Alison Mosshart of The Kills and The Dead Weather has always been a woman who seems to have it all – a brilliant creative mind; an eye for aesthetics, both in visual art and fashion; and one hell of a singing voice. Following the release of The Dead Weather’s latest album Dodge and Burn, we chatted with the Renaissance woman about painting, zines and writing in cars.
You do a lot of interesting visual art. How do you feel having visual art as an outlet for self-expression has impacted your songwriting?
I don’t exactly know. I’ve always been doing it. Art was the first thing that I loved as a kid, I always did it. My mother was a high school art teacher, so I grew up around it. She just put paints, paper, markers and crayons and everything in front of me from the time I could sit up, so it’s always been a huge part of my life. I went to school for it for a little bit but I was never kinda sure of what I wanted to be or do. By the time I was 14 I was on tour, and I never stopped doing that. But this whole painting thing… it’s something I do whenever I can, but I never thought about showing anybody any of it, so that’s new. But I think the two really go hand in hand. I think they both come from the same part of the brain and the creative process is similar. I think I think of songs visually, lyrics visually. Everything all funnels back into that.
Does your painting or songwriting feel more personal to you, in terms of how much of yourself you put into it?
I guess it depends on the song and the painting. I write songs really fast; I paint really fast. Sometimes I think that when you look at something later or listen to something later you figure out what it really meant. Other things change their meaning over time. Sometimes I can look at a painting and remember exactly the place I made it, what I felt, what city I was in, what happened that day. In a way they’re like journal entries to me because I do them so fast and I try to do them in different places all the time. It’s not just like a studio thing. And songs are the same. A song will drop out of thin air – I’ll be feeling one way one afternoon and evening and write something really fast and not really think about it again until it’s time to bring some songs to record or something. They can feel really personal, but I don’t think I like very abstract personal things because I don’t like telling people what things are necessarily about. In a certain way, it puts a song in jail. People will have to feel that same way or they’ll feel like, if they don’t get it, it won’t apply to them. Music does this wonderful thing while you hear it. It somehow just suits you, you know? It makes sense. Sometimes you hear a song and it totally makes sense with what’s happening in your life, or it’s what you need to hear. I’m a firm believer of not taking that magic away from people. I like the idea that a song can change in meaning and mean a lot of different things. And a painting can mean a lot of different things to different people. That’s what’s beautiful about art just full stop. It’s for people. It’s, in a way, a completely selfless act, putting something beautiful in the world and giving it away, basically.
What’s your typical songwriting process like?
I write lyrics in the car a lot. I listen to music without lyrics if I’m working on something and need some ideas. I think the stereo in my car is the best stereo I own. It’s fucking great. I love listening to anything on that. And I think I do my best thinking when I go about 85 mph; it’s a prime time for me. But it depends. I’ll write songs all different ways. Sometimes I have an acoustic guitar in my lap and write everything at once, and the music and the words are inspiring each other. When it’s something like The Dead Weather, and they’ve written some music, or Jamie (Hince) has written some music for The Kills, then that music inspires a mood and it kind of tells me a story sometimes. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s super hard and I really have to work at carving my way into a song. But other times it all just comes together very quickly, which I think are usually the best songs. They’re the ones I believe in the most because I can’t really take any credit; I don’t know how I did it.
How does your songwriting process for The Kills differ from The Dead Weather?
With The Kills I’ll write the music and the words to my songs. Our records always tend to be very 50/50. We’ll bring in a ton of songs, both of us, and then we’ll introduce each other to them. So I’ll start singing Jamie’s songs, Jamie’s words. Some things work, and some things don’t. He’ll start playing guitar on my songs and shift them more musically, because I don’t write really simply. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. You find that you’re trying to forge some genre, some sort of feeling, something new and different and some songs allow themselves to be shaped, and other songs are stuck where they’re at, and they’re better that way.The Dead Weather is really different in the fact that I don’t think I wrote any music except for one song on this record, so that process is insanely automatic. They’ll be playing, I’ll be sitting there with a notebook and a microphone, scribbling away as fast as I can, making things up off the top of my head, trying to make a shape and trying to understand what the choruses are and when I come in… I’m trying all different things. An hour later, the song is done. It’s a crazy different process. It’s like riffing, and you heat up as you go. It’s not a beautiful process. It’s not like I’m crafting these beautiful songs that I wanna sing. It’s really full-force, open your mouth and shit comes out stuff and that’s somehow, to me, incredibly valuable. Wherever that stuff comes from, I don’t know, but I love it.
How long have you been writing songs?
I wrote lyrics in my first band. That’s all I did, just write lyrics to their music, from when I was 14 to about 18 or 20 when I started working with The Kills. At that point, Jamie really encouraged me to try to write my own songs, music, everything. He lent me a four-track and was like “Here you go. Figure it out. Find a guitar, teach yourself to play it.” So I guess around that time, but I’ve been writing words to songs and had melodies in my head ever since I started playing music when I was 14.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
No, I don’t. If you wanna count me being 7 and thinking that I was in a make-believe rock band, and writing things in my notebooks and trying to perform them with my brother… I don’t where the beginning or the end is. It’s just always been in me. I love words so much and I can’t stop writing, so it’s a nice thing. I don’t wanna think about it too much.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing? Poetry, nonfiction or short stories or anything?
I do, yeah. I’ve done all that. I’ve written lots and lots of things. I used to do a fanzine when I was younger, which was just straight-up writing, like a hundred pages of writing for each issue. I would do travel journals from tour, poems and stories about the people around me or things I saw that are completely fictional. I used to do a column for a punk magazine – I can’t remember what it’s called. I’ve always been writing.
What do you think the highlight of your career as a songwriter has been so far?
It’s so hard to say, because I’ll always be blown away by the next new thing. Of course there’s been my pivotal moments where I’ve found the magical songs that kind of fall out of the sky and I don’t know how I did it. You wish you knew so you could do it more. There’s been quite a few of those moments in the last few years. Three or four songs where I’m like “Woah, that’s awesome. Maybe I can write songs. Maybe I’m not all just scatterbrained and weird.” You have those little epiphanies and then they’re real hard to catch again until they come back. There are so many amazing moments. I think every moment being on stage is amazing. Every moment when a room is full of people that are smiling and excited to be there; that energy is wild. That is an incredible achievement and it’s a beautiful thing to feel. That never gets old. It always surprises me, it always makes me happy, and it’s always cool as fuck. I believe those things happen all the time. I’m lucky like that.
Who are your favorite songwriters?
Captain Beefheart is one of my favorites. Neil Young is one of my favorite songwriters. I’ll have to go through my record collection for you. Fugazi is one of my favorite bands of all time, but I talk about them all the time. That’s just the band that made me want to be in a band. I love Nick Cave – I love his songs and his words so much. That’s a big one. Mike Flannigan, I love his songs. Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age wrote some of my favorite songs ever. They just blow my mind, all of their records, I’ll take them all. There’s so many. There’s some of my friends who I think are my favorite songwriters, but I get blown away for a lot of different reasons. I just love music.