Some of the interviews on this blog have come about because one of the interviewees mentions a favorite band or knows someone who I think would be a good fit for this blog. In this case, when I interviewed Brian Roberts of Ha Ha Tonka, several times he mentioned Someone Still Loves You, Boris Yeltsin. Since Ha Ha Tonka is a fantastic band, I figured Roberts was right. And he was.
SSLYBY is a Springfield, Missouri based band with a new release, Let it Sway, out August 17 on Polyvinyl Records. It’s produced by Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie. Last week I spoke with guitarist and songwriter John Robert Cardwell about his writing process. And about how he’s read the whole Hardy Boys collection (thought it must be said that he is also a Tolstoy fan). So read the interview after you watch this great video by the band about the making of Let it Sway.
How did you start as writer?
I didn’t write a lot as a kid. I read a lot, but my main passion was drawing. I was really into art from an early age, even though it’s something I hardly ever do anymore. I was doing mostly pencil sketches. I took some art classes and also did some chalks and acrylics, but mostly pencils.
How do you think being an artist prepared you for being a writer?
Both involve a desire to make something new. In sketching, I was into sketching things around me that I would see, and that’s usually how my songwriting works. Taking something around me and giving it a new perspective.
Take me through your writing process. What do you start with first?
Most often I start with a melody in my head. Then I’ll pick up the guitar and get the chords to fit. Last, I’ll put the melody into words. It starts with a vibe. I try to find words that sound good. Sometimes I’ll tell a story, sometimes it won’t make sense at all, but I do want the words to sound good.
Do you follow a disciplined routine?
Not really. I’ve usually always got a guitar near me, and when an idea comes I’ll grab it and try to flesh out the idea. I just recently got a home recording system, a digital four-track about the size of an iPod, so I can get ideas down before they are lost forever.
A lot of the writers I admire are disciplined. They sit down, whether they want to or not, and just write. I am not like that. It’s more about writing when the idea comes. I have a short attention span and get distracted really easily.
What is your preferred method of composing?
Up until now, I’ve always used my cell phone. It has just enough memory to get down a melody line of me beating on the table or something like that. When I am getting serious about writing songs, as it gets closer to recording, I carry around one of those moleskin journals that I’ll always have handy when a lyric comes.
I’ve never been able to write on the computer. Even when I was in school, I always had to handwrite things, then transfer it to the computer. I just can’t imagine typing anything freeform.
Are you a night owl when it comes to composing?
Yep. And altered states help as well (Laughs), though you don’t want to look back on what you wrote and see that none of it makes sense. But it can spur you on if you are stuck.
So what do you do when you have writer’s block?
I tend to be a moody person. I have up days and down days. With a down day, where nothing is coming, I can usually trust that it won’t last long because something will come in the up days.
Describe your perfect writing environment.
I like to get outside. No specific place, jut outdoors. At home there are too many distractions, so I try to get away from my daily routine. Maybe just a park.
What about your revision process?
That seems to come with staring at the words. I don’t really write anything that’s not meant to be sung, so I’ll get down some words that I like and sing them. On paper is one thing, but coming out of your mouth is different.
How do you know when song is done?
A song has to be 75-80% done before I can share it with other people. But sometimes I’ll get a riff and bring that to the band. When I do that, though, I have to know where I want to go.
Any predominating themes in your writing?
I would say family. I spend a lot of time thinking about that.
How about literary inspirations?
Definitely the Hardy boys. I read them a lot as a kid. I had the whole series. Also JD Salinger, Jonathan Franzen and Mark Twain. And I love the Russian greats like Tolstoy and Nabokov.