I’m not good with change. I think that’s why I like Tyson Motsenbocker’s music.
Tyson, by proof of his songs and his own admission, is also a person who struggles with change. He’s had to deal with it in profound ways; he lost his mom to cancer, and a lot of his available material is centered around that experience, on the wrestling between moving forward and remembering well.
Most of his music aches with nostalgia. All of it’s starkly honest.
Because of that, it’s the kind of music that sticks with you – not the kind of music you blast during the summer and forget in the fall, but the kind that gets stitched into your life as you keep coming back to it.
A lot of sweet, catchy pop music is born from the idea that, within the span of a three-minute broadcast, you can unpack, process, and resolve an idea completely, probably in the form of some catchy one-liner. Like, “Here’s this, and here’s how you should feel about it. Hit em’ with the hook!”
I love that sometimes, and it usually sounds great with the windows down. But it’s like eating candy: quick, enjoyable, not fulfilling.
Tyson’s music doesn’t offer cheap solutions.
He’s processing change and loss more than delivering catchy one-liners, and even a lot of his choruses are questions more than answers. But, somewhere in his tracks – mixed in with the intimate vocals, the reverbed guitars, the subdued synths, the tactile storytelling – there’s something true.
And in a strange way, the honest asking is more satisfying than empty resolutions.
“Memphis” is a pretty good example of that. Born out of a time of changing relationships, it’s driving, raw, and definitely not a cheap answer. Go listen to it, and if you’ve got time, go listen to more, too. When you’re done, come back and dive into Tyson’s songwriting process, and get the story behind the song.
And keep listening. Because there’s comfort in returning to the same aching questions – maybe especially if you struggle with change.
How did you start writing songs?
Tyson: It always came – I don’t know if naturally is the right word – it wasn’t necessarily easy for me, but it was always something that felt right. I remember thinking that it was what everyone would kind of do. Like, you had music and then you’re playing the guitar or piano, and that felt like the most natural progression of holding any instrument was to make something up.
So you weren’t into covers as much, starting off?
Almost never. I think I learned “Wonderwall” when I was 12 years old. Maybe a couple of Beach Boys songs, a couple of Oasis songs. But yeah, that was kind of it. And from that point I was kind of always writing songs. I put a song in this poetry contest when I was in 5th grade. I won because nobody else submitted anything, so mine was the only submission.
So yeah, it always just felt like the most natural thing to do, to me, if you were holding an instrument, was to write something.
Was music in your family background?
Sort of. My dad was a trapeze artist in the circus. And the way that he got started in the circus was that as a kid he played in the band, like in the circus band. He played trumpet. So basically he would play the trumpet in the band – play the openings and closings. And then after everyone left the circus, they would all sleep in the circus tents, so all the kids would play on all the gear. And that’s how he learned how to be a flyer in the circus.
So he owned a guitar, and a banjo, and he still had his trumpet and stuff when I was really young – like 8, 9, 10 years old. But both he and my mom were really, really encouraging with anything creative. And the music seemed to be the thing that was most interesting to me as a kid, so they were really, really supportive.
Do you remember anything about some of the first songs you wrote?
Yeah. The first one that I did was a song about how I could never find my guitar pick. That was the one that I put in the contest that won.
Did you have a pick when you wrote it?
I think maybe I didn’t. I think that was my moment of frustration.
And then the second one that I wrote – and this doesn’t count – but I made up music, and then I couldn’t figure out how to make lyrics happen. So I stole the lyrics from The Wallflowers’ song “One Headlight”, and put those lyrics in the song but changed the melody and stuff. And then when I did that, that’s when I started realizing, “Oh, I could just have made up my own words. I didn’t need to steal The Wallflowers’ lyrics.”
When did it get more serious for you?
I think I always knew that it was something that I wanted to spend all of my time doing, more or less. That was my favorite thing to do. But it always felt sort of impossible to me. It didn’t feel like it was a realistic goal to try to be writing songs vocationally.
And I kind of actually carried that thought, like, “This is not a realistic goal to have,” or whatever – I carried that well into when I was doing it full time.
Even when I quit my job and I was touring full time, it was kind of just like, “This is a short runway. This won’t keep working.” And then it just kept working. And it was kind of recent – in the past 5-ish years – where I realized that this was something that I could do.
