When she’s not pursuing her Ph.D at USC, Naomi Greenwald is working hard on her music career. The singer-songwriter’s debut album, Darkbloom, was produced by Dave Trumfio (Wilco, OK Go, Built To Spill), and has earned her a truck load of praise from publications in the know. We talked to the Pennsylvania native about working in New York and LA, her approach to songwriting, and her love of Fleetwood Mac.
Tell us about the song “Evan Williams.”
“Evan Williams” is actually an old song that I revived for Darkbloom. When Dave Trumfio and I decided to work together, he listened to every song I ever wrote and was immediately taken by it, and the recognition that it was indeed a cool song was almost more satisfying because it was so belated. But while the song is old, it definitely has a new feel, and I am totally indebted to my band for picking up on the Fleetwood Mac influence and running with it. It also needed some major trimming—the original recording was over six minutes long!—and so I had to cut the lyrics that explain that the title is a reference to a kind of bourbon and not a guy like, for instance, Evan Williams, the founder of Twitter… I’m totally OK if he wants to take credit for being the song’s namesake though. Really.
Did you form the songs apart from producer Dave Trumfio, or was he present in the crafting of the album?
The general form of most of the songs was established before we went into the studio because my band has been playing together for a while, and a lot of the basic instrumentation gets decided after I introduce a new song in practice. On the other hand, “Dark Times” was brand-new—the band hadn’t even heard the crappy recording of it that I gave to Dave, and he suggested that I add an intro/outro before I played it for the rest of the guys. More than anything though, Dave helped to create cohesiveness from one track to the next by finding the unifying aspects of this collection of songs and enhancing and adjusting them until everything fit. I don’t think it can be called an album until this happens.
What made you want to be a songwriter? When did you start? How long before you were any good?
I can’t say that I ever thought “I want to be a songwriter” except when I decided to try to do it as a career. Otherwise, it just happened. When I was thirteen, I learned to play a few chords and a few cover songs and then something original came out, but I was hesitant to announce that I had just become a songwriter because I was afraid that I must have inadvertently replicated a song that I had heard somewhere—especially as the lyrics were already about love and heartbreak, and I’d only ever kissed a boy and certainly never loved one. By early high school, the cat was out of the bag, and while I think I wrote some cute songs back then there’s nothing from that period that I’d want to be performing now. I don’t think I was really good until my early twenties, after I was introduced to a ton of new music when I was in college.
You lived in New York, where you said it was hard to write. How so?
I lived in New York for almost ten years. At first it was hard to write because I always had roommates and people in and out of my doom room at NYU, and I was painfully self-conscious as songwriting is not a pretty process. Then I became painfully intimidated. The amount of good musicians that I knew or knew of at NYU was insane! I was at school with kids who formed The Rapture and Animal Collective, and I was just too young and too shy to play, let alone write, around others. After college it got a bit easier; I was older and tried to stop comparing myself to other musicians or caring about what people thought, but there were still those paper-thin New York walls and about a thousand amazing distractions every night.
How does that contrast to living in LA?
I have less neighbors and less of a social life here! No, in all seriousness I just think I am older and more focused. I realize now what a late bloomer I was—it took me a long time to figure out that music was so important to me and that I wouldn’t ever be satisfied if I didn’t give the whole “I want to be a songwriter” thing a real try. And now I have an awesome practice space so I can hunker down to write in private. It’s pretty awesome.
What are you studying at USC. Does this get in the way of having enough time to be a musician?
I am getting my PhD in comparative literature, and let’s just say I don’t have much time in general. Six years ago when I thought trying to have a career as a musician wasn’t for me, I went back to get my masters in New York because I knew I would enjoy teaching literature. Clearly I changed my mind about being a musician as now I am doing both music and school! And luckily I was correct in thinking I would enjoy teaching literature. The only real trouble I am having is that because I am a full-time student, I can’t be on tour right now to promote this new record, but I am hoping to make up for lost time this summer.
You’ve gotten a lot of good press. What’s it like to read your work reviewed? Do you feel like music critics have really gotten you?
There has been good press which makes reading it much easier, that’s for sure! But the whole process is still quite new to me and while I knew I’d be excited to get positive feedback, I was surprised by how helpful a really carefully thought-out review can be by helping me hear my own music in new ways that I can expand upon in the future. And yes, I believe that for the most part critics have gotten me, even though the turnaround in some of these publications is so fast I don’t know how they do it! My favorite records are usually “slow burns,” in that the more I listen, the better they become. I like to think that my music gets better with subsequent listens so I was worried at first that critics wouldn’t have time to be taken with it, but for the most part, that hasn’t been the case.
What’s a lyric you’re particularly proud of on the album?
In the pre-chorus of “Something in the Water,” which is one of the more sleepy songs on the album, I sing “I would love to comfort you/I would love to make it not true.” While these are certainly not profound in their own right, they completely capture the exact feeling that I had at the time I wrote them, which was that helpless feeling you get when you watch someone you love suffer and there’s nothing that you can do about it. When you find yourself incapable of even putting the slightest positive spin on the pain they are experiencing and you are almost heartbroken by someone else’s heartbreak. Man, love sucks.
Are there any words you love, or hate?
I love words that start with the same letter (alliteration) and that sound like other words (homophones). My all time favorite word is “murmur,” which is itself two words in one, both starting with “m,” but I don’t think I’ve ever used it in my lyrics and will have to remedy this ASAP! I can’t think of any words I really hate but I am sure they exist. “Baby” is hard to use in songs except when it’s ironic, and yet I’ve used it in at least two of my songs to date so I guess I am ambivalent about that word. I feel like I will be thinking about the answer to this question for the rest of the week!
How do you typically write songs? Words first, or melody?
I do a bit of both because while I keep a lyric journal where I attempt to write lyrics without music or copy down quotes I love or whatever, I seldom sit down with a guitar to an open journal and try to come up with a melody that way. Rather, I will play guitar and sing “freestyle” lyrics as I figure out a melody/chord progression and as I continue to work my way through the song, some of the lyrics begin to stick and then when it’s finished I have to sort of cut and paste and replace some of the lyrics with either totally fresh lyrics or lyrics that I have written down in my journal or a combination of the two.
Do you find yourself revising a lot, or do you like to write automatically?
Revising is almost always part of the process for me because I have to try a melody and sit with it until I realize if it’s right or if it could be better and the same with lyrics. But every once in a while a song just comes out in full all at once—music, melody, and even most of the lyrics—and it’s the strangest feeling. It’s like spontaneously giving birth to a song and that’s when I think of my thirteen-year-old self playing guitar in my parents’ basement in Pennsylvania convinced that the first song that ever popped out of me must have been something I subconsciously heard and recorded somewhere because it was just too bizarre that something original could just come out so automatically. But now this whole “birth” metaphor makes the other possibility—that you can give birth to a secondhand song—seem a bit suspect.
Who’s an underrated songwriter, in your opinion?
He’s by no means underrated by those who know and love him (obviously), but I am surprised by the fact that even more people don’t know and love Mark Kozelek. He writes such beautiful songs that I get confused when friends aren’t familiar with him, and I always try to fix that. Then again, his albums are of the “slow burn” variety so you’ve got to be willing to listen again and again, and most people probably want something more immediate.
What’s a song you wish you’d written?
“Prove Your Love” by Christine McVie from Heroes Are Hard to Find. I think that is the easiest question you’ve asked! While I love most Fleetwood Mac songs, this one is simply perfect, and I really want to record it so I can pretend for a moment that I did write it. I just hope I can do it justice.