Ken Stringfellow just doesn’t get it. The singer-songwriter simply doesn’t have an accurate appreciation for some of his distinct talents. And while his modesty is charming, his perceptions bear little resemblance to reality. Stringfellow, a veteran of the critically acclaimed, cult-favorite power-pop band the Posies, and, these days, a solo artist (among other things), has a knack for writing near-perfect guitar- and piano-driven pop songs. He also, as it turns out, has the ability to create one of those songs, start to finish, within a matter of hours. Not always. But sometimes.
Only Stringfellow thinks people should expect to be able to find fully-formed songs floating around in their heads — or, actually, to do whatever is the equivalent of that in their own pursuits. If he can do it, he reasons, anyone can.
That odd belief came up during a conversation about Stringfellow’s soulful third solo CD, “Soft Commands,” which was released two weeks ago on Yep Roc Records. Stringfellow, who was vacationing on an island off the coast of France while preparing to embark on a U.S. club tour, was explaining how the record came together.
In large part, he said, “Soft Commands” was made in chunks. A month in the studio here, two weeks there, during the latter half of 2003, all of it crammed in around his other gigs and projects. Those included playing with the reformed Posies (and planning a reunion record); touring and recording as a sideman with R.E.M.; recording with pal (and fellow R.E.M. partner) Scott McCaughey’s band, the Minus 5; and producing records for such indie acts as the Long Winters.
Stringfellow said he had to take his chances to work on “Soft Commands” where they came. And to make the most of them.
“Once I was in the studio I was really productive,” Stringfellow says. “Some of the songs came really quickly. Something like ‘Death of a City,’ the music only took half an hour to come up with.”
“Death of a City,” which closes the 12-track “Commands,” isn’t a terribly complicated song. It’s a piano-and-vocals number for the most part, with some strings layered on top. But it’s an expertly constructed song that plays as if carefully planned to end a expertly-constructed record. So it’s a bit surprising to hear that it was born largely of idle time.
“I’d reached a point where I was out of songs and I thought, ‘God, I have to do something today; let me go and play the piano for a few minutes,'” Stringfellow says. “And that just came completely as it is, structure-wise and everything. Recorded it and then took a CD of it home and listened to it and in the morning I had the lyrics.”
Really? As simple as that?
“I think that everybody’s brain is capable of doing it,” Stringfellow says. “It never fails me. And I think that probably means that anybody could do something like that.”
Stringfellow insists he’s not kidding.
“I tend to believe things like that. Most people don’t bother, I know that’s certainly true. And most people would never believe it; they wouldn’t think that they were capable, so they don’t bother. But I think the human brain is quite effective. Radically so, in fact.”
That may be a matter for debate. What isn’t, what “Soft Commands” makes entirely clear, is that Stringfellow’s brain is every bit as effective as one could hope. The disc represents a rather distinct departure from Stringfellow’s earlier work, both with the rough-edged Posies and as a straight-ahead pop solo performer.
With “Soft Commands,” Stringfellow set out to make a record of ’70s-style soul pop, a disc that would recall Laura Nyro and Carole King. And although he departed from that plan a bit (adding a Posies-style edge to “Don’t Die Young,” using a reggae beat on “You Become the Dawn”), he mostly hit the mark. The songs on “Soft Commands” marry Difford-and-Tilbrook-style backward-gazing composition with Stringfellow’s established gift for lyrical turn of phrase (“What would the moon suspect? He only sees the clouds that slither by his head.”). The disc, on whole, is warm and accessible, easy to like and both easy and interesting to take in repeatedly, as elements of Stringfellow’s complex arrangements and understatedly smart lyricism reveal themselves piece by piece.
Setting a plan for a record and sticking to it, Stringfellow says, is a new approach. Indeed, he’s only just mastering the art of planning songs all the way through.
“I think I’ve gotten to be a little more in control of directing where things go without killing the spontaneity, which is probably, in my mind, like learning the craft of songwriting,” Stringfellow says. “That’s something that you can, and I will, spend my whole life trying to learn how to do well.”
Some might argue that Stringfellow’s already clearly learned all he needs to know to write consistently stellar songs. Others might point out that it has to be hard to control songs that come into being in a matter of a few hours.
Stringfellow, however, would probably just brush those arguments aside. Because while any outsider could only conclude that Ken Stringfellow is a master of his art, the writer himself still just doesn’t get it
First, the story, another feature from today’s Journal News. Now, onto the leftover quotes. The format, again, is a sort of sloppy, broken, unedited Q&A, starting from right after the pleasantries and small talk and ending wherever the conversation started to trail off. I’m assuming this record [Soft Commands] was made sometime last year, but I can’t figure out how you found time with everything else you had going on.