But I always took it really seriously. I had bands in high school and college and stuff that were really fun and that did decently well. I always took those seriously. But it never felt like a realistic goal. I always took it more seriously because I felt like there was value in it. When I was able to watch people connect with things that either myself or my friends and I had made, that always felt like one of the biggest rewards ever. That was way more rewarding for me than the idea of it being my job.
So yeah. When people would come up to me and say, like, “That was the song that I asked my wife to marry me to,” or, “When my grandma passed away, I listened to your record everyday for six months, and that’s what got me through it.” Those were always the things that made me super excited to write songs, way more than the idea of being able to tell someone on an airplane or something that I was a full time musician.
So airplane recognition was never the goal?
Yeah, I don’t really care about that at all. Pretty much all my favorite people do jobs. You have a job that you do, and then you make something really beautiful on the side that isn’t contingent upon you being able to monetize it. Which makes it way more pure and better. So, I don’t really hold the idea of being a vocational artist in high esteem. I’m way more interested in what’s being made.
When you’re writing songs, what’s your goal? Is it to connect with people? Or accomplish something more personal? Because so many of your subjects seem so personal, but they connect, too.
That’s such a good question. At the end of the road, I want to connect with people, obviously – I want people to be able to find footing in it. But if that’s my mentality going into writing, it never works. It doesn’t connect.
Because it’s leaving my experience, and my own experience is the only thing that I can use as grounding.
One thing that my friend taught me – there’s a guy who lives in San Diego here, he was a pop songwriter for a really long time. He wrote for Miley Cyrus, and the Jonas Brothers – kind of like Disney bands. But he’s this incredible, incredible songwriter. And he kind of just like figured out how to do pop music really well. And when I would bring him songs initially, I kind of had this mentality – I grew up in the Northwest. Like Seattle, Washington-ish – and there was sort of this mentality there that, in the indie rock days, especially – the Death Cab for Cutie times, which is what I grew up listening to – that you didn’t want things to be too accessible.
You wanted things to be a little bit too smart.
Like, if it was too easy to understand what you were doing, it sort of pointed to you being not very smart or not very cool or something. And my friend basically taught me – which was one of the best lessons that I ever learned in songwriting – he sat me down one day, and he said, “The way that you write songs is that you’re building this unbelievable room. You have this house, and it’s totally furnished, and it’s a cohesive place. The characters in your songs are real. The places are real to you. And those of us that can access those rooms are just blown away. We’re so excited to be there, because these places and people are super personal and real.
But you have to help people. It doesn’t matter how rad the room you build is if nobody can access it. You need to help people see what you see. You’ve got to put doors and windows in the house that you’ve built. You have to provide access points for people.”
And I think that’s increasingly more the case, as there’s more and more music for people to consume. You need to give them that moment where they can access it, and then you can go back to writing it more poetically.
So that was really, really good for me.
What are those access points? Are they lyrics where you’re saying something flat out?
I always thought about it with visuals. Like, the way that I would always write songs was that I’d try to paint these pictures for people where they could place themselves. And a lot of that was talking about landscape, or actual physical places – a lot of my songs have place names in them. Or talking about weather, and the feeling it brings. These sensory, tactile things.
But one of the things that he taught me was that those things are awesome, and they help a lot – but he thinks way more melodically than I do. And his thing is, if you can give somebody something where it’ll catch them and give them a reason to listen to it again and again and again – if that’s the case then they’ll really start to understand it.
For instance, the song “Can’t Come Home Again” is the best example ever. Because I brought that one to him, and I had the hook part – the guitar thing at the beginning – and then I had verses, and I had what I thought was a chorus, which actually ended up being the pre-chorus – this thing that goes to a 6 chord instead of a 2 chord, and it all starts on a 5 chord.
And he sat me down and was like, “All right, this song rules. I love the energy, I love the hook, I love the verses. But this song doesn’t have a chorus.”
And I was like, “Yeah it does! It’s this part, here!”
And he’s like, “That’s not a chorus.” And the moment that was super revealing to me was when he asked me what key the song was in. And I was like, “This song is in E.”
And he asked, “Have you played an E yet in the song?” And I hadn’t. There was no 1 chord in the song. It just danced around this resolution.
