School of Seven Bells‘ latest album SVIIB is undeniably special; apart from being the duo’s final release, it serves as a multi-faceted love letter from singer and lyricist Alley Deheza to bandmate Benjamin Curtis. It’s Deheza’s way of sharing the feelings she’d been too afraid to say – which range from fiercely passionate waves of friendship to enchantment to pure and palpable love – before Curtis passed away from leukemia at the end of 2014, just shy of finishing the record. After a long break from the material, Deheza picked up the pen once again and completed the album, sharing Curtis’ final body of work with the world. We chat with the New York-based singer-songwriter about fearlessness, honesty and opening up.
What was your approach to writing the lyrics for this album?
It wasn’t really a conscious choice. When I make the decision to start writing for a record, what comes out is the only thing I can write about at the time. I don’t know how to pick a concept and then do it. It doesn’t come out in an authentic way for me like that. I just have to write about the picture in my head.
What’s your usual process once you get the idea going?
I do a lot of writing every day – I guess you could call them journals. They’re not anything with a particular kind of narrative, I just let it all out. It’s funny because I don’t really use any of that stuff unless I’m writing a record. Either I’ll pull from notebooks I already have – usually the day before is as far back as I’ll go – or I’ll be working alongside the music, like I was in this case with Benjamin. He’d be working on the music and I would be next to him with a notebook. It was a thing where I was drawn to something that was there, a blank page, where I had to write something on the spot. It was different for each song.
More so than a lot of albums I’ve heard in the last year or so, the lyrics on this album are really honest. Were you nervous to share that stuff with Benjamin once you’d written it?
Yeah, that was a first for me for sure, especially because I was basically writing about the person who was sitting next to me. I had to kind of step outside of that mentality to do it. I don’t know how, but they were all things I couldn’t verbalize to him in person. I just didn’t have the words to do it without the context of the song I was writing, where the words weren’t hidden in the music, but there were other things going on that acted as a buffer for me. I usually don’t ever write as directly as I did for this record, and I guess there was a reason for that, you know? There was something that had to be said.
How long have you been writing songs?
It’s funny, I never had any ambition for songwriting or music when I was younger, but I was always writing songs as a kid. Just about anything, really. Kid stuff. Since I had started way back then, it wasn’t such a weird concept for me when I started doing it for real.
Which song on the album would you say you’re the most proud of?
That’s a hard one. I’m so proud of all of them for very different reasons. With “Open Your Eyes,” that was the first time I was experimenting with the rhythms I was writing in. I feel like Benjamin really pushed me to do that. I remember when I first wrote it, thinking “I dont even know what this sounds like.” I had no idea where it was going. I had no idea if it was any good. I couldn’t tell. And I never look at things in that way, like if it’s good or not good, but I’d never written that way before, so it was kind of scary. For other reasons, the song “Confusion” on the record – that song was written on the spot in such a crazy time. I remember being in tears in the studio writing it. That’s another song that’s so completely direct. I think that was the one time he could tell that he knew I was talking to him when I was recording it. That was pretty intense. Another song, “A Thousand Times More,” was also one of those on the spot things. Benjamin was going through a really harsh time in his life and was really heartbroken and I was desperate to say anything that would lift him out of that. I remember how I couldn’t wait to get to the studio to sing this song, and he started crying. It was this moment where we felt so lucky to have each other, and he seemed so happy about it. It’s a tough thing to say when you’re feeling something like that. When you say it, it becomes so much more real and much more intense. Each song has a different kind of intensity and a different reason why I’m proud of it.
Did any of the writing, whether it was lyrical or instrumental, happen without Benjamin, or was the entire thing collaborative?
The one song on the record that was half written with him lyrically and half written afterward was “Music Takes Me”. I remember we had written that chorus, but I had this lyric block and couldn’t get the verses. I really didn’t know what to write about. But the chorus came really fast, and he just loved it. I made a decision afterward not to include anything on the record if it wasn’t written when he was around, but he loved the chorus so much I felt like I had to include it somehow. My sister had been in the band for the first two records, so I brought her in. I thought it was a beautiful thing to bring her in to help me finish it. It felt like a full-circle sort of thing for me. He was also there for this weird rhythmic part that comes in later in the song – he loved to drop those in there. So that was written with him too with New York in mind, how much we loved it and how we felt like it had saved us in this strange way.
Who are your favorite songwriters?
Robert Wyatt, amazing lyricist; Joni Mitchell, amazing lyricist; I love Jesus and Mary Chain and their approach to lyrics. There are so many to name, I don’t want to exclude anyone. Run the Jewels, those dudes are amazing lyricists. And obviously Bowie. He was a sick lyricist.
Who would you consider an underrated songwriter?
I feel like so many people have had their time to shine, even if it’s just in a little way. I really like Sybelle Baier. Her lyrics are amazing. Wow. Her songs are so hypnotic even though they’re so simple. She’s incredible.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
They don’t really have titles right now. i’m just writing without worrying about where it’s going to end up. I honestly have no idea when I’m going to make music. I’ve just been doing little things here and there.
What do you think is the most perfect song ever written and why?
I feel like it’s definitely a Robert Wyatt song. The cool thing about him is that his wife wrote a lot of his lyrics. So maybe I would say that she’s the most underrated? His songs are just so beloved and legendary. “Free Will and Testament” by RW is a perfect song. The lyrics are incredible. They’re, like, the contents of my brain – that’s pretty much the stuff I think about all the time.