AM: How long have you been writing poems?
JR: I always thought that I could write, but until I got started playing the guitar, I didn’t feel like I had a focus in writing. I didn’t feel especially attached to anything. Writing songs is more like doing a crossword than anything – you’re giving yourself a puzzle that hasn’t formed. Any ideas that you have, it’s as simple as two lines
I feel so much poetry is mysterious, theoretical and ellipses…I get nervous around it.
One of my favorites…I love Richard Hugo…I think he’s incredible because he never gets all that complicated, but he still flies off the hook.
Have you heard of the band the Silver Jews? I love their poems.
KVM: Do you know Eddie Berrigan? I Feel Tractor? His parents were huge activists in the 60s and also poets. They are the Berrigans.
JR: I know Terry Berrigan. That guy’s great.
KVM: When you start to write do you think “I’m writing a poem.” Do you think “I’m writing a song lyric”? Or are you just writing and it goes somewhere? What happens to you?
JR: I think you get really lucky, and you can get the ideas in your mind. I can think about the feeling now but it’s hard to recreate where you just sit back and say fuck it and start writing whatever and the first line comes. Then you think well, what’s that about? And then everything after that comes. I have ideas for awhile. I have an idea about one of the songs that I wrote that I haven’t recorded yet, but I’m really excited about. I was in a motel 6 months ago and I had the TV on. It was early in the morning and I was getting ready to go and American Movie Classics was showing Laurel and Hardy. I was listening to them argue about old movies, and then I flipped it and this guy was talking about Peter and Paul, and I started thinking how alike those two different types of people are. There are optimists and pessimists in the world and people who make the rules and people who float around and are waiting to be told what to do in a way – you get the idea in your head and maybe sometimes something comes to you and you just start to write and you’re not looking to do anything with it. It’s the only way it ever seems to work.
KVM: If there isn’t a plan?
JR: If there’s no plan and you’re not trying to write because you need a song for a record – or you need an upbeat song – or a song that fits something – it totally makes me realize when you’re not trying, way better things happen than if you ever planned it. A lot of the songs that I am most happy with are songs that for some reason I got really lucky and my mind just kind of opened up an accepted whatever came into it, like being as good as it could be and not trying to put any kind of judgment on it. The way you can go back and take little things in and take little things out – the other side of the brain is way better at pulling things out of the air and processing it out later. People can tell if you’re working hard on a song. I think that working hard on it is never as attractive as the effortlessness – people know when something has an effortless quality to it. You can tell when a song is worked over –both are good, but I’ve always appreciated the type of songwriting that has a flow to it rather than the Elvis Costello style where it’s kind of a classical kind of mode.
AM: When I was reading the lyrics without the music, I was wondering do the words come first, then the music? Sometimes I’ll come across a lyric on your album, like when I’m reading poetry, where sometimes there are one or two lines that stick out. Does that happen to you when you are writing?
JR: That’s one great thing for me about songwriting – a basic melody can give you the whole thing. One little change of chord can be everything, and it’s hypnotic, and after that happens, then the world is your oyster. I love, uh, Philip Roth talking about his novel – how he was so excited about a couple people that had that kind of experience with his work, and I thought that was amazing. Once you realize that there’s a form and that the form is incredibly simpler, it gives you room to do whatever you want. A few chords and you’re free to do whatever. I get lots of ideas and lots of little chords and I keep them separately. The chords are in my mind and all of the words are in a book – sometimes they come together and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you work on 8 or 9 songs and none of them feel right, and then you get the one song that’s just a total crystal of all of them. If they don’t look good written down then I don’t like them.
AM: When I saw you at the Tin Angel, the word troubadour came to mind. It was a Bob Dylan sort of thing going on, and when I was reading your lyrics, it was that same kind of experience. Some of the lyrics make me feel that way and I wonder if there’s one muse for you. There’s so much going on in your lyrics.
JR: I love the idea, and it’s a word that gets overused. The original troubadours were the samurai, they sang in Provencal and their language was going out of business. The songs they were singing were about the Virgin Mary and they were hired for a specific purpose. There’s a lot of their heritage that exists – they were people that paid attention to the idea of the muse. More than – it’s so cheap – it’s so much about pop music – creating something that’s easy for everybody – it’s like running for President. A Beyoncè song is like a Bush-Kerry campaign – you have to give the lowest common denominator for people to understand – although I’m sure she’s more complex than that. I feel ambiguous about the troubadour thing – the great thing that’s forgotten about songwriting is writing. I feel more, much more at ease talking with a writer than a rock star because we have more in common. I love performing but a lot of me would love to be at home, sitting and drinking coffee.
KVM: You said once you write something and you don’t like how it looks on the page, and I’m still thinking about that because PBQ is online and in print. Since we are a hybrid, we’ve struggled with many editorial decisions of how the person might want the piece to look – page breaks and ellipses, etc. I’m thinking, I’ll bet he writes for the ear much more than the eye, and then you said if you don’t like how it looks on the page you don’t like it.
JR: Well I think there are lots of visual steps that I don’t understand in poetry. Poetry is a weird thing, and maybe I don’t understand it enough, but I feel like poetry – poetry was originally psalms – Song of Solomon – it was all written in a meter and style and I feel like maybe that was forgotten about in translation. Hebrew written out has a structure – a certain rhythm and flow – just like any other language and in translation I feel like that gets lost. Something sung seems much more natural than looking at something written down on the page and reading it out. I also appreciate poets reading in a natural style. I feel there is more of a connection with me as a person, it’s less academic and has more passion. I love finding poets and people that are really amazing. I have to see it written down – and I’m only speaking about lots of lyrics, if I see them and they disappoint me it doesn’t matter how much I like the music, the lyrics are the point. If you can’t read them I mean, you can make the word baby sound poetic if you use it right, but it’s been overused.
