You’ve said that playing the “20 song game” [where musicians challenge themselves to write and record 20 songs in 12 hours] led to Emotional Freedom Technique. But had you thought of going solo before?
I had always wanted to make my own music, but was never able to find the style that seemed authentically my own. I tried writing songs through my 20s, and they all just seemed like bad imitations of other people, or songs that had already happened before. It was something I wanted to do, but I never had the focus to do it, and I was always busy playing with other people and pretty satisfied with that. Doing the “20 song game” was kind of an attempt to see what would happen if I did that, without really a goal of breaking through. It really had this amazing, unexpected result, where I instantly knew, “oh yeah, this is what I sound like, this is my voice.” From that moment on, that’s when I knew that I wanted to make a record. “Anytime, Anywhere” and “Never Worked So Hard” actually came out of that game.
What were the other 18 songs -- the ones that didn’t make it -- like?
Well, I’m ashamed to say, I only made it to 17 that day. Most people I know that have done it don’t get to 20, although some annoying over-achievers do. There was a weird, kind of Boards of Canada instrumental thing. There was a really terrible wannabe R.E.M. song, that if anyone ever hears it, I will die. [Laughs] There was actually another song that would have kind of fit on Emotional Freedom Technique, that I sort of worked on for a bit, but abandoned. There was this song about hating the “20 song game.” There was a country song.
[The game] basically silences that voice in your head that makes you second-guess any ideas you have. Because you can’t afford to do that. Which is cool. I want to do it a bunch more times. I’ll probably do it a few times as I start to make my next record. Even if nothing ends up making it from that, it’s just a cool palate cleansing sort of brain floss exercise.
It sounds like a good idea. Maybe I should start the “20 article game” for journalists. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Well, you know, there’s probably some sort of way you could apply it to writing. I love it. You’re gonna realize you’re a comedy writer, or something. That’s what’s going to happen.
So from the game, how long did it take to actually write the full album?
Man, I’m very ashamed to say, the game was in January of 2012. But my excuse is, I’ve been on tour for like, three years of that period -- Death Cab [For Cutie] and then Ray LaMontagne before that. But after that, I came up with a ton of songs really fast, over the next year. But they were mostly instrumental. I figured out what I sounded like, but I just didn't know what I wanted to express.
I was in this very weird, kind of melancholy mood, and that last song on the record ["Hindsight / Emotional Freedom Technique"] just kind of poured out of me in this 20-minute emotional vomit session. It was about a relationship that had happened like, 10 years before. I sort of time-traveled to this point where I was really sad about that relationship ending, and this song came out of me. I played it for a couple close friends of mine, and they were all like, “this is what we want to hear from you.” They all expressed in their own ways that musically, what I had been doing was exciting to them, but lyrically, they agreed that I’d seemed a little aimless or not confident in what I wanted to say.
How did writing that last song spark the rest of the album?
All of a sudden, I had this very specific, open-hearted, melancholy thing, and I agree, it really felt like me in the same way that discovering that style of music felt like me. Once I had that, I sort of applied that lens to the rest of the record. I scrapped all of the lyrics I had so far, and made it a series of vignettes about that period of my life that I was in at the time, which was about three or four years of recovering from this big, life-altering break-up that I had going, directly into being on tour all the time, and feeling super emotionally-adrift and ungrounded and unable to make relationships work, and unsure why. I was writing lyrics that were very true and honest to what I was feeling at the time.
How do you reconcile the album’s pop sound with its more somber themes?
That is a good question. I think my favorite band that does that is ABBA. You listen to ABBA, and it’s this really joyful music, and a lot of people -- including my mom -- just dismiss it as very fluffy, worst-of-the-70s radio pop. But you listen to these lyrics, and all of the songs are super sad, or fucked up, especially later in their career. It’s crazy the dynamic where the men in the group were getting divorced from the women in the group, but writing the songs for the women to sing. All these later ABBA songs are these crazy, ventriloquist dummy, emotional exorcism things, being sung to this bubbly, Swedish pop.
I’ve always been kind of obsessed with them, and I took them as sort of an inspiration to make this joyful-sounding pop record that had these themes that you could pay attention to if you wanted to, but you don’t have to. If you want to just hear “Dancing Queen” as being this cool song about a dancing girl, great, but if you want to like, peer to the darkness beneath it, you can, too. I kind of had this secret mission to make my dream synth pop record that I heard in my head, so that was happening at the same time as I was writing a super confessional singer-songwriter album.
It seems like that juxtaposition resonates with people.
It’s super fascinating. I know it affects me -- those are my favorite bands. I guess it’s what separates purely frothy dance music from the stuff that sticks with me. When my list of all-time favorite bands comes out, it’s going to have the ones with an extra layer of meaning behind the fun sound going on.
So how did you decide on the title for the record -- Emotional Freedom Technique?
The title came from an ex-girlfriend of mine, who I’m still quite dear friends with. It came because I experience really bad stage fright, kind of randomly, which is terrible for someone who does what I do for a living. [Laughs] I was about to play a solo show, which is very rare for me, so I was especially freaking out. And I was talking to her on the phone, and she was kind of talking me off the ledge. She said, “have you heard of this thing called ‘Emotional Freedom Technique?’” Those were the craziest three words I’d ever heard. She said it’s this science of calming yourself by tapping rhythmically on pressure points. I was already like, “I don’t even care about what it is, that’s the best name I’ve ever heard.”
It absolutely fits the record. Making the record was very cathartic, and it really, literally, brought me out of this emotionally-arrested state. And I felt like making the record was an emotionally-freeing thing, and the making of the record was the technique, and just hearing those three words together was like, “that’s the album title!” Right at that moment. I have an ex-girlfriend to thank for that. The song “Communication” is about her, as well.
