We've all seen the notepad and pen combination bedside at almost every hotel. But what might be a doodling pad to you could end up being the host to the next set of Alberta Cross lyrics. You see, many of the songwriters on this site have something special where they like to write their song lyrics or ideas. It can be a moleskin journal, a notebook, or an iPhone. But Petter Ericson Stakee, the singer/songwriter and guitarist for Alberta Cross, prefers whatever he can get his hands on. And since he spends so much time in hotels, it usually ends up being these bedside notepads. It's just one part of a process that relies on inspiration more than routine, even if it means, as you'll read, writing in the back seat of a van parked outside a venue in Florida (an impressive ability to withstand heat from a guy born in Sweden).
The band just completed a tour and begins work soon on their new album. Their last album, Broken Side of Time (ATO Records), came out last year.
So read my interview with Stakee as we talk about his creative process. You'll also learn what DVDs he carried on the last tour for inspiration, how radio can crush his creative process, and all about the dance moves he created as a Michael Jackson fan when he was a kid.
I grew up in a musical family. My dad and older brother played music, so I've always been around it. The early stuff I wrote was when I was eight or nine. I couldn't play guitar, but I could play a bit of piano. I just wrote lyrics. And also some dance routines, some that would go along with every sentence. When I was a kid, I was really into Prince and Michael Jackson and stuff like.
But who wasn't into Michael Jackson and Prince when they were a kid?
I still love him, but when I was a kid I was obsessed with Michael Jackson. He had so many awesome dance moves, so I was really into that. I would sing one sentence, then jump down on my knee. Then sing another sentence, and do another dance move.
I learned to play guitar quite late, probably when I was in my late teens. Which was weird, because my dad and brother played as well.
So it sounds like you've always been a songwriter. Do you ever do any other type of writing?
I used to write some poetry, but not recently. My lyrics normally start with music. I'll pick up a guitar, write the melody and the song, then sing random stuff and write down what I've been singing. It's like if you are a rapper, you get down a couple of the main things and write a whole song around it.
How disciplined are you as a writer? Do you carve out time to write, or do you wait until you are inspired?
With songwriting, my inspiration comes in waves. Like now, we are writing for our new album, and I would never say, "Tonight I'm going to sit down and pick up my guitar and work." Normally for me, my writing often happens at the worst time. Like if I am about to go out and do something, I end up writing a song when I have no time. The band has a house up near Woodstock, and for three weeks we are going to write. My routine is unpredictable. One night I can write five songs I don't like, then another time I'll write one verse of a song that I love.
So when you write, does the music come first?
Normally I'm really into different tunings on the guitar, and I'll write songs there. I might find a different tuning or a chord with a different color to it. That'll inspire me to write something.
Usually I'll just play stuff and start singing to it. If I feel like it's going somewhere, I'll keep on working on it. When I write something, I take it to its completion if I really like it. I'll write verse, bridge, chorus straightaway. I could never write just one verse and leave it and come back to it a week later. Staying in the vibe is important to me.
With your lyrics, do you start with complete words and sentences, or are the first sound gibberish?
Gibberish is normally how it works. I'll sing things and listen back to it, then sing a few sentences based on some cool sounds that I hear. Then I'll write a whole song around that. The early sounds and words give me a vibe for what the song is supposed to be about.
But even if you write around those sounds, you still have to have some themes or ideas that inspire you, right?
When I wrote "ATX," on Broken Side of Time, I was in Austin. I watched a film with David Bowie in it, where he was an alien on earth, out of place. And so I wrote a whole song around the idea of being out of place. I had a chorus already written, but when I saw that film, I was really inspired to finish the song.
It all depends, though. Sometimes I'll write about a book or a film, other times about something personal in my life.
So the guitar parts always inspire the lyrics, or is it ever the other way around?
Normally what happens is I write the music, then after that I come up with the lyrics. So mostly the music gives me a vibe that I want to write about something. I never watch a film or read a book and say, "I want to write about that."
The song "Broken Side of Time" is about city life and what it can do to you. That was the topic before some of the song came out, but that's an exception.
Are there literary inspirations for your songs?
I'm a restless person and I read a lot of books at the same time. Right now I am reading a Nick Cave book, The Death of Bunny Munro. He's one of my favorite songwriters. I'm also reading Bowie in Berlin by Thomas Seabrook. I like to mix it up; I just finished A Farewell to Arms by Hemingway.
What's your ideal writing environment? Where do you do your best work?
It really depends. I like to write at my flat here in Brooklyn. It's only me. But some of the stuff for the next record, particularly what I think is one of our best songs, I wrote in the back of our touring van when we were parked behind a venue in Tampa. It was boiling hot, probably 110 degrees, and I was in the back of the van, where it was even hotter.
I also like to write around the band, like when were in this house in the forest outside of Charlottesville, so remote. Just nature and trees. I like to have the band around, with people around and doing their own thing.
Are you a night owl when you write?
A lot of times I like to jam with the band late at night after a gig. I'll come up with some chords and we'll go from there. But even when I write on my own, I prefer to write late at night. I can never really work in the day. I'll start really late and go through to the morning. I'll work all night and sleep during the day.
So when you write, do you use the computer?
I prefer to write by hand. I don't like computers much to write. It feels too planned. When I write lyrics, they feel like they are just coming out. I'll come up with a whole verse and write it down straightaway so I don't forget it. I hate to make a big deal deal about the process, because then it feels too forced. A lot of times I'll just use the pen and paper next to the hotel bed; I've gotten a lot of stuff from that. I've got a bunch of little papers in a bag somewhere, all written with different pens from hotels.
Do you carry around a notebook to capture your ideas?
I used to, but not lately. I normally have a small bag that I carry everywhere. It's got books and DVDs. When we were on tour, the bag had four or five books and a collection of John Wayne DVDs and Alfred Hitchcock classics, along with a DeNiro movie or two. It brings the vibe. I'd rather carry around things that inspire me. Even if I don't read them, I just like knowing that they are there. I used to have some really nice leather notebooks, but now it's just the Holiday Inn notepad. If I'm writing lyrics on the road, it's normally when I'm in bed and just about to crash, and that notepad is always right there on the nightstand.
What do you do when you get writer's block?
It can be horrible. When I'm in a creative time, I write the best stuff in a couple of weeks. I can write ten songs in ten days. It comes really quick. With writer's block, I can always write, but if it doesn't feel like the best song I've ever written, what's the point? It's an awful feeling because I'll write things and not know if they are any good, and then it's hard to come back to being creative. If I don't feel like I can write, I stay away from the guitar. It would just piss me off, which would just make it worse. That would kill me more than not playing guitar. I don't want awful music around you, you know? That's why I can't listen to radio much anymore; if I hear ten bad songs in the morning, it's murder for my process.
So that would affect your creativity?
And what you are saying is that if you listen to a lot of Michael Jackson, the next Alberta Cross album might be a dance record?
Laughs. Yeah. And that's the thing. I can be inspired by a lot of different things by listening to someone else. A Tom Waits album would inspire me lyrically and give me a different vibe. Before we wrote Broken Side of Time, we were listening to Closing Time by him every day.
How do you know when a song is done?
I never know. But I don't thing a song is ever done. The songs on Broken Side of Time sound completely different now that we have been touring with them. Songs are always evolving. They change all the time. I saw Dylan at Wembley and he sang "Mr. Tambourine Man." No one knew it was that song until the last twenty seconds. He had completely rearranged it.