After years of playing in bands, Seattle singer-songwriter David Bazan made his solo debut in 2009. His newest album, a collaboration with Passenger String Quartet, features songs from his solo career as well as some from Pedro The Lion. He spoke with us about the things he’s learned from other songwriters, his first song and more.
What is it like to work with strings in your music?
It was really fun. It brings out the harmonic complexity and emotion of the songs.
What drove you to release new songs in monthly installments?
I was looking for a way to work as hard as I do on tour at home. Also, releasing two songs a month forces me to write two songs a month.
What lessons have you learned from working with so many different songwriters and musicians throughout your career?
Well, gleaning wisdom is the name of the game so there are certainly too many lessons to catalog thoroughly. But two that come to mind are: one, I learned from Vic Chestnutt the value of fun and play in lyric writing (Check out Bazan’s cover of Chestnutt’s “Flirted With You All My Life” here). And two from Mark Eitzel, I learned that as much shame and self loathing as you might feel personally, you should never be ashamed of your songs. They are your redeemers.
How has your process differed between writing with bands and writing for your solo work?
The process for songs that I write for my bands and my solo work is essentially the same. But collaboration with another songwriter is always a little different each time. For me it requires even more openness and vulnerability. The process has to take on whatever form is required for the success of the collaboration.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
The Beatles, Fugazi, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Deerhoof, Chris Cohen, Kurt Cobain.
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
10th grade. My dad was showing me chords on the guitar. He said you can use D, D major seven, D dominant seven, E minor, and A you can write a song because they’re all in the same key. Also G. So I used those cords in basically that exact same order to write my first song. It was a song about how I missed my best friend from eighth grade because we had moved to a different state. It was sentimental shit but it taught me the fun and catharsis of self-expression and finding the right words to form a lyric to fit with the melody etc.
How do you go about writing songs?
Elbow grease. Hunger.
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
I have to find a way to mine your subconscious.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
Human folly and a longing for peace & justice are two major points of inspiration.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
I don’t really have a hard on to collaborate with any musical heroes. Collaboration feels a little like sex to me and that it should take place between friends.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
What do you consider to be the perfect song (written by somebody else), and why?
I guess for me songs are more like tiles in the mosaic of human feeling & expression, so it’s hard for me to think of any one as being perfect or definitive. Also it’s hard to separate a song from your favorite recording or performance of that song so I tend to think of recordings of songs when I think of “favorite” songs. That said, a couple of songs/recordings come to mind. “Martha My Dear” by Paul McCartney manages to be sentimental and subversive simultaneously in a way that is always dazzling to me. The Fugazi song “By You” from the album Red Medicine captures both the weariness and rage one feels from seeing hypocrites succeed in a way that is always nourishing to me.