If you are expecting Stu McLamb, leader of The Love Language, to talk about all the drama that led up to his first album—you know, the breakup—you won’t find it here. After the endless internet fixation on it last year, neither of us had any interest in revisiting that topic. What we did talk about was how McLamb writes. And that’s an overlooked topic—but one that should be discussed, because the man can write a great melody.
The Love Language’s new release is Libraries (Merge Records). McLamb talks about the new release having a “beach vibe.” We talked on the phone before the band was about to begin their tour in support of Libraries. I was impressed by the focus with which he approaches the melody side of the writing process. With McLamb, the melody always comes first, in two ways. One, it’s the first thing he writes. And two, it’s the most important part of the song. To say he is meticulous in the crafting of his melodies would be an understatement. In his own words, he “obsesses” over them.
And for the first time on this blog, you can not only read about a songwriter’s writing process, you can watch the process in action. At one point, we even see him writing in his notebook! So read my interview with Stu McLamb after the video. He talks about his ability as a freestyler in the studio, how he speaks in tongues, his power walking talents, and how the internet helps him rhyme.
How did you start as a writer? Did you start as a songwriter, or were you into other genres?
I remember never thinking about myself as a writer much. I was more into visual art and drawing as a child. My seventh grade English teacher told me he really liked my writing, and that did a lot for my confidence. It wasn’t like I had a low self-esteem about my writing; it’s just that I never thought about myself as a good writer. But once he said that, I started thinking about my potential to write.
Other than that, my interests still stayed with visual art. I always appreciated music, but I never though about creating it. So as far as songwriting, I started out writing silly songs; my first project was with a buddy and it was almost like a Spinal Tap goofy thing. We had songs like “Rock Rocket.” I think that’s because I wanted to express myself musically, but I didn’t feel like I could write a more serious song. I had a lot of respect for great songwriters, and I thought, “Man, I just can’t do that.” What got me into writing serious music was when I joined the Capulets as the guitar player during my junior and senior year of college at East Carolina. I was inspired by a band member’s songwriting, and I attempted to write songs that I wanted to be taken seriously.
Talk to me about your writing process.
I always write melodies first. I probably obsess over them way too long. Before I even start thinking about lyrics, I’ll sit at the piano and play a melody upwards of fifty times until it’s ingrained in my head. I think about all the phrasing and the syllables to match the melody as close as I can. I get interesting things musically when I write the lyrics, but it always starts with melody.
I rarely have just a spark of an idea that I want to communicate. I usually listen to the melody, and that creates a mood for me. Sometimes I’ll start to record a rough demo of a song, kind of like I am a composer. I’ll write the melody, then start laying down bass line, percussion, and hooks, so I am creating an instrumental track that will develop a mood. Then it will become more clear to me in what direction that lyrics should go.
I’ve gone so far as to freestyle. It won’t even be English—it will just be gibberish, very much like the vocal as another instrument. So I’ll listen to my freestyle, and I’ll get some ideas. On “Lalita,” I did this speaking in tongues thing, singing nonsense words, and “tiny conversations” was some line that came out. I built some lines around that phrase. That’s usually how it starts. One line will kind of jump out when I am freestyling that will spark more ideas that I’ll base my writing around. It’s not rapping—it’s freestyle singing. I am never the kind of guy who sits on the corner of his bed and strums an acoustic while writing lyrics to it.
You say that ideas don’t jump out at you, but do any themes inspire you?
It depends on the song. With some songs, I’ve had a melody for for three years before the lyrics get finished, and I’ve had some songs where the lyrics make no sense and just fit the vibe of the song. Then I’ll have some songs where I’ll be thinking about a certain person or situation in my life where the inspiration can just flood in. “Manteo” was one of those songs that I wrote in about thirty minutes, where the lyrics all just poured in.
I am not a very organized person in so many ways—even some of my thoughts. So my songs are never about a certain person. Like our first record; it got so much press about how it was a break-up album. The breakup was very much a catalyst, but there’s maybe one song that is strictly about that one person. It’s really a combination of many people and friends and situations in my life. I was writing about myself sometimes, and sometimes I was writing about other people. “Manteo” was inspired by a friend of mine whose parents were heroin addicts. I was talking to him a couple of nights before I wrote the song. He had a hard upbringing, but I had also just broken up with a girl—it wasn’t THE break up—so I had a combination of emotions. The song starts with lyrics about my friend and about loss. There were all these mixed feeling in the song, but they all fit together. That’s one thing about pairing words with melody: it’s a beautiful mess.
I read somewhere where you said, “Making a record out of good circumstances is far more enjoyable.” How was writing for this record different from writing the first one? For some people, it’s a lot easier to write from a place of pain.
That’s a great question. I’ve never really thought about that before. Writing from that raw heart emotional place was cathartic, and it did give me a lot of pleasure to write about circumstances in my life that I would never want to go through again. That’s what I was referring to when I said “more enjoyable.” All the stuff leading up to the writing was horrible to go through, but there is probably no bigger sense of joy than when those first songs were happening and I was going through that pain and writing about it. So that was a great experience of writing, but what it took to get me there was not very enjoyable.
