Nashville-based singer-songwriter Evan P. Donohue got it right with Stairway to Evan, a solid indie-pop record with one of our favorite album titles of the last year. Donohue started his career as a founding member of power rock band Diarrhea Planet but left to pursue other projects, resulting in 2010’s Rhythm & Amplitude and, more recently, side project the Shocking Boobs. We chatted with the enigmatic word slinger about vampires, corn (not Korn) and Windows ’98.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Lee Hazelwood, Beck, Hoagy Carmichael, and Elvis Costello. Heroines: Jenny Lewis, Annie Clark, and Joni Mitchell.
When did you start writing songs?
Back when everyone owned a Windows ’98, there was a little program called Windows Sound Recorder. It stopped at 60 seconds but if you hit record again and again you could make the audio file up to 10 minutes long. Then you could go back to the beginning and re-record yourself singing into the microphone on top of the monitor. With the ability to record, I started writing songs.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
In a moving van on our way to California from Boston when I was four years old, I wrote a song that went, “Corn, Corn, Corn … Oh the Gracious Corn”. That was the first one.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
My friend Jordan Smith (Diarrhea Planet) and I have been working on some songs. We just finished 3 last week: “Tour Life” is about having to leave loved ones to suffer on the road in a touring band, “Living with the Fear” is about a vampire falling in love and trying to overcome his bloodlust to enjoy an intimate and loving relationship. And “We’re the Shocking Boobs” which is a self referential song about how cool our band is. (We play at The Stone Fox in Nashville this Friday at 9pm!)
How do you go about writing songs?
It varies. Usually a hook (lyric, chord, melody) will find its way into my head and get stuck there. Then, like doing a jigsaw puzzle, you put all the pieces together until it’s done. A lot of the time it depends on just going to the computer and recording what I have. Just speaking aloud the written word can be a powerful tool in creative writing. Recording and producing as you write songs is sort of the new way, I think.
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
Fill a notebook full of garbage until you get a good line. Write it over and over until you find its brothers and sisters. Sometimes you have to adopt and maybe even kidnap a couple words.
What percentage of the songs you write are keepers?
I don’t know, maybe 25%? I try to be wise about picking my battles. If I’ve spent the entire morning on something and I feel like I haven’t made any progress, I shelf it and work on something different for a few hours. If I feel encouraged or I get an idea, I’ll bounce back over to the first song. Of the 70-80% of songs that aren’t winners, I’d say I only finish about a quarter of them.
Which of your songs was the hardest for you to write?
A song called “Atom Bomb” on my new record Stairway to Evan. I had the instrumental all recorded, a melody, even a title. But I was so stuck on the lyrics.The week before the record was sent to get mastered I was still stumped. I asked a bunch of friends to send in little snippets recorded on their cell phones of them shouting “Atom Bomb”! I thought at the very least I could turn it into something like “La La Love You” by the Pixies. What got me to finish the song was a Tascam cassette deck I bought on craigslist. I recorded the final mix to a cassette and played it back faster into my DAW so the pitch was higher and the tempo was faster. The energy was lifted and I became so happy the lyrics practically fell on to the page! The hard part about it was being so reliant on a ridiculous idea!
What sort of things inspire you to write?
Finding great ideas is like panning for gold. You have to put in the time and not project expectations on the outcome. The most inspired I’ve ever felt to get something written was at my parent’s house in Milwaukee. I was writing “##Epidemic” for my first record Rhythm and Amplitude. I sat down at my desk to write, started playing bass, and within seconds I was singing the first first lines to the song. I remember being so pleased and feeling so good about the song that you can hear me smiling in the demo. Never since then has a song come so easily. So it’s sort of like the mental vacation I take when I’m stumped, “Remember that time? Oh man, those were the days.”
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
The difference between experienced and unexperienced is being familiar with the process, the expectations, and learning to enjoy and/or cope with every part of it. You’ll get something written and you’ll be happy with it, but it takes time.
The most annoying thing about songwriting is….
Failing everyday to write a hit.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
A song called, “Tell me, Sara”. I wrote it at a really broken up time in my life. I felt for the first time really like a bad guy who just needed a friend. This song is all about humility. The response I’ve gotten has encouraged me very deeply. My good friend Sean put it in his movie Cam Girlz. I also had the honor of being invited into the American Songwriter office to play it a while ago! If you haven’t heard it, dear reader, check it out on this website you are at right now!
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
Either Paul McCartney or Daniel Johnston.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Daniel Pujol, Robbie Van Leeuwen, and Gordon Downie.
What do you consider to be the perfect song (written by somebody else), and why?
“Beautiful Dreamer” by Stephen Foster. The melody is haunting, the lyrics are reverent, and the two fit together like bricks at Machu Picchu. Also, the flow of the song is perfect. No section feels dulled or underused.