, but one in the same.

I'll never forget my first real foray into Miami. I was outside of a tattoo parlor that was selling beer inside. My friend and I were both too young to drink by about a year, so we moped around the entrance, taking hateful swigs of rum out of a bottle we had brought. We got in my car and drove to get Mexican food while I played "Subatomic Disco Divas" at a volume that could induce spontaneous bowel movements. Otto von Schirach's music, for me, will always be a hazy ride up I-95 with all sense of responsibility blissfully, temporarily forgotten.

Do yourself a favor, read Sean Tuohy's interview with von Schirach and then gobble up all of his work if you haven't already.

Sean Tuohy: Who influenced you early on in your career?

OVS:  Cuban Folklore and Miami Nights, Morton Subotnick, Eazy E, Impetigo, Tom Waits, Vic da Kid. Too many to choose.

ST: When did you know that music was going be your calling? 

OVS: In 1989 when I DJ'ed my first house party. It was around midnight and the wall of woofer was sizzling. I put the needle on the record, and felt the earth shake.

ST: How did you get your start in the music business?

OVS: I started selling beats in the neighborhood, but before that I was a DJ for house parties.

ST: Your music is a very  unique sound that can be difficult to describe to someone who have never heard it before. How do you describe your own music to people?

OVS: A journey to the center of the Bermuda Triangle where you find sound vibrations that make you feel groovy.

ST: What drove you to create your avant-booty bass music?

OVS: I wanted to see earthlings freak their booty in a very avant-garde way!

ST: What is your creative process like? Do you have any rituals?

OVS: There are many secrets to the triangle. I use rituals. They help me express more emotion and capture more magic in the recordings.

ST: You are deeply connected to your hometown of Miami. Do you draw any inspiration for your music from the Magic City?

OVS: So much...

ST: What effect, if any,  did your cultural background have on your music?

OVS: Being raised Cuban, with big hints of Germanic blood, gave me a proper dose of weird.

ST: Besides your one of kind sound you have some of the most interesting song titles. Where do you come with song titles? 

OVS: Usually, the song tells me its name as I create it. The songs usually tell me some bizarre, unique name, so I just roll with it.

ST: You have this over the top on stage personality that really brings your live show to a whole another level. How much of that is you and how much of that is an act?

OVS: It's all real. That's all me. I also do gardening at home. That is also me. I do jujitsu. That is also me. I like to do many things. I am blessed.

ST: What does the future hold for Otto von Schirach?  Maybe run for mayor of Miami?

OVS: Good idea!

ST: If you had the chance to share the stage with any artist who it be?

OVS: Bruce Haack, Madonna.

ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

OVS:  I study the art and lifestyle of living raw.

ST: You helped crave out a Miami identity with your music and your work with the Miami Bass Warriors. How does that make you feel as a Miami native?

OVS: Blessed.

To learn more about Otto von Schirach, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @ottovonschirach.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

The Song Is Never Finished: 11 Questions With Musician Goh Nakamura

Goh Nakamura

Goh Nakamura

By Sean Tuohy 

Goh Nakamura has been constantly writing music and honing his craft since the 1990s.

During his impressive career, he’s arranged music for award-winning director Ridley Scott, released critically acclaimed albums, and toured the world. Nakamura has even played a parody of himself in two films directed by David Boyle: "Surrogate Valentine" and "Daylight Savings," both of which were met with positive reviews.

Nakamura was nice enough to take time away from touring to sit down and talk with me about music, how he writes songs, and how he never feels that his music is ever finished.

Sean Tuohy: When did you begin writing songs?

Goh Nakamura: I had a 4-track cassette recorder in high school, but I was only recording guitar instrumental pieces, nothing with lyrics. It wasn’t until well after college that I wrote a song that I was happy with. That’d be “Daylight Savings.” I was 30 years old.

ST: Who were some of the artist who influenced you? Was there a song that made you think, "Hey, I want to write music?”

GN: I studied jazz and mostly guitar improvisation way before I attempted to write lyrics, so my influences in that realm are Miles Davis, Bill Frisell, and Chopin. As far as songwriting: The Beatles, Elliott Smith, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, and Neil Finn. So many songs made me want to write, but one that comes to mind is “Between The Bars” by Elliott Smith.