I started working on it in earnest, like, March of 2003. I’d already cut one of the tracks without knowing it at that point, but everything else kinda started then. And I was putting the finishing touches on it the last few days of January of this year. I finished the record January 31 and then the next day February 1, started the new Posies record.
How’d that go? The Posies record.
The Posies record is something quite amazing, actually, considering we wrote it all together starting that day, February 1 and then for the next two and a half weeks we pretty much wrote a piece of music every day that was arranged and sounded like a real piece of music. It was a real explosion of creative energy. And then we wrote the lyrics for it, Jon and I, over the next month or so. And it all came together. It’s amazing to me that that’s possible, you know? My record, I had some songs and went in and recorded them and made up a few there but worked on them for months, and I would take a lot of time between recording sessions. And this one there’s a lot less time between sessions and a lot less sessions and it managed to come out great.
Are you … am I hearing that you would have preferred to have made your record the way you did the Posies record?
I don’t think I would want to make one start to finish that way. I’m glad, especially the kind of writing that happens in a studio, like, stuff comes up while you’re there you have everything set up, especially if you have musicians there, and stuff can just arrive, so you wanna be able to capitalize on that. Writing a piece of music is quite easy to do in a day, especially the three- or four-minute songs, verses and choruses, whatever. The lyrics, I need to take time for that to happen. They may come quickly when they come, but I can’t make them come on demand. I have to give it time to have observations about things kind of building up in my head.
So is it just that it’s easier for you to write when you’re working with someone else? Or is it specific to working with Jon?
It’s half the work, obviously. With two people working on the lyrics and two people who’ll be eating up the same amount of lyric real estate on the record, there’s some pressure to produce, because otherwise somebody else will be happy to do it. And then as far as the music goes, you know, you have all four of us in the studio so if somebody has an idea you can quickly hear what that’s gonna sound like. You can have a rough idea of what the recording will sound like in minutes. We’re always rolling something while we come up with these pieces of music and we can go back and listen to it and see what it needs or if it will fly or whatever. But the interesting thing to me was, pretty much, there wasn’t anything that we started playing together that after working on it for a couple of hours we said, ah, this isn’t leading to anything, this is kind of a dead end. Everything we came up with led to something good, led to something that is on the record.
That’s remarkable. Is that, do you think, something that can only happen when you’re all together like that? I mean, during the creative phase? You know, as opposed to doing a reunion record the way the Go-Betweens did, where you’re writing songs over the phone or whatever and you just get together to record them.
That can work for us. It was just so much easier at the time. The studio is in the neighborhood. I can see that geography might make things more difficult now that I’m living in France. But I’m much more into having us in the same room. I think it answers questions quickly in a way that my personality kind of needs.
OK, so, if you have the kind of personality that needs questions answered right away, how do you make a record like Soft Commands? You made this record a bit at a time, but it doesn’t sound fragmented at all.
When I was in the studio I was productive and moving quickly. It’s just that there were lots of times when I was doing other things in between, like going on tour with REM or recording with them, that’s a big chunk of time. So in between doing things with them I would sneak into the studio and work on my stuff.
[This is where most of the quotes in the story come from, so we’ll pick things up a bit later in the conversation.] [He’s been talking about how easy it is to write a song quickly, which has me dumbfounded.]You really believe anyone can write … I mean, complete a song in a couple of hours if they want to?
I think you’d be surprised how true that is with many musicians. I’m sure that some of the nine-minute or 29-minute John Coltrane compositions were not labored over in the writing process. They got together, they played. The human brain can do some really complex things on short notice.
[More quotes for the story came from here.]
So give me a thumbnail sketch of the process for Soft Commands. How many sessions over how much time?
I did a couple of things in Seattle and then went to Sweden for like a month and did a lot of the work, so the record had a definite shape and form by the time the REM tour started. And then in between the European and US tours I had another two weeks to work on it in Seattle. And then after the tour, another two weeks in Seattle. And then the last sessions I did in Seattle in January was just a few days, you know, mixing a few things and doing one vocal, I think.
And there was one big push in there somewhere where most of the record came together?
The thing I did in Sweden was really quite complete. I came out of there with several finished songs, more or less. It just needed to be mixed and a few overdubs. But the record had a personality and a feel and almost a running order. I think most of the songs, the first half of the record was done in the running order that exists now.
That’s not typical, is it?
Did it help that, umm, this record sort of has a theme — like a ’70s sort of Carole King thing — which I assume was intentional … so did that make it easier in some way … just knowing, OK, this is gonna go in this direction, so you can just sort of sit down and do it. Did that make sense?