And he was like, “I love that. But I need a moment where the song rests for me. I’m happy to live in this tension during the verses and pre-choruses and stuff, but I need a moment to stand on the ground.”
And that’s how the chorus came about, which is why that song works. The chant-y, chorus thing, which has the 1 chord in it. That was some of the best advice I’d ever gotten.
At the time I was really pushing back on him, like, “You don’t get it. It’s not cool to go to the 1 chord,” or whatever. But that was some of the best advice I’ve ever got. And I’ve gone back to it. And I still think, “If I’m just listening to this on Spotify Discover Weekly or the radio or something, what’s going to make me want to listen to this again?”
Right. That part that just catches you.
Yeah. Because lyrically, I’m trying to figure out how to do something like switch the tenses at the end of the song – something where it goes from being in past tense to being in present tense, and have that change the whole meaning of the song, where it feels like you’ve been talking about something in the past but it turns out you’re talking about something in the present and that changes the meaning of the song.
But that super subtle change is only going to be accessible to people if you can give them a reason to really love the song.
So that’s been really meaningful advice.
So it’s about melodic accessibility just as much as lyric accessibility.
Yeah, and maybe even more so.
It’s super funny, because I was with my friends yesterday who are making a new record, and they have this bass line that was really great. And I was listening to it and I couldn’t figure out why it was so good. I was like, “Man, I just love this bass line – it’s so good.”
And I was talking to the bass player, and I realized, “Oh, it’s because it’s the most common bass line ever.” It’s like eighth notes, and it goes between the super standard chords – like the 1, the 5, the 3, the 6, or whatever – but then every second time it’ll go to a chord that you don’t expect. I don’t even remember what it was – the 2 or the 7, maybe.
But it’s so brilliant because it’s right down the middle, but then it throws you for a loop every once in a while.
And his joke was like, “Yeah, you’ve got to do the dance between the most obvious thing and a twist of personality change.”
Those always end up being the things that stick.
The human ear only has so much ability to latch onto certain things. And that’s why there’s the joke about every pop song fitting in the same algorithm. It’s not because people are lazy or stupid – they’re super smart and hardworking, the people who are making those songs. It’s because those are the things that make sense to the human ear and brain.
So if you can kind of find a way to sit inside of these frameworks that are proven, that people know sound good, but find a way to personalize them and make them more interesting and deviate from them just enough – not to lose people – but to make it interesting and new.
So how much of that did you understand as you first started writing songs? Did you have music theory background? And do you feel like you understand the rules more now than you did, or is that something you grew up in?
I had almost nothing. And that was actually a huge gift to me. There’s a This American Life where Ira Glass talks about creatives. He talks about making things. But what he says, which is something that I’d never realized was happening to me, was this idea: one of the great things about kids writing songs or making anything is that they don’t know when something’s bad. And that’s such a gift to them.
Because it doesn’t matter if it’s bad. Because the only way to make good things is to make a lot of things, which, ultimately, means making bad things. And when you get a little bit older, your taste evolves past your ability. So you know that the thing that you’re making is bad, which is really discouraging. And that’s what kind of kills most people’s drive to make things.
And one of the greatest gifts for me – part of it was my parents, who were super supportive, and part of it was just that I started so young – but I didn’t know that the things I was making were bad. I just knew that it was fun to make them.
And I was able to make a whole bunch of bad stuff without being discouraged. Before I realized that it was bad. My taste evolved at a similar pace as my ability to make things. Which is good, because all of us who are creatives – especially songwriters – we’re sensitive. When people don’t like the thing that you made, it sucks.
Yeah, that’s interesting – creativity before you even learn taste. Did you study music at all?
I was a music major for a second in college. I learned enough to be dangerous, I guess. But I think the greatest thing about all of it is that I used to write songs that were just asinine. There’s a book called Flowers for Algernon. It’s about this guy with a mental disability who’s experimented on. And he goes from having an IQ of 60 to being the most brilliant man in the world. And Algeron is the mouse that they tested it on, too, so the guy and the mouse are mirroring one another.
So I wrote a song in college, based on the book. And it musically followed that progression. It started out slow, and simple, and didn’t make any sense. And then it got way more complex as the story went on and the guy got smarter. And it sped up. And then, basically what happens in the book is that these triggers start happening, where he won’t remember something, which is out of character for him, or something like that. So toward the end of the song you start hitting wrong notes.