ST: How much of yourself do you put into each song you create?

GN: I’m not sure, to be honest. I don’t consider myself to be a confessional songwriter. I write more from wordplay and making the syllables match the structure and architecture of the melody.

ST: You have some of the most fun, playful, and funniest lyrics of any artist I can think of. How did you create this lyric style? Was it something you worked at or did it just come naturally?

GN: Thanks! I don’t think I’ve created anything new stylistically or anything. I’m still working on it, and will always be working on it. The songs never quite feel finished to me. I revise my own lyrics live all the time. If I listen to old stuff, I have to think of it like a photograph…they’re (hopefully) the best I could do at that time, and I have to accept that.

ST: “Surrogate Valentine” is my personal favorite song by you. It's sweet and charming and I will hum it out of tune all day. What is the backstory of the song?

GN: I think I first recorded a demo of that around the late 1990s. I lost the cassette (yeah, I’m dating myself here!). It sounded a lot different. I wish I could hear it, because all I have is a fuzzy memory of it…the melody was the same, but the chords where different and heavier.

ST: Do you know if Natalie Portman has listened to your song "Natalie Portman" yet?

GN: I hope not. That song is/was a joke. Embarrassing.

ST: You have played a fictional version of yourself twice on film, "Surrogate Valentine" and "Daylight Savings." How did you get involved with these projects? Was it difficult to play a version of yourself on screen?

GN: I met a director named Dave Boyle at a film festival in San Francisco around 2009. We hit it off, and wanted to collaborate on something. I wrote a song to help promote a film of his called “White on Rice,” and he made a video of me singing it on a rooftop in San Francisco in black and white. I didn’t know it at the time, but I guess that was an audition of sorts for a movie idea he had of a traveling musician. He pitched it to me, and I said “sure” without having any idea of what was in store. I ended up playing the lead role, which is basically an alternate reality version of myself. It was definitely difficult to act, even playing “myself.” I have nothing but the utmost respect for professional actors who do this for a living.

ST: Several of your songs have been featured in Hollywood films, such as “Body of Lies” and “A Good Year.” Has licensing your music been positive for your career?

GN: None of my songs have been licensed, but I did a bunch of guitar work and some co-writing, and arranging on the scores to five Ridley Scott films. The films I did the most on were “A Good Year” and “American Gangster.” Both were incredible experiences, and I hope to do more if I’m going to survive as a musician. I’m still trying to license my music, but it’s akin to winning the lottery.

ST: What is your song writing process? Do you start with lyrics or the music?

GN: It’s different almost every time. Sometimes I intentionally start with one or the other, but most of the time it’s about equal. I’ll change the lyrics to fit the melody and vice versa. They feed on each other.

ST: What advice would you give to young and upcoming singer/song writers?

GN: Learn and write as many songs as you can. Pick them apart and find out what you like and don’t like about them. I wrote so many crappy songs before I was happy with one… I still write crappy songs. It’s okay though, it’s just music. It’s sort of like writing an essay or something, write as many drafts as it takes to strengthen the song. Be able to recognize things that are disposable lyrically, melodically, or architecturally. Not every song needs a “chorus” or a “bridge.” If it gets your message across just with one section, then why dilute it?

ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

GN: I usually don’t take my own advice. I’m trying though.

To learn more about Goh Nakamura, check out his official website, like his Facbeook page, or follow him on Twitter @gohnakamura

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive 

Noir Hop Artist Zilla Rocca On How He Crafted His Distinct Sound

Zilla Rocca    Photo by Edwin Hay

Zilla Rocca

Photo by Edwin Hay

By Sean Tuohy

Musician Zilla Rocca put together two styles of urban story to spawn his own subgenre he calls “noir hop.”

His latest album, “No Vacation For Murder,” came out a few months ago and showcases the artist’s ability to create tragic tales set to head bobbing beats. His self-made tone is brooding and filled with an uncontrollable creative energy that kicks to break loose.

Rocca sat down with me to discuss his creative process, his views on the music world, and what the future holds for him.

Sean Tuohy: Where did your love of noir and hip hop come from?

