I can’t surf. *repeat repeat makes me wish I could.
It’s that kind of music.
This band is groovy. And smartly self-aware. From what I’ve seen, those qualities seem to be essential to writing super catchy “dumb little love songs,” which is the term Jared (lead vocalist and main writer) uses to describe the band’s single “Girlfriend” from their newest record, Floral Canyon.
Describing “Girlfriend” as a “dumb little love song” is selling it way short, though. Okay, the subject matter is pretty standard – this isn’t a song that will have you ruminating on the meaning of life or spouting political philosophy. But it’s deliciously direct.
The big ask of the chorus, “Won’t you be my girlfriend?” is so satisfyingly straightforward that you’ll be hard-pressed to get it out of your head. It’s so clearly tongue-in-cheek that it has no business being as catchy as it is. But that’s the point. Just watch the music video.
The rest of Floral Canyon offers space for eclectic cleverness and alternate routes that are definitely worth a drive; it’s proof that the band can thrive with themes more complicated than simple affection. But even songs like “Plugged In,” which offers adroit rebellion against the ties of modern technology, somehow holds onto a sense of fun. Maybe it’s the thudding toms. Maybe it’s the reverbed guitars. Maybe it’s just because Jared and Kristyn are so obviously having a good time.
I don’t know. But yeah, it’s definitely fun.
So, give “Girlfriend” a listen and jam along. This is a song (and a band) that knows where it wants to go. Just find your nearest surfboard, roll down the windows, and come along for the ride.
Then, check out the band’s songwriting process and get the story behind “Girlfriend” below.
How did you get into songwriting at first?
Jared: When I was a kid, my mother made me take piano lessons. And I hated it. I begged her to let me quit, and she wouldn’t.
When I was old enough to quit, at about 11, I realized that I was no good at sports. And I also started liking girls. So, I realized that I needed to have some sort of cool skill to be cool and have friends and all of that.
My dad played guitar, so I picked it up and kind of tinkered with it here and there. Then, when I was 12 or 13, I broke my foot at the beginning of the summer. I lived in Phoenix growing up, and during summer break in Phoenix, all you can do is go to the lake, go to the pool, go camping, go swimming, hang out on boats – because it’s so hot.
But that summer, I couldn’t do any of that because I had a huge cast on my leg. All my friends were going out and doing that, and I was stuck at home for three months. Literally, I think it was 90 days that I had to wear the cast, so it was all of summer break.
So, that summer, when my friends would go out, I started teaching myself guitar.
I remember like the first inkling I had of songwriting was the result of this school project. We had to present something – I don’t even remember what the topic was, but it was for science class, and we had to present it in a unique way. I didn’t really have any other ideas, so I took a song that I had learned on guitar, and I changed the lyrics to it and presented it.
I remember the teacher was really impressed, and I got like an A+. She brought my principal in to hear it, like, “Look how good this is!”
And it was a realization for me. Like, “Oh, I can put lyrics to songs, and play and sing at the same time.” And that was kind of the basic level beginning to songwriting for me.
That’s classic. Do you remember the topic?
You know, I don’t remember the topic, and this is kind of embarrassing, but I do remember the song. The song was “Fatlip” by Sum 41. I was this really angsty kid – I grew up in this really conservative household, and I would listen to pop punk and things I thought were cool late at night while my parents were asleep. That was like super rebellious.
So I really liked Sum 41, and that was one of the first real songs that I learned on electric guitar. I don’t remember the topic I had to present on, but it was for science class.
And then from there, I kept writing stuff. When I was like 14, I did a talent show. At the time, I was a mixture between punk rock and old Adam Sandler songs. I had a really horrible influence of music, because I was kind of left to my own devices at the time. My parents didn’t raise me on the Beatles or anything like that, so at 13 I just listened to what I thought was cool.