Anyway, it’s just this incredibly self-serious project that nobody would ever understand. But it was also super cool, because I thought it was a super cool project – to write a song about a book that followed a mouse, basically. And nobody would ever probably know about it.
So that was about the least successful thing in the world. But it was really fun – I loved making it, and at the end of the day, I was like, “This is such a cool thing that I did. Even if nobody else ever understands it, I’m glad that I did it.”
So later on, when it was important that I make songs people would understand, it was cool to think that I’d spent a lot of my life making whatever I wanted. And I still do.
But I guess now I don’t over-think things too much.
And that’s my advice to every songwriter. This is supposed to be really wonderful. It’s supposed to be hard, obviously. But this is something that can bring a lot of life and joy, to make these songs. And I think sometimes the tools that we get to make these songs, in the short run, are really hard to overcome. Because it just feels like you can’t use them perfectly, or it’s discouraging.
I think knowing the rules can make breaking them more meaningful.
Right. That’s exactly right. I have a couple of friends who live in Nashville who write pop and country songs, who do it everyday – they’re like co-writing every day. And those guys think about songwriting so much differently than I do. And they’re the kind of people that I would have looked down on when I was younger. But now I just have an incredible amount of respect for them. Because what they do is a really, really difficult craft.
But the difference between the two of us – my one friend, Ethan Hulse, who’s amazing – he’ll sit down and have parameters, and references, and lyric ideas, and theme ideas – and they’ll basically know, more or less, what the song is going to look like. They can pick a BPM and know exactly at what second the song is going to change. They have it laid out. And that’s awesome – they get tons of really great songs that way. And pretty much every song that they write is usable – like, they could pitch it to somebody.
Whereas, what I do is I’ll go sit down at the guitar or piano, and I’ll write a song four or five days in a week. So I’ll demo out three or four songs. And then I’ll throw away all four of them.
My goal is not to make something every day that’s useful, but to make something everyday just to make something – with the idea that I’m going to throw almost all of it away, but that out of that process something really great will rise to the surface.
And part of that is just the way that my brain works. I’m not as structured or disciplined as those guys – I don’t think as lineally as they do.
Right now, for the next record, I’ve got a Dropbox of 100 songs. Those are the ones that I didn’t throw in the garbage. And even out of those 100, there are probably only like 6 that will make it onto the next record.
And I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I didn’t use any of those songs.
Let’s get into the practical writing a little. So, you usually sit down at a guitar or piano – does the melody come first, or the music?
It’s almost always the musical idea. And a lot of the time, I kind of give myself some space for learning.
Recently, I haven’t really been able to write songs on the guitar, which is really sad because I play solo a lot, so it’s this learning process of trying to figure out how to translate the songs I’ve written on other instruments. But the reason that is is because I’ve played the guitar since I was seven years old. It’s easily my most comfortable instrument. And so it doesn’t feel like something where I’m discovering it.
Whereas the piano or Pro Tools are things that I don’t understand as well. So I’ll sit down at the piano, and I’ll try to find a chord, and I’ll be like, “Wow, I have no idea what that chord is, but it sounds really cool.” And a lot of the time, when I sit down at the piano, my goal isn’t even to write a song – it’s to find a new thing about the piano, or to listen to the sound of the piano, which is something I like to do. And that almost always translates into finding a chord that goes into another chord, and then it’ll be like, “I wonder what would happen if we made that into a little pre-chorus thing.”
For instance, the EP I just released, a bunch of those songs on there were written just from me trying to use Pro Tools. I’d sit down and open a session, and be like, “I wonder what this drum machine does.” And I’d get a beat, and be like, “That’s cool! I wonder what this does…” and so on.
And so I think, with the knowledge that I’m going to throw a ton of stuff away, it’s really freeing to me. The things I’m working on are a lot less precious. I’ll be like, “I like that! It sounds cool.” And I’ll make it, and then sit back, and be like, “Wow, that’s actually really good! Maybe that’ll go on the record.”
But I don’t think about it as being like, “Oh, I need five songs to go on the record.” I don’t really think like that at all.
Is that how A Kind Invitation Happened?
