In relaying the background and inspiration behind new songs and albums, music journalists often serve as a conduit between artist and listener. With new releases, media members are serviced with a biography that provides context to lyrics. And, of course, songwriters do rounds of interviews, explaining their art and illuminating the process. But does it matter? Does art of any sort need to be explained? Singer-songwriters Carl Newman, Jakob Dylan and Jason Collett weigh in.
Carl (A.C.) Newman, the leader of the power-popping New Pornographers, has just released his third solo album, Shut Down the Streets, a record influenced by death of his mother and the birth of his first son. “I don’t think journalists listen that closely to lyrics. So, if you want yourself to be presented in some way that is close to the way you wish to be presented, you have to spoon-feed them. With the title song, for example, I think it’s clear that something big has happened, and that I can’t figure out why the world is still turning. I hope it’s obvious. That being said, by letting people know that it had to do with the death of my mother, that’s helpful context – it’s all you need to know. On another song, Troubadour, the first verse is about coming out the other side of some bad things, and feeling guilty about being happy now. I can’t blame people for not being able to figure that out. As for the line in Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns, “are we judged here by the things we say, or is it just the noise we make,” I think only 5 per cent of listeners listen to the things we say. It’s just the way people listen to music. Also, someone can sing complete and utter gibberish, but if they sing it very beautifully and soulfully, like Bon Ivor, people just inject their own meaning into it.”
Jakob Dylan reunited with the nineties hit-makers the Wallflowers this year and released Glad All Over. Asked about the song Constellation Blues and the heavy line “You can tell a few things about the soul of a town, from the blood of the men gone in the ground,” the son of Bob wasn’t much interested in providing insight. “Well, I mean, there’s lots of inspiration. Look, there’s inspiration on a simple level that you’re trying to make four minutes of something meaningful and something that resonates. I would be hard pressed, though, if we were to go through all the songs, to say what they’re about. I believe they’re their own explanation, and if they need too much explanation, then I didn’t get my point across. I know that sounds like I’m being coy. I don’t mean to be. Songwriters can get into a real pickle when asked to explain what a song is about. We can make things up. We can lie to you. I follow my nose – my songs take me somewhere, and I’m just trying to not be in the way of it. I think staring at a song too long and trying to figure out what it’s about is a mistake.”
Jason Collett, the Toronto-based singer-songwriter, speaks about his latest album Reckon, a record with political overtones in some, but not all, of its material. “That it’s a political album is the go-to tag line for doing interviews for this record. It’s a story. I get that. But I’ve been overwhelmed with the acute focus, to the point of people reading politics into songs that aren’t political. That to me is fascinating. I’ve learned over the years that the bio is crucial for each record – you’re essentially writing the review for a lot of lazy journalists who don’t know how to write. You need to spoon-feed a few lines to people, because sometimes they get it so wrong.”