Corey Kilgannon showed up in my Spotify Discover Weekly a couple of years ago with the beautiful, troubled poetry of “The Rhine.”
I’m really glad he did. Because I (and probably you, too) need more good poetry in my life.
Like most good poets, Corey has the gift of articulating things in ways that simultaneously cut straight to the heart of ideas while dancing abstractedly at the edges. That duality is haunting to me – I think because it’s honest. I tend to be skeptical of anything that’s too simple. If an idea is only ever a straight line, it feels more like the angle of an agenda than the truth.
Every melody’s got at least two sides to its story, after all.
Corey walks a balancing act in other ways, too. He’s pretty vulnerable about his struggles with depression, but he’s guarded about letting the details of his personal life spill into his songs. He’s willing to tackle big ideas like love and death, but he paints them with the small details of life, measuring lines about “the void” against the tactile reality of comfort found in a sleeping cat.
And in “Soft Gentle Brilliant II”, even as he wrestles to find meaning and value in existence, he leans into the truth that letting things be here now is enough.
The tune itself is a lilting piece of poetry. Picked gently on an acoustic guitar and lifted by the harmonies of Tow’rs’ Gretta, it’s quietly confident in its own skin, even as it presses up against the vastness of existence.
It walks an honest balance beam. Like the rest of the album. Like Corey. And like all good poets, probably.
So, find a sunny spot, close your eyes, and let Corey’s searching music soothe your soul. You may not find all the answers, but you will find both sides of the story. Here’s hoping that honest poetry helps.
And of course, when you’ve listened, come back and read on to learn how Corey writes such haunting music.
When did you start writing songs? How’d you get into it?
Corey: I wrote my first song on an overseas trip when I was thirteen. I don’t know if there was anything specific that drew me towards writing songs, I picked up guitar a few years prior and really haven’t put it down much since. I love words, so it’s always just felt really natural to sort of process the world around me and what is going on in my mind by shaping it into a song.
The process, as I’m sure I’ll repeatedly have to admit in this interview, was and is mysterious to me in a lot of ways!
What is your favorite thing about songwriting?
While I love the power a song can have to make others feel more connected to their “souls” if you will, I think my favorite thing about songwriting is the actual writing sessions themselves.
For a few hours after the song is written (especially if it comes out clean and I don’t have to do a ton of editing later) there’s sort of this emotional release for having gotten the thoughts out on paper.
As soon as I start to play it for others, it changes in nature in a lot of ways so the time that it’s just in my brain is really valuable and beautiful.
Why do you write songs? What’s your goal when you write a song?
Writing songs just makes sense to me. It started years ago, and it’s really difficult for me to even turn off the mechanics in my mind that are constantly trying to write. I’m sure there are tons of different goals interacting with each other, obviously I want to create something others can enjoy and relate to. To return to the last question, I think the main reason I write is to process what’s going on in my head.
What’s the easiest thing about writing for you?
This certainly varies song to song, but the words are definitely what comes most naturally to me. It’s the first thing I listen for when I listen to music.
There’s still a good amount of waiting around for inspiration – for example I sincerely doubt I could just write a really excellent song right now off the top of my head.
Sometimes I like to think of it more like the song already exists somewhere out there and it’s my job to find it.
How did you find your current style?
Lots of varied influence, and heaps of collaboration. I’ve worked closely with a few different friends who produce music, and I also have a friend who I have arrange strings and a lot of other parts. I grew up in Florida listening to emo rock, and lately have been on a huge 60s-70s folk kick.
Ultimately, we just get into the studio and spend hours trying different sounds and parts until the vibe feels right.
How do you think current listening formats like streaming impact songwriting?
Fascinating question! I’m not entirely sure how it specifically effects the songwriting process, though I could rattle on and on about what it’s doing to the business.
I think for me, it’s encouraged more and more songwriting in the sense that I can disconnect from the typical 10 song-album cycle type model. It’s so easy to record and release music – easy might be a strong word, but comparatively it’s really neat that streaming services allow me to independently write and release songs without need for a label.
Because the money is way different (by that I mean fractions of pennies per stream instead of a dollar per song), having lots of material has been essential. I just released a 20 song album of B-Sides, simply because I know my fans will love the demo takes, and I need a lot of streams to pay for breakfast!
Editor’s note: You heard him. Start streaming that thing so he can eat waffles.
Tough question: what is your favorite song of all time, and why?
