All week this week I’m running an enormous interview I conducted in May and October of 2003 with Jason Webley, who is playing his last show of the season at Town Hall in Seattle on November 1st. See you there!
MW: This is a singer-songwriter type question. When did you start really thinking seriously about music and songwriting I mean listening to other people’s music, thinking about structure and that kind of stuff.
JW: I first started writing songs when I was really young. Like before elementary school. I still remember these songs that I wrote back then. Whenever I approach anything I try to think of what I can do, like how. . .
MW: How to steal from them?
JW: Yeah [laughs]. It’s kind of frustrating. I steal from so many places and no-one ever notices the places that I’m actually stealing from.
MW: Well, first of all, how do you know no-one ever notices?
JW: No-one ever calls me on it.
MW: And second of all, give me an example.
JW: The tune to the verses of “Goodbye Forever Once Again” is a Fijian folksong, “Ca le Boukama” [sp?] that, I don’t know how popular of a Fijian folksong it is, this woman sang it over and over when I was in Fiji and it stuck. And, heh, I guess that’s kind of odd, but it’s definitely stealing. A lot of people hear the um hear certain things. . .
[aside discussing where we are]
MW: So you started writing and stuff when you were very young.
JW: [jokingly] Ever since the first time I heard a Tom Waits album.
MW: Is that true, or are you joking?
JW: I didn’t really listen to Tom Waits until after I had started doing the accordion guy thing.
MW: Did you record the earliest songs that you are aware of having written in that project that you accidentally talked about earlier?
MW: Do you ever go back and listen to them?
JW: It’s not very good. I remember the words. I think about them often.
MW: What are words?
JW: I might go to the world of darkness
I might go to the world of good
I don’t know the place I’ll go
but I know the one I should.
It’s um. . .
MW: Is that influenced in any way by church experience?
JW: Well, it’s influenced by my lack of church experience. I was raised without any kind of church experience. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone that has been quite as lacking in really any kind of specific religious upbringing.
And that song in a way was my response to kind of my early interaction with the religious beliefs of my peers.
MW: That’s really interesting that you didn’t have exposure to religious stuff as a child because your songs are full of religious imagery. I think you and I have kind of gone around on this before, but I mean I see a lot more – maybe I see more religious imagery in your songs than you do, but it seems there’s a lot of interest in religious experience, religious iconography in the narrative of your stuff than that. . .
Is the presence of that material in your songs a response to this lack of that experience as a child, do you think?
JW: I think that our whole culture has a deep lack. I feel that I am very fortunate in my specific upbringing in that I am culturally – I’m adopted, I don’t have any – I don’t feel – um – I’m a white, suburban, man. I’m the exploiter, you know, like I do have my culture that I definitely primarily identify with.
But at the same time I feel a certain kind of weird autonomy – I don’t feel like I totally identify with what any like with that stuff and the fact that I’m adopted kind of enforces that.
[pause to discuss location in walk – we were looking for a gallery on 12th]
JW: Have you ever walked all the way to the end of Pine Street?
MW: To where it goes into the water?
JW: Where it tries to.
MW: No, I don’t think I’ve ever done that. [inaudible]
JW: I highly recommend getting on Pine Street someday when you have a few hours, walking all the way to the end. There’ll be a couple times when you’ll think it ends. The first time is when you hit Madison, before the towers. . .
[aside] Yeah, don’t worry about it.
[more geography, figuring out where we are, where to go]
So yeah, when you cross Madison, you’ll still have a ways to go. This is a good thing to publish, though, incidentally, this information about the end of Pine Street.
It’s a good first date. Especially if you’ve never been there and your dates never been there. But twice you’ll think that Pine has ended. The first time is at Madison and the second time is later.
I’m really interested in finding the things that are in a place that you think you’re familiar with and that you don’t necessarily notice all the time and that are extraordinary.
[We enter a gallery to find Jason’s friend, no luck]
It’s good to not find things you’re looking for. If I was smarter I’d come look at the thing I found instead. But I don’t feel like looking at photographs, I just want to see my friend.
And when we get there I’ll pretend I’m looking at her photographs.
I’m not very god about going to see other people’s things – or my things even! If I didn’t have to be there, I don’t know if I would.
MW: So, tell me about your songwriting process. How do you songwrite?
JW: Uh. . . It’s always different.
MW: Pick a song and tell me about it.
JW: You pick a song.
MW: All right. Um, “Back to the Garden.”
JW: Ohh. Yeah, see, that’s a good example of a very constructed song, a song that I feel is pretty much necessary, a song that is pretty much doomed and damned from the beginning. I had most of the material, or good strong seeds for the material for Against the Night, but the whole album just felt so apocalyptic and dark, and I couldn’t figure out what to do about that.
I felt that somehow it was supposed to be like this triumphant and celebratory thing but when you look at any of the songs individually it seemed like there was this potential for them to feel really bleak, and so I really was convinced that they were actually all very celebratory.
This was just after the experience with the vegetable – freeway overpass thing, and I was looking for the quick fix, like what can I slap on over the top of this song, these dark songs to make them buoyant, to make them feel celebratory and happy. And I thought, “A gospel song about vegetables!”
And I wanted to create something that felt like The Blind Boys of Alabama or like – I’ve only seen them live once, but I – that’s one of the most amazing live performances I’ve ever been to. It’s a gospel group. I wanted to try and capture that energy and have it be about vegetables and have it be really funny and fun and sort of be a “Music That Tears Itself Apart” for the second album.
