What inspired you to get into music?
The shortest answer is that it’s the thing I felt like I was most useful for. The whole time I was trying to figure out what to do for a living, as a career or job, I was always thinking what could I do that I do pretty well that is kind of unique, and I was interested in medicine and I realized there were so many people who wanted to be doctors that were better at that than I was, and then software engineering was fun, but it was not meant to be. So I always loved playing music and didn’t think I’d have to call it a job, but I realized more and more well that this is something I really want to do and I’m naturally inclined to do, and it seems to bring some kind of joy or satisfaction to other people.
Do you remember a spark, hearing a record and thinking, “I want to do that”?
That’s a good question. I think when I started studying classical music I wanted to be a composer more than anything. I thought it was so cool to be able to construct all these pieces in which you had these musicians playing that would create something bigger than themselves. I really liked the idea of being the person who wrote that, and I haven’t quite got there yet. Somewhere along the way I thought let me start on a smaller scale then, let me write some songs for me to sing and accompany myself on piano and that’s kind of still what I’m up to.
You made a very well received record with Larry Klein, and I heard you had a large role in directing that. This time Alex Wong is producing and it seems like you’re even more ambitious in terms of the landscapes of sound you’re building. You wrote in your journal that you write songs differently now, not melody and chorus, and now you’re leaving space in the songs.
Ambitious is a good term. Dreaming through the Noise was a very particular experience. I basically started writing these songs and working with Rounder, and I wanted to work with a producer who I’d never been able to work with before. So I got connected with Larry and we seemed to be of the same mind, philosophically. I got very interested in working with him. Basically that process was trusting what he imagined for it. When we got together the first time he said the minute I heard your songs I knew what I would want to do with it. So it was basically like being a scriptwriter and handing the script over to the director and saying let me see what happens with it. I was involved, but a lot of it was on an observational level, just saying oh is that what he’s gonna do, I hadn’t thought about that. I watched him bring performances out of musicians, and who he decided to call for things.
So with this record I felt like I wanted to get an education as much as anything. I wanted to produce it myself at first. The more I thought about it the more I thought that’s gonna end badly.
Sort of like acting and directing at the same time?
Yeah, I’m gonna learn a lot but the resulting album may not be very good. We might have to do things over. It’s better if I have someone who knows what they’re doing in the process with me. So I asked Alex to work with me because we’d been touring together at that point, and I’d always respected his production work and songwriting. I thought well maybe if the two of us work together and he lets me get in the way sometimes and try stuff out that will be kind of my way of learning more about the production process. That was kind of how it was like, the two of us would sit around and imagine this stuff and I would handle part of the production, and he’d do the rest. It was about 70/30 at the end, but I ended up doing a lot of it. Which was really fun.
You got to indulge the composer side, doing all the horn charts?
I did some of the arrangements, yeah. I ran it by him a whole lot (laughs). There was one song I felt I mostly produced (“Kansas”). I decided what the instrumentation would be and what the horn parts were going to be and used Wurlitzer piano and upright piano, and did overdubs.
I realized I didn’t answer part of your question. When I was writing the songs I was trying to be more imaginative and hear production possibilities in the songwriting, to think of it more from beginning to end. The result was that I wrote some songs that were just impossible to play on the piano. Sometimes when I’m on tour solo people will shout out a song and I’ll say I don’t know if I can play that just now. It’s not going to come out right.
On “St. Stephen’s Cross”:
There’s actually no church there called St. Stephen’s Cross, so it’s not factually based. I was trying to imagine two people being there for some moment in world history, and how personal narrative gets interwoven with larger political events. That’s what was on my mind.
Some questions about the new record … It seems like you approached this with more of a world view than anything you’ve ever done. Is that a correct assessment?
Yeah, I think … I always write from what I’m feeling at the time. When I was younger I wrote from a personal diarist point of view because when you’re 19 you’re thinking about the guy you have a crush on. Partly because of the move to New York, it became more submerged in current events. I did a lot more reading of the news and following along, and getting involved. It was a lot more on my mind. So songs like Radio I wanted to put myself in that situation even though I’ve led a very sheltered, comfortable life. There are people who live lives I can’t even imagine, and if I were to try to superimpose that on my own life, what would that look like? It did get pretty dark sometimes. (laughs) But I feel like overall the album is meant … it’s sort of a composition of gratitude. Because in imagining these things, I realized how many things have happened to make the life that I have possible. Like in Grandmother Song, my grandmother is talking about her own life, and how she struggled, and how much she was denied, it made me think about how much freedom I have, and how many people had to pay for that along the way for me to have that. And that also gives me a certain responsibility to be aware of the people who are still denied a lot, and what I can do about that.
“you’ve got to do this for all of us”?
Yeah, so there’s a lot of posing of questions, like if you have this kind of ultimate freedom what kind of responsibility do you have?
There’s a line in St. Stephen’s Cross that seemed to sum up the spirit of the record for me, when you talked about “a warning of what could be lost”.
