In his own words, Kurt Vile runs around like a "headless chicken" when he's on tour, so it's hard for him to write. Given that he needs a clutter-free environment ("Open space and open air in my head," he says) this is hardly surprising. Vile works best when he's away from all of his comfort zones, which explains why a trip to the countryside can often be a salve for any songwriting rut he might be in. Vile's new EP So Outta Reach comes out November 8. The EP contains five songs recorded during the sessions for his latest LP Smoke Ring for My Halo. Read my interview with Vile about his songwriting process after you watch the video for "Jesus Fever."
When I was in high school, I took art classes and was really into art. I'd self-release my albums and make cool collages for them. I did take an English course in college that got me really writing a lot of songs. I don't do much other than songwriting now, but along those lines I do get inspired by reading books. But even with that, I've been flying by the seat of my pants, because it seems like the only books I read now are rock books or music biographies. That helped when I was younger, but it doesn't really get me writing songs now. I've been really enjoying watching Twin Peaks obsessively. I don't know if it helps my songwriting, though. Laughs.
You mention art, and I notice that a lot of songwriters like to create the artwork associated with their albums.
They're pretty connected. Usually someone who's a songwriter has a certain aesthetic direction and idea they want to convey, so the idea of attaching an image to an album is not too surprising. But I think as a songwriter it's important to be surrounded by other kinds of art. Even watching a weird movie or viewing some weird art is stimulation; if you were only writing songs and not taking in any kind of visual art, your brain could never breathe and wouldn't have anything to bounce off of. I don't know what the hell you would write about.
So do some of your songs start as images?
Yeah, whatever first lines I come up with always paint a picture. I don't think I want to explain it literally, though. I want to leave it open to interpretation by the listener. It's like when you have a crazy dream: when you tell it, it doesn't sound quite as crazy because the person you're explaining it to wasn't there. It's hard to show that to someone, so there's certainly abstract and surreal imagery in my mind when I start to write.
Do you need solitude to be creative?
Maybe. When I'm on tour, I have a million things to do. I'm running around like a headless chicken. I need to step away to really be creative. The only sanctity when I'm able to figure stuff out is when it's just me and my instrument. If I go away on vacation, like camping or the wilderness, or even my parents' house in the country, where all of my comfort zones are gone--things like technology--I can tap into an inspired and surreal chord progression in a song. I've gone away for a couple of weeks on vacation before, and by the middle of the second week, my mind is totally clear. Of course, it's got to be the kind of vacation with relaxation, space, and lots of beautiful scenery. That's a portal of creativity for me.
I'm home less, but I do write less at home. I get inspired to write at home, but rarely do I finish things. Recently, I had a couple of days in the studio between tours. Just working in the studio, I was able to finish a lot. That's my space to be creative, and I know how to work quickly there now. I'm also a down-to-the-wire kind of guy. That's always inspiring to me. As a side note, I know that once I get home from this tour I'll try to get my own dedicated music space where I can really get stuff done.
It sounds like you thrive on deadlines.
You can change things a million ways, but finalizing something is really about letting something go. My deadline is usually past the deadline. Laughs. I seem to do best on the flashing red light time.
How do you seek inspiration for your songs?
A lot of times it comes from being obsessed with someone else's music. That's always what it spawns from. It could be a beautiful film, but I definitely need music stimulation all the time to be inspired to write my own music. And when it comes time to write, you can't force a song out. Otherwise, it's just too contrived.
Do you watch films or read books to get inspired?
Not really. I do those things but never think about them as inspiration. Inspiration always sneaks up on me.
Take me through a somewhat typical songwriting process for you.
Usually unknowingly I pick up the guitar and something good happens. I never pick up the guitar and think that I'm going to write a song. I usually start with a chord progression, some ethereal chord progression, and the words might come to me when I'm driving around. The words come pretty quick. I come up with a verse, whether it's in the middle or the beginning. So the songs usually start out very pretty on an acoustic, then some important words happen. I think back on the tune and add more verses in my head. If it's a good guitar part, I can get a melody and a couple of words pretty easily out of it. It's not like I write instrumental soundtrack music then later add the words. Instead, it's like a quick domino effect.
Do you like to finish it on the spot or stretch out the process for completing the song?
I've finished a song on the spot a million times. But lately I tend to write a little bit, then come back to it. Words are important to me, and I can't force them. They are usually simple. They come slower these days, and I think that's because I don't sit down at one place for too long. But I don't worry, because I've been doing this for so long. I know that once I do sit down in one place, I'll fill all the songs up. It usually takes me a week or so to finish a good song.
Is is possible to fine tune too much?
Oh yeah, I've done that before. Then when I go back and look at the song, it doesn't make any sense. If you start thinking too much and judging whether someone is going to think a certain way about something you sing, then you're overthinking it.
How important is your environment to you when you write?
I've always gotten my best writing done when my house is clean and I'm on my couch, surrounded by records and books, just relaxing. A lot of times I work best late at night. I need an open space and open air around my head. I can't have any clutter, either in my brain or around me physically.
But other times, I can work well during the day. I just started writing this finger-picking thing with my bandmate Rob. We were just at his buddy Damon's house; he's in this band called the Swirlies. They were playing all these synths, so I just picked up a crappy acoustic and wrote a pretty finger-picking progression. And to prove myself wrong from what I said earlier, I didn't write any lyrics to it at all. Laughs. I think I was really affected by the environment with that one. We were in Sweden, and we had walked through a park, past a castle and a windmill to his house. It was so pretty, and I think it affected the type of song that I wrote. Plus I love the Swirlies, so this was an unexpected inspirational environment!
Listen to "The Creature," one of the new tracks off the forthcoming EP:
Also read my interview with