These United States’ self-titled fifth studio album is aptly named, not only for the band itself, but for the diverse collaborations featured on the album. With help from John McCauley of Deer Tick, Michael Nau of Cotton Jones, Matthew Houck of Phosphorescent, Laura Burhenn of The Mynabirds, Ben Sollee, David Moore of Langhorne Slim, Josh Read, and the entire Frontier Ruckus and Backwords Bands, bandleader Jesse Elliott creates a new, raucus sound for Americana. We spoke to Elliott about writing These United States: the bits of reality that inspired lyrics, and the imaginative songs that followed.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
For the turn of phrase or the perfectly calibrated existential statement, OK, sure, I’ll defer to Dylan or Cohen, sometimes Zevon and Joyner. If I’m looking to feel humbled on the more musical level, Beck and Paul Simon and Wilco, all later on in their journeys, all do that reliably. Nick Cave’s “The Secret Life of the Love Song” and “The Flesh Made Word” – this hour long lesson on everything – that’s maybe the one piece that captures it for me all in one place. Heroes in the more traditional mythic distant historic untouchable sense. Gods moving among us, I think more of Paleo and Laura Burhenn, Anais Mitchell finding her way through Hadestown, the brothers Remnant from Athens, Ohio. Let’s see, Stu Lupton, Alec Ounsworth, Laura Gibson. Always someone new or old waiting, though – Martinez and his Thieving Irons project, Plume Giant jumping up out from Connecticut I think it is, Dessa from Doomtree – and suddenly you’re just smacked across your laziness, right back into loving all these songs that everyone is making, right here, right now.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
Songs proper, with the intent of putting out to the world to try and say something about what it means to me, I think I was 20. Some were awful, a few decent, most awful but open to later cannibalization. None have ever been as good as I’d like them to be, or else I probably would’ve stopped right then – that whole “happily we fire for the moon with ineffectual arrows” idea.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
I don’t remember this, but there’s good solid Fisher-Price cassette evidence of a sorta freestyle rhythmic odyssey entitled “Unka Funka” from when I was 4. I really haven’t progressed much since then.
What’s your approach to writing lyrics?
It always has to start from that one little piece of solid ground, that single phrase or couplet or overheard supermarket comment that makes you think “How did that person get there?” and then you have to work backwards. Or not backwards, actually, but maybe from the beginning, from point negative-D through negative-B and even-zero back to point A where the overheard comment started you off. Eventually it occurs to you what negative-C must’ve been, and then you’ve got yourself an honest struggling map, even if it’s mostly a lie.
What percentage of the songs you write do you finish?
I don’t throw anything out, which is more of an obsessive trait than an effective strategy. My grandma Bonnie, she sucked every single chicken bone clean as marble, and then boiled the marble down for stew. You don’t waste what you’re given around people like that. So I guess I finish everything – I just haven’t finished it all yet. That’s not to say they’re all keepers. I don’t keep any, really, myself. I raise them as old as I know how, send them out, hope with genuine love that someone finds a better hearth for them somewhere, but don’t always hear back. You have to trust that whether they find that fireplace or the deep dark oblivion of the woods the fire came from, they end up where they were meant.
Do you have any standards for your songs you try to adhere by when chosing them for an album?
Because there’s a lot laying around in the junkpile, albums are more like mixtapes for me. I go wandering into that big pile of twisted metal with a detector set for some particular element or compound, and a few at a time, they make themselves heard from the pile, I excavate them, and once I’ve got enough in my arms that I can’t carry anymore, I know it’s time to leave the scrapyard and go spread them out in a field and see what sense I can make of that particular armload, and that’s an album. So all the songs have to be fundamentally related, yes.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
People, and places, and the movements between them. Those are the raw materials, and then if I’m stuck figuring out what the feeling is that those people and places have created in each other, I put on a great instrumental – “In A Silent Way” maybe – and just try to describe what feels like what. Lately, too, I’m climbing back through the branches of the musical theater tree – the Broadway stuff itself and every elementary school production of it. The Who, Floyd, the lines between all the myths that Joseph Campbell figured out how to draw, psychedelic cautionary tales about money and power and religion. I really don’t care if they come from Jesus Christ Superstar or Kanye West, what’s the difference? Conor Oberst and Andrew Bird started getting at this again recently from different angles, all of us well indebted to The Kinks and Homer.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
I got audited by the Internal Revenue Service this year because they couldn’t figure out how I was still alive but without a home address – surely I was hiding something. The man assigned to my case was called Mr. Wheatley, a true gentle soul working in a strange fluorescent world. I’m working one up for him right now. I think it’s called “Very Fine Friends, All the Right Enemies.”
What’s a song on These United States you’re particularly proud of and why?
“The Park” off our new album. I’m proud because Justin and Tom and Robby were right about it and I was wrong. I had faith in it at the start, then coming into the home stretch wanted to axe it from the final cut of the album. They convinced me otherwise, no small amount of anger and passion involved, and it stayed. And now I know they were right all along, which makes its inclusion all the more sweet.
What’s a lyric from the album you’re a fan of?
I tried to kick this album off with a good one, this half heard then half imagined front stoop conversation between some old folks looking back, goes like – “When we’re dead and gone, I guarantee they’ll wish they knew us! You remember Ledford, yeah?” “Oh yeah, I knew old Louis! Last I heard him up in Bellingham, down on the corner screaming the praises of the Wild Tchoupitoulas.” Knowing chuckles settle into sighs settle into a moment of silence. “Man, we’ll be gone from here and dead and only a few of us had even a clue of us.” And then they all burst into full-on laughter.
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
Goes back and forth, but lately for me harder. Or maybe just more restrained is the way to put it. More detached. Feeling even more deeply than ever before that the world really and truly does not need me or anyone to write any more songs. And so many others that are already out there give you such joy. So you don’t write just anything and everything down any more, only those few little nuggets that bring you the extra little jolt up the hairs of your neck.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
A song called “First Sight” did that. It’s one of the few more straightforward love songs I’ve done, so maybe that’s no surprise. It’s all imagined, though, a single moment meeting someone extrapolated out into the rest of your lives together, a complete and beautiful fantasy, so maybe it’s that part of it that people touch.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
I take a lot of orders for Thai food from my bandmates – there is just no way I could remember all those in my head. Plus it’s nice to have something physically spelled out that you can point to for the person taking the order, in case there’s any mis-heard moments or maybe a mis-numbered number on the menu.
What song do you consider the perfect song, and why?
A lot of perfect songs have been written, which is encouraging. In the last 4 hours driving from Fort Wayne to Cincinnati, Elvis Perkins’ “I Heard Your Voice in Dresden.” It’s that distant fading memory thing again, that person in that place that you want to hold on to forever even if you know you can’t. No harm in yearning.