So, at the talent show I played these joke songs that I’d rewritten the lyrics to that I thought were funny. And I got like second place. As I got older, and as I kind of evolved, I realized that writing songs was one of the only ways that I felt like I could really express myself. And, you know, being an adolescent guy, there aren’t really a lot of outlets for that – to express your emotions and stuff. So, that became a way for me to do that in my mid-to-late teens.
Is that the main reason that you still write? To express yourself? Or has the reason changed over time?
It’s a mixture. Someone once gave us the advice that, to be successful in music, you have to find the balance between art and commerce. Living in Nashville, there are definitely a lot of artists here that focus more on the commerce than the art. And I’ve dabbled in stuff like that. But at some point I’ve realized that, when it comes to songs that I write and put out under my own name, they have to be something that I feel like I can relate to.
I don’t ever want to write off the idea that I could write a pop song for somebody else, or co-write a song with somebody else that wouldn’t be focused on my own experience. But for myself and the music I put out with this band, the focus is definitely more on being able to express myself and express what I’m feeling, either at that moment or from a moment in my past.
Like, that way, even if nobody hears the song, at least I’ll have put to paper something that I experience in a way that I couldn’t have articulated otherwise.
So, when you’re doing that – articulating your experiences – how focused are you in doing that in a way that has meaning for other people? Are you writing with the idea of creating meaning for an audience, or for yourself?
So that’s kind of more when Kristyn comes in. I couldn’t just write a song – and I’ve tried – like, “Let’s try to write a song that sounds like this band, and it’s about this thing.” But I just can’t do that if it’s something that I’m going to be putting out and playing every night.
Kristyn’s a good filter for whether something will hit home with an audience. It’s partially because she grew up around music, and music is part of her life. As a kid, she grew up singing to the Beach Boys. But she never was in a band. She didn’t move to Nashville to be a musician or anything.
So, she has a really good outside ear for what she likes. And if she likes it, I feel like it’ll translate to other people as well.
So I’ll start with writing the song, and kind of getting my idea onto paper, but then she’ll be really good at saying, “Okay, this may be a really good song for a future solo record or something, but this might not be a *repeat repeat song.” Or, she’ll be like, “This is a great song. How can we make it a little bit more *repeat repeat?”
And she’ll help me work through that. Whether it’s musically, or lyrically, or how I’ve got the arrangement, she’s really good at helping me take it from my brain and just trying to express myself, to something that the average listener would enjoy as well.
Which is good, because I went to college to study classical guitar. And in a lot of ways that was good, but it’s also kind of a crutch. When you learn too much of the technical stuff, you start to let the rules of the technicality limit you from being able to think outside the box.
What do you mean by that? I’ve always kind of felt like knowing the technical side would give you more tools to pick from – that you’d have more ideas to work with.
Well, there’s a balance. Because you can take a class for music theory, or study under a classical person, or whatever. But doing it for four years, and making it my major was kind of confining in some ways.
For example, I took a 19th-century classical theory class. And they were like, “Okay, so 19th-century classical music always ends with a one chord, or a V7 chord and a one chord” – or whatever.
And I always thought, like, “Why can’t it end on a three chord? Or a minor seventh?” And the answer is just that that’s how it’s done.
So I studied with a lot of people who were really good at what they did, but I was always wondering, “Why not do this? Or why can’t we do this? Or why can’t we have this chord or lyric in this song?”
I don’t know. Somebody once told me that it’s good to learn all the rules so that you know how to break them. And so, in a lot of ways, I think it was really important that I learned the classical style and stuff. But in hindsight, I learned more about what I don’t necessarily want to be doing.
It’s an interesting balance – knowing the rules so that breaking them matters.
Yeah. I mean, I grew up listening to pop punk. And the rules for that is that it’s always three chords, and that’s it. And then I studied classical in college, and that music was really intricate. And I questioned both – like, why does punk have to have three chords? Some of the best songs are only three chords, but some are really intricate. Some songs just have one chord, and it’s like an ominous sound over a moving bass line or something.
So, I don’t know – when I hear something done the same way over and over, I want to try to think of a way to do it differently, or at least in a way that’s unique for myself.
