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Interview on a Song: Jeffrey Lewis

Some years ago I was introduced to a single Jeffrey Lewis song, "Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror," which I encourage you to listen to right now.

In fact, and I feel pretty bad about this, but until recently I hadn't ever taken the time to listen to any of his other songs—as it turns out, his music is really fantastic. However, the time since I first heard the song, I've forced countless creative friends and acquaintances of mine to listen to this song during low points in their creative careers, as a way to let them know that they aren't alone. Sure, being a creative is hard and uncertain, but we all feel it.

It occurred to me recently that I could probably email Jeffrey Lewis and ask him about the song, so I did. Here is the result.

Paper Darts: There's something about "Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror" that's almost too true, making it enjoyable in a painful way. Did writing this song achieve any sort of important catharsis for you as an artist? 


Jeffrey Lewis: All of my songs and comic books hopefully bring me to some greater understanding or appreciation or catharsis or whatever it might be…just putting your thoughts and feelings and creativity into a form in the world is an amazing experience, you can then stand back and look at it. Your mind is like a pool of mud, you can sink your hands into it and feel around but that's too blind and amorphous. It's good to reach into that shapeless swamp and bring something out into the light, as a song or a conversation or an abstract painting, whatever it is will suddenly have edges, a beginning and middle and end, a shape and a sound and a taste, so you can actually interact with it and get something back from it. And if you're lucky, or skilled, or both, then you can dredge up some shape that hopefully other people will also be able to get something out of.

Pretty much anything that I put out into public means something cathartic to me (I make a lot of other songs and comics and stuff that I don't bother putting out), but it's true that certain songs resonate with more people than others. “Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror” has been a big resonator, but that might pass as the people and situations involved might not mean much to people in a few years. For myself, yes, it felt great to get all of that out.

PD: Did that catharsis last?

JL: Yeah, like I say, the act of making art out of thought puts things into a solid, lasting form. Thoughts themselves are just soup, but songs and art can last. Also, for that particular song, it came at a certain turning point for me. At that time I was really feeling very anxious about the fact that I seemed to have this music stuff as my job—it wasn't what I had ever intended as a job or career. I was getting into my late 20s and feeling like my life was taking a shape that wasn't what I had envisioned, wondering if that was okay. It's certainly okay to write songs about your own feelings, but is it really okay to make a living at that? To get used to making a living at it, to even expect and take for granted that there's a living to be made at it?  Not just as a living, but is it okay to make a life out of it?

I was able to answer some of this anxiety for myself by beginning to make a lot more art and songs about topics other than myself, it was around that time that I started working on my History of Communism series, and just generally challenging myself to expand what I could do. I still write personal stuff, but I feel a lot better with a wider range of social interaction, I feel like with people paying some attention to what I do I have more of a responsibility to put more thought into what I'm putting out into the world.  

I feel like with people paying some attention to what I do I have more of a responsibility to put more thought into what I'm putting out into the world. 


PD: I know that you also are a comic artist—between your music and your visual art, which causes you the most pain?

JL: Too many different kinds of pain associated with each to really answer… not that it's all about pain or anything. Comic books are strongly attached to the pain of loneliness because of the isolated time it takes to create them. Music doesn't have that problem; it's infinitely more social.  

PD: Has Will Oldham heard the song?

JL: Yes, and he's probably really sick of people asking him if he's heard it! I say this because with some regularity I meet people who tell me that they've asked him if he's heard it. Like, I'll play on some radio show in Germany and the station manager will say, "You know, Will Oldham played here a couple years ago and I asked him if he had heard your song about him!" Then the next day I'll do some art for a music magazine in Chicago and the editor will say, "You know, I interviewed Will Oldham last week, and I actually asked him if he'd ever heard your song!" Seriously, I think Will must really be tired of all these people who think they are the first person to ever ask him! It's been years already.

Here's a funny related thing—I do have this other song that mentions Leonard Cohen, and a couple of years ago a friend of mine was on tour in a band that was opening for Leonard Cohen, traveling with him on his private plane and everything. She was going to ask him if he'd heard my song, but I think she chickened out. I should also say—I don't make a habit of writing songs about other songwriters! I think those are maybe the only two, out of hundreds of songs that I've written!

