Skip Matheny –former bartender in a retirement community and currently a songwriter in the band Roman Candle — interviewed Brendan Benson and Ashley Monroe earlier this month for Lake Fever Sessions on Nashville’s Music Row. Be sure to check out the video below.
The first question we always ask is, “What’s your favorite drink?”
Brendan Benson: It’d be wine. I’d be red wine. Maybe a blend [laughs].
Ashley Monroe: Red and White mixed together.
That’s an under-talked-about…
Ashley: I’m going to bring it back. [laughs]
Are there any songwriters that you are inspired by that might surprise your listeners, if they were just imagining what your records sound like?
Brendan: Yeah actually, George Jones is one of my favorites. In my case, there are probably a ton that I could mention that would probably surprise people. I mean, George Jones, The Stooges, Elvis Costello…maybe that one is not that surprising.
Any new, current discoveries?
Brendan: Yeah, there is one guys that I an really excited about that isn’t exactly “new” but, Andrew Bird I think is really great. Particularly his record Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire.
Right. His first records.
Brendan: Yeah. I think he’s got kind of an alter-ego or something. I can’t figure it out. Because if you go out and buy Andrew Bird records, they are not necessarily gonna be [pauses] well they are all great actually, but he does this one thing that’s really cool I think, and it’s his Bowl of Fire records. It sounds like it could be recorded in the ’40s or something.
Yeah, the first time I heard those records I was like, “What year is this from? — Oh, it’s 1999 or whenever it was…”
Brendan: Yeah, yeah.
So you mentioned The Stooges and I read somewhere that your parents played you things like David Bowie and The Stooges when you were a kid and–if I hadn’t known that about you, and first listened to your records–The Stooges wouldn’t come to mind first…
Brendan: No, yeah.
But, you know my parents didn’t play ‘cool people’ records for me when I was a kid and so when I first got a chance to hear rock and roll records, it was a whole new world to me from the beginning. And so I’ve always wondered what it would be like if your parents had raised you saying, “Okay, here’s your bottle, and some Gerber, and we’re gonna play Highway 61 today straight through just so you can get it in your head now. I’ve always wondered if you would have an opportunity to discover things on your own if you had been handed things from such a young age?
Brendan: Yeah, well there were a few records that were played around the house as I grew up like Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs. Those records I was familiar with. And I think when I got older and I started to really appreciate music, really delve into it, or analyze it, or get fanatical about it. Then I started collecting and discovering other Bowie. I mean Bowie is a great example because he kind of ran the gamut. You know on Low with Brian Eno or even Pin Ups. And those probably don’t even describe how adventurous he was. So then I subsequently discovered all those other Bowie records. Same thing with T-Rex. I really don’t remember it though. It was later in life that I had started picking through my dad’s records that he had left behind. My parents divorced and what was left behind of him was this record collection. And I would just look at the records, like Todd Rundgren records, and–based on the covers really–play them. And it has never ceased. I love that. I love discovering. And you know how Bowie was associated with Iggy and even Mick Jagger came into that scene. I don’t know, I love that stuff.
It’s fascinating to me because I have a four-year old and a two-year old and I am always going back and forth between thinking that I should play them all this great stuff now or I should wait until they are 16 and they can discover it for themselves. ‘Dad you don’t understand I just heard this great record, Ziggy Stardust…’
Brendan: Right. I’ve got a baby on the way and I am thinking about that too, you know. Like how am I gonna do this? Am I gonna force it on him?
It’s an ongoing struggle.
Congratulations on the baby by the way!
We should have a toast.
Ashley: Congratulations to the baby for being born into a world of love….
I think I was telling you outside that I was interviewing Tom T. Hall yesterday who is a total hero of mine songwriter-wise, and he said that on some of his songs–the more masterpiece-type songs–and he said, about those songs:
“Well you know, I got in a zone. I don’t know how I got there, and maybe I didn’t have a great time while I was there, but you know, I wrote this song and I came out the other side. I wish I knew more about it. I wish it was like cabinet making; like it was this craft, because then it would have a handle, and I could get a handle on it. But it doesn’t. And it’s just sort of out there.”
When you guys are writing, do you have a similar “being in a zone” experience, or is it just sort of a work ethic approach, you know, like John Lennon and Paul McCartney sitting down in hotel room, “We’ve got three hours here, let’s write “Eight Days A Week”?
Ashley: It kind of changes every time. I mean sometimes you just have chemistry with someone, creatively. You know, like he could play a G chord and I’ll hear something but if I play the G chord by myself than I might just play something normal or terrible. Sometimes when you get paired up with the right person, it’s exciting. I mean when we start a new song we get excited. And then a lot of the times I’ll start saying words that mean nothing and then it kind of turns into something that says something. It’s actually a really amazing thing to look back after you finish a song. You think, “I can’t believe that just happened.” Because not every song is amazing, like what Tom said, but when it is really good you just feel so blessed to have been able to channel that.
