In Macbeth, Shakespeare writes, "Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak/Whispers the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break." Faced with loss, we must give voice to our feelings so that we can begin some semblance of recovery. For Alain Johannes, there was no other option. In 2008, Natasha Shneider, his partner in every sense of the word--in romance, in friendship, and in music--died of cancer at the age of 42. They had been together for 25 years.
Out of this grief came Jonannes' solo release Spark (Rekords Rekords). On display are all of the emotions Johannes felt after Shneider's death, from grief to anger to celebration. The album was completed in only four days; in his words, Johannnes was "pregnant" with the inspiration and ideas for it. It just had to be made, because the lyrics were ready to burst forth. He made Spark much for his own benefit: to heal, and to pay tribute to Shneider. But while the inspiration part of the process was easy, it came from a very raw state. As Dante wrote, "No greater grief than to remember joy when misery is at hand."
Spark was released earlier this month. As one fan of Johannes said online, "He is the best musician in the world you've never heard of." His musical pedigree is without question: he was a founding member of the band Eleven, which began in 1990 with Flea and Hillel Slovak of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He has collaborated, either as a musician or a producer, with Chris Cornell, Queens of the Stone Age, Mark Lanegan, and The Desert Sessions. He is a touring member of Them Crooked Vultures and a regular member of Spinerette. A simple internet search will uncover legions of followers who worship his guitar playing. He is, according to anyone who knows music, a masterful musician. Watch him on the cigar box guitar and be rendered speechless. Then read my interview with Johannes after the video:
Poetry is a big one. I fell in love with poetry at an early age. I read a lot of the classics. I started speaking English when I was twelve and immersed myself completely in the language. I fell in love with ee cummings early on. But a lot of this is something that I am starting to discover now, writers like Whitman that I didn't get a chance to read when I was a kid, since I wasn't schooled in it.
How have poets affected your songwriting?
I would say, with ee cummings in particular, when you are learning English for the first time and you come from a Romance language like I did, the power of three or four words put together in a certain way really hit me, the way it created almost like a holographic explosion when the sum was bigger than its parts. I found that his economy and use of language, the way he played with language, was amazing.
But I can't imagine that cummings is a good poet for learning English, since he made up so many words.
Definitely. Since I traveled so much and I had to start a new paradigm with each language and country--my parents being musicians and bohemians in general--I used to do that too! Laughs.
What other writers do you like?
I fell in love with Charles Ives the composer. Since he was a New Englander from the same period as the Transcendentalists, I got into them as well. They always interested me since poetry is so philosophical and explores the nature of reality. I was always looking for something a little more elegant and poetic to explain the world.
When you write, are you thinking about your songs with a poetic mind?
Sometimes. Natasha was Russian and she had that heavy Russian influence in her thinking. That of course affected me a great deal. Through her I discovered a lot of writers who had to write almost in code to convey their various condemnations of Soviet life. Ingenuity in that way impressed me.
Whenever we had to make a record, we needed pressure to start creating because we didn't really write that much. So, for example, if we started to record on a Tuesday, we would get up that morning a little earlier than usual before taking the gear to the studio so that we could write the songs we would record that day. We had to build up this tremendous energy so that we had no choice but to write, and we also had to trust that it would come. I don't know if that happened because we both started in music very early, so there was a lot of facility in the actual musical expression as far as how we handled our instruments. The melodies would just come.
Inspiration is a funny thing. You can't call on it at will, but you can engage your experience and technique to start the process and hope it comes. However, very often we found ourselves wasting our time if we had no reason and we weren't inspired. Of course, we always had to keep something handy, because there might have been some creative inspiration or need to create in the middle of the night. But in terms of the lyrics, it was almost like dictation, like receiving a transmission from within.
So did poetry have an effect on your songwriting as far as how the words sound?
There's a musicality and melody to good poetry, so definitely. The funny thing is that a melody will come and I'll start searching for the dramatic arc, which usually involves how it sits with the harmony and the chords. Melody can be harmonized in so many ways, and it creates a completely different emotional response each time. Very often we'd find ourselves vowelizing, just singing with only vowels. And then these words would appear that weren't really words. That would dictate what the words would be, because those sounds would evolve into words.