This is truly an impossible question. I have so many that are deeply special to me it feels wrong, but I will try to choose: (10 minutes of weighing different songs in my mind goes by….and then I skip this question and finish the entire interview and now I’m back to it and still feel no clarity haha)
I think the time a song moved me the most, to kind of answer it, was laying in the grass at Sevier Park in Nashville the first time I heard Andrew Bird’s “Sifters” Live take from his record Fingerlings 4. It’s a gorgeous tune, my sister texted it to me unknowing that I was at a very intense depressive low, and in that inarticulable way songs do this, it gave me the emotional connection I needed in that moment for release (which lead to crying and then immediately biking to my first therapy appointment!)
What makes music or a song good?
I suppose ultimately that depends upon the tastes of the listener, but I do think there is perhaps a purity of intent necessary for a song to really shine.
What a “song” even is could be debatable, so for me I like a good structure with well written lyrics, and chords or note choices that contribute positively to whatever the writer wants it to be. It doesn’t have to be deep or anything; there’s just certain ways language and music can roll of the tongue and seep into your consciousness that humans seem to really thrive on.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned as a songwriter?
How do you write? Do you start with lyrics or melody? Chorus or verse?
This varies quite a bit song to song. I’m generally always jotting down little notes and ideas as I go about my days, and then when I sit down to write I find some simple chords and a melody to hash out the rest of the lyrics.
Then I come back around to editing and making sure everything is in a good spot. I don’st tend to write a ton of choruses first I don’t think; usually whichever lyrics pop into my head first tend to be the opening of the song. Perhaps it would behoove me to try mixing that up!
Do you co-write? How’s it work?
Very rarely, though as I stated, when we record the songs there’s a ton of collaboration and for most of the musical parts of the song I’m totally open to others input. Lyrics, for the most part, have been a totally solo venture, though I do love helping edit and structure other people’s songs every once in a while.
I’ve co-written with Lindsey Sweat (AKA Trella) a few times – we’ve been friends since high school so it’s easy to trust her creatively and be vulnerable with my ideas.
How do you write a melody?
I just kind of hear them. Not really sure how to better articulate it than that. I think I reuse a lot of basic melody ideas, so I try to go back later and make tweaks if anything sounds too similar.
How do you write lyrics?
As I mentioned, I’ve got an ongoing list of notes and thoughts, so whenever I start feeling a song coming on, I usually consult those first to see if there’s anything I can use. Then I just keep working on it; the goal is to just flow creatively for usually 2-3 hours without getting too hung up on all the words being permanent.
You can always go back and change it, but sometimes getting too stuck on one verse or word can really stifle the creativity. Basically, I just make them up like I’m making up the answer to this question – I just try to make the phrases rhyme and such.
Would you rather write on personal experiences or general themes, and which approach comes more easily?
I think my favorite songs tend to strike somewhere in between the two.
I really value having a personal life separate from that of my songs, so I try to shroud a lot of it in poetry so it remains mysterious. The specific details however, sometimes comment more on the big themes than just talking about the big themes themselves.
For example, I can just write a chorus that says “babe I love you you’re so pretty” but I find that in general we are more moved by vivid descriptions. It’s generally easier to write about our own experiences, too (perhaps you can’t write anything outside of your experience if you think about it?) so learning to “pay attention” to the small details and articulate them is what has made some of my songs resonate with people.
Do you put more emphasis on lyrics or sound? And which would you consider more important?
Definitely lyrics (broken record over here). I like to think most of the songs could be stripped down to just me playing it on guitar and still be enjoyable because of the song. Adding layers helps drive home the emotions and lets me jam with my buds, the latter of which being really the most important reason to do music.
What emotions, thoughts, or feelings do you want your music to inspire?
I don’t try to drive home any specific message. I think what I value most out of the response I’ve received from others that enjoy my music is that it makes them feel understood or less alone. Somehow my ability to articulate what I’m going through in song makes other humans feel connected – what a beautiful thought.
What role does production play in your writing?
So far, they have been pretty separate, though I’m trying to learn to actually think of production when I’m penning the song. Most everything I’ve written has started just acoustic guitar and vocals, and then there’s the entire second process of recording.
Do you tend to start with a main goal or idea and write to that, or ad lib and shape the main idea along the way?
A little bit of both; some songs have started one way in my head but as I write it other opportunities come up and I chase those. I think more often than not, whatever clicks in my head right before I write one is sort of a general concept or idea, a structure of sorts that I am then revolving around as I write more lyrics.
