Welcome to Sonic Weekly’s Songwriters Series. Over the course of the next several weeks, we’ll be publishing in-depth interviews with some of today’s most intriguing lyricists. Is there a trick to writing a great song? Is it a skill that can be learned, or taught? To find out, let’s travel first to LA, home of The Airborne Toxic Event’s frontman and lead lyricist, Mikel Jollet.
Writing the Second Album
“Everyone always says that a rock band’s second record is a road record, and there’s a reason for that, cause that’s all you fuckin’ did for two years.” Rocking buses, crowded hotels, hungover mornings – life as a touring musician isn’t exactly a writer’s paradise. But after several years spent on the road, Jollet is enjoying some of what he only half-sardonically calls “time off.” What’s he doing with all his free time? Working on ATE’s next album, of course.
“I wasn’t sure what it was going to be like when I got back,” he says, “but it literally took two days and I was locked in a room writing songs.” Jollet, who comes from a background in fiction writing and journalism, isn’t suffering from writer’s block. He describes the songs he’s creating for the new album as covering a range of stories and experiences from the past two years spent touring, a marked difference from ATE’s first album, which was, like many first albums, a broken-heart record.
“It’s not like I have choice,” he says about his subject matter. “I’m just not good at writing things that I don’t really mean.“ Jollet, who has never had any training in songwriting, doesn’t sit down to write with a plan and a verse-chorus-hook structure in mind. Instead, he style tends towards focus on a story or a feeling.
Serving the Soul of the Song
“A song has a soul, and you have to find the soul of the song and serve it,” he explains. “Sometimes I think songs, when they start, promise a certain story, and you have to deliver that story. The hard part is trying to figure out what story has been promised and deliver upon it – you’ve got to have unexpected turns and moments of catharsis, release and reciprocity, that’s the idea from Greek tragedy. You have to have transition.”
For Jollet, the idea that a song’s soul can be formed in an effortless flash of genius is ridiculous. He spends hours editing lyrics to get to the essence of what he’s trying to express. “Usually I have an image in my head of a story or a feeling, and I’m always trying to narrow in on that image. It took me about 8 months to write the song “Wishing Well” and I did about twenty drafts of that song. It went through a lot of different types of lyrics – and finally when it was done, the last chord hit, the song faded, and I was like, ‘that’s it. That’s exactly what I was going for.’”
With all this talk of editing, story, and catharsis, it’s easy to forget that we’re talking about songs here. But for Jollet – who’s not exactly a fan of poetry – there’s no mistaking song construction for that other business of penning poems. The distinctive nature of the craft again comes into play when lyrics must be paired with melody. While Jollet describes his own process as vacillating between finding lyrics to fit a melody, and building a tune to fit some lyrics, he also loves writing around music written by other members of the band.
“We just wrote this new song. Our bass player, Noah Harman, wrote all the music for it, and he created this entire sonic landscape that I thought was beautiful. I took it and put a song in that environment, and the song called “Half of Something Else” came out,” Jollet is obviously pleased with the results. “Sometimes it’s just that, I hear the landscape and just start writing things to it.”
Practice to Play
Of course, for some songwriters, the call to “just start writing” can be well nigh on aneurysm-inducing. It’s not always easy to write a new song, is it? But that’s not what Jollet is talking about. It was only after years of songwriting and home recording that he found himself able to do his job well.
“A lot of it is just work ethic,” he contends. “If you spend ten hours a day at anything, you’ll be really good at it. If you’re an artist, you take some small section of your life and repeat it again and again, and really, really work on that and after a while you can play at it. When you can play and you can riff, that’s where you want to be.”
Jollet emphasizes that the idea of natural genius, sprung fully formed and awesomely talented out of the ether, is kind of bullshit. “The dirty secret of this is that the people who have done well are the hardest working people. As cool as they seem now, at one point in their lives, they were fucking hustling, they were working to get the sound right, working to get the song right, writing and writing.”
Make a Bet with Life, and Bet on Yourself
When Jollet describes this wager with life, the tone of his voice tells you that he’s absolutely serious in the belief that artists are not born but formed through incredibly hard work. “At one point,” he says of great songwriters, “they made a bet, That’s how life works, you make a bet where you bet everything you have on something when you don’t know how it’s gonna turn out. You say, ‘you know what? Fuck this. I’m gonna lock myself in a room for a year and get good at whatever it is. I’m gonna disfigure myself in some important way, and then I’m going to take that disfigurement and make art from it.’”
This transformative process sounds a bit overwhelming. For the burgeoning songwriter, the question seems to be not, “is it possible?” so much as “is it worth it?” But that’s good news, isn’t it? Because it means that our ability to succeed isn’t determined by the quality of the first song written, or even the one hundredth. In Jollet’s words, “If there’s one thing I could say to any young songwriter, it’s that I wrote a thousand songs before I wrote one good one.”
I guess that means it’s time to start writing.
Keep your eyes peeled for Part II of our Songwriting Series, where we’ll be talking to emcee / vocalist Mystic, whose much-anticipated second album is about to drop a world of lyrical insight on hip hop fans. Until then, let us know what questions you’d like answered about songwriting in the SoundOff! Forum!