Songwriters On Process Interview
Matthew Embree, RX Bandits, Love You Moon
The RX Bandits sound fuses elements of rock, reggae, ska, and jazz. Their multi-dimensional approach should come as no surprise, though, once you understand the creative process of songwriter Matt Embree. He writes all the time, and not just songs: Embree is an avid poet. And like any good poet, he finds inspiration everywhere. He doesn’t necessarily seek out inspiration, but he puts himself in situations where it comes easily: he’s gone on a 2,000 mile motorcycle ride, and he’s hitchhiked all throughout Central America. When you engage with your environment as much as Embree does - whether it’s the physical environment of the wilderness or the people in a small village in Costa Rica - inspiration is easy to come by. And the songs that are the product of that creative process are rich in their influences.
RX Bandits are now on their farewell summer tour, though according to band member Steve Choi, they aren’t breaking up. Rather, they are just doing their last tour. So have no fear, RX Bandits fans, they will not disappear. Read my interview with Matt Embree after the video.
What other creative outlets do you have besides songwriting?
I do a lot of writing. I write poetry and short stories and just a lot of stream of consciousness stuff. I’ve written a bunch of books of poetry that I mainly read to friends or women I’m in love with who will appreciate it. But most of it is just for me. I’ve been approached to have one of the books published, and a few of my poems have been published in compilations.
Do you have aspirations to reach a higher level as a poet
How does being a poet affect your songwriting?
As a lyricist, something I notice often is the lyrical quality and wordplay of all writers, not just poets. Like Tom Robbins. He’s one of the best writers when it comes to powerful opening paragraphs. His openers are amazing. In Jitterbug Perfume and Still Life with Woodpecker, it’s like a song in the way the words dance, especially if you read them aloud. He uses so many literary devices. I feel like I’ve read his opening paragraphs so many times, much more than the rest of the books. The same goes for Kurt Vonnegut. His use of language is amazing.
That kind of stuff influences me musically because I don’t like to be constrained by rhyming. Writing lyrics can be difficult. Music comes out of me easily, and I often feel like I’m a vessel to whatever creative energy is out there. On my solo album, a couple of the songs literally began as poems. I just took the poetry and wrote the music around it with some really interesting chord progressions that were not your normal songwriting style. Most people write songs with repeating parts, but there are a lot of RX songs, and in my other projects, where there are no repeating parts or rhymes. Those are the songs that started as poems.
Are there times when you start writing something, and you’re not sure if it’s going to be a poem or a song?
No, 99% of the time when I’m writing poetry, it’s not intended to be music. But sometimes I’ll go back to something and it will strike me. I’ll start messing with it to see if it can become a song.
When you sit down to write anything, why do you choose one mode of expression over the other?
A lot of the time there’s an experience I want to remember. And other times I don’t have any idea what I’m going to write about. With any creative inspiration, if words start coming to my head, that’s when I decide if they’d fit better either into a song or into a poem.
Being a poet takes tremendous discipline. Does that discipline also follow you in your songwriting?
Yes. Being diligent with your craft is important as a writer.
Do you have a routine, or do you not sit down to write until the muse hits you?
Sometimes I go through stretches like that, where I don’t write for a while. But I play music every day. And I also try to write a song every day. Not always in its entirety, and not with complete lyrics. A lot of times the melody comes into my head, then words and sounds form themselves around that melody. I feel like my brain is trying to say something.
I want to make a record called Thirty Days,Thirty Songs, where I record one song every day for thirty days, but I’m usually too busy to put that much time into it. Sometimes artists have amazing bursts of creativity, but I find that when that happens, not all of what comes out is good. Heck, I even feel that way about the White Album. I mean, that’s a great record, but it didn’t need to be a double record. I feel like that’s blaspheme to say that about the Beatles, though. I want to self-regulate so that I don’t feel the need to finish something that just isn’t going anywhere.
But as a writer, you can’t be afraid to write badly. That fear can make you blocked and it also won’t make you a better writer.
