Q: You’re describing the losses, which are easy to quantify. What’s on the plus side? What do you gain by making an album that’s not going to sell?
A: I’m depriving the world of my brilliance. That’s just wrong, isn’t it? I don’t know. It’s fun to do music with people is the serious answer.
Q: The business has changed but I’m guessing you have, too, and I wonder if this tapering off of your songwriting life has been entirely imposed on you or if on some level it feels like a natural progression.
A: I’ve thought about that. I think I’m a little bit frightened about making my exclusive living in the music industry, because it’s so hard and so volatile. It’s really a difficult experience going on the road and having your livelihood depend on the whims of concert attendees and record buyers and promoters and music business executives. It’s all a house of mirrors. There’s very little stability in any of that. It can change very suddenly.
Q: Your day job is data programmer, is that right?
A: Right. A computer programmer.
Q: Do you think young people are better-suited than older people to the unstable lifestyle most musicians are destined to lead?
A: Somewhat. But when I was young I remember it was very scary. One of my albums is called Lolita Nation.I was about 25, 26 when I wrote the material, about how it feels to be young and uncertain about the world’s agenda for me and I remember thinking, yeah, I want to have this be the way I earn my living.
But I think I was about 17 when it occurred to me that I don’t want to be a commercial success story. There’s a sort of minority politics attitude that’s built into my being, what was called an “alternative artist” for a long time, because you realize that you’re different, at some point, and I knew that I was not going to be the next huge smash hit. There are REMs and Nirvanas and people like that, but you can’t bank on that. So I was always aware that I had to build up my capital through popularity to get to a point where I could make artistic decisions. And I would always be coming to a crossroads, where either I would try to build up more capital with something somewhat conventional, or spend the capital and put out something that was going to be difficult for the audience but that I knew was my point of being here.
Q: How has your thinking about that evolved over time?
A: There’s an aspect of getting older in there. It’s being aware of time passing and being aware that you’re going to have a certain number of opportunities, and you have to act on those opportunities according to a plan. And the plan has to take into account that you’re in a different place all the time. You have a different amount of capital all the time. So don’t act like someone who’s going to be 23 forever. This is a process that’s going to play out.
Q: Have you made mid-course corrections and adjustments?
A: Yeah, very much so. I think some of it is periods of thinking that things are going well now, and this is actually feeling doable, and others where you’re feeling like this has just become a drag, an unsuccessful drag at that. I’d say at least 75% of it is just adapting to that. But the other 25% is changing what you want to do artistically. You know, I really don’t want to write just love songs anymore, I want to write contemplative songs, or songs about more general human nature, that kind of thing. There are sort of standard changes that occur to most artists but basically what’s changing, insofar as it affects productivity, is demand.
Q: Has the gratification you get from writing and playing music changed? Is your value in the marketplace somehow tied to your identity as an artist? Is sounds from what you said earlier like the creative and the commercial parts of your musical life are pretty intertwined.
A: I think the main difference is that early on you produce work that you know is going to be early in a series of work, so there’s less self-conscious communication in it. Generally speaking, on the early albums you’re just doing it. Later on you start realizing that any particular album is likely to be the last one, so in the terms that I was using before, think about spending your capital here. You think about if there are things you have to say, if there are human experiences you want to get across. The last album I did I was really conscious of the fact that it was probably going to be my last one, so I wanted to convey some valedictory content. And now I think, well, I’ve had some new experiences since then. What would be my new valedictory commentary?
Q: Tom Waits said that having a music career and a family is like having two dogs that hate each other, and you have to take them for a walk together every night. How has your family life has dovetailed with your creative life?
A: I think in my case the dog that is the family just beats up the other dog. I’m waiting for situations where my children are older and there’s a little natural breathing room for me to do something as big as an album. I have two daughters, 5 and 9. And 5 and 9 is different from 1 and 5. So things are easing up a little bit.
Q: Are there things that you couldn’t do or didn’t grasp when you were younger that you mastered later? Conversely, are things you did 30 years ago that you’ve either lost interest in or struggle with now?
A: You know there was one very significant change, and that was no longer considering melodies to be either good melodies or bad melodies. It’s still something that is impossible to quantify, but it has mechanics, and the mechanics are that melodies are good because there is a balanced amount of familiarity to them. Melodies exist as statements in a certain language, where the language is all the melodies you’ve heard before in your life. So if all the people in an audience have heard completely different music their whole life, and there’s no commonality, say one is used to Chilean flute music and the other is used to African drumming, there’s going to be no such thing as a universally good melody. However, if people have a shared cannon then there will be a strong sense of melodic quality.
Q: That makes sense.
A: I struggled with that. That didn’t sit well with me. But I decided it’s okay because music is this imitative thing. It exists entirely in time, unlike a painting. It’s all resonance, so any musical response is a response of recognition. You can impose non-musical responses into the musical experience, and that’s where novelty and originality come in, but they’re non-musical elements. Originality, in my later point of view, has nothing to do with music. It could be shocking graphics, shocking lyrics, unfamiliar sounds, unfamiliar song structures — that was one of my favorites for a while. You’re adding value, but you’re not adding musical value, when you do that. So I’m now aware that a musical product is a mix of musical value and un-musical value. And any originality has to play in the un-musical realm.
Q: And how does that play out in the way you write songs?
A: Well, here’s one way it plays out. If you think you’ve come up with a really good melody, the first thing to suspect is you didn’t really come up with it. So be really careful and ask a couple of people, “Have you heard this before?”
Q: I take it you’ve had firsthand experience with that.
A: I would occasionally shock myself at how I’d ripped something off and not known it for a couple of years. Now I’m clearer on what I’m ripping off and I’ve gone through a process where I’m not going to get that kind of rude awakening. But all melody is going to be like some other melody. There’s no way of getting away from it. Your ear has to say yes, this is going well according to some plan. There can’t be no plan.