Dave Simonett: Who says you have to have a chorus?
In Gimme Songs, musician Mark Mallman talks songwriting with his peers and heroes. This week, Dave Simonett, who performs Thursday at First Avenue as part of Are You Local?
Trampled by Turtles frontman Dave Simonett released his gloriously gloomy solo EP, Razor Pony in late January. I wanted to find out how such a moody collection of material was written without ever becoming overbearingly dark or depressing. What I found was a songwriter who uses implication to allow listeners tell our own version of his story.
Mark Mallman: One of my favorite things about any record is the opening line. Topping my list is the Cure's Pornography album which starts with, "It doesn't matter if we all die." On your new EP, Razor Pony, the opening line is, "I throw my hands to the heavens." But after a moment of space, all thoughts of rejoice are demolished. You say, "I give up all the time." And this is how the record starts.
Dave Simonett: A lot of the songs ended up being more about emotional acceptance than defeat, though. "Razor Pony" was an exercise in getting away from a standard song form. It was one of those half songs, you probably have some of those too. I never had a chorus for it, just a couple verses that I liked. But who says you have to have a chorus? You can say more with a lot of space than forcing a chorus in there just because you think it has to be. I probably took away 15 parts to whittle it down to the place where it is.
Yeah, it's like sometimes you gotta go all the way around the world to realize that home is where you wanted to be all along. A working example of this might be Prince's, "When Doves Cry," where they even pulled out the bass line for the final mix. This EP is obviously different from that song. The open-ended nature feels like a cloud or a fog passing. In the van, we would for certain put it on for night driving. It's spacious, musically and lyrically.
That wasn't my intent to start out with, but it definitely ended up like that. I'm totally happy with it, but also, I like to leave stuff vague on purpose. It's not "This is about a red house," or "This is about when I was 18." A song can be about a feeling that you had throughout your life -- not about a specific relationship, but more like the idea of a relationship. When listening to music, that's what I can connect with. If the artist is able to capture an emotion that everybody who listens has felt from just being human, then it really hits home.
What is a song hits home for you in that way?
Dylan's "Shelter From the Storm" is one of my favorites. It's a cliched line, but when he says it, it feels like he made it up himself. His use of the English language is brilliant in that time period. It always stays fresh for me. I'm like, "Whoa, how the hell did you say it like that?" It's great. Blood on the Tracks is something I've been listening to since I was 15.
There's a lyric on "Midnight on the Interstate" where you say, "Love and love and nothing else is all I need." Just like when Dylan sings, "I'll give you shelter from the storm," it feels like you're saying it for the first time. What was the decision to end the lyrics and make that the very last line?
I think where a song ends is the other most powerful part. I put just as much thought in the last line as the first. Originally, I recorded that song with Trampled. It had more verses, but in the edit process, that seemed like a good spot to end.
"Famous Blue Raincoat," by Leonard Cohen, ends with, "Sincerely, L. Cohen." Suddenly you realize the confessional was just a letter to somebody. It doesn't begin like a letter, which is what makes the last line such a great twist. Who really knows how long it took to come up with. Songs only take a couple minutes to sing, but it could take 100 times to write them right the first time.
I've gone through that for sure. Sometimes I'll be banging my head on the wall for a month on a single line. I'll throw away sheets of paper. Other songs were first time through. The only way I've found is to let each one be the weird little monster that it is. I remember a Neil Young interview where the writer was giving him shit for always saying that his songs write themselves and he's just a conduit. But it is kind of a mystical process that most writers that I know are a little bit scared of. Once in a while, everything aligns, and you get great stuff.
So, if Neil Young is indeed a conduit, there has to be something that sparks the fire. For me, that mystical spark comes from pressure, from writing under fire. I walked into an office once that had "Done is better than perfect" painted over the desk. Some of my favorite songs I've written under time constraints.
I've had some experiences like that before. For example, a month before the latest Trampled record, I only had four songs. We needed a record. So I started writing like crazy. I would just write everything. The more I write, the more good stuff I can get. It just gets your mind in that zone. If I have nothing on the books, as far as recording goes, sometime I'll go weeks and I'll forget about writing songs for a while. It can be hard to start again. I love writing. I want to do it all the time, but there's so much other stuff that goes on in your life.
The best would be autobiographies are from the people who never had the time to write their lives down. The creative process is almost an aside to life at times.
If I have a deadline, it sets me up to start working. The more I work, the more likely it is I'll find something in that time frame. It's rare for me to go a few weeks without writing. Razor Pony is the first time I've never had any kind of time constraint, and six songs took a year and a half to make. It's funny, cause I feel it's the most unfinished work I've ever done, yet it's something I've spent more time on than any record I've ever made. I think my whole life I've raged against deadlines and art. In reality, they help me get something finished or at least call it done -- I mean, it's never really done. So, that's kind of how the Razor Pony EP worked out as well, I just decided it was done.
That's like the Springsteen Nebraska record, where he didn't refine the songs to his traditional fruition, he just let them be simple and powerful.
I could have let that thing simmer in my little studio for another ten years, ya know? I'm planning on putting another one out, probably at the end of this year. On that one I'm going to engineer the whole thing as well. Every little step is so interesting. That's where it's nice not to have a deadline, because for me it's an educational experience. It's fun to just put it out. I can make this thing and post it. If people want to listen, then that's fantastic.
Well if they don't, they're missing out.
Thanks. The only reason I make music is because I love it. If we didn't love it, we'd find something else to do with our time.
Dave Simonett. With the Cloak Ox, John Mark Nelson, Gramma's Boyfriend, Black Diet, Botzy, Jillian Rae, Step Rockets, and Teammates. 18+, 7 p.m., Thursday, March 6 at First Avenue. Razor Pony is available on 180 gram vinyl at Trampled by Turtles' website.
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