Zilla Rocca: I fell in love with hip hop as a kid. I used to watch MTV all day as an only child, going back to when I was really young, when Young MC "Bust a Move" and Tone Loc "Wild Thing" and MC Hammer were on television all day. As I got older and was able to buy my own tapes like Naughty By Nature, Dr. Dre, Wu-Tang and such, I had officially caught the bug and I haven't looked back. I liked the sound of people rhyming, the way people used to dance, and the outfits they wore. It was like nothing going on where I lived in South Philly, which was predominantly working class Irish and Italian people listening to Top 40 or the oldies, like Sinatra.

I was always a big reader too, so I used to read young detective books like Encyclopedia Brown. I always connected with characters that were smart, that were curious, and that weren't afraid to pursue something, so later on when I realized what noir was, it made perfect sense to become a diehard fan of it. Now I read Hard Case Crime books, Elmore Leonard, Frederic Brown, David Goodis, and others. I'm fascinated by crime and how or why people commit it.

ST: When did you decide that you could smash the two worlds of noir and hip hop together?

ZR: Back in 2009, I made an album called "The Slow Twilight" as the collective 5 O'Clock Shadowboxers with Seattle producer Blurry Drones, which was heavily influenced by the noir flick "Blast of Silence." The album is about alienation and anger that never quite bubbles all the way to the surface. I realized then that I made something completely original and that I needed to take ownership of this new style, which I coined "noir hop". And ever since then, it's been my calling card with any project I release, from the artwork to the song titles to the stories on the records. It was the best decision I've ever made musically because it gave me a distinct identity.

ST: What draws you to the world of classic noir?

ZR:  I love classic noir because there's no time for bullshit. People have a clear purpose, whether their intentions are noble or heinous. The writing is quick and brutal. The world of classic noir is seductive and dangerous. The slang is thick, the men are tough, the women are devilish. There's a clear connection between the themes of classic noir and classic hip hop, namely that it's a reaction to a particular city and a particular set of morals. I've lived in almost every part of Philadelphia my whole life, and I've been around people who decided to join the Mafia and people who decided to become cops, people who became dealers and people who became junkies. So that aspect of the literature influenced my writing with hip hop, because hip hop is all about you representing what you know and where you're from.

ST: Which hip hop artist influenced you the most? Which noir writer influenced you the most?

ZR: I'd say Aesop Rock has influenced me the most musically because he showed me a long time ago that you can do whatever you want. For a long time, there were unwritten rules in rap about how you look, what your content should be, who you could emulate, etc. Aesop Rock completely destroyed every rule in the book and has made the most original music for over a decade in rap while always moving forward. His writing is unmatched. His slang is very coded. His production is swampy yet digestible. And his voice is like a death dealer. He gave me confidence to try things that the status quo would frown upon.

There's different noir writers who have influenced different songs and projects. "The Slow Twilight" is very Raymond Chandler influenced. I have songs that haven't been released yet that owe a huge debt to Ed Brubaker and Megan Abbot. My new album "No Vacation For Murder" is probably most influenced by David Goodis because he was a Philly guy who wrote about men near my age in my town making very bad decisions.

Zilla Rocca (  Photo by Edwin Hay)

Zilla Rocca (Photo by Edwin Hay)

ST: You have built your own sub genre called "noir hop." What does it feel like to be the first of your kind?

ZR: I've noticed that my style and terminology has crept into the subconscious of my peers, which is corny in one way but flattering in another. It means that people have paid attention to my work, but could never fully maximize what I do because they're taking surface level pieces of my stuff—black and white videos, fedoras, whiskey, cigarette smoke, etc. People weren't doing that as much in indie rap before I made that my flag to wave five years ago. I've had other people point these things out to me so I know they too respect the architect.

ST: What is your writing process like? Do you have the lyrics first or the beat?

ZR: I read all of the time and watch a lot of television, so I'll catch a certain phrase and write it down in my notepad app on my iPhone. Or I'll overhear someone say something really slick in a conversation and write that down too. So when it's time to write a song, I skim through my notes for a phrase to spark the concept or hook. I like to write things that are vivid and use phrases no one else has ever uttered in rap, so my notes are like my cheat sheets to accomplish that. I never write without a beat because the beat determines everything: the mood, the flow, the story, the spacing of the words. And the notes I keep help me add some flourishes along the way once I figure out what to do. When I first started out 17 years ago, I used to write lyrics first and match them with a beat. I'll do that once in a while if I wrote a song and it got scrapped so I don't waste any lyrics. But 90 percent of the time, the music creates the words.

