Alone and Together: Arts and Craft

Dean Budnick on July 27, 2017

Alone and Together is a touring event that draws together a number of singer-songwriters, who share their own work, the music of their fellow participants and some select covers as well. The latest incarnation—which traveled to California this past March and will reassemble for an appearance at the 2017 Newport Folk Festival—features Kevin Morby (Woods, The Babies), Sam Cohen (Yellowbirds, Apollo Sunshine) and Eric D. Johnson (Fruit Bats, The Shins), along with instrumentalists Joe Russo and Josh Kaufman. Morby, Cohen, Johnson and Guster’s Ryan Miller—who participated in a previous in Alone and Together outing—recently took some time to discuss their musical process and sources of inspiration.

Let’s start with some general reflections on songwriting. Lou Reed once said that a listener should be able to enjoy a rock song without hearing the words. What are your thoughts about that?

SAM COHEN: Lou Reed is a wildly literate songwriter so, when he said that, he was saying, “If that isn’t considered, then you don’t have a good song.” But I don’t think he was saying that lyrics aren’t important. He was saying a good rock song needs to be good musically first. How could Lou Reed possibly say that lyrics aren’t important? I think he was saying that in a falsely modest, contradictory way.

ERIC D. JOHNSON: I think (a) maybe Lou Reed was just being a contrarian and (b) maybe—and we can’t ask him now—he was trying to say that lyrics don’t have to be flowery poetry to be incredible. They can be very simple and that is what a singer-songwriter is, versus a songwriter or a poet. A singer-songwriter is someone who can deliver a song with the knowledge that it doesn’t have to be arty poetry. That’s where the singing part comes in.

RYAN MILLER: I’m building a playlist of what I think are going to be my 1,000 favorite songs of all time. Every once in a while, I’ll come across something on Spotify or Google Play or the Internet, and I’ll go, “OK, that’s got to go in the best-of-the-best playlist.” And what I’ve found as a through line, more than anything else, is that they all feel really good. So to bring this back to myself and my life and my songwriting, I’ve realized that maybe the reason I don’t like the earliest iterations of my band is because groove didn’t really enter into the conversation. The thing that is most important to me now is that a song feels good and then I can start to address it on other levels. If it doesn’t feel good without words, then I can’t even get to the next place where I can assess it as a classic.

Ryan, relative to Guster’s early work, do you think that some of what you describe is really about the ongoing dialogue? A band’s opening salvo is going to be a little different than the exchanges that take place a little bit later in a career.

RYAN: No, I think it’s all about just making good stoner music. It’s the ultimate test for me— can I get super high and crawl inside this song. 99 times out of 100, these songs that I put on my playlist feel good. Maybe that’s not quite true of Leonard Cohen but, even there, it is in a weird, hypnotic way.

SAM: It is true of Leonard Cohen because you’d rather listen to the stuff that sounds cool than the stuff where you have to listen through the production to get to the meat of the song. You don’t want to enjoy it academically like a songwriting critic; you want it to please your ears, which is why I like the ‘60s and ‘70s stuff the best. It’s even true of the greatest songwriters. What you’re touching on is how production and arranging affects your perception of whether a song is good or not. And if those things suck, it doesn’t even matter.

RYAN: It’s how it feels on a visceral level. You could mute the vocals and that still comes across, although, obviously, vocals contribute to groove and rhythm and feeling, too. I tend to resonate with that statement, maybe as a reaction to me and my audience, but it’s true as a fan, too. As a fan of music and songwriters, I need to feel good nine times out of 10 to get behind a song.

Moving past groove and feel to lyrics, Walter Becker has said that he and Donald Fagen would sometimes write in character to say things they believed, but wouldn’t otherwise dare say. Is that true for any of you?

KEVIN MORBY: I do that all the time. What will happen for me is, if I’m very influenced by someone like Nick Cave at the time—and I might not be comfortable singing certain things, but it’s the sort of thing that Nick Cave wouldn’t be afraid to say—then, for a moment in my songwriting process, I’ll be like, “Well, I’m Nick Cave.” And that’s kind of how it works.

SAM: That’s why I love Kevin’s songwriting. Kevin, I think that you can say four words and it feels like you’re saying a lot to me. There’s intent behind it, and it’s interesting that it’s coming from that angle.