Let’s dive into “Soft Gentle Brilliant II”. What was the first part to be written?
That one sort of came out simultaneously.
I live by the beach and try to surf most mornings when possible. It’s so peaceful out on the water, and I often get little melodies in my head when I’m floating around. When I got home I sat in the front yard with my baritone ukulele and wrote almost the entire thing in one sitting.
How does this song relate to the first “Soft Gentle Brilliant”?
I’m not entirely sure.
I try not to overthink titles too much; there was something about writing it that just felt connected to that tune. I wrote “Soft Gentle Brilliant” as a poem, originally (I think that’s the only song I’ve written this way), and it had sort of a religious undertone, in the way that nature can connect us to our own perceived “God”.
Nature still feels so spiritual to me, and I thought this new one I wrote sort of connected nature back to the present moment, the interconnectedness of all things…. so I wanted it to be an extension of those original ideas.
On Instagram, you mentioned that Tow’rs’ Gretta worked on some of the melodies with you. What was that writing process like?
Yeah she’s the best!
It was brief, honestly – we were driving the most beautiful road from Phoenix to their home in Flagstaff, Arizona. I was in the back row of the van (we did 3 dates this spring), just singing eagles covers and noodling around.
I showed them the basic structure, and I knew I wanted to do sort of a repeating bridge with a bit from each of the two choruses. I was really struggling with a melody, and also the first words are “Let it go”…. so I knew I desperately needed to avoid Frozen comparisons, haha. Gretta had the minor tweaks it needed to be both singable, but unique and interesting.
Hanging with them for a few days was so peaceful and inspiring, I hope my career can head down a similar path.
How would you articulate the main theme of the song?
It’s a song about being mindful of our existence in this present moment, accepting things as they are, and being thankful for the gift of consciousness. I believe it’s the only thing we can be certain of. And ultimately letting go of our attachment to anything other than existing right here right now is how we find peace.
How do you balance letting go with caring about things that matter?
This is really hard for me, and I admit I often err toward the side of thinking that nothing really matters and become lazy/depressed.
Balance is the key word in the question. It’s important to rest and to not take life too seriously, while also it seems important to participate somehow in life – to create in some sense. I feel most balanced when I read / write daily (not always songs, just journaling or poetry), practice yoga, spend time with people I deeply love talking about how we feel, and also work hard on my music.
Did you write this for the person you’re singing to, for yourself, or for an audience?
This one was definitely for me. I don’t think there was anyone else specific in mind when I wrote it, though it does take kind of a letter form at some points. It was so peaceful and enjoyable to write this song, I still sing it to myself often when I practice.
What’s your favorite part of the song (lyrically or musically)?
I recorded this one with Brendan St. Gelais in Nashville, and I really love the way the music turned out. I was honestly super burned out at the time, and pretty miserable in the studio (all my producers are wonderfully patient people).
I was obviously ecstatic when Tow’rs agreed to sing on the track. I also love the way the back and forth guitar/uke part worked out in the bridge. I love the line about our cat falling asleep. I live with my brother and his cat Yoko, who is a strange and wonderful lil guy who has taught me a lot about life. He has a ton of personality, and when I was writing it he sat lazily on the window ledge right behind me.
What do you want listeners to take away from this song?
You can only learn to BE HERE NOW.
When did you know the song was finished?
It felt finished after that van ride when we found a nice singable bridge. I knew that was the last piece of the puzzle, so after that I was really eager to start playing it. That night we played a huge show in Flagstaff, and I closed with it (though I accidentally reverted back to the Disney melody for the bridge…. oops!).
Any details you’d like to share on the recording or production process?
It was really a learning exercise for me on letting go. I wrote it at home on ukulele, and was experiencing a lot of tension internally while fleshing it out in the studio in Nashville.
I was in kind of rough shape – hadn’t been home in weeks which tends to throw my mental health down the drain – but I still felt strongly we needed to get it done for the B-sides, so I tried to just relax, trust Brendan, and make the best music I could.
What’s next for you in terms of upcoming music or shows?
Honestly, I have no idea. With my first real full-length in October and then this 20 song beast 8 months later, I don’t feel rushed to release any more for a while.
I’m sitting on a ton of material that I’m starting to demo out, but I expect and plan for it to be a slow process. I’m tired, and I think I really just need to slow down for a few months to sift through songs and get inspired to keep working.
No shows booked yet, but I’m certain I’ll be out playing somewhere after this summer rolls by.