How does Kristyn’s input shape your writing style? Do you write a lot of songs that aren’t *repeat repeat songs, or is that kind of your natural writing style?
That’s a good question – I don’t know the answer to that. I never start a song saying, okay, I’m going to sit down for two hours and it’ll be a *repeat repeat song. It never starts that way. I just sit down and say, “All right, I’m going to write something.” And I just see what happens.
But, in the beginning stages – this was years ago – it was still kind of frustrating, because I wasn’t used to getting feedback. I had professors in college who would tell me the correct way to play a composition or something. But with Kristyn, and with doing this for a few years, I’ve learned to actually really like it.
I’ll play her a verse and a chorus. These days, I almost never finish a song until I show it to her first. So I’ll write a verse and a chorus, and then I’ll be like, “Kristyn, I gotta show you this song.” Unless something really hits me in the moment, it’s usually just those two parts.
And then she’ll give me her take: “How do we make it more surfy?” And that’s kind of all she would say. At first, that was hard to figure out. But now that I’ve worked with her for so long and we’ve been married for several years, I know exactly what she’s saying, I know what she means, I know how to get there, my brain starts to figure out how to do it.
But in the beginning, I was like, “Well, how am I supposed to make it surfy? Use a Dick Dale sample, or what?”
Or, she’d be like, “It’s just not crunchy enough.” Or, “How do we get it to be more vibey?”
And because she’s not like a classically trained guitarist, she doesn’t have this really formulaic way of going about it. It’s not, “Oh, if you change the rhyme scheme here and use this word instead, it really flows well.”
But I’ve grown to really like that style of feedback. Because if she’s says it needs to be more surfy, then I imagine listeners would say the same thing, too. Like, “Oh, is this the new repeat repeat song? It’s not surfy enough.”
Do you think that the language that she’s used to describe it has changed, or just your understanding of the language?
My understanding. Her language has not changed at all. My understanding of it has. So, if I play her a part of a song, and she’s like, “I don’t know. Can we make it more sexy?” – I know exactly what she wants. Can we go to a minor chord? Can it not be as big and bombastic in the vocals? Can we make it a little slower, not as fast and rambunctious? But all she’s thinking is, “Make it more sexy.”
It’s about the result, not about the details. And she was raised on The Mamas and the Papas and The Beach Boys, so she has high standards.
So, yeah, her language hasn’t changed, just how I understand it has. But it’s helped me to be able to write and craft the song in a way that’s accessible to the average listener who’s just going to hear it on the radio station or at the gym or something. And I think that’s a really powerful thing.
What kind of input does she normally give?
She rarely has any criticism on the lyrics I use. It’s usually constructive criticism on the music or the feel. There are some times that she gives feedback on the lyrics, but lyricism to me is something that’s really important. I get pretty focused on how I want the lyrics to be, because I want to say as much as possible with as little as possible. So she rarely has any notes on that. If she does, it’s usually on the chorus – like, “How do we get that hook to be a little catchier?”
When you’re writing a *repeat repeat song, what do you want the outcome to be for yourself and the people who hear it? What’s your goal when writing?
The end goal? If we’re talking all the way to the end, recorded and done, I think the end goal for me and for the band is to feel like we’ve matched expression with people’s interest.
You know, I think there are a lot of artists out there who just want to write songs that express themselves. If I just wanted to write songs that expressed myself, I wouldn’t be in a pop band or an indie rock band. I’d just make records and put them out on SoundCloud for free. I wouldn’t worry, “Is this a song that listeners will like? Will this be a good follow-up to our last record? Is it catchy? Will it sound good on radio?”
I think the balance has to be pretty even between what would get other people interested in this song, but also what satisfies us. I mean, we have to sing these songs every single night. If they don’t mean anything to me, what’s the point?
I didn’t start doing this to make money, or to be successful, or to pander. I started this when I was thirteen and realized that it was something that I felt passionate about and that I was good at. I didn’t have show parents taking me around. My parents don’t know anything about music or the industry. So for me it’s always been about the chance to get onstage and tell a story about something that I’ve experienced.