KEVIN: Thanks. I was very influenced early on by Bob Dylan and he would take on Woodie Guthrie and he would write from there. He wasn’t hopping trains or doing whatever Woodie Guthrie was doing, but he was able to go into that character and embody that. It’s exactly like what you were saying with Steely Dan, where it’s stuff that they would believe, but wouldn’t say otherwise or be brave enough to say.

RYAN: I have a question for Sam and Eric because both of you have projects where you use your own name, but you also have projects where you’re you. Does your ability to express yourself, or your willingness to be personal, directly relate to whatever project name you’re working under?

SAM: In my case, no, because it was just a chronological development. Yellowbirds albums were made pretty much the same way that Sam Cohen albums are made. I just got to a point where I said, “I’m not going to get sick of another band name in my lifetime; I’m just gonna be me from here on out.” So it wasn’t about inhabiting different personas; it was just a point on my timeline where I said, “I’m too old for a band name. I’m tired of saying, ‘Oh, I have a band,’” so I became Sam Cohen. For Eric it might be different.

ERIC: No, it’s kind of the same. When I went off and did an album under my own name, that was a thought experiment, more like a life experiment for the same reason. Then I drifted back into using the old band name because it was easier. I realized there was some equity in the name. When I did the EDJ record, I probably lied to a bunch of interviewers and said, “Yeah, it’s because I want to do a different persona,” but those were just lies. [Laughs.]

Have you ever given away too much of yourself in a song? Even if, perhaps, it’s not revealed to the audience in quite the same way as it is to you while you’re singing it?

KEVIN: I think it would be funny to have a song where I said my address and my social. Like my last album ever or something.

RYAN: You could be like Mac DeMarco and give people your address and tell people to come over to your house and have coffee in Rockaway Beach. That’s a real thing that happened [on DeMarco’s 2015 album Another One].

SAM: I wish I hadn’t admitted to that hit and run on that song on my last record.

ERIC: This might sound like a funny, flip answer but it’s not—I only give away too much of myself when nobody’s listening. I had to play a weird gig at a shoe store once. It paid really well and it was a crazy travel thing, where I flew to New York in a day and flew to back to the West Coast in a day and I played at the shoe store and nobody listened. People had their backs to me, and I was playing acoustically. I was singing these songs about rather traumatic things that had happened to me and it was humiliating.

So you get the sense you gave too much when you’re in this embarrassing situation and no one’s listening but then, oddly, when you’re in a situation where people are completely engaged with you and you’re singing about things, then it feels just right. So it depends on the audience.

KEVIN: Anytime I end up playing a gig like that—some ridiculous thing—and I’m singing a very personal song, that’s the only time where I feel like a real puppet, like “Jesus Christ, what am I doing?” But it’s funny, if people are actually engaging when they listen to it, it doesn’t feel like you’re giving too much. People want it and you’re giving it to them.

RYAN: I will say, though, that sometimes when I’m writing and I’m thinking about relationship trouble, I remind myself: “This is the mother of my children and my life partner.” So even as I’m writing, it’s like, “I’m going to write about this horrible fight we got in but I wanna be really careful not to put this thing in cement.”

KEVIN: Not to exploit the person with whom you have a very personal life with.

SAM: I relate to that a lot. In response to the question “Do I ever share too much?” I err on the side of caution when the choice is between sharing things that might upset my home life or just leaving it out of the song.

Have you ever written a song in which your friends or family recognize themselves or believe that they recognize themselves and were not altogether flattered by the depiction?

RYAN: I wrote a record that was basically a break-up record. My wife and I broke up for a year and then, we got back together. So I have this break-up record and every time it comes on, she’ll be like, “Oh, this is the song you wrote about me when you hated me.” I’m like, “But we’re back together. We’ve been married for 11 years. We have two beautiful children…” I regret nothing but I do hear about it from time to time.

KEVIN: If you had not written that record, do you think you would have still gotten back together?

RYAN: I don’t know. I was writing a song the other day and things weren’t 100 percent copacetic in our household, and I almost went into that character mode where I was going to make our relationship worse than it is so I could set up this song, but then, I had this feeling of: “Oh wait, everybody’s going to think…” Obviously, I need to serve the song and I can justify it in a million different ways but I definitely was second-guessing myself because I do think that there’s a lot of truth-telling that I’m really enjoying about songwriting. I find myself wanting to play a character less and wanting to tell my own truth more, whatever that means. I think that’s more compelling for me personally because I have trouble with lyrics. I’m like, “What the fuck should I write about?” and I just want to be honest about things and hope that’s compelling, or find a compelling thing to write about within the context of my own experiences.

