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After selling nearly five million records as part of The Postal Service and Death Cab for Cutie, frontman Benjamin Gibbard finally sets forth with his first solo album and ventures into new sonic territory. Hear it on Morning Becomes Eclectic at 11:15am.
Jason Bentley: That's Benjamin Gibbard live in studio. "Something's Rattling (Cowpoke)" from the album Former Lives on KCRW. So Ben, tell us a little more about that song specifically, and when you first came upon it.
Benjamin Gibbard:I came across it in just my record buying whims. I came across a record by a gentleman named Elton Britt. He's kind of a yodeler. I'd never heard the song before. The rendition was just so beautiful and I can't even begin to do his High Lonesome credit it, in my falsetto approximation, but I just really fell in love with the song. The song, as it was originally recorded, is something like, "I’m lonesome but happy/rich but I'm broke/and the good lord knows the reason I'm just a cowpoke". Just a song about riding the rodeo.
At the time I was living in Los Angeles, and there was such a lonely quality to the song and I wanted to reinterpret it and make it about a particular brand of loneliness and a state of being lost both beautifully and tragically, lost in this gigantic grid of a city.
Jason Bentley: Can you describe a little more your process in writing. I'm just curious about how you sit down to do it. Are you very workman like about your process? Do you think of it almost as a 9-5 in a sense?
Benjamin Gibbard:I really do. I used to, when I was younger, I would sit around and wait for inspiration to hit, but as soon as music became my job I had this realization that this is what I do for a living. I should treat this like a job. When I'm not out promoting something I should be at home going to some kind of workspace and trying to write music. More times than not, the days don't go anywhere, but every once in awhile you find yourself writing something or creating something that you otherwise would've missed if you had not been at the office that day. I haven't been very good about it as of late, because I've been traveling and touring so much, but I'm really looking forward to closing out this year and spending a lot more time in my office.
Jason Bentley: Well, as you setup "Lady Adelaide" you mentioned that you felt you had written about this character before. How do you keep track of ideas? Do you keep notebooks and follow narratives as they become clear to you?
Benjamin Gibbard:I really don't. I tend to write off of whatever the vowel sounds I'm making when I'm just writing a melody. For me it always begins with an instrument and then the instrument gets a melody and then the melody gets a lyric. Sometimes whatever vowel sounds, mush mouth noises I'm making, when I'm singing in tongues so to speak, whatever vowel sounds arise from that determine the tone of the lyric and what the lyrics are to a pretty crazy extent. Sometimes I have a really difficult time shaking whatever vowel sounds I'm making, just in the early stages. I don’t journal. I don’t keep notebooks. I'm really envious of people who seem to be always creating something. Who are always in the state of making something or dreaming on an idea. My experience as a song writer is it's always been a rather labored experience. I'm content with the results, but I don't tend to think about songwriting as this thing that's just beamed down to you. I don't constantly feel like a vessel for creative things. I feel I really have to work at it.
Jason Bentley: Do you think there is a purpose in your songwriting? Do you feel like there's a mission in what you're writing? I think you're very good at songwriting and sometimes I feel you're trying to answer questions for people, kind of provide some understanding of the world. I just wonder if that's in your mind at all, that you've got to explain things.
Benjamin Gibbard:I do tend to be fascinated with love and death. I think that love and death are two subjects that I tend to keep coming back to because they are so unexplainable. Just when you think you have one figured out you're made painfully aware how little you understand about it. There are obvious examples of that in everybody's life when it comes to love, but I think also when it comes to death. Being brought up religious I was given a playbook for what the afterlife was supposed to look like and what's supposed to happen to us after we die. At some point when I was younger I was at church with my family and I had this realization that this guy up on the pulpit who's talking about death knows as much about death as I do and I'm ten years old. We both know the same amount about what happens to us after we die - which is nothing. I'm fascinated with that. I'm fascinated with the things we claim to understand and knowing full well that we have absolutely no understanding of what these things are and how they work.
Jason Bentley: With Former Lives specifically, were these songs that were knocking around for awhile or were they written in one stretch?
Benjamin Gibbard:There are certainly a couple songs that'd been floating for a handful of years. The oldest song I wrote around the time of the Death Cab record, Plans. It was a song that I was rather fond of at the time. A song called "Broken Yoke and Western Sky". It didn't fit in that record. I think anybody who has heard that record and has heard the song would recognize they don't belong together. More songs than not are from more recent times in my life. For me, I very much subscribe to the belief that if it's new to you, it's new. In my mind as I was compiling all these songs I felt that they should all live together and that they had all been orphaned for so long that it was time to put them all in a group home and send them off in the world.
Jason Bentley: Lately my song's been "Something's Rattling", prior to that I really got into "Bigger than Love", which you do with Aimee Mann. The first song was "Teardrop Windows" that we really played quite a bit. It's nice that it's revealing itself in having all these different dimensions. How is it working with Aimee Mann and was that an organic collaboration?
Benjamin Gibbard:I'd become friends with Aimee a handful of years ago and even though I'd been a fan of her music for a very long time and very aware of her presence, she has such a powerful presence as a human being. We became friends and the majority of our conversations were about non-musical things. They're just conversations friends have about things.
When I'd written the song, it was written as a duet between F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and I knew that I needed someone to sing the female lead and Aimee's name had come up and I was like, "Oh my god! That's great! Totally, we should get Aimee." Aimee came in and we're just goofing off and talking about whatever and she got behind the microphone and started singing the song and I immediately became a fan again. I was no longer her friend I was just watching her perform the song and being like "Oh my god! I can't believe Aimee Mann is in the studio singing my song!" It was this recognition of her greatness. When you know someone who's really talented you tend to forget they're really talented because you know them as a human being. The thing you know about them is not solely their talent anymore. You know more about their life and who they are and that's wonderful. It was one of those moments reminded me what an incredible talent she is and what an amazing voice she has and it was a career highlight to say the least to have her on the record.
Jason Bentley: The last time you joined us at KCRW, here in the studio, it was with Jay Farrar around the project you did together, One Fast Move or I'm Gone, which was based on Kerouac. You did an evening session with Death Cab for us more recently, but the time you were here was with Jay Farrar. It seems that you do enjoy the collaborations, such as the Aimee Mann song and this Jay Farrar project. Do you have any other things cooking?
Benjamin Gibbard:I've been out promoting things for so long it seems that the only collaboration I should have at this point, that I should focus on, is the collaboration with my bandmates and the collaboration within myself to write music. I think that as this year closes out it'll be time to hunker down and let some things soak in and write about them.
Jason Bentley: Would you ever consider writing fiction or a novel?
Benjamin Gibbard:I'm fascinated with people who can write long-form stories like that and who can write novels and who can write screenplays. I've always felt so comfortable in the format of the 3-4 minute song and the economy you have to employ to make a story work in that amount of space. Whenever I'm reading a really great novel I'm just in awe that somebody could have the wherewithal to combine all these elements and keep them all straight in order to create a story that long. I don't think I have the capacity for that. I'm sure that if I made it my main goal in life that I could maybe accomplish it, but whether I could accomplish it with any kind of success I would highly doubt.
Jason Bentley: Well you are really so talented as a songwriter and this album is terrific. It's made a couple of our DJ's Best of the Year picks at KCRW.com.
Benjamin Gibbard:That's great.