“A Kind Invitation” was actually the outlier of all outliers. I wrote that whole thing on an airplane between Dallas and San Diego. I wrote it basically verbatim – in one of my notebooks I have it written out almost exactly how it went on the album.
I love to write – narrative, or long form, or anything. But that was actually this really personal moment of me realizing that I avoid intimacy or serious relationships, because whenever anything starts to go wrong or look scary I just kind of cut bait. And it was this realization that the danger of life gets us all in the end, regardless. It was me realizing this on an airplane – it’s worth risking the good things in life, because the bad things happen anyway.
That was my realization, and I was thinking about these old fables where death and love are personified. And I really like that, so I was sitting there and I knew I wanted it to be a three part fable – with a beginning, middle, and end, that would follow this guy’s life – and I didn’t know, but I was like, maybe this kid’s fishing – it’s something a kid would do.
But yeah, I don’t always outline. Kind of the college way of outlining, and writing, and knowing where your song goes – that’s never how I do it. I find the song as I go along. I think of it like a play – I try to build the song, and then let it play out and see what happens.
And then I refine it a ton. But in the beginning stages I’m just like, “What are we going to find here? Who knows?”
That’s really interesting. Because a song like “Almira”, for instance, feels like a story that was cohesive inside of you, and writing the song was just a matter of taking it and putting it down. But you’re saying that even a song like that was discovered along the way?
Actually, Almira is funny because that experience was different. Everything in that song is kind of a narrative experience. I found the town my mom had grown up in, on accident, after she’d passed away.
But that one’s really interesting, because I feel like I found that one, and found that idea, and knew that it was really important to me – which is rare. Most of the time, the songs that I write, I’m planning on not using them, which allows me to do what I want to do. But Almira, when I had that experience, it was such a profound experiencee. And it felt like a poetic moment for me, obviously. It was just a big moment in my life, to find this place.
And I wrote it. That kind of experience has happened a number of times, where I know that something is going to be important to me. Usually those songs come really fast – they just come out. But Almira was a really hard one, actually. I probably wrote like 10 different verses for it. And I knew that I wanted the last verse to be now – I knew that I wanted it to start then, and end now. And I knew that I wanted it to end how it ends on the record, about the voice mails.
But trying to find a way to explain that, with just a couple of verses and a chorus – to lay out this dying little farm town, and all of the themes in that that I was feeling at the time – it was hard.
The biggest theme for me was the idea of sequences of events in our lives. That was kind of the theme of that song, what I was trying to relate – that we expect our lives to go one way, we play out the sequences of our lives. And one of the big things of growing up is when things happen out of sequence. In that song, what it is is that I always expected to go back to that town with my mom someday, and have her show me around and tell me about the town.
But the roles had switched, and my mom was gone and the town was showing me about her.
So the challenge was explaining that with the few tools that I had – a graffiti covered barn, finding something by accident, trying to play that all out. It was really hard, actually, and took me a bunch of different edits to get it to where I wanted it. But it was also the rare song where, when I finally got the last edit, I was like, “Oh, that’s it. I found it. I finally found the song, and it’s there, and it’s done.”
Yeah, I think you captured it super well with what you’ve got down.
Thanks, man. It’s such a simple tune, so it’s cool to hear you say that.
Let’s dive into Memphis. To me, this seems like a track that was based on a cohesive experience, instead of finding something you didn’t expect. Is that true?
It was kind of both. With “Almira”, I had an experience that I was trying to capture. With “Memphis”, it was more of a feeling than anything else.
The story behind “Memphis” comes out of my time after graduating college. It was after the recession – 2009, 2010. And myself and my friends, none of us could get jobs anywhere. We were all taking jobs in the places we were living, but not good ones. So I’d started dating a girl who lived in LA, and I’d just learned how to surf, and it was all I wanted to do. And so I was like, “Well shoot, if I’m going to work at a Starbucks, I’d rather live by the beach and go surfing.”
So I moved down here to San Diego, and like 10 of my friends from college all followed me. Nobody could get jobs, so we were like, “Might as well do it together.”
Yeah, it was really great. We had a really great time. But there was kind of that moment – one of our friend’s dads called us and told us that we were wasting our twenties, and that we were just wasting our lives away basically, just sitting around.
