Louise Goffin

louise goffin

Louise Goffin  will release Songs From The Mine, her first album in six years, on July 15. We spoke to the daughter of songwriting legends Carole King and Gerry Goffin about recruiting Alice Cooper and Johnny Depp for her record, her songwriting heroes, her thoughts on the perfect song and more.

How would you describe your new album?

It’s born out of a palette of traveling, songwriting, living, risking and growth. It’s diverse and warm with a connecting thread going through it. At some point I decided I was sick of writing break-up songs, and there isn’t one on here.

How would you compare it to your last album?

Aside from the no-break-up-song difference, Bad Little Animals was assembled from work I did over a few years while I was raising babies, so even though it presents as a whole work, each track had another situation, energy and place and time it was recorded. Songs From The Mine captures and distills both musically and lyrically a period of time in the writing, and the recording was started the last week of November through February of this year. There were breaks in that time for travel and gigs, yet there’s a feeling that runs through it beginning to end. This record is also the first time, after five other solo releases, that I set out producing from beginning to end.

How did Alice Cooper and Johnny Depp end up on the album?

It was a combination of serendipitous circumstances and both Bob Ezrin’s and their generosity…and some fearlessness on my part. When I was recording “Watching The Sky Turn Blue,” it was just me and my recording engineer that week, Steve Bone. We were at Village Recording Studios the same time Bob Ezrin was producing Alice Cooper’s new record. The first time I met Bob I was seventeen. My then-record company, Elektra-Asylum, had sent me to his house in L.A. to meet him about producing my first record and after the meeting I learned that he told them he wouldn’t produce me on the basis that he didn’t want the music business to ruin my life. He and I have seen one another a few times since, and we laugh about what an ineffective strategy that was. The next time I saw him after that meeting I lived in London a decade or so later and what got me there was, of course, music.

Fast forward to me producing “Watching The Sky Turn Blue” at Village, and I saw him in the reception area. “Weezie!” Bob calls me, and he invited me into their studio to “come on and meet the boys.” I would’ve been just fine with coming home that night saying, “hey guess what happened to me at the studio today? I met Alice Cooper and Johnny Depp.” I did think that was the end of that, and that they needed to be left alone and I needed to finish my song, but on the third and last day of finishing my track, Bob surprised me at around 4 o’clock by walking into the studio I was in, and listened to what I was working on. He made a suggestion that I try it at a faster tempo. I made a comment about how impractical it was at this late stage, that I’d already sent back the Les Paul I used from SIR to cut the guitars. He smiled and offered “you need guitars? We got guitars! You need rock stars, we got rock stars!” Then he went back downstairs.

It took a few minutes for me to process it all. Speed it up, recut the guitars, put rock stars on it, and do it all right now. I decided to go for it, and I went downstairs and asked Tommy Hendrickson if I could borrow his Les Paul. Since I already had a sound dialed in, I was able to recut the guitars in a half an hour, and then when I brought back the guitar, I said “ok Bob, I’m ready for the rock stars!” Bob was working on a drum take with Glen Sobel and told me I had to go into the other room and ask Alice myself. I went in – Alice was laying down on the couch in Studio A. Tommy Hendrickson and Bruce Witkins were by the coffee machine. I said, “hey, would you guys be willing to come upstairs and sing some simple backing vocals and do some hand claps on my song?” Alice thought for a minute, nodded his head and said “sure.” I then got a rare opportunity to expose some of my embarrassing cultural media-deprivation…having not read the Rolling Stone magazine sitting on the coffee table with Johnny Depp on the cover, I asked, “does Johnny sing?” I think Bruce or Tommy said, “go ask him.”