KVM: Do you think your lyrics can stand alone?
AM: I think that they could, your presentation adds to it.
KVM: Do you ask that of yourself?
JR: Definitely. If you think of Robert Burns, those words stand alone. They won’t ever be less than amazing. I always think music, whether it’s sung or you just hear it in your head when you’re reading it, is always going to be the core to writing poetry. Even in books, like Virginia Woolf – the way she uses language – the rhythm is so great.
AM: Stream of Consciousness sort of has a beat. When I was reading the lyrics I was thinking of the timelessness. You take what you will from each song because I’m looking at things that I saw and I’m thinking this is my experience. I don’t know if you meant what I saw in, for instance Bright Smile and Bone of Song. I was thinking of some of your lyrics and I had this picture – I like the Pre-Raphaelites…
JR: Pre-Raphaelites? Yeah, yeah.
AM: There was this one line where you’re talking about the hair tied around the wrists. I was thinking of this one painting of Ophelia and suddenly the song was about Ophelia and Hamlet. I was thinking of it in that context, and I was thinking in terms of poetry. Even if that is how things stand the test of the time, each person has their own experience.
JR: Yeah, you have to kind of walk a line between – I don’t like autobiographical songs, but I think that pretty much whatever experiences I have are pretty much experiences lots of people have. So you get an idea like that and then throwing it around is really fun and you just kind of sit back and think that’s kind of cool and then take it a step further. I think that there’s lots of people and symbols that stand for each other, that everybody has some experience with or has an idea of how to understand it. Dylan and Leonard Cohen get away with that all of the time. Who knows? There are a fair number of Dylan songs where I think, he was on autopilot here, but he’s getting away with it because the images and symbols are so cool. I really like that – the Pre-Raphaelites too, I just love that stuff. People like the early Ezra Pound and all of those people that started using images.
AM: That’s the thing – TS Eliot almost came to mind when I was reading some of the lyrics.
JR: WOW! Thanks a lot.
AM: Some of the imagery – I was thinking – about the parallels between modernism and the Pre-Raphaelites using classical imagery – so when I was reading your lyrics a lot of that kind of imagery was happening for me.
JR: I think that there’s a really interesting thing especially with the American homesteaders and pioneers – usually the only books they had with them were the Bible and the Odyssey. I thought it was really cool because these people were taking these enormous trips and they end up with the Odyssey and the Bible, which are two of the big exodus books. Everything about a special people and a lot of the stuff in Hello Starling is stuff that has to do with all that – I like the names of people and their names can be these amazing classical names outside in the wilderness somewhere. Like my Aunt’s name is Lilabet and we have no idea where it comes from. It was chosen for a reason somewhere down the line and I think that stuff’s really interesting. I love people like Ezra Pound was born in Idaho and I always felt initially, until he went nuts and crazy; I always liked his work ethic. I always liked that he was working hard and he was interested and for some reason when he went to Ireland he seemed like the quintessential ugly American. He refused to call Yeats anything but Bill. I mean I love that – those people are definitely people that make you think. There’s a lot more out there that you get inspiration from and so much of it is poetry in referral to other things. People make their own assumptions about it all. Does that make sense?
KVM: Trying Hard to Love You is so gentle, but what it’s saying is I’m trying hard to love you but you don’t make it easy babe. And it’s perfect for its lyric. What you’ve been doing with the music and the lyric – what you were talking about earlier about not being forced – so organic – that trying hard to love you has to be that simple and that low, ya know?
JR: That stuff is weird – it’s like clothes – I don’t feel comfortable in clothes. Oh man, I’ll think, man that guy looks good in everything, how does he pull it off? I never feel that way. Unless it’s something that I feel completely comfortable in it doesn’t work. I’ve sung songs in the past that I don’t regret singing, but I feel kind of dumb when I’m singing them. Unless you’re totally honest about it, compared to other people, one way or the other, if you don’t feel right about it it’s not right. There’s no other way to tell.
KVM: So what does happen for you? I know we asked you that earlier – is it the words or music?
JR: Bone of Song – that was all words and music, all at once and I just don’t know how it happened. It’s one of those things that just happens – and it’s almost like your brain has a little seizure and you just write everything and you can’t do it again for a little while. You can feel it coming on and you feel so many things happening. A song like Wings, that was a song where I had an image in my head and I had the words and I had the line about married heart and how it looked like an apple and that line, I felt so strongly attached to that line, that I didn’t want it to be the only thing in the song. Like this weird bright spot in the song. In my mind it was like this awesome Polaroid – a Polaroid of this one thing and unless you had a bunch of other Polaroids, it wouldn’t be as pretty because you would be flipping through and you’d have all of these images.
So with that one I just had that line and I waited around for a bunch of more lines that were as strong. I had some other ones, I kind of thought about them and played them, but there was nothing as strong so I can cut them out – maybe they’ll work other places.
I think the West is amazing, Canada doesn’t have a Western identity the way the US does. It’s so weird; I used to get really nervous that I wouldn’t be able to write anymore and really now I relax with that stuff. The only secret to really writing is waiting around and having your pencil ready.