Will Oldham Discusses Jeffrey Lewis on Trash Flow Radio

 


PD: If you were going to write the song now, would it still be about Will or has someone dethroned him in New York?

JL: It's a different moment in time, and whoever is the hippest artist nowadays is not in the same interesting cultural position as Will Oldham was or is. You might not remember or realize what a massive underground cultural impact Will Oldham had in the ’90s and early 2000s. He was never a mainstream household name, but I would almost swear that he inspired more copycat artists than Nirvana did. I shouldn't even say "copycat" because that's an insult, but let's just say he inspired more artists than almost anybody that I'm aware of in recent decades, at least it seemed this way from my perspective when I was in college and when I was starting to write songs and play open mics after college in the late ’90s.

Maybe the whole freak-folk thing, and Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens and Smog, maybe all of that would have happened without Palace. But maybe not. It really seems to me that the singer-songwriter, in its modern indie-rock incarnation over the past twenty years, has mainly been the result of Will Oldham, even if at this point people are inspired by people who were inspired by people that Will Oldham inspired. I can plainly say that my own music possibly wouldn't exist without Will Oldham—I was directly inspired by a performer called Whip who was playing songs that were very Will Oldham influenced.

 

You might not remember or realize what a massive underground cultural impact Will Oldham had in the ’90s and early 2000s. He was never a mainstream household name, but I would almost swear that he inspired more copycat artists than Nirvana did.


What makes all of this particularly interesting or even disturbing to me, is that this guy Will, whether he's a genius or not, is the apotheosis of, the genesis of, the modern folk musician. And he's a SELFISH folk musician. He's cruel, and petty, and competitive, at least in the character he portrays in his songs. Folk music was always social music, even socialist music, and Will Oldham brought a kill-or-be-killed, Ayn Rand-ian element of fascist philosophy to folk music. I don't mean this as an insult to him—I think he's just exploring his feelings. I don't know if anybody has ever written an exploration of this, tracing it through his songs and exploring what it means that this became the most influential folk music of multiple generations.  But this feeling that I had about him, this is what my own song came out of.

I don't think I could write a song today that hits that nerve for myself, because there's no artist as a cultural element today that is the equivalent. Like, Arlo Guthrie couldn't write an “Alice's Restaurant” if there wasn't a Vietnam war happening. I think right now an equivalent might have to be a song about Twitter or something like that, anything that's quietly pervading the culture that forms a nerve center for a lot of related contemporary thoughts and feelings, a nerve center that people might not realize is the point where a lot of things happen to overlap or stem from. I think, and I hope, that Will understands that the song is not an insult to him personally, he just happened to be the Vietnam war at that time. Haha!  

PD: What kind of reaction do you typically get from the song?

JL: I don't play it much anymore, but when I do play it I don't know if people know what I'm talking about, especially outside New York City…. Either way, people usually enjoy just riding with me on the river of words, that's always a fun ride to take. Strangely most of my most popular songs are my longest ones, and those are the ones I'm less likely to play live, because if you start a six-minute song and you quickly realize it was the wrong thing to play, you're stuck inside it for a long time! It gets pretty squirmy onstage when you're stuck inside a long wrong song. (No frickin’ way, I seriously didn't notice until reading this over, I just made a triple weird rhyme.)

PD: If other artists turn to this song for comfort in knowing that they aren't alone, is there a song you turn to?

JL: Oh, Daniel Johnston definitely. I can't even think about "Lonely Song" without having a little breakdown, or like thirty other old Daniel songs, see, all I have to do is type the title and there's tears coming down my face right now. Phil Ochs, sometimes. I could probably think of some others.  

PD: About this whole "dicks" and "pussies" thing… there's something kind of similar in Team America: World Police. Which came first, the song or the movie—or, did you and Trey Parker/Matt Stone pull this amazing idea out of the aether at the same time? I ask this specifically because the song mentions Bob Dylan perhaps thinking he's just "a clown who entertains," and that's the kind of stuff that Trey Parker says about himself in the short documentary 6 Days to Air about making the first South Park episode after Book of Mormon was a hit. The point is, even if an artist is a clown, maybe it's not so bad and it can still inspire people, but yeah, definitely, no one is sure of themselves. Except for maybe Will Oldham, unless he's written to you and confessed that he feels like a pussy.

