I don’t think he minded, to be honest.
“Here’s to the End of the World” is scheduled for release on Thursday, May 25. Thanks for letting Popdose be a part of the rollout for the tracks from Minor Fits. It’s striking that this track is so topical, and yet you suggest that’s a fortunate occurrence of unfortunate circumstances?
“Here’s to the End of the World” is noteworthy in a few ways: First, It’s a singalong drinking song about the apocalypse, and though it was written well before 2016, it’s feeling weirdly topical. It owes debts to the Pogues, the Beatles and my ample time spent singing at bars.
Clearly we are living in those accursed “interesting times” someone once wrote about. So tell me about the process when you did write it and, perhaps, if you had the foresight then to see where we are now in 2017, what would you have changed about it?
I wrote it long ago – it must be a decade or more. I never released it, but it stayed with me all these years, as if it were waiting for the properly apocalyptic moment. I thought it was weird to go so far back like that to retrieve a song, but I was inspired by Radiohead, who put out the 20-year-old “True Love Waits” on A Moon-Shaped Pool just last year. If a song works, I guess it doesn’t matter when it was written. But I wouldn’t change anything about it. I think the fact that it doesn’t mention a specific news peg works to its advantage. And the song’s overall message of camaraderie makes it a universal drinking song that’s versatile enough to plug into whatever apocalypse you might be going through. That’s about all you can ask out of a song, really.
You are a songwriting professor who’s taught at Yale, Wesleyan, and NYU’s Clive Davis Institute. As a songwriting professor, you have a different view of construction and structure than others might have. I’m sure it helps in many ways, but could you articulate how that knowledge might have helped you create this song and the album in full?
Well, in the big picture, teaching has sharpened my ability to focus on what, exactly, a song wants to say. The biggest issues I see in my classes is that students are either unclear about that, or they’re trying to tell two stories at the same time, negating either one.
I start the semester with a piece of wisdom I lifted from author George Saunders: Art is kind of like a box, and the job of the artist is to have people to walk into that box, and walk out having experienced something that is both “undeniable” and “nontrivial.” Song form – where the chorus goes, what a bridge is for, etc. – ultimately has to pass that smell test. From there, the debate is how to balance one’s imagination with the writer’s tools that put that imagination in appropriate lighting. If that sounds both vague, yet pretty specific, then you get what I mean.
At the same time, were there moments during writing and/or recording where you needed to suspend the analytical side, that perhaps the process was getting in the way?
For sure. And I did my best to keep my own balance, though I consciously decided that, if I was going to err on a side, it was going to be that things don’t go off on enough tangents and “jams” that some people love. But honestly, I didn’t worry about it, because the songs came very quickly, so the unconsciousness is, to me, baked in to the writing itself. They’re taut, but they also flow. Live, I open the solos up, and let things breathe a little more, but then, live performance is a completely different medium.
What comes first typically: the lyrics or the music, or are they interchangeable according to the feeling of the moment?
I take whatever comes, whenever it comes, with hands outstretched and tears of gratitude. Sometimes the music arrives, but doesn’t want to hang out with words: I make those instrumentals, and save them, or use them for TV and film work. Sometimes the words can’t be bothered with music, and I make those short stories, essays, lectures, or rants that live in a notebook and sit on a shelf until they’re ready to play nice.
The future of music — versus, I suppose, the future of the industry is a topic that fascinates me. Personally, I believe there will always be major labels and they will always dominate the business…but at the same time, that’s becoming an entirely separate business (or business entity) than what we once knew as “the music biz.” I’d like to get your read on these…
It’s so funny, because I was initially inspired, on all levels, by Ani DiFranco’s DIY ethic, so the concept of “major label” doesn’t ring to me the way it does to some artists. There will always be a version of major labels, I guess, but I don’t assume that I, or my students, require one. There are so many definitions of success, now.
A friend gave me a great piece of advice in putting this record out. He said, “Consider your audience, however big it is, and think about what would be fun for them to be on the other side of.” I mean, what else is there? I’ve been releasing singles, videos, stories, and I have a Pledge Music campaign that has all kinds of interesting offerings that orbit music, but are not necessarily musical. It’s about making conversation more than making a killing. And I’m cool with that.
Getting back to “Here’s to the End of the World,” there’s another special aspect to the song that ties both your recording and teaching worlds together.
The “gang vocalists” that sing along with me at the end are friends and students of my classes. (Through) teaching, I’ve come in contact with many noteworthy individuals who are now alums of my classes: Maggie Rogers; Overcoats; Michael Blume; Mree; Tor Miller; Jil; Sarah Solovay; and more. I keep in touch with all former students through an online community called, “The Hang,” and a group of them came to the studio to help me out. I think I’m building a special community, there.
Minor Fits is currently a part of a Pledge Music campaign. You can find out more about it and about Mike Errico at: http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/mikeerrico