ST: You came out with "No Vacation For Murder" not too long ago. Can you give us the background on this album? How long did you work on it?

ZR: The album actually dropped a couple months ago after years of work. It took about two years to write the album and four years total to complete. It was inspired by real life betrayal by people that were the closest to me. I had to take time off from making the record because it was too heavy, so I put out a bunch of other projects that weren't as cumbersome to fill the time.

There's parts on the album that play out like revenge fantasies, and other parts on the album where I take full responsibility for even having those relationships in the first place. I did a lot of growing up from the time I wrote the first song to the time the album was getting mixed and mastered. So the trick was to figure out how to determine the narrative as an album, since I started off feeling like I wanted to exact revenge at all costs on people who had broken my heart, compared to feeling at peace and letting go of all those emotions years later. I can say proudly now that it's my best work, and that unfortunate set of circumstances were the best things to ever happen to me.

ST: Your single "Shoot the Piano Player" is a stunning one-act noir play set to an awesome beat. Where did this song come from? Why did you make this one of the first singles off the new album?

ZR: My producer Blurry Drones, who is the driving force behind The Shadowboxers’ aesthetic, sent me that beat a long time ago. I wasn't really impressed with it. And then one day my friend Has-Lo stumbled across it and thought he and I should tell a quick crime story to it in the vein of Raekwon and Ghostface Killah, two of our biggest influences, for a different project. We did the song pretty quickly, and after hearing it, I told Has-Lo that I had to have it for the album.

My director Pat Murray, who has done several of my past videos, came up with the entire concept. I love working with Pat because he's a visionary—none of the work we've done together looks like anyone else's videos in rap. He understands the mood I want when I do videos, and I give him 100 percent creative control, something most artists don't afford him when they hire him.

ST: The music video for "Shoot the Piano Player" is stylish and original. How did you decide to set the tone for the video?

ZR: Again, that's all Pat. He had previously used that location called the Physick House, a historical landmark in Philly, for a commercial shoot. It was very elegant and built in the 19th century. Lucky for us, we shot it on a Saturday afternoon when it was raining like crazy, so it gave us an added sense of doom. And Pat had the idea very early on to do all long shots for each take, so everything you see in the video had to be filmed non-stop with no edits. If anything was off, we had to start from the beginning and do it for the duration for the song. In short, Pat Murray is untouchable.

Zilla Rocca (  Photo by Edwin Hay)

Zilla Rocca (Photo by Edwin Hay)

ST: What does the future hold for Zilla Rocca?

ZR: Who knows? I learned recently just to let things happen instead of trying to control everything. Since I've done that, I've been lucky enough to have favorable situations come together. It's better to attract good things rather than chase them.

ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

ZR: No matter what city I go to, someone will pull over, or stop me in the street, and ask me for directions. It's happened in Philly, Chicago, London, Phoenix, New York City, Los Angeles, and more. I guess I always look like I know where I'm going.

To learn more about Zilla Rocca, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @ZillaRocca.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Just Play: 8 Questions With Singer/Songwriter Frank Turner

Frank Turner

Frank Turner

By Daniel Ford

If these aren't the perfect lyrics to sum up a 20-something writer/creative type in New York City, then I don’t know what are:

“Just give me one fine day of plain sailing weather/And I can fuck up anything, anything”

English singer/songwriter Frank Turner’s music is honest and personal—two qualities sorely lacking in today’s music scene.

Turner recently answered some of my questions about life on the road, his early influences, and how he is always striving to get better.

Daniel Ford: When did you first realize you wanted to be a singer/songwriter?

Frank Turner: Interesting question. Being a singer/songwriter, strictly speaking was never really something I thought about growing up. I wanted to be (and was) in a punk band. I guess when the wheels started falling off Million Dead, I had a little time to consider what it was I wanted to do afterwards. At the time, I didn't want to be reliant on other people as I was feeling quite let down by what had happened with the band, so doing things on my own made the most sense to me.