Yeah, I think so. I’d had the idea to make a really old-school soul record, that was my first idea, or something that reminded me of some of those soulful pop records, be it Laura Nyro or something like that. And the song ‘Let Me Do’ is sort of of that ilk. And even ‘You Drew,’ which sounds to me like Don McLean, was kind of an homage to very soul-influenced ’70s and ’60s pop music. But I didn’t stay on that tangent for long. That was an interesting thing to think about, making a really old-sounding record. And I think there are songs that the actual sound sounds quite old, like we used one mike on the drums and stuff like that. But stylistically it managed to be a little more diverse and be its own thing. It doesn’t sound exactly like soul music and it doesn’t sound exactly like anything else, really. It just sounds like itself, which is what I would hope to do with a record.
It also doesn’t sound much like what I expect from Ken Stringfellow. Were you just in the mood to try something different? Did you feel like you needed to break out of a rut? What’s behind this sound?
I really enjoyed what I did with Mitch [Easter, who produced Ken’s last solo record, ] for the preceding record and I didn’t really know how to improve on his work. I thought he did a really great job of making a record sound, you know, like giving the record a comprehensive mood and everything, even with all the experiments I wanted to try. With this one, I thought, well, it’s just more of the same, really. And I didn’t want that. So I tried to find ways to make it different.
And, ultimately, what you came up with was a different musical style.
Yeah, but not just that. Like, I knew that by going somewhere different, you know, like going to Sweden, and looking at a totally different studio as a totally different person, I knew that would at least impart some different tones on the record. And that’s all I could really do.
You feel like that helped, I assume.
I think the writing got better. That’s one thing I can say. There was more diversity and more spontaneity to the writing. So that also helped a lot.
Do you think it’s important to, umm, to try to find something to do differently from one record to the next?
I’m always trying to improve, especially the lyrics. I try to make them more interesting, but also more open in a way. I want them to be something to be curious about if you dig into them and go, “Oh, that’s an interesting image,” or whatever, but I don’t want them to be so opaque that it’s just nonsense or whatever. I want to at least evoke something in the listener. And sometimes I’ve been quite literal in my lyrics and sometimes I’ve been abstract to the point of being completely Egyptian, you know?
These aren’t exactly narrative songs, though. Or am I missing something?
A couple songs actually have little stories that, even if they aren’t linear, the images are all related in a nice way. And some of them are just quick little themes or declarations that I’m making that don’t break from the structure of the song, you know, the song is well rounded thematically, which is pleasant.
[Lifted more quotes here.]
[Ken’s been talking about working on his lyric writing and how he thinks it needs improvement. He offers the following in that context.] What’s the main thing you feel like you need to work on?
You wanna be able to follow through on an idea and fill that out with images, but without making it really leaden and without going for the obvious images that would come to mind. You know, I understand that you want to keep getting better, but at the same time, I’ve gotta tell ya, it’s kinda funny to me to hear about working on lyrics from a guy I think of as having a real talent for turn of phrase.
Turn of phrase is the beginning. Turn of phrase is one thing, especially at the beginning, that I pursued a lot. And then turning a phrase with heart is the next step. Giving it a depth of feeling is, to me, the next level. Some songwriters go more into giving the depth of feeling without too much verbal filigree, like somebody like Neil Young, and then some people give verbal filigree without feeling. Even things that I loved, like XTC, their early lyrics are pushing to have so much turn of phrase in them. They’re really ingenious, but there’s a point where you learn a little bit more about the writer in the later records of XTC and they’re still inventive lyrically. Where that point crosses is, I think, their best work.
And so you hold Neil Young up as the opposite of that?
His songs are simple to the point where you want more imagery in some songs. I think I think 99 percent of Neil Young songs are great songs, but on the last couple of records before Greendale, I would say that they’re not as mysterious to me. They’re almost too plain.
Is there … getting back to your writing, is there a … do you tend to do a lot of refining, then? I mean, to try to reach that standard that you’re after? Umm, what am I trying to say here? I guess I’m asking if you tend to throw away a lot of material during the writing process?
I follow the Eskimo theory of writing. Every piece is used for something. If I don’t like something, I’ll know in five minutes if it’s not worth following. Everything else gets molded and shaped into something that’s usable.
I assume that doesn’t have to happen right away, though. Like, do those pieced get molded for whatever record you’re working on right then, or can it be for something later?
Oh, no. It doesn’t have to be right away. Something like “Don’t Die,” I’ve been playing with that music for two or three years, and it never coalesced into anything interesting. It started out as a more somber piano piece and then I just couldn’t think of anything melodically for it at that speed. And then I thought, well, it could be sped up to be something more high energy. I had this idea that it would be something glam, David Bowie-influences, and it kind of is, but I didn’t just wanna make the lyrics like T-Rex nonsense, much as I like that stuff. I’ll mess with stuff forever. It just gets put away.