Lyrics. I don’t know about you, but I tend to remember a song more for creative and inspiring lyrics more than I ever will for a catchy / familiar melody. As Fiona Apple wrote, “Please, Please, Please, no more melodies… they lack impact they're petty… they've been made up already…”
And so they have… I imagine that if you gave a bunch of monkey’s mallets and a couple synth pads that you’d eventually get something tantamount to your average top 40’s hit eventually. Lyrics are a different story though.
In recognition of the art of songwriting, I decided to interview a prolific singer / songwriter who recently passed through Milwaukee and is just coming off a gig at the Steel Bridge Songfest. Carley Baer was raised here in Milwaukee but currently calls Portland, Oregon home. Here’s what she had to say about songwriting and her process of crafting lyrics.
1) I really like your song “love letter to my muse”. What are the things that inspire you to write songs? Does the inspiration spring more from within yourself or from without?
Inspiration can happen at any time, and anything can be the trigger. When it's pure, it feels like a gift bestowed from on high. Sometimes the song just comes at you and all you're really doing is transcribing it. Sometimes you get a line or a verse that comes to you, and you have to work a little bit to get the rest of the song. Sometimes you just decide to write a song, inspiration be damned. In those cases, I tend to write about the writing process. My song "Dry" is a song I wrote about being afflicted by writer's block, which effectively ended the block (Song is above article picture). Songwriting is a really interesting process and for me it changes almost daily.
2) I’ve heard you say that deadlines are something you find creatively stimulating; can you expand on that idea?
Between February Album Writing Month (FAWM.org) and the songwriting festivals that happen up in Sturgeon Bay, WI, I've spent the last few years really honing my ability to write a song in a very finite amount of time. At the beginning it was kind of stressful, because you always want the song to be perfect. Everyone's got that inner critic that says "That's not good enough", "That lyric is terrible", etc. The skill that you eventually acquire is being able to silence that voice, and once you can do that, you learn very quickly that your idea of perfection isn't the only way to end up with a great song. In fact, sometimes the process forces you in a direction you wouldn't have ever gone in if it weren't for the limitations.
3) Have you ever surprised yourself with a song you’ve written? Saying to yourself afterwards, “Where the hell did that come from”?
There's a song on my album called "Say : Do" which is probably the best example. It's not every day that you write a song where every single line says exactly what you mean to say. There's always one little thing or another that isn't quite perfect. But with that song, every line carries its weight. I remember reading it over once I finished it and being really surprised that I could write something like that.
4) I love the ukulele sound in your music. Tell me a little about why you play that instrument. And give me a thumbs up or down on Israel "IZ" Kamakawiwo`ole's ukelele version of "Over the Rainbow".
My dad gave me a ukulele for Christmas a few years back, and at first I wasn't sure what to do with it. I've been playing the guitar for most of my life. The dawning moment came when I was on a road trip and could pull out the uke and play songs, which you can't really do with a guitar. The ability to travel with it meant I was writing with it more, until it became a part of my set. Regarding "Over The Rainbow": I love Iz but I'm definitely over that song. As a ukulele player, you kind of get beat over the head with it.
5) Favorite Song to play right now? Favorite Cover Song?
My favorite song to play is usually whichever one I've most recently written, so today it's "Fabulous Disaster", a tune I co-wrote a couple days ago with Danielle French while we were driving from Appleton to Milwaukee (see what I mean about that ukulele?). My favorite cover song right now is probably "Gumboots" off of Paul Simon's Graceland album.
6) Milwaukee is a town known for it’s flowing waters and exquisite brews so readers want to know: PBR or Highlife?
High Life all the way. (But probably Fixed Gear if you really want to know)
7) What kind of music are you listening to when you’re cooking dinner?
My tastes have been all over the place. Lately I've been digging upbeat instrumental stuff; so much of my life is spent dealing with words that sometimes it's nice to just hear music. El Ten Eleven and Explosions In The Sky have been in heavy rotation during the cooking hour. There's also a really cool internet station called SteelBridgeRadio.com, that plays all original music written and recorded at the Holiday Music Motel in Sturgeon Bay, WI during the songwriting festivals I've been attending. That's usually on quite a bit as well.
8) What do you love most about Portland (I heard in your interview with Robert Parish that you’re driven by the energy in that town), and what would it take for you to move to Milwaukee?
Portland has an amazing energy. You step off the plane and you can feel it. There are so many things I love about that town; the music, the bikes, the food/coffee/beer, the mountains, the ocean… But I'm a wanderer by nature. I think all it would take for me to move to Milwaukee is the right circumstance.
9) What can you tell me about upcoming tours / projects / albums that you’re working on right now?
Well, I'm on a tour right now. I just finished a week at Steel Bridge Songfest, which is one of the most rewarding experiences of my life as a songwriter. I can't possibly recommend it highly enough; there's so much love and music in the air, and you get to spend a weekend in Door County in the summer, listening to songs that were largely written just a few days prior. It's incredible, and it happens every June, so check it out. When I finish this tour, I'm going to work on my new album, which is still very much a work in progress but I think it will be worth the wait.
You can catch Carley Baer's next show in the area down in Chicago @ Uncommon Ground on Clark June 29th.