And one of my best friends, my roommate from college, he got married and moved. And he moved to Memphis from San Diego. It was the first time that any of us had done anything really selfless. Like, he didn’t want to move to Memphis – he wanted to stay here. But he loved this girl, so he agreed to leave.
It was this really bittersweet moment for me – of feeling really sad that this really sweet era of us all hanging out together at the beach was ending, and also this other feeling. Like, “Man, I’m not super fulfilled by living completely for myself. My entire goal of my life is just to have fun all the time, and I don’t feel better than when I was working at school or living for someone else.”
So that song is me trying simultaneously to grieve the end of an era and a friend moving away, and also question my own motives a little bit – like, “Maybe the reason why I feel sad is that I’m just waiting for my reason to leave.”
Really, what that meant was leaving that time in my life of being completely selfish and living for myself. The line, “Day drinking in the sunshine” – that was just kind of what we did.
Yeah, so that’s what that song’s about.
How did the music come together?
On the musical side, I came up with that little bouncy guitar part, and I played it for my friend Bumper – he’s a drummer. He’s an amazing drummer. He’s really good at snare stuff, in particular – he came up with that really weird kind of march that follows the guitar part. So it’s like a snare drum thing with big bundles that follows the guitar part. And that was when it really came alive to me. Like, “Oh, wow, this drum thing is really interesting, and it really fits the song.”
And we actually recorded that song – the drums and a bunch of the stuff – for the Letters for Lost Loves LP, the full length record. But the producer on the LP didn’t think it was working, and so it got cut. So I was just sitting on this Pro Tools session of this song that I really liked.
But I revisited it when I was putting songs together for these EPs, and I was like, “Man, I really like this.” And I kind of went in and fixed it up, and then I tracked everything else out here with one other friend. And it worked, and we put it on the record.
That song’s one of the ones that has the most going on in it. I kind of just wanted it to feel like this mass of weird sound. I was just trying to emulate that moment in my life, that felt really ungrounded – trying to find a new purpose, and renegotiate my place in the world a little bit.
It’s interesting to me that Memphis follows Almira. Because Almira’s so sparse, and it’s tossing around those ideas around growing up – and then Memphis is a jolt of energy.
Yeah, totally. And putting the record together, the label was like, “Are you sure you want to do that?” Because Almira is just one guitar, and then there’s another little guitar that comes in, and that’s all. And then Memphis is like, “BAM!”
And I was like, “Yeah, I think that’s what I want.”
That’s one place that I do overthink with my records. I really do want them to feel like they’re telling a story. And that, for me – even thinking about that moment, when my friend was getting married and moving to Memphis – was like, “Woah.” So that’s how the song comes in – from a quiet place to that feeling.
I love the first line. Where’d that come from?
Busy fear is rustling like insects in the leaves
We are busy watching them fall down from the trees
There are a few trees in San Diego that are confused about where they live. But I was thinking about the seasons, and how, in California, it’s really hard for me to notice time passing. So that was me trying to find some kind of visual representation of how my life was changing. Because it’s all palm trees and 70 degrees here – but at that time, everything was changing. So I wanted to find a representation of that in the world, because it seemed like the world was passing me by.
The song ends on the sound of a breath. I was waiting for the resolution, but it ends empty, with a breath, and it feels like you’re walking offstage or something. How’d that happen?
I’m glad you noticed that. I love that part. I love how there’s that tom fill – there’s no crash, there’s nothing, it just stops super abruptly.
So, when I was doing the acoustic guitars, we had this really old Gibson – like this early-60s Gibson – and it was down-tuned to drop D.
And this guitar was not holding in tune – it was really hard to keep it in tune. And so I was sitting on this stool, and I’d tune it on the tuner, and then I wouldn’t be able to move. And I’d play the song all the way through, and by the end of the song, the guitar was already starting to go out. So it was really, really stressful to try to get through that song playing that part without it going out of tune. And that breath is me being like, “Ah, I made it.”
It’s on the acoustic guitar track – like, “Ahh, okay, I made it through that.” And on the first mix of the song, the guy left it in. And I was kind of surprised, because that’s always the stuff that gets taken out. And he was like, “Dude, it needed it – the end of the song needs something there.”
And he’s right. The end of the song is so abrupt, there’s so much noise – it needs a place where you can breathe. It’s what you’re doing in real time. And I loved it.