Musically you’ve gone in a lot of directions. You’re compared to Joni Mitchell. I’ll make a comparison that’s less a musical one than artistic evolution. This seems like your Hejira, where your earlier records were your Song for a Seagull or For the Roses. Do you look at your last record with an eye towards being different?
I think it’s partly that. It’s something less deliberate. When I make an album, I’m determined not to make that album again. Just to keep myself interested basically. I think if I made another album just like the last one, I’d think what have I done with myself for the past couple of years. So I’m always trying to push myself further in a lot of ways. With a lot of the songs, I think I deliberately sat down and said let me try and come up with something that I haven’t come up with before. Or let me try and play something that’s difficult for me to play, or things I have to practice or research. It’s definltiely my way of staying engaged with the process of writing.
You’ve said that the lyrics are the hardest thing, but it sounds like you made the music a little more difficult this time around.
Yeah, I was trying to make the music match the difficulty of the lyrics. There’s definitely some piano parts that are hard to pull off and some grooves that are tricky for me, and lot of songs … there are some songs where the words come really fasts so vocally it took some practice.
Grandmother Song took awhile for me to get the hang of, and Stray Italian Greyhoung, both the piano and vocals and the chorus, the words go by so fast, I definitely had to practice it a few times.
I love your analogies, likening a troubled romance to a rescue dog.
(Laughs) I think some of that came from reading my favorite lyrics from other writers and realizing that sometimes a succinct metaphor was the most powerful for me. No particular ones are coming to mind, but Leonard Cohen uses them all the time, and Paul Simon will evoke passing trains or scatterlings in orphanages, the sound of cattle in the marketplace. With just a short phrase, you get the full image of the connotation, the whole mood. I ended up trying to use those a lot.
You talk about the boy in the bubble and I can see a line in radio about spider web windows and bloodstained pagodas.
To move to a different subject, I find it interesting how you engage your audience. You are revealing your artistic process as it goes on. Did you make a conscious decision to do that? Does it help the process?
What do you mean by that?
Well, as new songs are being written, you’re posting lyrics on talking about them in your online journals. Many artists take the opposite approach – lock themselves up and come out with a finished product. They don’t share in the process of evolution.
I share whatever I’m comfortable sharing. I wouldn’t share half finished songs. But I do like the idea of writing about the process, because it’s useful for me to remember what it was like to come up with something. There are times when I write songs and I’m struggling and it becomes a psychological problem. Maybe I can’t write, I don’t know how to do this, and I’ll look back at a journal and remember oh, yeah, it was this hard last time. So it’s useful to remember.
With something like Twitter, I laughed when that came out, but then I realized it was cool to send just very brief updates about what you’re up to. Sometimes we’d hit a wall in the studio and I’d say well, I’m feeling frustrated now, so I’ll write about that so people know the ups and downs of how it happens.
Was the dark mood of Inland Territory influenced by New York City (Vienna Teng’s new hometown)?
I think so. I think New York influenced this album in a pretty profound way, in pretty much every way. Musically, it’s very much a “what happened when I went to New York” album – topically, very much so. It’s interesting, I think as I go, I get more bright and more dark at the same time in terms of what I talk about. It is actually my most hopeful album in a lot of ways, but it’s also one of the most dark and depressing ones. They kind of go together in a lot of ways. I think the extremes of New York influenced that a lot.
There’s a production touch where you use vinyl record noise as percussion –
That was all Alex. That was one of those really cool conversations we had where we were talking about. One thing I love about Alex Wong is that whenever he’s thinking about production, he always comes at it from a very clever kind of innovative point of view, but it’s always in a way that he’s trying to serve the narrative of a song. For the Last Snowfall, it’s about this moment in winter where you’re thinking is this the last chance I’ll get to witness this? How much more would it come into focus? When he heard that song he immediately thought we should really do something with it where there are noises that evoke something but are actually something else. It’s a way of kind of existing on two planes at the same time. So the little vinyl pop noises, he thought that would be cool because it kind of sounds like a fire crackling, a wintry noise, but it’s also a reference so music technology. So there was a lot of thought that went into it. It’s also this thing that you’re not really sure what it is at first, but I really like it. We start out the album that you’re not really sure what’s going on.
One spontaneous moment in the album … is there a baby in the room for Grandmother Song?
We’re not really sure who it is. At the end, the song comes to and end and we’re all being respectfully quiet, waiting for the tape to roll and you hear this little kid go Yay and there were a whole bunch of people in the room at the time, we were recording in this beautiful Victorian house, and it was this wonderful couple, this architect and his wife Sharon, always had guests coming in and out of the house, and lots of artists and musicians. That day was a Sunday, and all of her friends were over there drinking wine. A couple of them had their kids with them. So we just recruited them all to be on this song. I’m pretty sure there was an 8-year old, and she was the one who shouted, or maybe it might have been Sharon, because she was feeling so happy about how it all went. But she didn’t want to be too loud.