Like I say, it was a really bad idea to have that many ideas going into the writing of a song.
MW: Uh, so you had the idea that you needed it to counterbalance. . . [inaudible, something like “. . . The darkness of the rest of the album.”]
MW: The you sat down, and you first wrote the melody? Or you first wrote the lyrics?
JW: Oh, you know, that one, I had a whole song that I don’t remember anymore, that I scrapped, that was essentially the same idea. And then literally like a week before I actually recorded it, or started recording Against The Night, the new one came. And it came pretty fast, on a bus trip up from Santa Cruz.
How did that other one go? It was really bad, really bad.
I mean if you think this one’s bad, the other one’s worse.
MW: No, I like the other one. I like all of your songs that to one extent rely on wordplay.
JW: Yeah, that’s – you kind of fall for that stuff.
MW: You think it’s cheating?
JW: It’s cheap, it’s really cheap. I feel like I’m trying to get farther – I mean – I don’t know. I’m going to keep damning myself in different ways, because you try to get away from one kind of cheap trick, and one kind of like just being clever, and end up replacing it with another. Just ’cause we’re by nature. . . There’s a laziness, I don’t. . . I avoid really getting to the issue. I mean I try, but there’s a failure, and then, ultimately I fall back on cheap tricks, like songs. [laughs]
MW: [laughs] Well, there’s your problem right there.
JW: Look at the sky right now!
MW: Wow, that’s pretty cool.
JW: It’s an amazing place.
JW: I used to get – in addition to the Tom Waits comparisons, I used to get Brad Pitt comparisons all the time. And those have petered out.
MW: [doubtfully] Brad Pitt comparisons?
JW: Yeah. And I always thought. . .
MW: Must be your buff physique. [ed. – Jason is among the most slender people you’ll ever see, verging, sometimes, on the emaciated.]
JW: Exactly. Well, I think he got a lot more buff since those – [laughs]
JW: I think we should keep walking this way. I like this area. In fact, I think we’re kind of near my favorite trash can in Seattle.
[Discussing a building on twelfth]
It doesn’t feel at home here. If you look at any other building in the area –
It’s weird. It reminds me of that ugly church that’s near here.
MW: Is this that place that you showed me over here a long time ago?
MW: I thought you liked that place.
JW: I like how much I don’t like it. And I also often take people there. And occasionally I find little things there.
MW: So here’s the thing: I think your wordplay songs maybe may be involved [inaudible] are part of a tradition of American songwriting which is, like, show tunes, I mean like, you’re identifying My Fair Lady – er, not My Fair Lady, what was it? Oh yeah, The Sound of Music – as one of your favorite, like, musical artifacts as a youngster, as well as Billy Joel, is really interesting. I mean, especially because Billy Joel.
JW: He’s a great wordsmith.
MW: He came right out of Tin Pan Alley, man.
JW: He manages to say absolutely nothing in such clever ways. Like, he. . .
MW: I think that may be specific fault of Billy Joel, and I think you’re probably overstating the critique of Joel’s work, to be honest with you.
JW: Didn’t he put out a classical album most recently?
MW: He did. It’s called, like, Illusions and Lies or something?
JW: No, no, Fantasies and Impromptus or something like that.
MW: Whatever it is, it’s like it had to do with falsity [The actual title of the record is “Fantasies and Delusions”]. And the cover of it looks like an old-school, like, 78.
JW: Yeah, yeah, I know, I know.
MW: I thought that was really interesting – I thought it was kinda like strange, almost like false modesty or something about it, ya know? Like, “You can’t make fun of me for putting out a classical album because I’ve already made fun of myself in the title.”
JW: Yeah. You know, I think there’s probably a lot in common with me and Billy Joel, which is why I’m really hard on him. [laughs]
MW: Well, think about, uh,
[Pause to discuss the location of Juvenile Hall and the orca fin sculpture]
MW: My point is that like, I think that your wordplay songs come out of this valid American tradition of songwriting that actually has produced some really awe-inspiring stuff. You know? I’m not gonna – Billy Joel’s off the table; it’s a tradition that he’s a part of [inaudible] songwriting. [inaudible] Tin Pan Alley songwriting is something I see as strongly influencing you.
JW: It’s fun. It’s fun stuff. Um, do I want to build my house there? [laughs] There’s a place for fun stuff. In fact I want to do all fun stuff. But I want to go on to do more and more honest fun stuff. And I don’t know what that means, and maybe I better shoot myself in the foot and maybe I’m y’know, like, writing off things that work, um.
I don’t know. Am I writing wordplay songs anymore? Are there very many of them on Counterpoint?
MW: No, I don’t think there are any. There were still wordplay songs happening during the time you were developing Counterpoint. Uh, the clock song.
JW: Which? It only was played once.
MW: But, you know, it’s a song that you wrote during that period of time.
[At the park, talking about the orca sculpture]
JW: This is so interesting – you are going to read the info before you look at the thing. And earlier today you wanted background info before the play before you saw it.
I feel like it’s such a beautiful thing to get to approach something and not know anything about it. You can approach things armed with information so many times. But only once in your life can you go see something for the first time without that.
MW: That’s true.
JW: I love this, how they’ve shaped the ground.
MW: Have you ever seen an orca in the water?
JW: You know, I was just talking about that. I’ve never, never seen one.
MW: The way that they’ve shaped the ground is the way that the water looks like.
[We had about a forty-five minute talk about performance and songwriting in this location that unfortunately did not get taped.]
Part Three on Wednesday!