I went back into the control room and walked up to Johnny, who was standing against the back wall, and uttered, “do you sing?” His response was, “I’m alright”. He agreed to come up and sing too. So the Village staff were quite surprised to see four Hollywood Vampires following me, the Pied Piper, up the stairs into this little control room with only two pairs of headphones hooked up. My engineer was also surprised to see us all walk through the door. We managed it though. We had two of us listening to the phones and conducting the others on where the downbeat was. At the end they were so humble as to thank me for letting them sing on my record. Can you imagine? It was the last hour they were working at Village before everyone split off into different cities and schedules, and I knew that if I had tried to set up that group of people doing a vocal session, just even on schedules alone, it would be hard to come by. I was already verklempt with just getting to meet them. I certainly didn’t wake up on a Wednesday morning thinking, “what shall I wear today? I’m gonna meet Johnny Depp”. It was surreal to even take in Alice Cooper, whose vinyl records I listened to in my bedroom as a teenager, and a movie star like Johnny Depp, were in the control room with me, singing on my song. Ultimately none of it would’ve happened without Bob Ezrin who paved the way by introducing me to them all like family, telling the story of how we met. Everyone’s respect for Bob became an openness and willingness toward me. And let me tell you, respect for Bob runs high among all of them and me both. We all have that in common.

I’m sure you get asked this a lot, but what’s it like to be the child of two famous songwriters?

Its an interesting question because as we all know, to be the child of whatever parents you have is much more about who the parents are as people than what they do for a living. If the connection and love is there, what the outside world thinks is of little consequence. In my case, the standout thing that most affected me was their youth, and the stage of their lives and careers they were in when I was born. My mother had just turned 18. My dad, 21. Their careers were at the very beginning so for my early life they were ambitious and hard working, and focused primarily on writing songs and getting cuts. The aspect of having famous parents from the culture’s standpoint, and the way our culture processes celebrity, was always more of an inconvenience than something I consciously interpreted as an obstacle. Even my mother tried to talk me out of going into music when I was 12 and I had no idea what she was trying to protect me from. I had a passion and a dream, end of story. The inconvenience manifests much like when you meet a new person who can’t actually see you because their best friend already told them things about you that filter what they see. Or even like when you see a movie you’ve heard or read too much about…the movie doesn’t get you showing up with openness, you’re ready for it to be what you’re expecting it to be. For me to come into this world and choose to be a singer-songwriter instead of say, something like a marine biologist, and then having to generationally follow two famous songwriting parents, sets me up to now have to get you to actually see or hear me without you filtering me through what my parents did in their lives. That gets to be tiresome, especially when you have children of your own. Our culture is so hopelessly celebrity-obsessed, and not so great at looking and listening for what’s quality, or it just doesn’t know how to measure it other than by popularity. People rarely listen and judge for themselves, they need E.T. to tell them. I’m smart enough to know I have no control over what filters people bring to the table, and passionate enough about music and what gifts I show up with to not be deterred by the unconsciousness of people who see me through the filters of their expectations, or prejudice.

Ultimately, since songwriting was what I most witnessed my parents doing together as a child, I took in deeply that they were connecting in those moments of creating, and everything outside that activity looked more like a three-ring circus or alternatively, like bland TV culture and suburbia. And that continues today. I write songs and record and perform them. The rest of it is still a three-ring circus, TV culture and suburbia. It was clear to me from an early stage of life that songwriting was the moment of light beaming through the room. And the womb, too! ‘Cause they were writing songs even before I was born.

So no matter where I find myself in life at any stage, songwriting to me is a bit like what “rosebud” was to Citizen Kane. It takes me back to a simpler time when mommy and daddy were together. The difference being, of course, that Citizen Kane didn’t go into the business of sled making and I did go into the business of writing songs.

How often do you play for fun, just for yourself? What sort of stuff do you play when you do?

I play for fun a lot. In fact, most of the best stuff comes out of playing for fun. I improvise on the piano. I pick up a banjo and find new chords or try to figure a song out that I play on guitar but never learned on a different instrument. Or I try to figure out a song on guitar I only ever played on piano. I like playing the blues harp for fun. Singing in the shower, all of that. I often play boogie-woogie New Orleans style piano for fun. On guitar, I immediate go to the blues. I find open strings on banjo or mandolin or ukulele, and explore ways to change chords over pedaling open strings. Sometimes an alternate tuning can be fun to knock around and try different shapes with.

What was your first instrument and how did you learn to play it?

Oh, definitely the piano. I sat down and looked for patterns and memorized the ones that sounded good. I made as many songs up as I could with as few chords as I knew. You’d be surprised how many variations you can come up with of four chords.

Who are your songwriting heroes?