Who are the archetypal, quintessential songwriters whose work inspires the four of you?

KEVIN: I would say Sam Cohen, Ryan Miller, Eric Johnson, but also, I’m a big fan of Cass McCombs. He’s a songwriter that I really look up to. Bill Callahan is another one—also Angel Olsen, Jessica Pratt, Cate Le Bon. There are a lot of them out there, but those are a few of them.

ERIC: Callahan may be, for my money, the best American songwriter of the modern era. Of the classic North American songwriters—let’s not even talk about Dylan or Cohen—Joni Mitchell changed things more than people give her credit for. I’ll also throw curveballs in there and, instead of traditional singer-songwriters, I really like Tom Petty’s songwriting because I like that there’s a sense of America in his writing—there’s always a sense of mystery and dissatisfaction. And then another modern songwriter who I think is really interesting and was influential on myself and—I think Kevin, too—is Isaac Brock from Modest Mouse.

KEVIN: Yes, absolutely.

ERIC: Because Isaac writes about his heart in this really interesting way, and he writes about the universe. But a lot of it is just about him being broken, and then he picks these really personal things and expands them as big as anyone could possibly expand them. I think he’s a really interesting writer and he’s never viewed as a traditional songwriter, in certain ways, but he’s someone whose work I think later will be examined.

KEVIN: He does a really amazing job of writing about America as well. And not to steal the floor but—real quick, so I don’t forget—I also want to say Simon Joyner from Omaha, Neb., is one of my favorite songwriters and completely underrated. He paved the way for Conor Oberst and that Omaha scene.

ERIC: Agreed. Damien Jurado, I also have to throw in there. The list goes on.

SAM: I know it’s just one of the basics—songwriting 101—but, for me, Leonard Cohen is as good as it gets. Also, even though I don’t put his stuff on all the time or love everything he’s ever done, when I listen to Paul Simon, I’m reminded how high the bar is set. When he’s on, I am jealous of some of those lyrics. Like on “Obvious Child,” the way he talks about aging and the combination of images and ideas, and what’s not in that song and the picture that it paints. It’s just pretty holy shit; it’s almost like filmmaking.

RYAN: I’m freaked out by “America”—there are ways that he puts an entire novel in like four lines. As a lyricist, when I start to struggle, I feel like I go to places where he just distills such beautifully succinct lines. There’s so much impact in there. I totally agree with you. As long as I have the floor, [Harry] Nilsson has just been so big for me in the last few years too. I think he’s in my all-time top five for the way he came into my life and opened up some stuff for me.

ERIC: I can hear a lot of him in your writing. He does so much stuff with humor and devastating humor, or teetering the line between heartbreak and humor really well, which is something that really turns me on. It’s hard to do. And [Randy] Newman—obviously those are the twin towers of that in a lot ways.

RYAN: Absolutely.

Harry Nilsson is a songwriter’s songwriter, someone who is often named as an influence but received minimal acclaim from the general public during his lifetime. What do you think accounts for that?

ERIC: His two biggest hits were covers of other peoples’ songs, weirdly enough [“Everybody’s Talkin’” and “Without You”]. And his biggest song is probably “One,” but that became a Three Dog Night song—or “Cuddly Toy” by The Monkees.

SAM: And “Lime in the Coconut” is really well known, but nobody’s waving the songwriter of the year flag for that.

RYAN: It’s got a great groove though.

SAM: I think you can drive yourself crazy trying to pinpoint why something is not popular. [Laughs.] It’s probably more worthwhile to reverse engineer something that is popular and try to pinpoint what’s working there. I think there are a million reasons why things don’t take off, and it’s certainly not a ding on his songwriting credentials.

It didn’t happen in his time, so now it’s for people who care enough about music from the ‘70s and songwriting. It’s for this niche and anyone who is aware is totally worshipping at the altar of Harry Nilsson. I think it’s a whole different conversation when you’re a retroactive legend than when you’re the correct contemporary star for your age, and I just think that maybe he wasn’t that. Maybe his approach just wasn’t the sexy thing for the cokey ‘70s—even though he did plenty of coke, his vibe wasn’t what people were after. It’s like The Kinks, who are some of my favorite songwriters of all time. Maybe they just weren’t made for their times—they’re singing these multiple-level irony songs about preserving stuffy England while also criticizing everything about society old and new, and some people thought it was the best thing they ever heard and other people thought, “Well, they’re no Beatles.”

