My friends make fun of me for listening to indie-folk all the time.
They think I like to just sit around and wallow in deep thought as my emotions are amplified by fingerpicked guitar and tastefully placed piano. They accuse me of believing that meaningful music is only sung by people who have beards and wear flannel, and convict me for not listening to rap while I work on my laptop.
I guess the worst part is that there’s a little bit of truth in their jokes.
I don’t consider myself pretentious when it comes to music. I don’t really like jazz, and I really like Sheeran and Bieber. I love hearing new music, whether it’s on my “Release Radar” or my “Discover Weekly” (if you don’t know the difference, you need to get a Spotify account). I see a lot of artistic value in a track masterfully produced by DJ Khaled or a song featuring Khalid, and I know the difference in pronunciation between the two.
But when I first listen to a song, I focus almost entirely on the lyrics, and if it’s too obvious that the lyrics are secondary to the production, I care about the song less. I never forgive lazy songwriting, and I’ll make fun of crappy lyrics no matter how dope the song sounds. And not that it’s better or worse, but a lot of people aren’t that way.
Because I listen to lyrics primarily, I gravitate towards genres and bands that, for lack of better wording, care a lot about lyrics.
Indie-folk is one of those genres, because it’s where minimalist production, simple chord progressions, and artsy people all meet in the middle.
And Beta Radio is one of those bands.
When I first heard “Realistic City Living“, the lyric person in me was excited, because truthfully, the song doesn’t have a whole lot else going on. There’s technically only two chords (a few forms of a “one” chord, and a flat “seven” in the chorus). The production is very minimal, with a brush snare and soft kick supplying most of the percussion, and a guitar taking up most of the space aside from a few color instruments.
I’m not saying the song doesn’t sound great; it does. Every production element is tasteful and purposeful, creating a powerful atmosphere rather than a driving, energetic vibe. Sonically, it’s a chill, acoustic standout in an album that’s almost entirely chill, acoustic music. But because of that, listeners are forced to listen to the lyrics, and they’re phenomenal.
They play around with the idea of fate, and what a person’s place is in a world that is largely out of their control. They speak to what it means for a void to close, and the complexity of what that entails. And they’re purposely vague, leaving listeners to draw their own conclusions about heavy subjects.
So if you’re a lyric person like me, or if you just like indie-folk music for another reason, you’ll love the song. Check it out, and then read our interview with the band behind the song below.
How did you guys start making music together?
Brent and I met at summer camp in the North Carolina mountains when we were kids. We were in the same cabin for a week. Brent could play “Stairway to Heaven” on the guitar and I thought “I should get to know this guy.” We became friends and realized we lived in the same town, so when we got back home we started hanging out, and later writing songs together.
Who are your influences?
Our influences run a pretty wide gamut. Everything from the Beatles, The Who, Queen, and Simon & Garfunkel to Iron and Wine, Sufjan Stevens, Pearl Jam and Philip Glass.
Do you guys co-write most of your songs? (If so, what does that look like usually? Who writes which parts, etc.)
Every song is written a different way. Sometimes I (Ben) will come up with a guitar part and a vocal melody, and Brent will add his musical ideas to my parts. Other times he will come up with a guitar or piano part, and I will write a melody and the lyric to it. It’s good to write songs differently each time because it gives each song its own identity, at least that’s what I think.
Do you carve out time to write songs, or do you wait for inspiration to strike?
Both. It’s always great when inspiration strikes, so when it does everything gets put aside and I try to capitalize on that moment of inspiration. Most the time though, when the muse hasn’t presented itself, we just go into the studio and work and see what happens.
How do you write lyrics?
Very carefully. Most of the songs get written two or three times before they are complete. Lots of revisions.
How do you write melodies?
I follow my gut.
What role does production usually play in your songwriting process?
More and more the production is becoming an important part of songwriting. We started out as just an acoustic band, but the more gear we get in our studio, the more we want to play with it, and then more production gets on to the record.
Your production always seems to leave room for lyrics to be at the forefront of the song. Is that on purpose?
Good question, not really sure if that’s on purpose or not. I think we just do what feels right in the moment. So far it has lead us to the lyric being at the forefront I guess.
Would you rather write about personal experiences or general themes, and which approach is easier?
Both. I think personal experience is easier to right for me however.
Your lyrics often circle around a central idea, but stay vague and intricate enough to remain thought-provoking. Why is that?
I guess it’s because I like each album, and the lyrics that go along with each song on that album, to have a central theme. I guess the vagueness is a combination of me being a little afraid to say exactly what I think, but trying to push myself there anyways perhaps.
Is it important to you to have your songs be fully understood as you intended them to be, or are you fine leaving them open to interpretation?
I’m always much more interested in the listeners interpretations than my own meaning.
What makes a song good?
If someone else wants to listen to it.
What advice would you give to other songwriters?
Write every day all the time, when you’re walking or driving and not just when your sitting at an instrument. Also write 100 songs and only pick the best five or six to put on your record.
What was the first part of “Realistic City Living” to be written? (A lyric, a melody, a riff, etc.)
All the music was finished before any lyrics were finalized. The first part was the guitar riff that Brent wrote.
Did you write the song specifically for the album?
Is there a reason behind its track placement on the album? (Like why is it track 5, how does it fit in with its surrounding songs, etc.)
We just tried to make each song flow well from one to the other.
The song starts with some room noise, a faint car horn, and the sound of something hitting the guitar. Was that planned?
A car horn is actually in the track, when Brent was tracking the guitar part a car honked its horn outside of our studio. We liked the way it sounded so we kept it.
There’s a hard-hitting line that comes in three different ways: “The void was closing before we ever came,” “the void is closing, we’re not long in this place,” and “the void will close, come in and show me all your ways.” Can you explain that idea a little more?
This song, and a few others on the record have that common lyric among them, “the void will close.” It’s a phrase I couldn’t get out of my head for nearly two years. It’s a two-part idea about the endings and beginnings of all things. It refers to how all voids, from supermassive black holes, to those we carry inside our own hearts, will one day close. (Full disclosure, I don’t totally have a full handle of all the meaning of it, but really like the imagery there).
I always appreciate the “song title isn’t a lyric in the song” move. How’d you decide on calling the song “Realistic City Living”?
“Realistic City Living” was the previous title for another song we wrote. It’s actually an anagram of a Jose Gonzalez song I think. When we were writing the song we didn’t have any final lyrics yet, but we needed a title to put into the computer so we arbitrarily chose this one.
Are there any touring plans we should know about?
Yep. We are going to be on tour in December with Good Old War. Go to BetaRadio.com for tour dates.