Warning: if you are here to read about U.S. Royalty’s sense of fashion, including how Esquire magazine recently named them the Best Dressed Band at CMJ 2010, read no further. Because this is website about songwriting, not skinny jeans. And Paul Thornley, the guitarist and co-songwriter for U.S. Royalty, has a pretty cool story to tell about his writing process: he writes music, not lyrics, but his music is informed by the literature he reads.
U.S. Royalty, a rock n roll band based here in Washington DC, issues their debut album Mirrors on January 25. But you can listen to their new single "Equestrian" here
It changes all the time. I usually keep a journal. In the band, my brother writes the lyrics and I write the music. But my music is influenced by imagery. Melody and imagery play a big part. Looking back on the new album, each song started from an image. Writing in a journal really helps, even though I don’t write lyrics for the album. But I pull out words from my writing that interest me, and those can be the starting point for songs.
That whole idea of starting with a solitary image is something that the novelists I’ve interviewed tell me they do.
I have images in my mind when I hear our songs, and they are the same images I had when I wrote them, and that’s important. Literature plays a huge influence as well. I don’t think that I read books and try to write about them, but it absolutely plays a role. As far as imagery, “The Desert Won't Save You” came from an image I had after reading the book Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. The imagery in that book is incredible, and the song replicates the book in a way. It’s a dirty, bloodthirsty song. Not that I wanted it to be, it just came out that way. I didn’t know it was in me.
I’ve always had an image in my mind of the young American soul. That line really resonated with me, and I had no idea what it meant or why I thought of it when it first came to me. It just stuck with me for a long time, even before we were called U.S. Royalty, thinking about how we all have this young American soul inside of us that’s after something.
So it sounds like you write every day, not necessarily songwriting. Where does that come from?
I was really influenced by a few of my creative writing teachers, but I don't know that I consider myself a writer. More like an amateur journalist. I keep track of my life. I read the book Just Kids by Patti Smith. She wrote about her life in such vivid detail, all because she kept a journal. That really inspired me.
You write every day, but how does that make you a better writer?
By just getting words out, I start to see patterns and themes. And I get pictures in my mind as I play guitar. They don’t always make sense and they don't always stay. Sometimes they are almost like a dream.
So when you start writing a song, do you have an idea about what the song is going to be about, or does that idea come to you when you write?
Both ways, but a lot happens before I even start playing. An idea pops into my mind, but often I’ll start playing a chord, and because of that an image will pop into mind.
You obviously have been influenced a lot by literature. Do you read any poetry?
I just started getting back into it. I really got into Mark Kozelek’s book with his songs and poetry called Nights of Passed Over.
What is the writing process like with you and your brother John, since you write the music and he writes the lyrics?
John and I write a lot together, but I also have a lot of recordings of just idea. I put them on a hard drive, then my brother listens to them and comes up with ideas. He starts writing melodies or lyrics from the music I’ve written. Sometimes he’ll record just a melody line and I’ll come up behind it.
I am not really an editor, so whenever I record something, it’s good when the rest of the band can come in and tear it apart.
How often do you and John down sit down together?
Probably about half the time. It usually happens on tour, when we get together and play every night.
But sometimes when you start with something and he adds lyrics later, I am sure that there are times when his vibe doesn’t at all match what you had in mind.
We go back and forth and we are brothers, so there is friction. If that happens, I’ll come in and tell him that it wasn't what I was thinking, so I’ll try to flesh out what I was thinking and bring to back to the table. Usually what he puts down first is way cooler than what I started with, and it grows on me.
What inspires you to write?
I wake up and play guitar. I love making sounds. I look around my room now, and there are four guitars around me. I think that a musical upbringing helped inspire that. It’s not really inspiration—it’s just always been in me.
I find that a lot of songwriters are inspired to write songs by things they see or hear in public. When you hears something in public that captures your attention, what do you?
A lot times I get great ideas when I am about to get to sleep, and that’s unfortunate. I always have a melody in my when I go to bed that usually gets lost because I don't want to get up. And I need quiet when I write. I have a really hard writing in the morning and the day, so I usually write at night.