Ben Kweller is a busy man. When we talked, he'd just gotten off the road; like the good husband and father that he is, Kweller was cleaning his closets when the phone rang. Since Kweller has two young kids, he's usually up early, which was why our interview was at the ungodly-for-touring-musicians hour of 10am. But this is Kweller's personality, and it's this limitless energy that makes him such a great songwriter. He finds creative inspiration in everything from hiking to taking his kids to the park to visiting art galleries. (Although, as you'll read, he writes best in Australian hotel rooms.)
Ben Kweller's new album is called Go Fly a Kite, and he's hitting the road again next week. Read my interview with Kweller after the video.
More than anyone, he's been a huge influence on me. My dad grew up with him, so I had this interesting musical upbringing: I was exposed to the Beatles, Hendrix, the Doors, the Hollies, tons of British Invasion, then Nils Lofgren. No one from my generation knows his solo work. The fact that we both go from guitar to piano during our songwriting process really struck me. I just always assumed that's what you do: you play piano and guitar.
What other creative outlets do you have?
Many. I love to paint, draw, and I love creative writing. I love writing children's stories. I used to make comic books, and I'm also a joke writer. I'm really into puns and wordplays. I love clever jokes. Also, I'm big into design and Photoshop, but this goes hand in hand with my music. I started out by making album artwork for my cassettes. I've always been very visual in that sense, and I have a huge hand in the artwork for my albums. And even at home, we love home decorating and design, painting, and space development.
Any idea why so many songwriters are also good visual artists?
We see the world in special ways. I see everyday experiences a little differently than most people. That goes into my lyrics, because at the end of the day you have 12 notes. It's the same 12 notes that Mozart and John Lennon used, so you have to get creative. If you're going to write a love song, it has to be different from other love songs. We are inventors; when we finish a song, there's a piece of art in the air that wasn't around an hour ago.
Do songs ever start as visual images for you? With some of the songwriters I've interviewed, songs start as images. Others see songs as colors.
Definitely. But colors are feelings as well, and every color gives me a different emotion. Bright orange means something different from deep purple, for example. I've studied that from a spiritual aspect. I used to read a lot of books on Wicca, magic, supernatural elements, and dreams, as well as Native American spirituality. Symbolism is cool to me, and colors obviously are prominent in that world.
But when I start to write a song, I start with what the music means to me. I sit down with an instrument, come up with a chord progression or a lick or riff, then start singing a melody. The music dictates the melody. While singing the melody, I freestyle words through stream of consciousness. If a line pops up that I like, I write it down and go from there. But the music also dictates the mood; it is the color and it controls what I'm going to sing about.
However, sometimes what I'm feeling subconsciously dictates the music. I was hanging out with Conor Oberst from Bright Eyes recently. He's one of the best songwriters we have these days. We were driving around and talking about songwriting, just like you and I are now. We've been writing most of our lives and still don't quite understand how it all works. It almost feels like magic.
Do images ever spontaneously pop into your mind where you think, "I've got to write a song about that"?
Definitely, but more often than that it's a phrase that pops into my mind. That gets me going a lot more. Because if you have an image, you still have to figure out how to word it. And that can be hard. That's why it's often more exciting when the words appear.
Where do those phrases come from?
That's what Conor and I talked about. Laughs. We don't know. A lot of my lyrics just pop out. I have no idea where they come from. A lot of times I'll write a song and I don't even know what it's about. Only a couple of years later will I understand what I was saying.
Do you ever sit down to write about a certain topic?
Yes, I've done that. I've approached songs like school assignments, which can be fun. I wrote one song on my second album On My Way on an airplane after my first trip to Japan. That's probably the only song I remember where I wrote the words, got my guitar, then figured out the music. I had my sketchbook and wrote down the words murderer, thief, friend, lover, then listener in the middle. Listening is where change begins, so that's why it was in the middle. I knew I had to write a verse about each of these personalities.
I do like approaching things like an assignment at school or work. As a high school dropout, it's fun to pretend I have a job or an accepted purpose.
Do you set aside time every day to write?
I wouldn't go that far. I wish I could be that way. I've read stories about people like Carole King who wake up, pretend it's a 9-5 job, and write. I can do that. I'll get assignments from companies who want to do a commercial. They want a song, but I never feel a real connection to those songs. Songwriting for the sake of songwriting doesn't work for me on an emotional level. The songs that go on Ben Kweller albums, those I feel the closest to, are those that happen spontaneously and through pure inspiration.
I can see some parallels. Now that our son has started kindergarten, we're part of the public school system in Austin. That means I go on the road by myself and am totally lonely. I went to Japan and Australia last month, came home, then went back out for a US tour. I wrote two songs in my bedroom in the back of the bus. I was bored, but I don't feel bored too often. I usually have a lot going on, at least in my head.
The flip side to that, of course, is how actively you have to be in the inspiration process. Are you supposed to wait for the muse, or should you be active in seeking inspiration?