From this we'd get a central image; sometimes it would be a title or a couple of words put together. Then suddenly we would have direction. Other times the music would dictate a feeling like bittersweetness or somberness or anger. Sometimes there would be tension between the lyrics and the song itself, which I really enjoyed.
So when you compose, do you have ideas, or are you a blank slate whose ideas come from playing the music?
It depends. With our band 11, a lot of our lyrics were just fiction. They usually came from a general desire to understand life better. In the early days, we were reading a lot of quantum physics book, trying to connect the dots to science, and we were interested in consciousness. We would write lyrics that were kind of new age in a way but were multi- layered. We tried to be simple like a poem, whether it was in tone form or from a different perspective, like the perspective of a flower or a plant and what's that like, for example the impulse of reaching toward the sun while carried on the back of a bee. People react to the universal messages, thinks that are anthropomorphic. These things that we think are human are also the impulses of life all around us, like survival. When survival is taken care of, then it's admiration of beauty, and that's so personal and cross cultural in so many ways.
In the case of Spark, the entire thing was about trying to cope with the loss of my best friend and love of my life and partner in music. The songs were coming completely unannounced over the course of a year, and each one has a different perspective. Some are celebratory, some are plain sad, and some are angry. But there there was no controlling that. I was fortunate that the entire arc of the eight songs is a complete thing, but not that much thought went into it. It came from a very raw state, the mourning state.
When you write about loss, there are two audiences: your readers or listeners, and you as the author. You are writing from a position of catharsis. In other words, you are really writing for yourself. How did you manage that?
Exactly. In terms of consciously balancing it, there was a need to express my emotions. I recorded the record on my own, played all the instruments and mixed it, in four days. I had a break from Crooked Vultures touring, and I was pregnant with this idea. There was no escaping it. Those four days were a hazy memory because they were so emotional and I had this incredible sense of purpose. It was so easy.
After that, when I stepped back, it looked like I had brought something up from my subconscious and set it in front of myself. There was a period of shock when she first passed. I read books about grief, but the process described in the books seemed to be a lot shorter than what I was going through. I was just trying reach and touch whatever essence of Natasha that was left in the universe. And I wanted to express things that I was unable to express in any other way.
Gauging by people's reactions to the records, the rawness was tempered a bit. People are curiously uplifted by it. Many people who don't know the backstory can still relate; a lot of people have called it raw, haunting, and beautiful. They might not even understand the history, so I guess I have managed to balance it well. I wish it was one of my chops or techniques to be able to accomplish that consciously. I didn't make this record to release it; I made it because I had to. It's my way to communicate my emotions in the best way possible, better than any way I could through just talking or writing.
Let's talk about your process. How disciplined are you as a writer?
A routine implies constancy, and in my case I do a lot of things. I work in the technical field as well, with production and mixing. I always find it difficult to start writing. I'm afraid of the intensity of what's to come. It can be joyous, but there's a certain amount of fear involved especially as I amass a body of work. Once I start, it's all good. The hard part is getting myself to sit down.
When you say you have a hard time sitting down, is it because you have so much to say that you have trouble organizing your thoughts?
Let's put it this way. There is a gnawing that happens, where I know the process is about to start. And it's not that I have so much to say, it's just that it's not clear to me. It's mental chatter without any structure or form. It's a burning in the solar plexus, a feeling of discomfort because I am about to embark on something and I am not sure how it is going to turn out.
I have forced myself a couple of times in moments where I clearly did not feel connected to inspiration, and I usually abandoned it straightaway so that it did not do any damage to my confidence.
So when you get started, how do your organize those thoughts?
I've become more economic. In the beginning I had a notebook, and stuff would be coming out in phrases, words, whatever. But now there's something about the officialness of typing on a computer, the way it looks so nice. It makes the writing process feel so serious, like "I'd better not mess around if I am typing this out." It's for real. Scribbles on paper are, for me, just a part of the process that will eventually make it to the printed page. But sometimes the image comes so quickly, and I can't type that fast.
In terms of solidifying it, I'll go into the control room with the instruments around me and the recorder ready to go, with pen and paper, so I can start the process. If one thing, like the melody and chords, are ahead of the rest, I'll go ahead and record that. I'll start singing over it.
How do you know when a song is done?
I listen as a listener. But I like a little imperfection. Like Leonard Cohen said: "There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."