Told Slant’s Felix Walworth Discusses Their ‘Off-the-Dome Style of Songwriting’

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Felix Walworth—the multi-talented Brooklyn musician behind the indie folk / “bedroom punk” project Told Slant—has said before that their main lyrical themes are “legibility, assemblage, unclear relationship with oneself, distance, asking, becoming, unbecoming, and water.” I love this list for two reasons: 1) it sounds like a Sparknotes summary of a really gnarly mushroom trip, and 2) it prizes messiness, change, and fluidity. 

If Walworth established those foundational themes in 2016’s Going By and 2012’s Still Water, then their third album as Told Slant, Point the Flashlight and Walk—out now via Double Double Whammy—picks up where Going By left off. It’s a largely DIY, guitar- and piano-driven effort about connection and disconnection, the unknowability of the self, the (empowering!) necessity of aloneness, and the joys and terrors associated with vulnerability, which is to say the joys and terrors associated with seeing and being seen. 

“[The record’s] about trying to carve out space for yourself as a person trying to figure out the world and needing help and support in the process of doing that, but finding that seeking that help is antithetical to your process of carving out that space for yourself,” Walworth recently told me over the phone, speaking from their apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The final product is a tender, expansive album that sees Walworth insisting, simultaneously, that “I am always alone” (in “Bullfrog Choirs”) and that “When there’s no one you’re afraid to lose / you lose” (in “No Backpack”). 

We caught up with Walworth about Point the Flashlight and Walk, the “quotidien sadnesses” that animate their songwriting and photography practices, and their favorite track on Neil Young’s 2000 album Silver & Gold. Check out the full interview and listen to Point the Flashlight below.

American Songwriter: In 2016, around the release of Going By, you told an interviewer that the album “was mostly recorded in total isolation, not to get all Bon Iver about this,” and that recording at your dead grandmother’s house was “definitely one of the worst things I did for my mental health.” So I have to ask, by way of that former experience, how the writing and recording of Point the Flashlight and Walk compared to the writing and recording of Going By?
Felix Walworth: That’s a good question. On paper I think they were similar. I recorded a lot of this record at that same house and a lot of it here in my apartment in Brooklyn. It was still something I did all by myself, but the stakes felt a lot different to me when I was releasing Going By. I remember that interview—I think I was talking to Colin Joyce?

Yeah, that’s right.
I was definitely being dramatic and a little bit coy and I was also drunk in the backyard of a bar on the Lower East Side. Not to say that I didn’t mean what I said, but I wanted to give a little bit of context to the despair and isolation that I sort of mapped on to my second record. I think that has a bit more to do with what I felt was at stake for the project and where my head was at in the recording process. I was really concerned about how that record was going to be perceived—overly concerned, I think, at least looking back. And so all of the tinkering that I did with it felt feverish like, “I really really hope that the people who responded to my first album are gonna care about this and still think that I’m a good songwriter” or whatever. Having that as one of the primary thoughts that I was engaging with during that recording process made me really hate what I was doing.

Oh, no!
Not that I feel like the songs were bad or that the album was ill-conceived or conceived out of a place of only wanting to succeed, because the songs were written about the things they were written about, and they’re meaningful to me and they still are. But I would describe that last record’s recording process as, like, manic and distressing.

But that mania or distress or pressure did not extend to Point the Flashlight?
Yeah, exactly. My process for recording this record—even though it looked very similar in terms of personnel being me and equipment being the trash that I have—my relationship to art has felt a lot better, and so it was this thing I did alone but I was playing and exploring and feeling silly while I was recording for the first time in a long time.

That sounds like a much lighter headspace.
Yeah, I loved it!

When was the actual writing period?
The earliest ones started right after I released Going By. I think I wrote “Run Around the School” in the fall of 2016, and I finished up writing for the record at the end of 2019, so I was sort of writing as I was recording, which is usually how I work.

Do you ever write lyrics that you decide are not lyrics, but are meant to exist in another form like a poem?
I feel very underdeveloped in other creative mediums, so when a lyric feels like it can’t be a lyric, I feel like it’s relegated to a thought. [Laughing] I have a lot of lyrics where I’m like, “I really love this one line,” but to music it always sounds too melodramatic or too simple or something. And those things just sit in a drawer. I’m not that old—I still have time to explore other written mediums. So maybe I’ll write some poems.

Where and how do you usually compose lyrics?
The way that I do this is that I don’t write anything down until the song is done, typically. So I’ll finish a bunch of lyrics that will live entirely in my head and I’ll walk around singing them or sing them over a guitar or piano part that I’ve written, and then once I’m sure that this song is a song I write the whole thing down, either in my notebook or iPhone notes app depending on where I am.

And you remember the lyrics throughout that process?
Yeah, it’s interesting. I used to be—what’s the word—I used to be a little bit dogmatic about this. I guess a little bit dogmatic isn’t really a thing you can say. I used to be dogmatic about the idea that if a song wasn’t stuck in my head, if I couldn’t memorize it and have it repeating and making itself known to me, that it wasn’t a good song, so I sort of used that as a metric like, “Oh, if I forget the lyrics or if I forget this melody then it wasn’t memorable in the first place.”

I can see how that’s a helpful device.
Yeah. At this point in my life I feel like I don’t need to be so strict about these things, especially as I endeavor to write music that isn’t purely melody-driven or catchy, in particular. But that’s what I was working with for a while, which I think explains my off-the-dome style of songwriting.