Outside of music, can you talk about how literature, film or other art inspires your work?

RYAN: I just drove to Boston and back yesterday. I was looking forward to my three-hour drive [from Vermont], and I started listening to that podcast S-Town. I’m not a podcast guy, and I was really looking forward to some music. There were a bunch of new records I wanted to crawl into and it was alone listening time, but I could not turn it off. I don’t know how it’s going to seep into my songwriting but, in the last 24 hours, I’ve spent six of them listening to this podcast, and it’s really crazy and incredible and devastating. But instead of music time, it ended up being this insane mystery, anthropological, sociological stuff that’s got to get in there somehow.

KEVIN: My three records that were released came out one after the other and, during that time, I was very into James Baldwin. I still have a ways to go to read everything he’s ever published, but there’s something in his writing that has always been very poetic to me and very inspiring. And if you read stuff across his career, you can see how he’ll use certain words to describe certain things and that became influential to me—seeing it in that form of art and seeing how I could do it in music. I can have characters reappear and also a word could be a thread throughout an album. In general, any medium of art that conjures a feeling or says something can be inspiring to another medium of art. A painting can inspire a song and vice versa.

ERIC: I wanted to be a filmmaker, first and foremost. I loved music and was doing it, but I was really angling to make films. I was thinking about maybe going to film school, but I ended up being in bands; I never even went to college. I just ended up being swept off a little. In more recent years, both Ryan and I have been scoring films, so it’s been an amazing full circle for me, coming back to this place where I’d dreamed I might be one day. But for me, my songs are deeply cinematic. I sing about the movies a lot and I probably mention movies in every album at least three or four times. There is also a world in my songs that’s a little bit of a multiverse that I’m sort of creating, even if everyone doesn’t hear that.

But ‘70s American cinema is what turned me on when I was 14. Pick anything from the whole catalog of Altman or Ashby, and that kind of goes back to the aforementioned nexus of humor and pain, which is something that fascinates me. Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is something that changed my life. When I was 15, I saw it on late-night television and then read the Kesey book. For whatever reason, while people talk about some Smiths record, for me, it was that movie and that score too. Jack Nitzsche did the score for it.

SAM: I think about a film called Killer of Sheep by Charles Burnett and the way the song “This Bitter Earth” is used in the film. That song actually held up the release of the film in the states for like 20 years, clearing the rights to it. It’s a black-and-white film with a lot of amateur actors in it, with gorgeous cinematography and the use of “This Bitter Earth” is just incredible.

It’s a film about Watts in Los Angeles, right?

SAM: Yeah, that’s where it’s set. It’s about people’s day-today struggle and tenderness. It’s just beautiful. Back to the original question, I like to think about where the camera is when I’m writing a song. Are we zoomed in or is it a shot from a helicopter? Also, when I’m reading books, I sometimes highlight what I’m reading and jumble words or borrow phrases, but Flannery O’Connor has this incredible way of zooming out at the end of a short story. The story has been super-detailed about people and interactions, and then the perspective jumps back and this giant crushing thing just wraps it up. I just read a short story by Chekhov that does the same thing.

ERIC: Sam, I feel like your last record was very cinematic. It’s like Solaris— kind of a dark, shambly sci-fi thing. It totally makes sense when you’re saying all that, drawing back the veil here. It’s awesome.

SAM: Well, thank you. I’m glad. I’m usually just thinking about those things, then get angry or frustrated while I’m writing songs and trying to do that.

ERIC: Yeah, me too.

Do camera movements go through your minds when the rest of you are writing songs?

KEVIN: Sam’s good at creating that atmosphere, which is why, for my last record, I wanted to work with him. I think of it really cinematically, it’s almost cheesy. I’ll get stock footage in my head of, say, New York, and I’ll have that image running through my brain as I’m writing something. I was reading that book A Visit From the Goon Squad [by Jennifer Egan], and there was a scene in which one of the characters is on a safari listening through headphones for the first time [in 1973]; and suddenly, music had this whole other meaning because you weren’t just listening to it in your living room on your hi-fi. Suddenly, your landscape is passing by and it’s being plugged into your ears and it all feels very cinematic. Music can change the scene dramatically.

ERIC: I feel that so many of the greatest music moments of my life have been with headphones on, in a train or a bus.

SAM: For me, sometimes that’s the test of whether I’ve made something good or not. Put on headphones on the train and see if life starts to take on new meaning. Does the music create a vibe that can inform what you’re looking at, or is it all just this flat thing?