Featuring Patty Griffin and members of Beck’s backing band, John Doe’s latest album, Keeper, is a winning platter of ’60s inspired rock with a singer-songwriter twist. In this interview, we talked to the X frontman and solo artist about songwriting, evolving as an artist, and the musicians who inspired him. “I think you have to change your writing style,” says Doe, “or you write the same song over and over. I pay more attention to melody now than I did.”
You’ve said that for Keeper, you learned how to write about people finding love and happiness. What brought that on?
Just changes in my personal life. Things being not very rewarding and happy and then turning around. The inspiration for the last three or four records has been from a more unhappy place, and you’re relying on that to write songs. Then your life changes and you have to figure out how to write about what’s going on in your life. If that’s not sad and depressing. then you don’t want to write sad and depressing songs. It’s difficult to write stuff like that without being sappy or lame.
Why did you call the album Keeper?
Because it’s referencing someone or something being a keeper. She’s a keeper, he’s a keeper.
Tell us about the late ’60s vibe you were going for on the record.
Well, that style and era of music has always been very close to my heart, and as the songs were being developed, as I was writing them, they seemed to fall into that style. The music I’m talking about is that era of The Rolling Stones and The Band and George Harrison and stuff like that. Also the sort of singer-songwriter music, which is a big departure from what X did, but X was always influenced by that in a very hidden way.
You’re last album Country Club was an album of country songs. Are you a big country music fan?
Oh yeah. I mean country western music. I’m not such a big fan of country music nowadays. It’s kind of virtual country music. I don’t know, I don’t wanna be judgemental or put people down. I think people can do whatever the hell they want, and they will. Whether I say they can or can’t. They don’t give a shit. They’re going to the band and they’re playing big shows. But, it’s kind of like, you know, I better put a banjo on this so it sounds like a country song. A lot of it is just kind of a retooled pop music. But yes, I’m a big fan of the country western greats.
What’s a song on your new album you really want people to hear, and why?
I want them to hear the whole record. But if I were to pick one song it would be “Giant Step Backward.” Because I think it’s got a certain range and it’s a really good song. It came out better than I hoped it would, it’s got Patty Griffin singing on it.
What’s a lyric you’re particularly proud of on the album?
Probably “Little Tiger.” It kind of progresses from one place to another. It doesn’t really tell a story, but it goes from one place to another in a good progression.
Any interesting real life stories behind the songs on Keeper?
All of them. I think if you’re not writing on real life, maybe the most direct one would be “Cottage In The ‘Dale.” I lived in Bakersfield for about four plus years, and Bakersfield is a pretty crazy place. All those images are for real in Bakersfield. And there were plenty that just didn’t fit into the song either.
Has your approach to songwriting changed much over the years?
I think you have to change your writing style, or you write the same song over and over. I pay more attention to melody now than I did. With X I paid more attention to lyrics and rhythm. Nowadays I’ll write songs from a melody first and find lyrics that’ll fit to it. But you know a good songwriter and a good song has adventure and experimentation, and it kind of surprises you as it develops.
What comes easier for you — melody, or lyrics?
I can’t say one comes easier than another. They’re both equal and if you find something that is intuitive, that’s coming from both your brain and your gut, it’s usually better than something that’s just out of your brain. That’s why I don’t like some songs that are some of the traditional story songs, because there’s not enough emotional investment. I mean, sometimes there are, the really good ones. A lot of times some people are just writing them as an exercise. “Here, I just thought of this great story to tell.” If you write a good story song, it has to come from some sort of personal investment in the characters you’re writing about. It has to come from real life; or you can transfer. You can be writing a story about something that didn’t happen to you, but like an actor you can relate to it, because of your personal experience.
How old were you when you first started writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
[Chuckles] I don’t know, I think I was probably 16 or so. I don’t know when I first wrote a song that I thought was good, I suppose 3 or 4 years into it, but you know, that’s just me. There are plenty of people who can write a great song first time out and when they’re very young.
Who are some artists that inspired you to start writing?
There’s an awful lot. I would say the 60’s psychedelic era was definitely what started me thinking about really making my life as a musician. But I was inspired as a real youngster with all kinds of people—British invasion bands, and James Brown and Hank Williams—all that stuff. Anything that was true to itself. Anything that had real soul.
Do you have any advice for aspiring songwriters?
Listen to good music and if you can, listen to how songs are put together. Try to learn the craft of songwriting, but don’t rely on that. It has to have more than just craft.
Are there any words you love, or hate?
I don’t particularly like the word “nice,” or “very.” It makes me cringe when people say “like” too much as they’re speaking and they’re older. I like it when people use the word “sweet” to describe candy or someone who is particularly nice.
Who’s an underrated songwriter, in your opinion?
My good friend Exene Cervenka, and a guy named Gregory Page from San Diego.
What’s a song you wish you’d written?
I wish I’d written “Gimme Shelter.” Or, “Just like a Woman.”
Anything else on your mind?
Well we could get into a whole political discussion, but I don’t think this is really the forum for it. I would just encourage people to think. To think about what their contribution to the world is. Think about what they’re doing as they do it. Do you really have to drive to that store to buy that thing? Do you really have to? You know? Do you really have to eat thick steak and what does it take to put that steak on the table? Do you really have to eat swordfish and how many swordfish are still around? My biggest thing is conservation.