When and how did you land on the title Point the Flashlight and Walk? I know it’s a lyric from “Flashlight On.”
I didn’t name this record until all the songs were at least mostly finished being recorded. I feel as though titles do so much heavy lifting and this record is about a lot of things. I sort of picked this one piece of imagery that I felt didn’t overpower the listeners’ experience. But, you know, you spend all this time exploring these narratives, these feelings, and then you’re asked to put like a stamp on something that’s super distracting. I never know what to name things until I’m done and then I just try to be as un-invasive as possible.

What are some of those narratives or feelings that drive the songs? 
The central conflict of the record surrounds attachment—I’m going to try to keep it vague here. But it’s about—how should I put this… It’s about trying to carve out space for yourself as a person trying to figure out the world, and needing help and support in the process of doing that, but finding that seeking that help is antithetical to your process of carving out that space for yourself. There’s a lot about the solemn importance of loneliness and solitude on this record. It’s resigned to its loneliness, in a sense. There’s strength there, but there’s also despair there, too.

Yeah, those multiple valences come through. Earlier you mentioned that you’ve yet to explore other written mediums, but I know you have a photography practice.
You know about my photography?

It wasn’t very hard to find! Do you see any connections between Felix the photographer and Felix the musician? How do those modes feel similar or different to you?
There are so many things in that question.

I was thinking about solitude, but you can take it wherever you want to take it.
I’ll start with that. Actually maybe I’ll start with a difference in the way these things feel for me. Songwriting, for me, often feels like I’m sort of plumbing this unknown spiritual depth or something, like I’m trying to drag beauty and feelings out of this unknowable well within myself. Maybe the comparison will explain what I mean. Photography, to me, feels like I’m an observer, I’m a translator, the content is there, and I’m merely representing it to you, rather than being purely generative. It’s honestly a lot more difficult to be purely generative in my opinion. And I think a lot of photographers would also argue that photography is also purely generative—you’re making this image—but for me, there’s still this hint of reproduction and translation that makes it feel less like I’m walking around blindfolded.

Interesting. You don’t think there’s some thread of seeking to find or locate or capture or document that feels similar or connects the two practices? You don’t have to say yes—I’m just curious.
No, I actually do agree. This is something else that I wanted to say: the way that I use both of these mediums feels similar in terms of what I’m drawn to and what I try to communicate with the things that I show. Through photography, I’m much more interested in capturing small, quiet moments, like personal experiences—private things that are going on in public—than I am in, you know…  I’m not going to Yosemite and taking photos. Sublime nature doesn’t call out to me in my photography practice, and neither does monumental beauty. I think it’s similar in my songwriting practice. A lot of the things that I like to explore are quotidian sadnesses.

How often when you say “you” in a Told Slant song are you referring to specific individuals or yourself or general others?
I try to stay away from “you” as speaking to myself. I don’t like doing that because it feels sort of evasive to me. If I’m going to say I, I say I. Sometimes I am speaking to specific people in my songs, but oftentimes the person I’m speaking to changes. There’s a song on the record called “Anchor” which was originally written as a plea to a person for us to be able to stay in each other’s lives, essentially, and by the time that song was fully written and recorded I had a completely different kind of relationship with that person where the lyrics of the song no longer applied to them. So I think songs are fluid documents in that way. They grow to be about different people. But usually “you” is an individual or a group, but not me.

Have you had any chances to perform live in Brooklyn recently?
I did a couple of livestreams, but other than that, no.

How has listening to or performing music felt different this year than years past?
I can’t say that I’ve had a different relationship to listening to recorded music, but I was walking around taking photos maybe a month or two ago, and there’s this spot in my neighborhood by the waterfront where there are a lot of industrial buildings, and one of those days I was walking around and I was hearing this metal band blasting from one of these warehouses and it occurred to me that it was the first live music I’d heard [in person] in like a year. The music was really intense, not the kind of thing I listen to at home, more like the kind of thing I’d listen to at a show incidentally, and it was incredible to hear that. I just stood outside of this warehouse listening to this band practice being like, “This fucking rules. There’s so much energy here.”

Is there any music, either new or old, that has held you or helped you through this weird time?
I’m a big Neil Young fan. Neil Young has like a gazillion records and I still haven’t gotten through all of them, so when I say I’m a big Neil Young fan, I’m a 70’s Neil Young fan. But I recently started listening to this album he released in 2000. It’s called Silver & Gold and there’s a song called “Razor Love” on it which is just so incredible. The drums are a little bit out of time at points, and Neil Young is obviously a master of the imperfect vocal take. That’s filling a little bit of the void of I-want-to-hear-some-sloppy- ramshackle-sounds.

Is there anything else you want to share about this record or what the world of Told Slant looks like right now?
I mean, the world of Told Slant really just looks like everybody else’s world, I think. I’m just in my house. The record—I would just say it exists, and please listen to it.

What’s the cover image from, by the way?
My grandma was a children’s book illustrator and she made an illustration of Anne of Green Gables at one point, and that was one of the images that she made, [but] heavily edited to be a nighttime image, when it was originally a daytime image.

Point the Flashlight and Walk is out now via Double Double Whammy. You can stream and purchase it here.

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