When I lived in Austin, I worked at the video store and I had plenty of time on my hands. If I wanted to write a song, I could just sit down and do it – I had nothing else to do all day. It was a ridiculously undemanding life where I’d lounge around, write a song, then go into a workplace where almost everyone was stoned and clients swapped handfuls of pills for the alleviation of their late fees. And nobody cared about the songs I was writing, so there was no rush to record them anytime soon or ever. I amassed a huge amount of songs that nobody aside from my friends wanted to hear, and a couple of years later, when I actually got a chance to make a record, I had a lot of songs to pull from.
I left I Love Video, went on to a bunch of temp jobs, worked at Audiogalaxy and got laid off, but it was okay because by the time darkness fell on Audiogalaxy I had talked a booking agent into booking these little Okkervil River tours and I was gone a lot (in case there are any aspiring musicians out there wondering what kind of jobs are best for someone who goes out of town all the time, if none of your local bars are hiring I suggest a dot-com in the final stages of decline). Audiogalaxy finally cut me loose, but by then I was spending most of every year on the road. I’d come back into town for a bit, pick up some shifts at Vulcan Video (at that time more of a booze workplace than a pot workplace), go back out again.
It was really difficult to write on tour. Occasionally I’d do the whole romantic writing-a-song-on-the-back-of-a-postcard-while-unshowered-and-hungry-and-rolling-through-rural-Germany routine, but that was rarer than I would’ve hoped. I realized that for me writing had worked best when I was a bum working at the video store; on tour there are so many stimuli raining down on your senses at all times that it’s hard to have a quiet private thought, and often you don’t even notice when you had an idea, or you think “I’ve gotta write that down” and then by the time you’re doing loading into the club you’ve forgotten. A lot of the ideas or impulses behind songs, at least for me, are so subtle that I need to be somewhat calmed down to even notice they’re coming.
When I moved to Brooklyn I fought hard to tour less and get more personal time, because I felt like a fraud going out on tour playing songs I’d written years ago and not having actually written anything new in so long. But writing in NYC came with its own difficulties. I was a grownup and I had more shit to take care of, and we lived in a shoebox; if I pulled out a guitar and a guitarcase and a pedalboard and an amp and a microphone to get an idea down, I’d just totaled the apartment and couldn’t get from one room to another. My phone rang off the hook. My e-mail flooded over. Finally, after years of this, I decided I wanted to devote most of my day to just writing and I needed to get a separate space to write and record.
I didn’t have a lot of money to play with, so I had to look around a lot, but I finally found a space open in a giant sprawling cellar – a rehearsal and studio complex that had started out as one small room and gradually spread outwards until the entire underground was taken up by musicians. The room I was being offered was the original room of the complex, and pretty run-down, but it was large and it was far away from my responsibilities. In order to afford it, I had to split it with five other bands, but we all decided on a schedule that worked.
It was a dark, moldy, occasionally foul-smelling place, the high ceiling entirely covered with rattling, dripping pipes and industrial fluorescent light fixtures that didn’t work anymore, caked in sleeves of congealed dust. The guy who rented it to me told me a great story about how the writer John Wray had quit his job and lived down there for a year to write his first novel. To keep the swarms of rats away from him by night, he slept in a tent in the middle of the floor. One time the pipes burst above him and soaked everything he’d written. He stuck a postcard on the door, depicting a train station with a sign above it labeled “HELL.” That story pretty much clinched it for me. I knew I had to spend as much time there as possible. I liked the idea that so many thoughts had been thought in there.
I came in there with Beth and Clint of Bird of Youth and we cleaned the place like maniacs, with heavy breathing masks on, every inch we could reach. It took forever. There was dirt and gunk on there that I bet had been untouched for multiple decades. We hung up some nice lights. Over the walls that were too gross-looking to look at we hung tapestries, like a kid’s college dorm room. It felt better.
Before I moved my stuff in there – guitars and keyboards and amps and a desk where I could sit and write this and some microphones, a four-track, a sampler – I came by a couple times alone and did some more cleanup. There’s a beat-up old PA in there and one evening I drove over and tidied up and hooked up my iPod while I did. I was listening to the Roy Harper album Stormcock at the time, and I put on the song “One Man Rock and Roll Band.” It was the first time I had listened to music in the space. I hadn’t realized how much of a jolt of joy and inspiration hearing music in there was going to give me. The incredible inventiveness and energy of Roy Harper – his prolificacy and the sense that he was always inspired, that work was just this extension of his life – made it the perfect music for that moment. These crazy acoustic guitar lines just zinged and ricocheted off the walls, his high wail soared up into the pipes on the ceiling. Stormcock is such a great record – people call it Harper’s best but he had so many incredible albums during that period that I don’t believe it’s possible to pick a “best.” But it’s certainly the most focused record, one of those records with such laser-focus and ambition and purity of intent that it’s eternally inspirational. I just felt this incredible sense that I could do anything in this giant and grubby space, and I resolved to spend the entire year down there writing and working and to not stop for anything.
Number 10: Bill & Will – “Goin’ to the River” (March 2011)
Number 9: Ted Hawkins – “Sorry You’re Sick” (November (2011)
Number 8: Blake Mills – “History of My Life (January 2011)
Number 7: Ray Price – “Release Me” (February 2012)