Daily Discovery: “Harder Than the Truth” by The Civilians

With age comes wisdom.

Videos by American Songwriter

Well, that’s the hope anyway. For the Seattle, Washington-based rock band The Civilians that is most certainly the case.

The group, a quintet of guys who’ve been around the block, writes music from the perspective of been there before. They’re not wide-eyed. Not young and fool-hardy. Rather, they’re experienced and thoughtful. They’ve seen a few things in their years.

And the band’s latest single, “Harder Than the Truth,” from their upcoming album, Lush and Tumble, out August 12, exemplifies that. It also features musician Steve Nieve, a member of Elvis Costello’s band the Attractions and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee.

“‘Harder Than the Truth’ is basically a cautionary tale about how desire and wishful thinking can blind you to the truth,” says the band’s frontman, Chris Livesay. “We’ve all experienced that—either directly or watching someone we know lose the plot. Whether the narrator in the song is warning a friend or talking to himself is open to interpretation.”

From all of their collective perspective, the new song, Livesay says, came about suddenly on one rainy night in the Emerald City.

“I was at home noodling around in this strange open tuning I’d never tried before,” says Livesay. “The basic melody and the opening line took me by surprise and I just started singing.”

Livesay began singing. The song tumbled out almost immediately, almost completely.

“It immediately demanded my attention—like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on here?’” he says. “It just sounded like ‘uh-oh trouble is afoot,’ and I had to know what was going to happen next. The rest of the lyrics spooled out from that one line very quickly. I think I got about 80 [to] 90 percent of that song in one go. It doesn’t always happen like that, but it’s exciting when it does.”

For Livesay, who began playing guitar as a 13-year-old and writing songs not long after that, songwriting is his way of finding out what’s on his mind at any given time.

“Songwriting is a mysterious and idiosyncratic thing. It’s like marriage: Whatever works for you is good,” he says. “Any time I prematurely dictate terms to a new song, it stops talking to me—and who can blame it? The fewer preconceived notions I have when an idea comes, the better. I just try and get the idea down with as little interference as possible. You can always edit after the fact. That’s how the process works for me, anyway.”

Yet, having said all that, when Livesay listens back to the new single, he knows what it means to him.

“It’s clear that ‘Harder than the Truth’ is about betrayal and self-delusion,” he says. “But I didn’t set out to write a song about those things. The opening line of the song popped into my head, so I just kept pulling on that initial lyrical thread, and this dark little tale spooled out like magic.”

His favorite line in the song is: She seems so close to you. Nothing could be further from the truth.  

“That’s the song in a nutshell,” Livesay says, adding, “I try to write songs that tell real stories as honestly as possible.”

Photo Credit: Mackenzie Glisson/Courtesy of XO Publicity

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