JL: I've never seen Team America, I've barely even watched South Park—I think I might have seen two or three episodes total in my life. I sometimes think I should actually listen to less music, read fewer books, watch fewer movies, because when you have an idea but you KNOW somebody else has already done something similar then you stop yourself from doing your own idea. If you don't know that somebody else has already done something then you are a lot freer to create, create, create, and that's the only way things can happen.  

If you don't know that somebody else has already done something then you are a lot freer to create, create, create, and that's the only way things can happen. 

PD: Do you still feel that maybe there are these two types of mental gender?

JL: I was originally going to rewrite the ending of the song before I recorded it, because of all that cursing stuff, and dicks and pussies and rape just seemed like a blight on what I thought was otherwise a nicely written thing. The stuff at the end felt like I'd strayed too far into poor taste and I could probably sum up my feelings without it. But then I just never got around to rewriting the end and I just got used to singing it that way.

I still feel like it's unfortunate, and it's the same with some other material of mine, it's just lazy art to let it sit the way you first wrote it. Of course there are a lot of other songs of mine that have been tremendously improved since the first scrap of paper they were written on, and thankfully nobody will ever know how embarrassing some of the original lyrics were. But the Williamsburg song has pretty much stayed about 95 percent as it was first written, started on a scrap of paper as I was exiting the L train, by the time I got home I had most of it.

Also I'm really not super happy with the fact that the music video spends so much time on the rape stuff, I have only myself to blame for enacting the scene but I didn't assemble or edit the video and I would much rather have just seen a lot more train footage, we shot a lot more stuff on the train and through the train windows and train tracks, I was surprised when I saw the finished video that there was so little train stuff in it and so much not-exactly-tasteful violence.

I also was really embarrassed that I let Turner Cody wear the fake buck teeth that he wanted to wear to portray WIll Oldham, it's okay to critique somebody for their art but it's really just mean and wrong to poke fun at how somebody looks, and besides, I've even got bigger buck teeth than Will does. But for all of this stuff I just let it pass when we were filming because how was I to know that this would become one of my most-watched videos?

It didn't seem too important at the time, in fact during the few days that we were filming the Williamsburg video we were simultaneously filming the video for "Posters" which i think is a much better video, we made both videos in one week, working all day on scenes from both of them. “Posters” came out pretty much perfect, in my opinion, but there's a lot that I would have done differently about the “Williamsburg” video.  Another thing—Peter Stampfel plays fiddle on the recording, and I REALLY wish I had asked him to appear in the video.  SO stupid to not have done that.

Anyway, dicks and pussies, yeah, I first had that "philosophical insight" when I was stoned at age sixteen or something, dividing personalities into these two categories and what the pros and cons of each is… it's such an odd and funny thing that all cultures use these parts of the body as insults, and that they are supposed to come with certain personality traits. A dick is supposed to be somebody who is maybe mean to you, or aggressive, "hard" I guess, in some annoying overbearing way. And a pussy is supposed to be somebody without courage, a wimp—"soft." So really, why not call one person a "skull" and one person a "stomach" or something like that? Also, it seems fitting that while the pussy is somehow maligned for being soft or non-aggressive, there's the element that there's actually something going on inside that just takes a longer time to manifest, that pussies actually might produce something, something more surprising and durable than what a dick might produce.

Anyway, dicks and pussies, yeah, I first had that "philosophical insight" when I was stoned at age sixteen or something, dividing personalities into these two categories and what the pros and cons of each is… 

I'm sure there's some huge library shelf full of anthropological studies on what the cultural aspects of sex organs metaphorically mean to cultures all over the world, universal or not, SURELY there's a huge field of study on this, though it's not what I really meant to get into with the Williamsburg song, it was a sort of separate thought that just ended up there and then stayed there.     

 

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