DF: Who were some of your earliest musical influences?

FT: As a kid, I was initially into Iron Maiden, Metallica, AC/DC, and stuff like that. Then, Nirvana hit me like a train, and pushed me toward punk stuff like Descendents, Black Flag, NOFX, and so on.

DF: How would you define your sound? How did you go about developing it?

FT: I don't spend time trying to define my sound, I just play. I don't really think about developing it, other than trying to be better at what I do.

DF: What’s your writing process like? Do you start with the music or lyrics? Do you prefer writing early in the day or late at night? Do you listen to music while you…write songs?

FT: I don't have a set process as such, other than the fact that I write on the road. Sometimes it's words first, sometimes music, and the best is when the two of them arrive at the same time. I don't listen to music as I write (wouldn't work!), but I do listen to a lot of music and I try to figure out songs I like, how they're constructed and so on.

DF: A good friend of mine demanded I listen to “The Way I Tend To Be” and it’s been on my writing playlist ever since. What went into writing and producing the album “Tape Deck Heart” and was the process any different than your previous albums?

FT: “Tape Deck Heart” ended up being an album about a breakup. I don't really sit around and plan what to write before, you know, writing it; I like to let stuff arrive in the manner of its own choosing. But I was going through some shitty stuff in my personal life and it naturally found an outlet in my songwriting. I wanted to write like I was totally unknown and no one would ever hear the songs. I think a lot of writers, at this stage in their career, get into second-guessing themselves, or trying to write to please various audiences, and I think that's kind of bogus, so I was trying to shut all of that out.

DF: What are the best and worst parts about touring? What are some of the more memorable moments you’ve had on tour?

FT: The best part is making the most of life, traveling, and playing music for a living. The worst parts are the toll it takes on your health, sanity, and personal life. It's not an easy way to be, in the long run. I've been touring pretty much full time for almost half my life, so it's hard to pick particular moments out.

DF: If you had to pick one of your songs that defined you forever, which one would you choose and why?

FT: It's not really for me to choose, I'd say; but I guess something like "If Ever I Stray" would be cool.

DF: What’s next for you? What’s on your bucket list for things you want to accomplish as an artist?

FT: Working on a new album, releasing the “Mongol Horde” (side project) album, festival season, stuff like that. There are plenty of things left on my bucket list; mainly songwriting-wise, I want to get better.

To hear more from Frank Turner, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @frankturner.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Melody, Rhythm, and Words: Singer-Songwriter Jeff Tuohy On the Importance of Perseverance and Work Ethic

Jeff Tuohy

Jeff Tuohy

By Sean Tuohy

The best singer-songwriters are fearless types that wear their hearts on their sleeves and throw the rules out the window to express true emotions. Jeff Tuohy (no relation) is a standout musician that is making a name for himself by adding heartbreaking truth to each song. Tuohy bounces from poppy fun to dark depths with each changing of the track. We’re comfortable saying that Tuohy is one of the best up-and-coming singer-songwriters in North America. I got lucky enough to ask Tuohy a couple questions about songwriting, the creative mind, and how he develops his truthful lyrics.

Sean Tuohy: When did you know you were going to be a musician?

Jeff Tuohy: It was apparent from the start. Allegedly, I would hum and sing gibberish in the crib. Hours were spent dancing and singing along to Creedence Clearwater Revival, Michael Jackson, ABBA, and Neil Diamond in the basement of our first home. At age three, my parents enrolled me in a Dalcroze program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. The following year, I was studying cello via the Suzuki method.

ST: At what age did you start writing your own music?

JT: My mother recalls a particular instance when I was a toddler: I was in the back of our 1984 Toyota Camry Wagon improvising a song about her attending craft fairs.

In middle school, I recorded melodies with lyrics onto cassette with a player I received for my First Communion. The songs I remember were called "Shedding a Tear For You" and "It Is The Thought That Counts."

By high school, my friend Colin and I started dabbling with 8-track recorders. My first "real band," Little Rich Boys, recorded a six-song, studio album called “The Man Responsible” sophomore year.

ST: You have wonderful lyrical expression. Was this something that came naturally to you or developed over many years?