Yeah, there were a couple of things on those EPs that normally would’ve been taken out. Like, on “Almira”, there are a couple of little mistakes on the acoustic guitar part. Because I did it basically in one take, and I could have gone in and fixed it super easily, but I left a bunch of mistakes in that – and there are a couple of mistakes in “Coeur d’Alene”, also. Because I didn’t want to make it too perfect. I kind of left all of those human mistakes in there on purpose – at least the ones that aren’t distracting.
Yeah, it makes it feel more raw and honest, which I think is in keeping with the feeling of the EP.
So how did you write the chorus?
That was together with a couple of friends of mine – Bumper the drummer, and then the pop song writer was playing bass -we were at his house. And that song’s hard, because with the beat, it’s hard to break into a new section. It kind of just follows the two chords that go back and forth through the verses. So we actually spent like a whole day trying to figure out how to make that part work.
Lyrically, it was just this realization that, “Okay, this is how I feel about it. I’m going to miss this person a lot, but I understand why he’s leaving. And it actually points back to myself a little bit, too.” So that was the thought, and it was a way to keep it going with that drum part.
And initially, there was actually a bigger repeating fill that happened in the chorus. But we simplified it.
Actually, it’s funny to look back and remember how things happen. Because the phrasing of that chorus was built all around this drum part that Bumper was doing, that ended up getting cut, because it felt a little too busy there. But that’s why it’s phrased the way it is.
How’d you know when you had the final cut – when everything was in there?
That’s like the hardest thing to know. It’s so impossible to know.
I think that, overwhelmingly, my process is to just throw stuff in and then cut it. Because when I get too serious – and I do try to be meticulous and do things really well – but I’m also all about “throw and cut”.
In that one, some of the last things we did are some of my favorite things. Those little parts in some of the verses that the bass does, and there’s a synth line and a piano that follows it – but the last thing I did is, I put this slide guitar part on it. And it’s just super messy – it’s like a Tele through a little tiny amp that’s really distorted, and it’s doing all of these really wild slide parts that are chaotic. And I did that, and then I was like, “Okay, I think I’m getting a little bit too experimental here. It’s probably done.”
And I sent that over to to my friend to mix, and he kind of buried that part in the mix – like, it’s way down. And I thought that was a good sign that where I was going creatively wasn’t going to help anymore.
What do you want people to take away from this song?
Man, yeah. That’s such a good question, because that’s something that I do think about for all of my songs. And this one was more out of a moment of grief than anything – and like a gift to my friend, and a reminder to myself to be watching my motives. But I think I just want people to live inside that tension: how do we move through our lives gracefully watching things change without holding onto them too tightly – but also honoring their memories?
And I think that that is a little bit of a different way than I’ve done it in the past – like with people dying, or huge changes happening. I’ve historically done really badly with change, or with things ending. I’m not good at things ending – I kind of hope that they’ll stay the same all the time.
And so it’s about reminding myself that change is progress. It’s good. It’s how we evolve, and grow, and become stronger, and better. To hold on too tightly is ultimately to do yourself and the world a disservice.
So in that song, I’m saying, instead of “I wish you weren’t leaving,” it’s more, “No, I ‘m sad that you’re leaving, but I understand why – and in fact, I can learn something from it.
Yeah, that’s interesting. I think your representation of change is one of the things that really catches me about your music.
Yeah, it was really funny, because I got a review recently on one of the EPs that I thought was really good. This reviewer said, “These new EPs are steeped in the ideas of sentimental loss and nostalgia.” And he said it shows how in tune I am with my fans. And I was like, “No, not at all!”
But it was also really cool to think that that is what I’ve been doing, and it is what I like to do, and it is where I find the most emotion out of my own writing – to be able to look back, and project forward at the same time. It was even a cool thought, to be like, “Oh, this person understands me even better than I do.” And it was kind of a nice moment to reflect on why people like my music, I guess.
So what’s next in terms of music and shows?
So I’m definitely doing West coast in April and May. And then hitting the east coast in September.
And then there’s a bunch of other stuff in talks, but nothing that’s for sure.
And as far as any new music, it’ll be – I’m hoping – soon.
I love making records, and hopefully I’ll be able to do it sooner than later.
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