New York City singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane is one of those uber-talented musicians who can write an entire concept album based on Craigslist ads, collaborate with Rufus Wainwright and Sufjan Stevens, and write classical pieces for the Kronos Quartet. We talked to the piano-playing troubadour about his take on songwriting, his new album Where Are The Arms, and his favorite Tom Waits song.
You recently played for three weeks at New York City’s Rockwood Music Hall. How does one get a residency at a club, and how do you approach performing one?
I think persistence pays off when it comes to getting a residency. Get to know the booker, play a series of one-offs that are well-promoted and well-attended, and then pitch a residency. The first time I did a residency at Rockwood, the hook was that I had a special guest at each installment. This is often appealing to bookers, especially if you’ve got interesting colleagues to bring into the mix. Another thing to consider with a residency is whether or not you have enough material to create variety over several weeks. While you may have a handful of devoted fans who will happily listen to the same set week after week, it’s good to think about ways to mix it up, whether through covers, improvisation, or having a big enough catalog to rotate songs in and out.
You’ve composed music for Kronos Quartet and the LA Philharmonic. Is the way you approach writing pop songs similar to how you approach writing instrumental pieces?
Writing concert music and pop songs are totally different beasts, and yet they’re governed by a similar impulse, which is the desire to communicate something that feels emotionally truthful. While writing a string quartet or an orchestral work is demanding and intricate and detail oriented, so is writing a three minute pop song. Miniatures can be maddeningly difficult to get right, and I think that the two endeavors really feed one another. But in my case, I’ve made it a point to incorporate elements of my songs into concert pieces, much in the way that Mahler and Schubert quoted their own songs in instrumental works. In my string quartet for Kronos, I include a paraphrase of the title track of Where Are The Arms in the slow movement, where the lower three instruments play the main riff while the first violin sort of improvises ethereally over it in a slightly unrelated key. The point of any of this intertextuality though is to create a dialogue between pop songs (vernacular) and concert music (formal) and demonstrate that there’s not such a gulf between the two. It’s all music, and it’s all meant to make the listener feel something.
What’s it like to work with Rufus Wainwright?
Rufus is hilarious. I think he is one of the most gifted songwriters out there. We first worked together at a festival in Switzerland where I ended up filling in for this French pianist who’d hurt her hand playing basketball— they were supposed to do a Berlioz song together, and so I accompanied Rufus in that song. Then he asked me to play the same song with him on Elvis Costello’s TV show Spectacle, which was super fun. We did a folk song at the end with Elvis, Bill Frisell, Kate (Rufus’ beloved and recently departed mom), and Rufus– a total thrill.
How about Sufjan Stevens?
Sufjan is a close friend of mine, and we’ve done various things together over the years. I first met him through Rob Moose, who’s currently a member of Bon Iver, but at the time was a recent alumnus of the Illinois tour. He had come to a couple of shows of mine and asked me to do one of his friends & family Christmas albums, which consisted of us sightreading hymns around the piano and then overdubbing wild improvised descants for several hours. Early the next year, when I was recording my first album, I thought there was a song that would benefit from his “magical fairy dust” (if you will), so I asked him to come over and record it and play guitar and sing. He and Rob and I sat around recording in my living room and ended up with “Slow Down” as it exists on my self-titled debut. More recently, I did string arrangements for the All Delighted People EP as well as for The Age of Adz. Sufjan is a great person, and a deeply inspiring artist to be around. I don’t think I know anyone who works as hard as he does.
Where’d you get the idea to do the Craigslistlieder album? Was it difficult to pull off?
That’s a question that comes up often, and I can’t really remember how I got the idea. I think that in 2006, we were starting to see craigslist.org become ubiquitous in a a way that maybe anticipated what web 2.0 and social networking were to become in the next couple of years. That is to say, craigslist.org was an online community that seemed to offer an alternative (sometimes creepy) to the real world. And I think I was fascinated by the new paradigm of public and private that was proposed by craigslist, and the questions attendant to that binary, e.g. what is privacy in an era where we troll the internet for sex with strangers, rant about our favorite kind of sandwich relish, etc…? It just felt to me that there was something with real pathos at the same time that there was a lot of humor inherent to craigslist as a medium. I can’t say it was difficult to “pull off,” but I certainly spent many hours writing it and learning to play/sing the somewhat treacherous piano parts.
What’s a song on Where Are The Arms you really want people to hear, and why?
There are different elements on different songs that I’m pleased with– the flute and string arrangements on “Winter Song” and “Charming Disease”, respectively; the bizarro Balkan brass distorto-guitar cadenza insanity on “Calabash & Catamaran.” It’s hard to be objective about one’s own record.
What’s a lyric you’re particularly proud of on the album?
I’m proud of the lyric for “Merritt Pkwy” in that I think it is simultaneously funny and sad. I’m a huge fan of the plays of Anton Chekhov, who was the absolute master of walking that ineffable line between comedy and tragedy. At the end of the day, they’re so often one and the same.
What’s your songwriting approach? Lyrics first, or melody?
It varies from song to song. Usually it’s sort of a hybrid; I’ll write a stanza of lyrics and then write the music for most of the song, and then fill in the lyrics. Other times, I have a musical idea, almost étude-like, that demands starting with music and then writing lyrics to the tune. I wish I had a reliable method, because it would make my life a whole lot easier. But it seems to happen differently every time.
Are there any words you love, or hate?
In college, my friend Seth and I had a long conversation that we recently remembered in which we discussed the fact that the word “anthrax” could never, under any circumstances, be used in a poem or song. Ten years later, I am convinced this is still true.
Who’s an underrated songwriter, in your opinion?
Hmm. Hard to say. All of my favorite once-obscure songwriters have gotten their deserved respect in the public sphere, which I suppose means that the music industry isn’t totally wrecked!
What do you consider the perfect song?
Tom Waits’ “Take it with Me” from Mule Variations. It’s got one of the most beautifully constructed lyrics that I know of, culminating in the devastating final stanza — “in a land there’s a town/ in a town there’s a house,” etc… And it’s got a gorgeous melody and chord changes to boot. It’s a song that I think should be heard more widely, and will someday enter the pantheon of the American Songbook if it hasn’t already.