Nashville-based singer-songwriter Korby Lenker will release his eponymous sixth album on his own Stuffed Piranha Records on March 25. He’ll also release his first book of short stories on that day. We asked Lenker about his journey as a songwriter, the words he loves and hates and more.
What’s the best song you ever wrote?
That’s hard to say, because I write a lot of different kinds of songs…The one that probably means the most to me is a song I wrote called “Punkin Brown.” It’s a true story about a guy from a snake handling church who got bit handling a snake and died. The year before, the same thing happened to his wife, so when he died, the custody of their children went to the state. There were a lot of news stories about it at the time. You can Google it. I never met Punkin Brown but I spent a good bit of time in the snake handling church in Jolo West Virginia where it went down. I got to know several of the people in that church, and even spent a few nights in one family’s single-wide trailer up in an old holler. We rode home together from the church with a timber rattlesnake rattling away in a wooden box on the back seat.
How would you describe your new album?
Quirky folk-pop with catchy melodies masking heavy themes.
How would you compare it to your last album?
My last record came out 6 years ago, when I was in my twenties. There are a lot of good things about that record – songs like “Papercuts” and “Cedars of Lebanon” that I still play today – but candidly, I think back then I was crippled creatively by a certain sense of youthful entitlement. I was still trying to show-off. Since that album, I moved to Nashville from the Seattle area (where I had lived for 10 years and 5 albums) and experienced what I can only call starting over. Prior to the move, I had only played music for a living. I moved to Nashville and quickly found out that no one cared. Also I had no employable skills. I ended up valet-parking cars at a hotel downtown for three-and-a-half years. At the time, it was really hard for me. But looking back, it was the best thing that ever happened. For one, it gave me time to think carefully about what I was actually good at – what set me apart from all the other super-talented singer-songwriters here. For another, it made me understand that playing music is a privilege. I feel really lucky now to get to do this.
Do you have any tricks you like to use in the studio? Reverb, candles, a certain kind of microphone you always use?
I don’t really like tricks. At some level, I’m a simple person from Idaho. I don’t need a lot of pampering or special treatment. I tend to work very slowly – a lot of times I write a song around a hook I’ve carried in my head for years – so when I bring something to the studio, it’s usually well-rehearsed and ready to rock. I made my new album with someone who I admire creatively, and that has been enormously helpful. Tim Lauer produced this record, and we are on the same page creatively I’d say 99% of the time. We are also both really busy, so when we get together, we work hard and fast. Almost every song on the record has 30+ tracks (layers) on it, but we usually finish songs from scratch to mix, in less than two days. That includes television-watching in the studio and long diverting conversations about whatever interests us at the moment. About the songs I bring to the studio, I also feel like I need to say I strongly dislike 90% of the songs I write or co-write. So if there’s something I make that I actually enjoy and feel proud of, I really don’t give a shit what anyone else thinks. I try to be my own worst critic.
Any thoughts on streaming music services like Spotify? Do you worry about not getting fairly compensated?
Fairly compensated. I don’t even know what that means. The public’s perception that music is something you pay for was pretty much destroyed by Napster and I doubt it will ever really recover. There are so many things going on that devalue music – not just the outlets like spottily and Pandora – but the actual tools of creation. Even ten years ago, if you wanted to be an artist you had to actually be able to sing. Having a good band meant having a drummer who had feel and could keep time. That’s not very important anymore – at least as far as making records is concerned. So if you have a public that is almost a generation-and-a-half into thinking music is something that lives on your computer, and you have people making music who rely on computers to make it – I think all this stuff conspires to create a culture that is largely indifferent to what music is, means, or should cost. That said, I don’t worry about it too much. I’m poor, and I like the music that I make, and I have somehow found enough people who care about it that I can do it for a living. For me, being a musician is not about getting rich or famous or having a hot girlfriend – being a musician is making a creative life.
How often do you play for fun, just for yourself? What sort of stuff do you play when you do?
Everyday! I’m working on this song right now – an adaptation of an old English Ballad I learned from a record by Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer. I love the guitar part on it, and the melody of the song – it’s called Geordie – such a sad song it made me cry the first time I heard it. Anyway it’s just really fun to play and sing. It doesn’t fit into what I’m doing at the moment and I doubt I will ever play it live…I don’t know, maybe I will someday, but that’s not the point. I just like the song so I learned it. In the past I’ve tried to be more strategic about my efforts but a few years ago I just surrendered all that. I’m pretty much incapable of doing anything I’m not into. It’s not super-important what works strategically. Music is a joy, for a thousand people or one.
How did you learn how to play guitar?
Started with Neil Young, found Doc Watson and Mississippi John Hurt, steered toward Norman Blake for a few years, landed on Jerry Garcia. Now I listen to way too much Bill Frisell. I’ve been playing a lot of solo shows lately and have a bunch of different approaches – sometimes I flatpick, sometimes finger style, sometimes drop D. I like a lot of variety when I go to shows, so I try to play the kind of show I would want to watch. Right now I’m trying to master this drop-thumb thing John Mayer does on “Heart of Life.” It comes out of clawhammer banjo technique, and it’s completely different than any other kind of guitar playing I’ve heard.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
I like the great lyricists. You know – Paul Simon for his everyman’s charm, Neil Young for his abstract non-linear sometimes clunky anything-goes attitude, the Weepies – Deb Talan especially – for just the way she makes you feel with her words and voice. I love Lana Del Rey for making me think you can write in a modern vernacular and still conjure so many aching feelings. When I listen to music, pretty much the only thing I care about is, do I believe you? I believe all these people.
