Why did you call the new album The Learner?
The learner is the nickname my buddy Rusty used to give me after a night of hard drinking. The learner would usually come out, like the Incredible Hulk or Dr. Jekyll. We made t-shirts one morning in Chicago that said “the learner strikes again” and wore them around all day, laughing about it. I think I was getting beat up a lot during that time, probably mostly by myself, but getting up time and time again, learning the hard way, but learning nonetheless.
What’s the one song on The Learner that you want people to here the most?
I would have to say, personally, “Never Hide,” because I really put everything I had into singing that song, and it’s one of those rare tunes where the melody and the mood and the vocal all work in one great harmony where none of the parts really get short changed or stepped on.
How about “She Likes Girls?” What inspired it, and what kind of reaction has it garnered?
“She Likes Girls” is definitely a Learner song. I recently stopped drinking completely, for good, God willing, and “She Likes Girls” is a song that was kind of written right in the middle of the party, just before all the lights went out. I wanted to write a really up-beat rock n’ roll song that had a sense of humor and wasn’t so serious. I love playing it with the band; it’s a really important and fun part of our live set. But from a writing standpoint my heart is very far away from where it was when I wrote that song. Now i’m in the sober-eyed, body-aching reality of the morning after, and the songs I’m writing these days are all reflecting that.
You co-wrote “If You Want To” with Dan Wilson. What was that like? Was that your first co-write?
Dan had the chorus idea, and I think I came up with a verse, and over the course of a couple days we tightened it up and recorded it, and it ended up on the record. Dan’s really fun to work with and he got me to do some things vocally that I haven’t tried before. He pushed me, and I needed that. I think it was good that we captured that song right as it was being written. It has a particular energy about it.
What’s your opinion on his song “Closing Time,” by Semisonic?
“Closing Time” is obviously a big hit song, and I wouldn’t know, but it must be nice to have one of those. Ha! I remember where I first heard it, I was 17 up in Canada at a bar. I’d gone up there with my buddies with some fake IDs that we all laminated in industrial arts class, because I think the drinking age was 18. We just wanted to cross the border so we could get a beer. Sure enough we got more than one, and “Closing Time” was our exit music that night. It’s pretty hard to not have “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end” catch your attention.
You recently took part in Esquire’s Songwriting Challenge with Dierks Bentley, Charlie Mars, Bob Schneider, and Ben Kweller. What was the challenge? How was the experience?
It was very special to be invited to be a part of the Esquire shoot, and I have Charlie to thank for that; it was an incredibly fun few days. Bob and I now talk on the phone quite often, and I’m part of a weekly song-writing challenge that he organizes. Everyone turns in one song a week based upon a specific phrase. It’s really kept me busy writing.
I have a phone call into Dierks and Ben, but haven’t heard back. Come on guys. I guess I’ll try them one more time.
Is that a picture of you with Clint Eastwood in the album art? How did that come about?
Yes, that is Clint. I played the Carmel Art and Film Fest last year and that picture was taken at a party outside his restaurant in Carmel.
He has some sheep out there grazing around in a pasture, and my wife said to Clint, “I like your sheep.” He kind of grimaced and said, “stay away from my sheep.” She put one of my records in his pockets and told him if he didn’t listen to them she’d kick his ass. I don’t really have to worry about protecting her.
Is songwriting something that’s easy or hard for you?
It’s become a lot easier lately, I think because I’m just being forced to sit down and write more, and your mind just gets on a roll that way. I find it becomes easier the less critical I am of myself, initially. Sometimes I think I’m just writing another dumb song with F, G, and C, and it ends up being something really special. Honestly, I was starting to lose my passion for it. I was frustrated and starting not to care. And getting the drinking out of my life has really changed that, for me, in a big way. I’m really enjoying it again, and I have had plenty to talk about during the process.
How important are lyrics in the grand scheme of things? Are there any criteria you try to meet with your own?
This is American Songwriter, so I can’t say lyrics aren’t important. But sometimes I don’t think they are as important to me as they are to some people. I saw an interview with Joe Strummer in the Clash days, and he said something like, “people criticize our songs for not being able to hear the lyrics, but the thing is, the lyrics are really great. Isn’t that ironic?”
All the songs I keep playing that last and stay around in my live set are the ones with the best lyrics I think. So, I don’t know, trying to determine the importance of lyrics in a song, is like trying to determine how important it is to have a heart or a brain to be alive. It’s pretty important.
When people who aren’t familiar with your music first hear your name, do they assume you’re a band, or an Irish musician?
People come up with all sorts of smart-ass stuff to say. But I would do the same thing most of the time. It’s usually probably just people trying to start a conversation, they don’t realize I’ve heard it a million times. The lady at the post office forgets and makes a Harry Potter comment almost every time I hand her my credit card, and yeah, a lot of first timers, say “I thought you were a band.” Then I have to show them my driver’s license to prove it’s my real name.