I would say I'm highly active, but I don't ever think about making a conscious effort to be inspired. I'm active in life and do a ton of random stuff every day, like hiking, going to an art show or museum, taking the kids to the park, or hanging out with friends. I get inspired from all that stuff. I do believe it's a two-way street, though. I've thought about this a bunch. I believe in fate and destiny but I think we were given our brains and our heart to use. You have to be motivated to make things happen.
Back to your process. It sounds like your lyrics start almost as gibberish.
Exactly. When Ben Folds, Ben Lee, and I got together for The Bens, that's how we did it. We all have different processes, and those guys couldn't believe how fast I could come up with ideas and spew out this stuff. That gibberish didn't make sense, of course, but I told them just to roll with it because we could always change the words later. They thought that was cool. I thought that everyone did it that way! Laughs.
How much do you revise your lyrics?
That's a good question. Whatever suits my feeling at the time. I don't have any hard and fast rules, though I used to be way more attached to the original words. Now, I seem to write with more of a message, so I revise more. With those two songs on the bus that I mentioned, I've been working on lyrics for two weeks to get every word right.
What do you mean by "every word right"?
It means that the emotion in the words is bulletproof. And it's fun to do that because of those limitations in the music. When you worry about rhyming, it adds more limitations. I find that fun. But not rhyming is OK, too. I just wrote a song with Rhett Miller for his new album. We started with a specific idea of what we wanted the song to be about, but then he started coming up with words that were really personal to him, and he was getting hung up on rhymes. So I said, "Wait, what are you talking about now? Just tell me the story? What are we trying to say? Then let's figure out the words and how they fit in the stanzas. Maybe we don't need to rhyme."
For me now, the message is more important than the cleverness of the rhymes. Although if you can rhyme the perfect message, it feels amazing.
What do you think about the idea that song lyrics can never be considered poetry since they always require music?
I like music because you get poetry along with melody. I love poetry, but when you can get meaningful words with a tune, it can bring tears to your eyes and break you down like no other art form. You don't put on the same movie every day and watch it again and again, but you can do that to a record. It's the most emotional art form, at least to me.
How important is your physical environment when you write?
Being alone is my only necessity. The songwriting process is not a very beautiful process. I write a ton in hotels, and especially in hotels in Australia for some reason. Maybe because the time zone is so off from the rest of my family so it's very lonely. I've written so many songs in Australian hotel rooms. But I don't need too much. When it hits, it hits. I've been woken up in the middle of the night by songs, and I have to find my guitar.
Where do you write your song ideas?
I have so many notebooks. That's how I did it for years, and those notebooks had lyrics, drawings, oil pastels, all my creative output. I'm really unorganized in general, and I wish I could keep more of a routine. So when I get inspired, I end up just finding some scrap paper to write down my notes. I do use the iPhone for lyrics if I have no paper. I write a lot lyrics in Word. I have terrible handwriting, so my hands usually can't keep up with the ideas coming to me. Typing is satisfying because if I come up with a line separate from the verse I'm working on, I can type it then move it around. I can move all those lines around to fit into the best verses.
Since you write on both the piano and guitar, do you find that the songs are different depending on the instrument?
For years, I would have an easy answer for you. And that is that most of my love and ballads are on piano, and most of my rockers and folk songs are on guitar. Now those lines have blurred. The instruments give me different kinds of inspiration since they put me in different moods, but it's harder for me to decipher what those moods are these days.
Have you noticed any change in your songwriting in Austin as opposed to New York?
Not too much. The songs live in me wherever I am, but what I have noticed is that the right space inspires me to make music; it doesn't inspire the type of song I make. You gotta remember that Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn sitting at his house in Connecticut. Spaces are inspiring, but only to the extent of, "Oh my God, I need an instrument. I have to write a song."
Do you ever get writer's block?
That's a scary thing for writers. Luckily, I've never felt like I've had it. I've gone months without writing a song, and that's OK, but I never go more than a couple of days without playing an instrument.
Is it important to start and finish a song in the same sitting?
I've always thought that the best songs are those that happen in one sitting. That's a great feeling. But with these two new songs I just wrote, there's something addictive about songwriting and knowing that you have more to work on. I like that anticipation. To me, it's like solving a puzzle and cracking a code. Back in the day, I could write a song in two hours, but my life was a lot less cluttered. I see my songs as puzzles now. It's an empty board and I need to put the pieces together on it.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
The Catcher in the Rye is probably my favorite book. But I enjoy non-fiction more than fiction, books on science and religion. I just read The Five Books of Moses and am now starting on the New Testament.
Do you think writing in so many other genres has made you a better songwriter?
If it has, I wouldn't know it. I've written so many songs in the past 15 years, if I've gotten better it's only because I've done it so many times. I don't think I've learned any tricks or had any pointers given to me.
Also read my interviews with:
- Nils Lofgren (E Street Band)
- Pete Yorn
- Adam Granduciel (The War on Drugs)
- David Bazan
- Paul Banks (Interpol)
- The Civil Wars
- Eric Bachmann (Crooked Fingers, Archers of Loaf)
- Craig Finn (The Hold Steady)
- Ben Knox Miller (The Low Anthem)
*photo credit: Kevin Baldes