But because I do want to do it as a career, it does have to appeal to other people as well. That might be a thing that’s hard for some artists, I think. It might seem contrived at times to the outside world, if you don’t really get that. But I think it’s important.
On the other hand, there are plenty of artists in mainstream music that are just focused on what’s interesting. Their approach is, “All right, if I just use this sentence or this kind of beat or drum sound, people will be interested.” It’s like paint by numbers.
But people can tell the difference between a story and a formula, you know?
I think the best songs always have that element of personal reflection, instead of just catering to popular interest.
Yeah, for sure.
Like, there are different genres and eras of music. But the standout songs that transcend the genre or the era have a kernel of something that rings true past just popular interest.
Yeah, that totally makes sense. The songs I think of that are closest to me, that are that way.
A good example is that Kristyn is obsessed with this band called ALVVAYS. She’s studied and read about what the songs are about and everything. The lead singer had a family member pass away, and Kristyn was telling me about what each song means. Like, this song had to do with that family member passing away, and this song is about this story, and so on. And I think that’s why it speaks so much to Kristyn and I.
Our favorite artists or favorite bands are ones where it’s not just some canned song that people wrote with a bunch of co-writers and just popped out so that they could formulate a hit. It’s like, this is actually a story that this person went through, and through the song, you experience that in your own way.
Do you write out of personal experiences more, or start from more general themes?
I think it’s a mixture of both. When I sit down to the guitar, and an idea starts to come to me – it might even just be a sentence that I’m singing over and over again because it just sounds good in my head – but before it ever gets anywhere, I physically stop and think, “Okay, what am I trying to say with this sentence?”
Making a fun melody with gibberish words and a guitar has never been hard for me to do. I know that might be different for other artists, but just taking a guitar and playing four or five chords and singing some gibberish and making it kind of catchy has never been difficult for me. What’s difficult for me is figuring out what I want lyrics to actually be saying.
I want to say things poetically, not too overtly. I think there’s power in being poetic or subtle. You know what I mean? Being able to say things without really saying them.
There’s a quote by Emily Dickinson: “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.”
Oh, yes. That’s exactly it.
If you take Girlfriend, for instance – the first line that came to me, I was sitting in the music room of our house where I usually write. And we have this tapestry on the wall. And I had the idea for the line:
You are so beautiful to me
Just like a tapestry.
I really liked that line, but I had to stop and be like, “Okay, is this going to be just a canned love song? What am I trying to say? What’s the story behind it? What’s the vibe?” And doing that helped me to kind of piece things together.
So, you have a room in your house where you sit down to write. Do you devote intentional time to writing? A few hours a day? Or do you more often have ideas spontaneously?
Both. I’m a firm believer that if you etch out time, you allow time for things to happen spontaneously. So, I have to etch out time.
We’ve been supporting this record for a few months now, and in the first couple months that a record’s out, you’re not doing much other than pushing that record. I told Kristyn that if I didn’t just sit down and create something, even if it was something I’d never use, that I’d lose my mind. I wonder if other creative people feel that way – I’m sure they do, whether you’re writing screenplays or acting or whatever. There’s a part of me that thinks, if I go more than a week or two without etching time out and sitting in a room and plucking the guitar, what’s the point in going to work? What’s the point in taking care of myself? What’s the point? You know what I mean?
So I etch out time. But I do think that some of the stuff I’m most proud of, the stuff that’s been the strongest and best received has been spontaneous. But that’s literally just because, if you etch out five days a week to play your guitar and try to write for two hours, and if you do that for enough weeks, you’re bound to have at least something come out of it, you know? Even if it’s in the most random place.
Sometimes, I’ll be like, “Oh, I’m going to work on music Monday, Wednesday, Friday this week.” And it’ll be Thursday, and Kristyn will be out going to see our horse – we have a horse – and I’ll be sitting at home, and it’ll be really quiet, and I’ll grab my acoustic guitar and just pluck at it. And all of sudden it’s like, “Oh! That’s the verse and chorus, right there!”