Paul Simon, Lennon and McCartney, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson. Bruce Springsteen, Chrissie Hynde, David Bowie, Stevie Nicks. Those were the people who first come to mind who gave me permission to turn my emotions and impressions into a collage of feeling, draw connections together and make it rhyme…and to break the ABC,ABC,D,C pattern – i.e., verse, pre, chorus, verse, pre, chorus, bridge, chorus and fade.

And I’d be negligent if I didn’t include people who were the trail blazers of pop music: Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Holland and Dozier, my parents, Jeff Barry and Elie Greenwich. In my late teens and early twenties I was much influenced by the long story form that songwriters like Don Henley and Jackson Browne took. Songs didn’t have to be a block-building shape anymore, it could tell the story of a novel in short form, with just the emotional moments…and that was exciting for me. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote some great songs. Peter Gabriel was a big influence when I was in my teens. And beyond that I referred back to Paul McCartney, Beatles, and Brian Wilson’s records for permission to do things musically that conventional songwriters don’t tend to go for, like put a bar of two in the middle of nowhere, or a middle eight that was really a middle five, or have five totally different sections and not repeat them as expected. Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon” paved the way for that, although back in the day they called it “a concept record.” I call it having imagination. I sought out and nourished myself on whatever gave me permission to have the biggest range and vocabulary. Because I started off in a songwriting environment, my ambition wasn’t to be at the top of the hit parade and study what was most popular, it was to be the best I could be.

What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.

The first song I remember writing was called “Quiet Times” although I’m sure I made up songs before that. I wish I had an existing copy of it. I don’t remember how it goes, but I remember the feeling of it, and that it was an acoustic guitar finger-picking song, and was about sitting up on a hill.

What’s the last song you wrote or started?

The last one I can remember that I started I’ve been calling “The Mistress of Killer Riley James.” I drove up to Santa Barbara sometime in February for a glam camp weekend, brought my guitar and was (ha ha!) playing for fun. I was (what did I tell ya?) playing the blues…and started singing “still ain’t unpacked my suitcase, I’m on the road again…Killer Riley James is one hell of a switcherman. Here I am, watching the clock outside the Metro. If he changes his mind one more time, you know I gonna have to get low.”

Its about this man who used to be mine but he keeps switching from woman to woman. Now the new woman won’t let him go ’cause she doesn’t see the kind of man he really is. I even played it half-finished live at Whip In in Austin, when I went to SXSW a few months back, and I asked audience members to put in a basket how they thought the story should turn out at the end. What does she do about this mistress and her man Killer Riley James? I still don’t know how it’ll end, but I like some of the lyrics that I have so far and I’m going to keep going on it.

What’s the best song you ever wrote?

If I told you that, that’d be all she wrote! I couldn’t resist the set up, sorry.

Honestly, that question feels like you’re asking me which of my children I like the best. To look at my body of work so far, and objectively choose one that’s “the one” when I’m here and feel like I’m just getting started, takes the fun out of it, because Evan, I ain’t done yet!

I can tell you some songs I’ve written that I can say I’ve come to enjoy no matter what the arrangement is when I’m playing live. Some I wrote a long time ago, and some more recently.

In no apparent order, “Fifth of July,” “New Year’s Day,” “The Heart Is The Last Frontier” (never been released), “Pink Champagne,” “Bridge of Sighs,” “Clicking To The Next Slide,” “Archives,” “Saved By The Bell.” There’s a lot of songs I’m proud to be a part of on Songs From The Mine. “Some Of Them Will Fool You,” “Here Where You Are Loved,” “Main Street Parade,” “Good Life,” “Deep Dark Night Of The Soul,” “Everybody But You,” “Follow My Heart,” “Get With The World.”

How do you go about writing songs?

I sit with an instrument in my hands and I sing a phrase I like. I tend to jot phrases down on my phone notes or in a notebook, and will start singing something I liked enough to write down when I’m playing a few chords. Sometimes I overhear something, or see a sign outside a church, or even a few times I’ve misheard a lyric to a song and find out it was different than I heard but I keep the phrase I thought it was. Sometimes book titles will spur off an idea. When I wrote “5th of July” it was inspired by a photograph in a magazine of a littered beach, and beneath the photo was the date it was taken. I knew there was a story to tell in that picture.