JT: Thank you. Looking back, my early, lyrical work was pretty general. Its greatest attribute was honesty. I've dived into specifics as I’ve matured: imagery, synonyms, alliteration, playing with verse, not rhyming, etc. I'm not above using a thesaurus or rhyming dictionary.

Natural talent only takes you so far. You need to take the gifts with which you are born and refine them. Inspiration is a gift. Manifesting and making it accessible is a cultivated craft. It's a constant work in process.

ST: “Bourbon Street” is such a rewarding song. What is the back-story behind it?

JT: There is a question often asked of composers as to whether they believe songs come from themselves or somewhere else. “Bourbon Street” felt like the latter. It had an immediate, blatant attitude and was the boldest move I had made following my instincts.

I debated releasing it because its style was such a contrast from the rest of my catalogue. Oddly enough, it’s the direction in which my new music is going. It complements my theater background, influences, and overall demeanor as a performer.

ST: What is your writing process for a song? Do you start with a beat or the lyrics?

JT: The concept typically comes as a package—melody, rhythm, and words.

The initial lyrics provide a way to retain the idea, but frequently indicate the direction of the composition's story. Then the distillation begins. Melody is of the upmost importance to me. There’s an epidemic of its non-existence in mainstream music.

After that, it's free play. Discipline has been a weakness. I've read stories about songsmiths like Leonard Cohen waking-up at 6:00 a.m., showering, dressing in a suit, brewing a cup of coffee, and going to it as a day job. That would send me off my rocker. I'm a token extrovert. Solitude sends me climbing the walls. However, it is such an integral part of the creative process. I have to work myself up to sitting down and “diving in,” which is strange because as soon as I do, it’s fruitful.

ST: What are the most difficult moments of being an artist? At the same time, what are the most rewarding moments?

JT: The business aspect used to be the hardest part. Creators have a burning desire to share their talent and there are people who take advantage of that. They will offer "exposure" or let you know how many people are out there doing the same thing. Don't put up with that bullshit. Educate yourself about the business. Don't assist in perpetuating opportunists—if it’s not a mutually beneficial relationship and sharing in the risk-reward cycle, then it’s not worth it.

The best part is connection: relating to others and providing a fulfilling experience. True communication.

ST: As an artist what changes have you gone through since your first album, “Breaking Down The Silence,” and do you think they reflect on your second album “Cocoon?”

JT: I just finished Iron John by Robert Bly. It’s a brilliant book. There’s an excerpt discussing how young artists have a habit of “showing their gold too early.” “Breaking Down The Silence” had some of that going on—the notion that everything I produced was worth sharing. Some things are best kept under wraps.

With “Cocoon,” I held myself to a higher standard: considering if what I was “saying” was worth audiences hearing. Inherently, new experiences begin to stimulate your work and psyche, which hopefully makes for more interesting content. I think that happened on “Cocoon.”

These days, I’m striving to go a step further: developing a distinctive sound. Miles Davis said, “Man, sometimes it takes a long time to sound like yourself.” For me, this is true. It’s tempting to emulate composers and performers whom you admire. Finding your own voice takes diligence and courage.

I plan to continue writing in various genres. I don’t like discarding ideas that have potential. That having been said, I’m aspiring to be more selective with what I present in performance.

ST: Given the chance, which singer-songwriter would you love to work with?

JT: Danny Elfman would be a solid choice given my current direction. Tom Petty is someone for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect. I could learn a lot from him.

Producer-wise: Questlove or Mark Ronson. Their beats and organic production technique put modern spins on classic, vintage vibes.

ST: What advice would you give to up and coming singer/songwriters?

JT: Talent is half the battle. Perseverance and work ethic are equally important artistically and economically. If you’re in it for accolades and money, pick something else. Do it because you love it and are moved to create. Then, go out and share it with the world.

ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

JT: I’m a first-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, member of Actors’ Equity, and have loved the distant smell of gasoline since childhood.

To check out more of Jeff Tuohy’s music, visit his official website or follow him on Twitter @J2EMusic.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Sing if You Must: Folk Singer Joshua James On Music, Writing, and His Forever Home

Joshua James

Joshua James

By Daniel Ford

It was 2007.