I think like half of our songs have come from that place. But because I’m actively doing it and exercising the creative side of my brain, those spontaneous moments happen.
Was “Girlfriend” written during a time that was carved out, or did it come spontaneously?
The funny thing is, I wrote Girlfriend two years ago. That was a little bit of a crazy time in our lives, because we weren’t signed, and we were getting the band started, and we hadn’t even recorded the record yet. I was just home, and I had three hours, so I decided, “I’m just going to go do this now.” So, as far as planned or spontaneous – it was a mixture, I guess.
I was sitting in that room – it’s where I write a lot of my songs. At the time, I smoked cigarettes, too, and that was part of my process. I’d write a verse and a chorus, and I’d take a break and think about it, and then come back. I’ve quit smoking, so now I’ll just get up and play with our dogs, or get some water, or get some fresh air.
But yeah, I was looking at the tapestry on the wall and came up with that line. At first, the song was way different than it is now – it was really sludgy. I wanted it to be a love song from a punk rock “good guy” standpoint. The person is somebody who’s rebellious, and wants to stick it to the man – but also, because I grew up having sisters and my mom and learning how to respect the ladies – I wanted there to be something sweet about it.
Like this guy who’s really harsh, almost anarchist, but who’s not like, “Hey I want to take you home.” Not being overtly cheesy, just being like, “Won’t you be my girlfriend?”
I don’t know, there’s something about a song like that that I thought was really intriguing – the innocence of it. But I wanted the music to be sludgy – like a weird juxtaposition. I wanted it to sound like the band JEFF the Brotherhood. They’re sludgy, they’re lo-fi sludge rock. Like the song “Sixpack”. It’s not as sludgy, but it’s got the idea.
I had the guitar down-tuned at the time. I wanted to do this really slow moving song, with the drums being big, crashes, four beats – in a really weird and almost drunken state musically. But then the lyrics are like this sweet love song where you just innocently want to be good to someone.
Those were the initial beginnings.
How’d the lyrics shape the sound?
It’s funny – originally very early on, the chorus was, “Be my fucking girlfriend” instead of “Won’t you be my girlfriend?”
So, it was:
We don’t need anyone else
No one can tear us down
I’ll take you to the airport when you go out of town.
This is just the start
No this is not the end
Be my fucking girlfriend.
But, because Kristyn and I were harmonizing on that, I didn’t want it to come off weird. Like, “Be my fucking girlfriend!” It was meant to come off sweet-sounding, because we were harmonizing.
When we went into the studio with our producer Gregory Lattimer, we did two weeks making the record Floral Canyon with him. And Girlfriend was one of three songs that we ended up completely rewriting the music to.
He listened to the demo liked the harmonies, liked the idea of they lyrics, but didn’t like the sludginess.
I told him I wanted it to sound like JEFF the Brotherhood. He’s like, “Well that’s great, but you’ll never be JEFF the Brotherhood. You’re *repeat repeat. We’re making a sunshine, surf-pop record. This will stand out like a sore thumb.”
“You should rethink the chord structure.”
And if it’s people close to me, I find it really important to consider their constructive criticism, because all they want is the best interest of the song. They don’t have an ulterior motive. It’s not some guy on the street who’s like, “This doesn’t sound like Miley Cyrus. I hate it.” It’s someone who respects the value of the song.
So I took that feedback to heart. I double-timed the chords to what they are now – the song was about twice as slow at first.
How about the lyrics? Any changes there?
Yeah, so Greg said, “You know, I think the language might be a little brash. I like the idea of the abruptness, but are you trying to get people to enjoy the song, or are you just trying to catch people off guard?”
And I had to think about that. I wanted it to be a song that you can put in your car and cruise around with, and if it’s a song that every time that chorus kicks in it takes you out of the moment and catches you off guard, then maybe it’s not worth doing – for that song, and on this record.
