When Tyson Vogel's publicist told me that Vogel would be a good fit for the type of interview I do on this site, I was hardly surprised. I mean, as an English PhD, how could I not be excited to talk to an artist whose band is named after a James Joyce short story?
But we are not here to talk about Vogel's band Two Gallants. We are here to talk about his new solo project Devotionals, released this week on Alive Records. It's certainly a departure from his Two Gallants work, built around Vogel's guitar compositions and laced with violin and other accompaniments. In fact, it's not just a departure--it's a sea change.
In our conversation, I was struck by the intensity with which Vogel approaches his writing process. He elevates writing to an art form (as he should) in his discussion of it as a creative outlet, which is not surprising considering that he once thought he he would end up a painter--but only at night, after working his day job as a carpenter or a gardener. He also has an unusual meta-awareness of his writing process; I can tell it's something he thinks about a lot. When you read what he says, you'll understand what I mean. For example, Vogel doesn't have a prescribed writing routine, because he is pretty much writing all the time. And his take on writer's block and when to let a song go? Fascinating.
So read my interview with Tyson Vogel. He'll talk about his favorite perch, how he wouldn't mind writing in front of a trash dump, what's in his little black book, and who he'd like to have with him in his perfect writing environment.
How did your band get the name Two Gallants?
Both Adam and I were reading Dubliners at the same time. He and I are both avid readers, and we were joking that the story represented us in our relationship as friends. And also being people who have our hearts broken every day by pretty girls we can't talk to. Laughs. So it was like being a gallant individual: old fashioned.
Besides Joyce, then, name some of your literary inspirations.
I read a lot of poetry. Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot, for example. I missed Eliot when I was younger and discovered him as an adult. Also, Faulkner is an important author for me, and Cormac McCarthy as of late has been very potent. Laughs. I've been reading all of his books in chronological order, and I am on his ninth.
When you say Faulkner was important, what do you mean?
For the most part, it's his vision. Both Faulkner and McCarthy have a beautiful, similar language. You get a sense reading their books that it's part of a larger schema, getting this feeling and physical vision out. With McCarthy, it's about simplicity: he uses little punctuation, and he has long rambling beautiful statements with a sense of pregnancy. You are always wanting to see what he is going to come up with next. I also like Flannery O'Connor. There's a song like quality to these authors, and I like seeing how they express a very simple idea that is important to me. They have eloquence and originality in a very basic sense of communication.
So are you a Southern lit fan?
I've been interested in that period of American history. I am more interested in a sense of darkness that maybe by coincidence is also based on that region.
Did you always want to be a writer? Did you write poetry at a young age? A lot of songwriters I've talked to started out that way.
As a young person, I had a hard time reading but I really loved it, how it nurtured my imagination. Now I'll read a poem and appreciate the language, which shows that I am creating my own language. The brevity of poetry written at young age shows that you may not have breadth of language or experience yet to write about. You don't have communication down, or the ability to express large feelings in a few lines.
That's an interesting point. Are kids capable of writing good poetry, because they don't have an awareness of consciousness?
Some people get it at different ages. People who were exposed to maybe more jarring experiences at a young age, when they had to realize their place and be aware of what is going on within them. So maybe that maturity comes with everybody at some point.
Did you always want to be a songwriter?
Music has always been the center for me, but I never thought I would be doing it for this long. I wanted to be a painter. I thought I would become a carpenter or a gardener by day and work on my art at night. I didn't know that it would involve both day and night. It's a complete honor. Sometimes I feel guilty about it.
Talk about your writing process.
I write as much as possible, and I have many different forms. I have about ten little pocket-sized books that address certain matters, something as simple as "love life." This way I can compartmentalize the experience and still write as much as possible. I'll write on them whenever: in a bus, in a dark corner of a bar. Or when I wake up in the morning. Sometimes I'll wake up in the middle of the night and have to write.
Most of the time it's about trying to get these things out of the brain and the heart, and to be able to look at them and keep moving forward. With that, it's been really interesting to have this library of stuff, even though I try not to reread it too much until it's appropriate. So when I have them all together, it's an interesting totality of experience, and often I'll find a common thread of experiences among all of them, even though they might be addressing different things.
Do your journals each have their own subject matter?
Yeah, for example, one little black one I take when I go drinking. Laughs. And one with a flower pattern that I take out every day in the daytime. And there's one larger one that I keep at home that I'll write in that when I'm contemplating general things. I use these journals as a way to organize my life. Emotionally and thematically.
So you go by the inspiration of you muse?
Yeah, I try to make it more than a routine. For me, the routine is at any moment. I don't sit down often and decide to write. I like having it at my fingertips and having it there at any moment, which allows me to stay aware of the things around me.
I like that. With a lot of people, there's a specific routine.
I've often thought of the routine of art, whether it's painting or writing or music. And I guess one can get up, have a cup of coffee, and write for five hours. As musicians, we do that as well, but it's about sound that's irrevocably an emotional experience, even if it's playing just one note. With us, there can't be too much routine. There has to be awareness of what's around you. Applying that to the writing process, it allows us to be driven more by inspiration and by the moment when it hits you.
Is there anything you must have when you write?
Not really anything in particular, but one thing I depend on is having a view. I've been thinking about this recently, since I live in San Francisco and grew up in the city. I've been thinking about writing how the landscape of this city has formed my personal character landscape. There's so much variation in the city, the physical ups and downs of the views and the hills. I've grown very fond of being on some sort of perch when I am writing, having something so majestic and vast to look over, even if its downtown or a graveyard or a dump. If I can find this one little moment over a landscape, it inspires me to let go and write. I like to be among absolutely everything, yet alone. Oh, and I would also like a glass of Scotch now and then.
Would your writing differ if I asked you to write overlooking a dump, as opposed to a forest or the water?
That's a great question. I often think about that. Context affects the person until they become so well-versed within themselves and their writing style that none of that ends up mattering. I might even write better in front of a trash can than in front of a city scape, where I can be more inspired. So while the writing might be better in front of a trash dump, overlooking the city there would be more to say, more substance.
Do you ever have writer's block?
I never really have it, but there are times when I feel a lack, an emptiness. The phrase "writer's block" annoys me because people focus on the block. Once they focus on the block, they start to feel a numbness that they can't get out of. I look at it more as an important part of the process--that maybe you are digesting something that you have no control over that will eventually find its way out. So in that process, don't focus on the block, but on continuing to write. Even if it feels meaningless, because once that thing inside you is freed and the block is cleared, you will be more ready to put it out in its correct form.
Hoe do you know when a song is done and ready to be let go?
It sounds so lofty, but it's a feeling. You just have to accept that it won't be done, but that you've achieved a certain amount of representation that will allow you to move on to something more. With writers, take McCarthy again: 15 books over around 30 years. He just continued on the same sort of path. With music it's the same way. I guess it's more like its a short story: every song is its own little universe. The way I see it, it asks to be let go. You have to let go. With songwriting, if you don't let go, you'll never progress. That's also the beauty of life. if you hold on to something too long and the moment passes, it may not have relevance anymore.
What your perfect writing environment?
Laughs. On the top of some building downtown San Francisco looking south, at around 6pm as the sun descends over the Mission district and the city descends into the darkness. There is one person I would like to be next to me, but I can't tell you who that is. Laughs
What topics inspire you thematically?
That's interesting. I've never really thought about that. The experience of the heart as both victim and hero. And I am trying to define the life of that process and the back and forth. I find myself getting stuck on the little things in life that either slaughter us or liberate us.