“Archives” was inspired by what the front of my notebook said when I was staring at it with no ideas. I rhymed “archives” and “our lives” singing in the shower.

“Clicking To The Next Slide” was inspired by a View-Master toy.

So its usually an idea and playing an instrument. But sometimes a song starts with no idea at all. I’ve shown up to write thinking the day was going to be a total wash and then come up with something worthy just when I was going to give up for the day. More and more I find its better to stay out of my head, sing and get a feeling, even gibberish, into my body. Like Paul McCartney tells about the the song “Yesterday.” A song filled with regret looking back at the past, starting with him singing the phrase “scrambled eggs” over the chord changes. Its good bicycle grease on the chain to not take yourself seriously when you’re starting a song. I find my muse does not like seriousness or ego, and I need her to hang around.

What is your approach to writing lyrics?

Its messy. I write all over the page, I write sideways, I circle things, cross out things. I have rhyming brainstorms and rhyme dumb ideas just to get myself in a playful spirit. I used to be a perfectionist at the early writing stage and found it did me no good. It takes confidence to let yourself write badly and not take it personally when what you write sucks. No one has to see that draft. You just move on to a better idea. Its a good practice to not be attached to every idea. The more you put on the page, the more you have to play with and edit which is a good thing.The level of excellence a song gets to can be more about a writer’s personal taste in what to leave in and take out. Or what to chase more of, out of what landed on you by accident. Its really all preparation for what feels like an accidental gift. Then you run with the gift and get rid of what holds it back from soaring.

What sort of things inspire you to write?

A phrase or picture with an unmined story yet to be told, heartache, hope, sexuality, playfulness, and more often than not, hearing someone else’s good work inspires me to stretch myself to do something I haven’t done before. Also there’s nothing like a deadline to get a song written…’cause I just need to write one and I need it today.

What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?

One that has a little niche of its own was one I wrote with Corinne Lee and Craig Greenberg a year ago, called “Deep Dark Night Of The Soul.” I love the simplicity of the melody and lyric because it tells a clear story about how living unwisely led to the darkest hour, yet ties it up nicely to how it all worked out. It has both a sense of humor and playfulness to it. I think I was picturing Wes Anderson’s movie “Moonrise Kingdom,” writing about the sand castle and the wave crashing it down on the shore. And I was hearing French-speaking coming in when we were writing it. Fortunately, Corinne Lee spoke some French and just started riffing on these nonsense lyrics about reading trashy novels, smoking a lot of cigarettes, loving ketchup, and walking her cat and dog on the beach. Also since that song was written at Steel Bridge Songfest in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin (a festival run by my friend and collaborator, Pat MacDonald) there is a requirement that all the songs written there have a line in it about the bridge, which is the theme of the songwriting camp every June. “Deep Dark Night Of The Soul” has the set-up line in verse three “dizzy on the wonder wheel” and the verse closes with “make my bridges out of steel.” So we got the bridge line in, and it worked with the story the song had been telling all along. It was the line that ended the verse saying no more unwise choices, here’s a woman who makes her bridges out of steel. The track sounds like a fun drunken Parisian party after hours, when most of the people have gone home, and Delaney Davidson layered trombones that sound almost like they could have been on a Tom Waits record.

What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?

I really like “Some Of Them Will Fool You.” That verse was written in Nashville with a young songwriter, Steve Moaklar. I like the way it starts with a question. “Is that how it went down? Is that what you saw? Is that what you took? Is that what that means? Is that what you heard? Is that how it looked?” And though it sounds more like dialog than a song lyric, what I like about it is the way it enters a scene at a critical point where you already feel the story had something happening before the listener walks into the song. It makes me want to pay attention and find out what the singer is gonna say to this person she’s talking to. And for some crazy reason, I’ve always heard Willie Nelson singing that song.

Are there any words you love or hate?

It’s case by case, but there are words I don’t feel lend themselves well to a song form. “Power” isn’t a word I think I’d use in a lyric because of its generality.“Very” is a line weakener. I’m a believer in the active, not passive voice. I’d probably avoid “being” and “nice”, and any phrase I’d heard used before that came a little too easily to me. I’d try to improve anything cliché to sound fresh, to strike me as “ah, I haven’t heard it said that way before.”