Brendan: Yeah. It’s always in retrospect, too. I think at the time, maybe you aren’t conscious of it but, like [Tom T. Hall] was saying, you hope that you get into the zone. If you are one person or two people writing a song, you hope that you get into the zone and when you do, its ideal. And I think that is only in retrospect that you can say, “Oh, wow man, we were really kind of in a zone.” You’re just not… you’re almost not conscious. You’re just going and your going and the next thing you know…
Ashley: It’s happened a lot. We’d end the day and say, “Oh, that was good.” And then the next day we would call each other and say, “Hey, have you listened to this song? This is AMAZING!” [laughs]
I love that next day thing.
Ashley: I never know at the time.
Brendan: ‘Cause it could go either way.
Ashley: A lot of times when you think you are writing a good thing. Oh God, this has happened so many times–where I’ll listen that day and think, “Oh, this is a masterpiece,” and then the next day I’ll listen and think its awful. I am not turning that one in.
Say that you guys are really “facing the dragon” so to speak and thinking, “I’ve got to finish this song” or “I’ve got this idea with lyrics but I need a chorus, I’ve had this sitting around for a year now.” What do you do? Do you go on a walk, watch TV, go read a book, read poems, comic strips?
Ashley: I kind of just wait for it to hit me. If I try to look for it, it just leaves me. It messes with my mind and I can’t do it. So, if I know something’s missing and it needs to come, I know it will come when it needs to and sometimes it’ll come when I’m watching T.V. or thinking about what I am going to wear. So I don’t tell myself, “Just get in a zone,” ’cause it doesn’t happen. I mean I wish I could. I wish I could just say, “Listen here, write this.”
Brendan: I think that if you set out to write a song… and the two of us [nods at Ashley] have actually set out to write a song and written a song. But on my own, left to my own devices, if I’ve got my pen and paper and my guitar and I am all comfy and I think, “I’m gonna write a song today,” it is always the most inopportune time. [Instead it’s when] you are out to dinner.
Ashley: Or you’re driving..
Brendan: Or you’re driving, and you’re swerving and you’re like, “Where’s the fucking pen”…
Yeah, I have this one aunt’s voicemail that I know I can always leave a long message on. [laughs]
The first time I ever heard your work on anything, it wasn’t your own record. You were producing a Greenhornes EP which was great. I kind of discovered your records backwards from that, which was cool, but my first impression of you was from this production angle. So I was wondering, when you are writing, how much of the production is already in place in your head while you are making it up? You know: “Obviously this is where I am gonna have Otis Redding horn hits.” Or, “I’m gonna fool everybody into thinking this is a ballad and then I’m gonna turn it into a ska song.” How much of the production is in place when you finish it? Or are you starting from scratch when you go into the studio and all you have is this great acoustic demo?
Brendan: I mostly don’t know. Contrary to what people might think. Because I have recorded and written my own records, I think people tend to think that I have this great vision and I don’t. And I don’t mind that. I am cool with that. I like kind of trying to figure it out as I go. Mostly I kind of go with my gut and I’ll start working up the song and then, in the end, maybe it worked and maybe it didn’t. I don’t know. But I never really have a clear vision.
From a musical standpoint, your records have always sounded to me as very defined and confident, almost as if you kind of woke up, walked into the studio, put-out this music, and went home.
Brendan: And in reality I spent hours and hours and hours punching in. “That note is not right.” Literally.
Absolutely. But the lyrics always seemed less definite, or less “complete.” Which is a fun contrast against how “complete” or “defined” the music sounds. The first song on your first record is “Tea”–it’s an invitation. I feel like the music on these first records–and I am not into analyzing psycho-content behind lyrics, so I’m not trying to go deeper than we should [laughter]–is really defined and inviting, and the lyrics seem to be continually saying, “Well, come on in and chat, but if you come inside, I don’t know how far you’ll get, because I’m still figuring things out.”
Brendan: Yeah. I think the topic that has been pervasive throughout my career is just trying to figure things out. And I have always hoped that is going to sell records–that people can relate to that–but apparently not. Apparently everyone has everything figured out. [laughs]
They have sorted the whole thing out and are at home right now watching football.
Ashley: Yeah. [laughter]
Brendan: And recently, I just got married and I am having a baby now but the whole next record is just going to be a whole mess of…
Ashley: Question marks?
Brendan: Yes. The bar has been raised. It’s gonna be, well… [raises his eyebrows]
That’s all I got. Thanks very much you two for chatting.