There are two ways to look at Jamie Stewart’s songs:
1. You take them at face value. You listen to one or two songs and say to yourself that his lyrics are too bleak or his music is too depressing.
2. You realize that at it’s core, music isn’t always a happy experience, and that Stewart’s lyrics are complex and brilliant.
I listen to Xiu Xiu and align myself with the number two folks. With each and every album, I’m more fascinated with what makes Stewart tick as both a songwriter and a human being. Listening to any of his songs, I’m constantly challenging myself to figure out what made him want to write songs that tend to deal in despair and hopelessness, but also are sung by Stewart in a voice that sometimes makes you think things are going to turn out alright. The other interesting thing about Stewart’s work is nearly every Xiu Xiu song has a moment where everything seems like it will fall apart; like the song and the man singing it will just end right then and there. It’s what makes Xiu Xiu so compelling to listen to, and the band’s latest album, Always, is full of perfect examples of everything that is great about the band and Jamie Stewart as a songwriter.
How do you decide what you’re going to write a song about? On this album in particular one song is about an Afghani boy murdered by American soldiers, and “Factory Girls” is about the “sexual objectification and desperate existence of Chinese female, migrant workers.”
I wish I could give a clear answer to this. internally it is clear but it is difficult to describe. There will be something that has happened to someone I know or to myself or there is something that I have read about and it almost flicks a switch. There is the same feeling I have had for several years that indicates that I should try to write about particular topic. It is a physical sensation that does not feel like anything else. This sounds kind of dumb. As far as this idea and how it relates to the aforementioned political topics, those are issues or events that i care about and were moving and that also happened to flick that switch.
How does your songwriting process work? Do you come up with a subject that you’d like to focus on and then go from there, or is it something else?
It depends on the song. Sometimes it comes from being so stirred by an event that I know, even if it won’t be for months that, will be written about, with no plans for the lyrics or the music, but only the topic. Sometimes there is an electro acoustic sound that after screwing around in my little studio all evening finally feels like something and then it becomes as matter of attaching the feeling of that sound to an event. Sometimes it is the classic thing of sitting with other bandmates and a guitar and the chords and words are just there. I have a little notebook and like a lot of people write down small ideas so they do not get lost. Then once in a while go through and see if they point in a direction that seems relevant to one of the other these processes. sometimes if I am not on tour for a long time writing becomes like a work day wherein I will start at 2pm and stop at midnight everyday. when things get busy I fit it in whenever it is possible and (FORGIVE ME!!!) try to remain open to what the muse is allowing. (UGH!) more than anything the idea of being spontaneous but also conscientious (i.e. avoiding meandering neo hippie goth jams supposedly run my said muse) makes sense to me.
Your songs have always seemed to me to be like short stories. Some are incredibly personal, while others seem to tell another person’s story. I’m curious if you write anything other than songs: stories, poetry, etc.
I just had book a haikus called A Neo Tropical Companion come out this month and I write for the Huffington Post on occasion. But other than that no stories or novels. I tried several years ago to write a collection of short stories called Sex Life of Destruction but it kind of sucked. I read it as an opening act for friends bands once or twice and that seems to go ok but as a piece or work one would sit down with, well it was, if you will, flaccid. (BAM!)
I recently talked to Jonathan Meiburg and I asked him what effect working alongside you had on him as a songwriter. I’m curious to know the same from you about your time working with him in Blue Water White Death.
Over the course of one week, he and I with producer John Congleton, worked on a recorded called Gall, under the name Blue Water, White Death. Jonathan surprised me about every second. we would be stuck in a corner on a song and then out of nowhere he would say, “Oh I have an idea” and then sit down at an organ and play a completely original and beautiful part that sent the song in a perfect and new direction. Or he would, again out of nowhere, build a bizarre and complex vocal harmony like it was nothing. He is an incredibly talented player, which because of his awesome and dauntingly strong voice, I think people over look. when one has that much ability stored up, in the studio it comes bursting out. I was constantly stunned that he just seemed to be sitting on 1,000,000 amazing musical thoughts and that he was able to translate them so quickly into something superb.
Do books play any part in your songwriting process? Has a writer or maybe a line from a novel ever found its way into any of your songs?
Oh man I am prepared every moment to be sued by a long list of dead people’s estates. I crib things all the time. Less so on our latest record Always, but only the last several records have taken the law of fair use to the limit. When working on lyrics I have my pile of note books, a thesaurus and a pile of novels that have notes in the margins for lines that when I read them touched my little heart. If I am stuck, I flip through all of them until something fits. I am hesitant to reveal any of these for fear of a skeletal hand reaching up out the gloom from 1960s Japan, present day austria or 1930s post antebellum south and choking me in the night for bald thievery.
What have you been reading as of late? Any good suggestions?
I’m not sure if these are good suggestions but on proverbial night stand and in the proverbial knapsack are The Gun by CJ Chivers, about the history of the AK 47, its dispersion and the effects of automatic weapons on present society and war.
Death and the Idea of Mexico by Claudio Lomnitz this is my 2nd crack at this. It is on how and why death is the totem and symbol of mexican identity, politics and aesthetics.
The World is What It Is by Patrick French a really fine biography of the author VS Naipaul. (Whom i have stolen from mercilessly.)
Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz number one in a series of fictional accounts of families life during WW1 in Egypt.
The Mimic Men by VS Naipaul. his only experimental novel. he is one of my favorites and this one i am finding an interesting challenge.
The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu about the “underclass” or cricket people in present china.
Shostakovich and Stalin by Solomon Volkov about the relationship between these good and evil titans.