Swear words can be effective if used intentionally to help the meaning of the song, or to emphasize something. Or even to cop the vernacular you’re going for, but when swear words are used to replace effort of a better way of describing something, I find it hard to listen to them. I tend to avoid words that feel general and will search further to find a word that describes more detail. Sometimes the energy of a word just bugs me, and doesn’t feel quite right and…out it goes.

I love internal rhymes. I love them because they are not the rhyme you expect, they’re an extra gift. Bob Dylan was a master at this. Whenever you can get an internal rhyme in a lyric, it doesn’t have to be a rule in every verse, but it helps the words imprint on your consciousness and memory the way a nursery rhyme does. As an example, my father, Gerry Goffin, uses it in the first verse of “Up On The Roof” but doesn’t go back to it again. He sets up “and people are just too much for me to face…(face is the word you’re expecting a rhyme for), and then he slips in “to the top of the stairs and all my cares” before getting to “drift right into space.” Verses two and three don’t do exactly that. I think if you write enough and become well-acquainted with words as your friends, after awhile you get an intuitive sense of phrasing and order that sounds pleasing, even when you’re not trying specifically to use a technique like alliteration or internal rhyming. Often those things just sneak up on you in surprising moments that you grab and say, “thank you God.”

What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?

People are moved when I play an acoustic guitar version of the song “New Year’s Day,” which I wrote with Guy Chambers for A Holiday Carole. I think especially at the verse “and should old acquaintance be forgot, keep everything they gave you, and though they may be so far away, you walk with them each and every day.”

I wrote a yet-to-be-released song last year with Billy Harvey called “Made To Be Good.” I’ve played the demo of that song to a few friends and family and consistently people hold back tears, responding both to the vulnerability and the message of it. “No more goodbyes or sad farewells, the end is not coming soon…” Its the reassurance every child wants to hear, and I think when we listen to songs we’re all children.

Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?

I do come across handwritten long-form writing I did as far back as high school and my descriptions are quite mind blowing today. Even more recent writing that I’ve found in long novel form, I appear to have a lot of promise in the department of storytelling. I recently have been collaborating with a someone in a rewrite of a screenplay I wrote seven years ago, and I find what makes this version so much better is that I’m not giving away my power to some outside expert who’s telling me the right way to write. All my practice writing songs makes me a better writer, speaker and communicator in every area of my life. The best communication in any form is always about the heart of things. Since a song at best is three minutes long, I’ve learned how important it is to not waste time on the unimportant. “Why are we here?” “Why do we care?” is more crucial than ever since there is now more distraction at our fingertips than ever before in human history.

I’m more insecure about writing long form because I like starting things in the middle, not at the beginning. Or starting at the end and working backwards. When I write, I feel more like I’m channeling something than that I’m the actual writer. I hate making outlines unless I’m writing an essay. I prefer to edit after I’ve written, not before. I’ve rarely come across a person who has said, “yes, you’re doing it the right way!” But when it comes to songs, I actually don’t seek out an authority, I just write what I like.

If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?

Sam Cooke.

Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?

Neil Young.

What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?

“Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. I hear it as a gospel song in a 3/4 time signature, and there are so many layers to the lyrics in that song. Already by verse one there is a baffled king composing, and the words refer to “the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift,” mirroring the chord changes as they happen. And that’s just at the starting gate.

The words describe scenes of relationships, showing different ways we all have our own “hallelujah.” For some it’s the moment we get stripped down to who we really are, for others its sexual hunger fulfilled, or gaining that love that now is out of reach. I’m just in awe and respect with how he manages in one song to follow a thread, going with both the dark and the light, and uses the gospel and regal word “hallelujah” as a way of saying our moments of glory can be “holy” or “broken.” In some way, we say that when we reach our highest high and our lowest low. It’s good to know when you’ve hit the ceiling, and good to know when you’ve reached the bottom. And since we’re talking about songs, in the final verse of “Hallelujah”, the religious connotation of the word isn’t a church, but “the Lord of Song.”