So I took all the profanity out and changed it to “Won’t you be my girlfriend?”
But I decided to leave, just as my little punk rock good guy, one well-placed line: “All the fucking signals that you’re mixing when you send.” And I like that line. Because I don’t like getting mixed signals, but I like the idea of it. It’s a poetic way of saying, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, I don’t get what you’re trying to say, and it’s not right.”
You know? So, I was really proud of that line.
Actually, that’s the one time in the whole record there’s a curse word. And the funny part is, we didn’t think that would be the single from the record – we thought they’d want one of the harder, brasher songs.
But they were like, “We really like Girlfriend. We really like the idea of ‘I’ll take you to the airport when you go out of town.’ People can relate to that.” And I guess they can, because nobody ever wants to take someone to the airport, so if you take someone to the airport you must like them a lot.
From there, people have really seemed to enjoy it. And it just happens to be the one song with a curse word in it.
What was Kristyn’s take when she heard it for the first time?
I’d recorded it on my phone, and we listened to it in the car. I remember her hearing just me singing and the verse and chorus, and right off the bat she started singing some harmonies. She was like, this is great, this is really catchy. But I think it took going into the studio, reworking the whole thing musically, and then hearing it back to realize how much we do like it.
We used this fuzz guitar on the chorus that gives it a really big push, and we added some organ, so when that all kicked in it was really big for us. Kristyn says it’s her favorite chorus off the record.
It’s super catchy for sure.
Yeah, we were really happy with it. It kind of puts us in a weird position, too, because our first record was all these dumb little love songs that I wrote when Kristyn and I got engaged. When we did this second record, we tried to get a little bit heavier and more personal with the songs, and focus on what we were trying to say. Some of them were about other people, some were about personal experiences – but the one that gets picked up off the record is probably the one that’s the most like a dumb little love song.
But it still has meaning to me. I could never write, like “Shape of You.” Like, “I’m in love with your body.” I feel like I’d show it to Kristyn and she’d be like, “Ew, this is gross, this is not you.” I could never write, like, “I want to take you home, girl your body looks so good.” It’s just not me.
We have a song on our record that’s called “Plugged In” that’s about the dumbing-down of society and being an anarchist, but the dumb little love songs catch on easier. So we’re wondering, should our next record just be like little love songs? Is that what people relate to?
I like the variety. I think it’s cool to have both ends of the spectrum.
I do, too. I think the truth is that we’re only going to be what we are. People have a bullshit detector, and we would never do something like, “Okay, so the market calls for a song that talks about love and this and blah blah blah, can you write a song that’s three minutes and thirty seconds” – you know, we just can’t write a song unless it feels authentic to us.
So, I guess the next records, whether it’s love songs, great, whether it’s not, great, whether it’s classical guitar – the most important thing is that it feels genuine to us, and I hope we can find a way to make it interesting to the listener.
Definitely. Last question: best advice for other songwriters?
Two things, really.
Don’t write about food. I’m a big fan of the band Pause, but anytime they sing about food, it takes me out of the zone. Like, chicken wings, baked beans, or hot french fries – I’m jamming thinking it’s a pretty catchy song, and then he says “chicken wings”, and I’m like, did he just say chicken wings?
And then a real thing – the best songs are ones that you can draw on the experience to write. Maybe it’s not something you experienced yourself, maybe it’s something you saw. Our song “Mostly” is about another couple that we know. But the best songs are the ones where you’re drawing upon things that you’ve experienced, or that you’ve felt yourself.
Because then it’s authentic. It’s really genuine. If somebody doesn’t like it, at least they can’t argue with the fact that it’s something that’s true for you.
I think that’s a powerful thing, when you create art that is genuine. People can argue about whether or not they like your song, but they can’t argue about whether or not it’s authentic.
But if you’re putting a song out about going to the club – I mean, maybe you did go the club, and maybe you are are in love with her body. But there’s an element of disingenuousness. Stay genuine.