I sat down at a desktop computer past its prime to write what would eventually become my first novel. I couldn't do much else. I was an in-over-his-head grad student in New York City, financially and emotionally incapable of funding a relationship, and being fed on a daily basis by the generosity of my best friend (who I was sharing a room with in a small apartment at the time).

In short, it was the perfect time to be a brooding writer in New York City.

I need music to write. Without it, I produce content that contains the emotional resonance of a dish towel. That year, I remember searching for music on iTunes with money I didn't have. I sampled a few songs by a singer-songwriter named Joshua James and clicked "buy" without thinking about how I'd purchase my next meal.

"The New Love Song," "FM Radio," and "Dangerous" became permanent songs on the playlist I put together while giving life to my main character Sid Sanford. I followed James' career from that point forward and couldn't have been more excited when one of his songs ended up on a popular television show (see below for more details).

James is about to go on tour in Australia, but he graciously took some time to answer my questions (causing my 2007 self's head to explode).

Daniel Ford: When did you first realize you wanted to be a singer/songwriter?

Joshua James: I still don't think that that moment has arrived. Singing grew from a necessity to some sort of expression. As a youngin' I always needed some sort of semi-destructive outlet. As a 13-year-old, it was skateboarding and small acts of vandalism. As a 21-year-old, it was reading and expanding. Years later, it was singing and self-expression; a form of connecting to life and death.

DF: How did growing up in Nebraska influence your music?

JJ: Anything in one's vicinity becomes an influence. Parents, siblings, nature, surrounding, home front, etc. Nebraska and her vast openness has had a stronghold on my heart since I can remember. She is my forever home, full of nostalgia and memories never to be repeated.

DF: Who are some of the artists that influenced you early on?

JJ: My mother, The Doors, God (and his many faces).

DF: I discovered your first album, “The Sun is Always Brighter,” on iTunes during a really rough time in my life and it really helped get me through it. What are some of things you went through and thought about while writing and producing that album?

JJ: That record was the first official release of songs that I did. As I think we can all do, I attempted to use a big of shock and awe with its content. The themes stretch anywhere from suicide to drug abuse and even extends into the political. It was, as are all of them, a record of personal experiences.

DF: The song “Coal War” was used in the opening sequence of the fourth season of “Sons of Anarchy.” I fist pumped in the air and shouted out loud in an empty apartment in New York City after hearing the first couple of notes. How did that make you feel as an artist hearing your music on such a mainstream show?

JJ: First off, I love that you fist pumped. Everything else will appear pale in its comparison, but I will attempt to answer with fervor. When I saw the usage of "Coal War" in “Sons of Anarchy,” I was ecstatic. I, throughout my career as a singer, have tried to sing with an honest voice, with as much truth to what I am feeling at the moment as I possibly can, and so when one of the songs that I wrote was chosen for such an epic moment in such an epic television program I was elated and full of pride (be it good or bad).

DF: What are the best and worst parts about touring?

JJ: The best: Everything and her mighty wind. The worst: The longing for my lover, for my home, and my baby boy.

DF: Was your writing or producing processes any different for your newest album, “From the Top of Willamette Mountain?”

JJ: The making of “From the Top of Willamette Mountain” was extremely different than any other record that I had made previously. In life, I find that I get comfortable, we all do, it's part of the process of living. It's part of the process of dying. We settle and decide that what we are doing is (and has been) correct. I was extremely guilty of this. I was comfortable and confident. Richard Swift changed that. His approach to music and her making was something I had never witnessed and it changed me, for the better (or at least I would like to think so). It was the feeling and not the mathematical. If the take felt good, it was good. And that was it. It had a minimal approach to it, at least in comparison to what I had done up until then. I loved making that record. I did. Boy, did I?

DF: If you had to pick one of your songs that defined you forever, which one would you choose and why?

JJ: “Mytic.” It is a brief history of me. It describes how I have felt since before I can remember.

DF: What advice would you give to up-and-coming writers and singer/songwriters?

JJ: Stop if you can. Sing if you must.

DF: Name one random fact about yourself.

JJ: I eat kale for breakfast after feeding my five lovely goats and 12 chickens.

Stop what you’re doing and go check out Joshua James’ music on his official website, like his Facebook page, and follow him on Twitter @buffalojames.

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