I actually wanted to ask about “Communication.” You wrote that right after Prince died. Did Prince’s death come into play in any way while you were writing it?
It didn't come into play at all lyrically, but musically, yes, heavily. It was the day after [Prince] died, and a lot of the ways I work on music is trying to examine the music I love and unravel what works about it, and put it back together in my own way. I was in a melancholy mood the day after Prince died, and I was thinking I’ve never really attempted to get in Prince’s head, musically. I was like, “I’m just going to try and make a Prince song, just for fun.” And so I dialed up the Prince Linn Drum sound that he was famous for using, and I got that going, and I was thinking, “what makes the best Prince songs super cool?” And it’s the restraint. He makes you wait, so hard, for these amazing moments, and the rest of the time, it’s just a little drum machine, and maybe a bass, and maybe a guitar.
I was like, “I’m going to make this pop song that’s super minimal for almost an uncomfortable amount of time, but then when the middle part happens, it’s just going to explode in this colorful way and then suck back down into being as small as possible.” I don’t think it ended up sounding much like Prince, and I don’t think anything I attempt to do that sounds like other people really ends up sounding like them, but Prince was very much in effect when writing the music of that one.
I know you recorded the album entirely by yourself, which is interesting, because you normally work with so many people. How do you view the processes of collaborating versus working solo as a musician?
I think with [Emotional Freedom Technique], I did it myself because it was such a personal record, and I had this very control freak vision of how I wanted it to sound. I knew I could do all the things on it that I needed to do. But I will say the trade-off is that it’s really weird to make music in a vacuum like that. If you’re in a band, or even if you’re working with a producer or something, you have someone to bounce ideas off, and at least get confirmation that you’re on the right track. And there just wasn't any of that [on Emotional Freedom Technique]. Part of what took the record so long, other than logistics, was that some days I’d be like, “this album’s amazing, I’m doing what I always wanted to do,” and some days, I’d just be like, “this is awful, I can’t play any instruments, my voice is terrible.” There was no feedback.
Does becoming a solo artist affect how you think of yourself as part of Death Cab For Cutie?
It’s fun to think of having this simultaneous career on a smaller level that I can nurture and care for and have something to do when I’m not doing things with [Death Cab For Cutie], because barring unforeseen circumstances, Death Cab is going to kind of be my main thing for the next quite a long while. I love that, and I love being part of that group of people. I don’t think it changes anything with me and them, other than that they’ve been so sweet and supportive of it. I was kind of scared -- I was really scared -- at first, to present it to them. I’m in a band with one of the most beloved songwriters of his generation, and I’m releasing this record of my own. There will be some inevitable comparisons, just in terms of people being like, “oh, this guy’s in Death Cab For Cutie, this doesn't’ sound like Death Cab,” or something like that. I’m just sort of taking a deep breath and steeling myself for anything like that.
Switching gears here -- how did “Your Voice On The Radio” come about, with Laura Gibson?
It’s the only work of fiction on the record. Everything else is a very hyper-honest tale from my period of whatever I was going through. I kind of set out to write a “Don’t You Want Me”-style classic duet. I wrote that, and it happened really fast, and Laura and I are the best of friends, and we’ve worked on a ton of each other's’ projects together. So we recorded her, like, four years ago. And the arrangement was super different. It almost sounded like Chic. It was super ‘70s disco, but it had the same singing and the same lyrics. It just seemed too cheesy for me, and it kind of didn't fit anything else. But I still really loved “Your Voice On The Radio,” and Laura would ask about it all the time, like, “I get it stuck in my head all the time, please tell me you’re going to release it somehow.” I was like, “well, I’ll look at it.”
I revisited that song, and I erased everything on it other than the vocals and the baseline. I made a new song, and the template was actually David Bowie’s “Sound And Vision.” I listened to what the bass sounded like, I listened to what the piano sounded like, I listened to what the drums sounded like, and I decided to copy those sounds as exactly as I could, but apply them to this frothy, disco song. I thought, “no one’s going to pick up on it, and it will be my fun little secret.” All of a sudden, musically, it fit the record. I realized it’s also this kind of melancholy, sad song -- this dreaming guy who is so at wits end of loneliness that he’s imagining this singer on the radio is thinking the same things about him. I think it served as this nice sort of palate cleanser from the melancholy nature of the record. But until the last second, it wasn't going to be on the record.
Finally, I have to ask about this -- you once released a full re-recording of Paul McCartney’s RAM. What’s the story there, and did the process of making it influence your debut solo album at all?
It’s funny, I almost brought this up like 10 minutes ago when we were talking about “Communication” and trying to make a Prince song -- how you can discover yourself through what you do with someone else’s music. That was absolutely true of RAM. That came about because I had been touring, and playing with other people, and I got home, and I really wanted to record something. I bought a little bit of recording equipment with some money I made from music.
I picked RAM almost at random. I had been listening to it a lot, and it seemed like a good candidate because it has some songs that are just Paul and an acoustic guitar, and then there are some that are like, “okay, now there’s a rock band," and at the end there’s a symphony, and angel choirs. I did it, and I’m super proud of it. I can’t really listen to it, I think I didn't really know how to sing yet, but as a learning process, it was amazing. It sort of directly led to being able to record Emotional Freedom Technique. And in fact, that “20 song game” happened just months after I released the RAM thing. It got my creative gears turning.
I feel like you could write a guide to finding your sound with all of this. Like, “play the 20 song game, record someone else’s album in its entirety, try to write a Prince song.”
You know...that’s not a bad idea.