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
I wrote me first song when I was 14. It was called “Maybe I’m Dreamin’.” It was as bad as the title suggests. I was a piano player first – I took piano lessons for eight years. I wrote that song around a riff I had made up, which is pretty much what I do today. Most of my songs have something about them that is fun to play.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
The last song I wrote was called Pendulum and I wrote it with my friends Tim and Angela Lauer. We wrote it in the studio, it the whole process was unlike anything I had ever done. Both of those people are extremely creative and open. Basically Angela had a title and an idea. I started playing a simple riff on guitar, and Tim created a loop around it. Except the loop was 2 bars of 8 beats followed by a bar of 7. Which is pretty crooked. But then I improvised lyrics – singing into an SM58 right there in the control room with them – and we put this song together in such a way that the downbeat of the verse and chorus fall on a different chord every time and it’s extremely weird formally-speaking. But you don’t notice it as a casual listener. Many of the vocals I made up on the fly are on the final mix. It’s one of the most creative musical experiences I’ve ever been a part of.
How do you go about writing songs?
It’s different every time. Most of what I write by myself comes out of a melancholy mood or a strong feeling – usually me trying to understand the world and how I fit in it. Also I write about love a lot. Different kinds of love, romantic love, yes, but also love between family members, or friends…I’m not very good at relationships but I write about them a lot. I think everything just affects me too much. I get carried away all the time. I’ve never met a girl I wasn’t at least partially in love with. Which sounds ridiculous but it’s true. Woman are so much more complicated and interesting than men. I also write about things I learn in books. The last really good song I wrote by myself was about Chief Sitting Bull of the Sioux tribe. It’s called “Last Man Standing. “I wrote it after reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
I’ll smoke some pot and noodle around on guitar and think of a hook and then straight after I’ll go for a long run with a pen in my pocket and sometimes I’ll stop and write stuff down on my hand. And then the next day I’ll throw everything but one line away and sit alone cold-sober in an empty room for 6-10 hours with nothing but a gallon jog of water and force myself to finish it before I eat. That’s pretty much how I wrote Last Man Standing.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
Little things. Stuff I see people do or say to one another. Mistakes I’ve made that I’ve thought about 700 times. Movies. Memories of a happy experience I shared with someone I loved and who loved me at the time. I don’t know. Life stuff.
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
My favorite song on the new record is probably “My Little Life.” I wrote it with Megan McCormick — a very talented songwriter and guitar-player in Nashville. We probably kicked it out in about an hour. To this day nothing I’ve written has succeeded in describing how I feel about my life and what it means to be alive in 2014. It’s also completely un-fancy, which I like.
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
The 3rd verse of the first song on the new album is called “Hurts Me So”, I like those words pretty well.
You are a holy-roller
I am a roller-coaster
You are the telephone pole
I am the show poster
Big letters on that Hatch Show Print
Everywhere I look so I can’t forget
It just hurts
Are there any words you love or hate?
In general? I think self-conceptualization is an interesting word, because it goes on forever. It’s like, 8 syllables. How did this happen??
Ok, to be honest I love words. The more the merrier. Somewhere I read that in the last 50 years, the average college-educated person’s vocabulary has shrunk by something like 10,000 words. When I read that it made me feel sorry for the English language – I know that’s ridiculous but whatever. I try not to swear because usually when you say fuck it’s just a substitute for a more interesting word. It’s lazy. How did we get on this subject? Oh, ok in songs I think its good to keep it simple. You start talking fancy, it gets annoying quick. . . I don’t know, I think if you have a strong feeling and you love people and you’re really critical and you somehow mange to finish something in spite of it all and you still like what you made, then you’re okay.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
Oh, that “My Little Life” song gets a lot of people singing along. Another song I wrote that I haven’t recorded yet – called Her Heart is Like a Rose – I’ve seen people cry when I sing that. I wrote it when I was in love with this girl. I thought we were gonna get married and I wrote it from the perspective of a son trying to make his mother understand what this girl meant to him. It’ll probably go on the next album.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
I write a lot of short stories and am releasing a book in March or April of this year.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
Tough question. All the people I really love song-writing-wise are sort of militant introverts. I would say Leonard Cohen, but I think we would just end up sitting around exchanging awkward glances. To speak practically, I would love to write with Rodney Crowell, because I admire him a lot. Not just for his musical contribution – which is formidable – but because of who he is. He’s a stand-up salt-of-the-earth kind of guy. We would make a good song, I’m sure of it.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
I really like Randy Newman. I like his spirit, and his intelligence, and his command of the piano and of music in general. Also he is a curmudgeon and a romantic at once, like me. I love the TV show South Park, but in one episode they really made fun of Randy Newman, which is the only mistake Trey Parker ever made.
What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?
“Graceland” is one of the greatest songs, ever. Because it’s true and personal to Paul Simon, and at the same time, true and personal to everyone who hears it. That is the game, right there.