Owen is the latest project of Chicago indie stalwart Mike Kinsella, bandleader of newly reformed late ’90s melodic band American Football and member of Cap’n Jazz, Joan of Arn and Their/They’re/There. Owen’s newest album, The King of Whys, is a highly emotional album that showcases Kinsella’s ability for tender lyricism. We chat with the singer-songwriter about drinking beer, Metallica’s Master of Puppets and why he struggles with being proud of his work.
What’s your typical songwriting process?
Usually I drink some beer either in my practice space or at a bar by myself and go through all of the guitar noodles I’ve recorded and see if any of them pair up with any of the lyrics I’ve written, whether it be a line or two or an entire chorus or even just the sentiment. Once I have some music and words and melody paired I eventually drink more beer and see if I can flesh it out into an entire song.
Lyrically, this album seems extremely personal – how much do you tend to write about your own life vs. creating characters and stories?
Most of it is about my life, or at least inspired by it. But by the time it becomes an entire song, there’s some projecting done and fiction added for effect. So even if I start with a personal detail or grievance, it’s usually embellished or dramatized, cause no one wants to hear an entire song about me stepping on my kid’s toys again.
How long have you been writing songs?
I started a band with a friend of mine in 7th grade called P.M.D. (Poseurs Must Die.) We had an awesome logo and wrote a handful of bad metal songs, including a ballad titled “Childhood Memories” that would have been huge if Brett Michaels sang it.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote? What was it?
I wrote a Nitzer Ebb rip-off on an old Casio I had in like 6th grade. I still kick myself for not sticking to that genre.
What are the easiest and hardest things about writing songs?
Ha. I’m not sure there’s anything easy about it. For me, at least. I know and am jealous of a bunch of people who can spit out tunes and lyrics, but I have a hard time getting motivated to write, and then motivated to edit and arrange what I do come up with, and then motivated to get the ideas to a point where they’re “done.” Actually, that might be the hardest part – calling something “Done.”
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about songwriting over the course of your career?
A friend of mine (Bobby Burg from Joan of Arc and The Love of Everything) once said something like, “It doesn’t have to sound GOOD, it just has to sound COOL.”
What has been your proudest moment as a songwriter so far?
Ha. I’m usually way too focused on the mistakes or missteps to feel proud of anything as far as music goes. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy it – mostly the recording process, traveling with friends, seeing new places – but as far as writing goes, I’m usually to embarrassed to feel proud.
Which song on this album was the most difficult for you to write?
Maybe “Settled Down” was the toughest to figure out, like, what it was. Like, it could’ve been a full on rock song with electric main guitars, or a quieter one without the drums and some soft strings. It ultimately landed somewhere in the middle, which I think is cool. It’s acoustic and airy but has bigger, bouncy drums like a Cure song.
How much do you take live performance into consideration when you’re working on new material?
Not much at all. Especially with this album, as we ended up layering a bunch of instruments on it that I’ll probably never get to bring out live. I’m fine having the recorded versions and live versions of songs being (often very) different, sometimes existing almost as two different songs entirely.
What are a few albums or artists that made you want to start writing your own songs?
Metallica’s Master of Puppets, Dinosaur Jr’s Green Mind, The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Fugazi’s Repeater, Shudder to Think’s Get Your Goat and Red House Painters’ Rollercoaster Album.