With this record, a lot of themes are similar—breakups, loss—that are a part of everyone’s life, but my heart wasn’t as raw this time around. So this process was not as emotional. Instead, the music and production were more at the forefront for me.
Some great poems are written out of pain and loss. Even though an event is painful, it’s a lot easier to write about. We tend to remember pain more than happiness—it tends to have a more indelible mark on our psyche.
Yeah, that’s great. I’ll always be that writer who wants to make sense out of a painful situation, but I don’t want to be that artist who perpetually has drama. That’s not the way I want to live. At the same time, Mick Jagger is a great lyricist and he writes really cool lines and upbeat rock songs. So there are other ways to be a great songwriter without being somber and ego-fueled.
Let’s talk about the physical part of your writing process. Do you have a routine?
A lot of times I don’t start with an idea. It’s usually sparked by a word. It really takes something to jump start my brain. Sometimes I’ll be flipping through books looking for words, and that will give me an idea. I have a strange writing style—it’s so much a part of the music for me. But I do care about the words. I spend a lot of time honing. I’ve written probably three times as many compositions and melodies as I have songs, because the lyrics are so hard for me to write and I always want to be patient.
Let me give you a couple of examples. Usually inspiration strikes when I get excited about the melodies, and the words then come to me freely. Back to “Manteo”—I was about to go to bed. I was literally under the covers, with my electric guitar strumming, about to fall asleep. And in that mood, I started strumming this lullaby, a very soft song. It was weird. my brain was shutting down but my fingers were moving, and this melody popped up. It woke me up a little bit. I was really interested in the melody, so then I constructed the chords and the melody for the song. I was so floored. I jumped out of bed and smoked half a pack of cigarettes on my back porch, just writing down lines as they came. Some great ones, some horrible ones. But I stayed up all night smoking cigarettes and writing on a little pad.
With another song that ended up being “Summer Dust” on the new record, I recorded a demo and had an idea for a melody. I recorded drums and bass, so I had this instrumental track. I was really pumped with how it sounded, so I put it on my Discman. I remember sitting in my room, listening to it, trying to write lyrics. And it was not happening. So I just walked through the neighborhood. I had a pen and paper and the music playing through my headphones. I walked like three miles while chain smoking. I can just picture it: this weirdo, power walking through the neighborhood and chain smoking. A lot of the lines came to me doing that. Just getting out in a different environment worked really well for me.
If you could create the perfect writing environment, what would it be?
A log cabin in the middle of nowhere, with a fridge stocked with tons of food and booze. And obviously cigarettes. I need to be in isolation when I write. I need a private setting.
How do you know when a song is done? When are you ready to let it go?
I’ve definitely had situations where I settled, but there are times when I want to do something on the level of John Lennon. I really have high expectations for myself, and it’s frustrating to have to settle sometimes. I know I am done when there is nothing that truly sucks. Writing takes a lot of work for me. There are a lot of times when I will say, “Well that sucks, I have to redo that.”
On major labels, there are editors who tell people to redo things, but in indie rock you are your own editor. For me, it’s about quality, not quantity. I don’t write a lot, but I spend a lot of time on what I do write.
As your own editor, how do you revise your lyrics? After you’ve written the first draft of a song, what do you look for, what do you change?
There’s been songs where I’ve written some lines and realized they were totally wrong for the song. But there could be a month before I come back to it with something better, a complete overhaul, maybe a totally different subject.
Sometimes there’s a lazy rhyme here and there. I hate to admit this, but I love your blog, so I will admit it, but I have definitely used rhymezone.com. Laughs. I don’t do it all the time, but I have gone that far before. I’ll be like, "Man, my vocab is not that good. I say dude way too often." But rhymezone.com helps sometimes. I try to keep my lyrics simple, not too deep.
I love that. It’s such an honest answer. It’s like those people who say never to trust Wikipedia and yet they are the first people to use it when they want information. I am sure lots of people use rhymezone.com. They just won’t admit it.
I used to date this girl who was a songwriter, and we would joke about that. She would say she was working on a song. I would say,”Are you rhymezoning?” And she would say, “Totally.” Laughs.
How much reading do you get to do on tour?
Not nearly as much as I’d like to. Recently I picked up the David Eggers’ book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It’s great. He’s brilliant.
You live in Raleigh. How does living there affect your writing process? Is that a good place to write?
Well, it depends on how you life your life. I am able to find plenty of drama here. I definitely think that Southern gothic might be present in my writing. A lot of the songs have a haunting quality that is influenced by the South in some way.
If someone were to say, “Stuart writes about X,” what would they say?
I’d say I write about the complications in relationships, both platonic and romantic. Rather than make sense of those and offer a solution, I take all the confusion and offer a glimpse of hope about it. In the end there’s some salvation that you can’t quite put your finger on.
Feb 9, 2011 update: read my interview with McLamb in today's Baltimore Sun.