In at least one high school English class this year, Taylor Goldsmith's writing has been taught alongside the classics. It's a tribute to Goldsmith's songwriting and storytelling that one English teacher discovered that the themes of Dawes' debut North Hills mirror the themes in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. After talking to Goldsmith, none of this really surprises me. He's ridiculously well-read, devouring the classics (I have a PhD in English, and I admit that I haven't touched some of the authors he's read). His method of songwriting is unorthodox, at least among the 90+ songwriters I've interviewed: he often starts the songwriting process with the title, he doesn't like to use nonsense syllables as placeholders when he starts crafting the lyrics, and he writes each song with a fixed topic in mind. All of this is what makes him a great storyteller and what draws comparisons to the Laurel Canyon scene.
Dawes' new album Nothing is Wrong comes out June 7 on ATO Records. It's fantastic. Read my interview with Taylor Goldsmith after the video.
I don't like to limit myself and say that this is all I try to do, but songwriting is the only thing I'm compelled to do, and the only thing I have confidence in doing. I've tried writing stories, and songs feel like the best way to get something across. Whenever I try to get that point across in another creative outlet, I feel like a big faker.
But songwriting is hard. It's not easy to tell a story or make a point in three minutes.
Especially if you have a real point. A lot of songwriters now rely heavily on the abstract and on a vague sensibility, and it gets tiring. It's obvious when it's phony. But you're right, there isn't a whole lot of storytelling and direct songwriting anymore, and that's because it's so hard.
How often do you sit down and decide to write a song about a certain topic?
In every case, at least on the new album. On the first album, not as much. But on this new one, only one song didn't end up having a clear Highway 61 endpoint. But it had a lot of observations organized in an interesting way. I didn't want it on there because I wanted this album to really have a communicated intention. Not everyone wants that, but I wanted that. I want people to hear songs about a relationship with a hometown or a woman. I really wanted to communicate that. It's hard, but that's all the more rewarding.
Do you have a somewhat typical songwriting process?
It starts with an idea or a title, which is backwards for a lot of people. For example, I was watching this movie W, which wasn't that good. There's a moment where Josh Brolin says, "You're just fishing for the moon in the water." It's an old idiom, but I had never heard it before. I thought it was great. So I held on to "moon in the water" for three months as a title. I had nothing else.
When it came time to write the music, I wanted the song to keep coming back to that title at the end of every phrase, like everything funnels back to it. But I wanted that title to be something slightly different each time, so there would be an arc to the song. So for the first verse, I'm singing about me with this woman, and because in this song I come off as romantic or idealistic, the line is "love is for a fisherman who casts his nets too far upstream/fishing for the moon in the water." It's like I don't get it. It's a lot more intense and demanding a concept than the sweet and idealistic way I looked at it.
The second verse was the same thing: I applied that same concept and was hardened by it with the next woman I was with. I wrote, "Love is for the fighter born to lose but never quits/swinging for the moon and the water." And the third verse brings it back to the first girl: "Even if love is more my mistress than my lovers ever are/You'll always bee the moon in the water."
I like to find something we can examine from different angles, whether it's a phrase or a point or a character, and I like to give it different considerations and new perspectives. Lyrically, that's what I like to do with each song. I have the chords and music suit whatever helps me get the first lines out, and that dictates the rest.
How do you compose your lyrics? Many songwriters I've talked to begin their lyrics by singing nonsense syllables.
I never start with those nonsense syllables. I always like to start with a good first line. That helps me lead into the next line.
I've heard of songwriters starting with the nonsense syllables, but it's never been my process. I don't want to limit the structure with words that won't be the words. I want the structure of the melody and the phrasing to be built around what I know will be the lyrics. If I get stuck with the nonsense words "scrambled eggs" like Paul McCartney did with "Yesterday," but I want to call it something like, I don't know, "The Head of the San Antonio," all of the sudden that melody won't work. And I don't want to limit myself to something that has, say, three syllables and certain notes that must fit into that inflection.
But how the words sound is important, too. Don't they have to sound good on their own?
Totally. But it's a fine line. I've had songwriter buddies of mine and people like Warren Zevon take things that sound ugly, that are not poetic, and turn them into great lyrics. A buddy of mine, Blake Mills, a great songwriter, said in a song, "Copy paste google search, and send it to myself." And it's in a sweet moment of the song. It's funny, but it's not hokey. It sounds real. That's the world he lives in, and he's not afraid of it. He's not resorting to roses and winds to sound poetic. He's communicating in his generation's language and finding a way to do it tastefully.
So you're right, it has to be beautiful, but it has to be in the context of the songwriter's language. And sometimes there's irony in being too contemporary, and it works when it's done well. But it drives me crazy when people mention things just for the sake of doing so, like rather than saying "phone" they'll say "Blackberry." Really? I get what you are trying to do; you're trying to use the name of that device. I can see through it. Just say "phone."
You mentioned taking a line from a movie, so how active are you when it comes to seeking inspiration?
It's a constant thing for me. All the free time I have, I'm always reading. And it's always with songs in mind. I'm always looking for things that will open me up to a new perspective in songwriting. And I am also big into movies from filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman. He's my hero.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Dostoevsky, Walt Whitman, Hemingway, Henry Miller, Tolstoy, guys like that. The classics.
Some guy came to our show yesterday, a 9th grade English teacher. And he told me that our songs match perfectly with the themes from The Great Gatsby. He said that whenever he's done teaching it, he shows the movie, turns the sound off, and plays our songs. And it goes perfectly with the story. I was so honored. That's one of the coolest things my music's ever been involved in.
What's an ideal writing environment for you?
I need my notebook and a guitar. But the major thing is privacy. I have a hard time tapping into something with people around. And I start getting inside my own head thinking about what the guy next to me is thinking about my music. That's why writing on the road is hard, since I'm with a bunch of dudes.
Are you a disciplined writer?
Not really. I depend on inspiration. I don't force myself, but I'm getting to the point where I feel like I should because I want to make sure I'm writing as much as I can. I've always waited for the idea to come. Forcing it, though, is what leads to those inspired moments, and working that muscle is important to me. I've never believed that if you write a bad song, a good one will come from that. But maybe I should write whatever I have to, then from that salvage something.
How important is physical or emotional distance from the subject of a song?
Since I'm in a different city every night, I've rarely been able to be close. But I was in Nashville, and I wrote three songs in two weeks. That's never happened before. I do think distance is something I've responded to. If I go somewhere that's new to me, I like to explore that place. And that can also mean that the place I'm coming from will become clearer since I have time to think.
Do you ever write something and set it aside to finish later?
Not a lot. Sometimes it loses its charm when you do that. Especially the stuff that's not as strong. And I'm always thinking about different concepts and approaches to our music. But I keep a notebook, so I write ideas down that I have no immediate use for. Months later I'll come back to it and realize why I wrote it down in the first place.
Do you like to start and finish a song in the same emotional state?
It would be cool to do, but I rarely do that. A song takes me about a month to write from start to finish, and often things change drastically in terms of what was going on emotionally for me, and that will even be reflected in the song itself. Like in the first two verses in one song I'm falling in love with someone, but by the third it's falling apart. That gives the song an arc. Most of the times it takes me too long to finish, so I can't stay in the same emotional state.
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