I would go so far as to say you have to write shitty stuff if you want to be good. If I go through a period where I haven’t written poetry in a while, when I sit down, with the first couple of poems I’m really struggling to find my style, my voice. Then it comes easier as I write more. It’s no different than playing an instrument. Frank Zappa, after doing a tour, would not play the guitar for six months, so that when he picked it up again, he would have a completely different view of it. He’d almost be relearning it. I like that idea of approaching your craft, whatever it is, from a new and fresh perspective.
How hard do you work to be inspired?
I work hard at it, but I don’t go and do things because I think they will inspire me to make good music. I’m fortunate to have the time to do things I love to do, and one of those is travel. That’s given me a lot of inspiration musically. Not just in listening to music from other cultures, but because the way I travel is unique. I just got back from a 2,000 mile motorcycle trip with one of my best friends. We put all of our camping gear on the backs of our bikes. We had no plan. We’d look at a map each morning, point at a place we thought might be beautiful, and go. We really opened ourselves up to anything. Most of the time we pulled off onto a dirt road, went into the wilderness somewhere, and camped.
In other countries, I love to hitchhike. I love to meet different characters, and hitchhiking is a beautiful way to interact with people. I always bring my guitar with me, and one of the times I was in in Costa Rica in a small town with one dirt road. Someone on a bus I was on saw my guitar and asked me if I would play guitar in their restaurant in return for a place to stay. Here I am in the middle of the jungle, but that’s one of the beautiful ways that the universe conspires to take you places, both physically and creatively. I slept in a corrugated tin shack next to the restaurant with a big hole sawed out of the side for a window, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. That kind of thing is inspirational. So I seek adventure and the feeling of freedom and a feeling that I’m living.
All that travel gives you obvious song ideas, but do you write about your experiences or do you write about the thoughts that go through your head as you are alone?
Writing about my thoughts is a huge part of it. Especially riding a motorcycle, when it’s just you and your thoughts. I have been trying to hone my skills as a storyteller in song. The people who can do that are amazing, who write about characters and events. That’s so hard to do. It’s writing about the way something makes you feel. That’s what art is.
What makes a good melody?
I have certain tendencies with melodies. I love the Dorian mode, and I love the sharp sixth and the minor scale, but it’s not something I think about when I write a melody. I happened to notice that I like those melodies when I went back and noticed similarities among them.
And those irresistible melodies just pop into your head?
All the time, brother! Laughs.
You mention that a lot of lyrics start with the melody, but how often do you write a song because you want to address a certain topic?
A lot. Back in 2004 when we had just invaded Iraq and that 26 year-old contractor was beheaded, I wept when I read about it and saw the images. I was bawling, not only for his life but for how terrible humans can be to each other because I know how beautiful we can be as well. I wrote the song “The Last Words of Nicholas Berg” that was inspired by that event. It’s not about the event, but about my emotions. And the times I’ve had my heart broken, it’s cathartic to write about that, too. If I’m going to be putting music out to people, I want to say something, and I want to inspire people to think. Not necessarily to agree with me or to think like me. I just want them to think. Because when I hear all these terrible pop songs on the radio now, they might as well just say, “Sex sex fuck fuck.” It’s all the same feeling. There’s no complex emotion or thought, and that’s what I aim for.
Neil Finn from Crowded House told me recently that the ideal emotional state from which to write is empathy. Do you agree with that?
I’d agree that it’s empathy, but sadness and hurt works too. I swear, looking back on my relationships, it’s almost like a sabotaged a few of them because I felt like I needed to feel that pain in order to write something meaningful.
When you write about that pain, is it possible that you’re too hurt to write clearly about it?
It depends. Sometimes when I’m feeling an incredible amount of sadness, I need to write to that person, even though she will never hear it. There’s a lot of songs I wrote just for me. If I feel like I’m too close to the pain and it comes out like I’m the victim, then I give myself some time. But the advantage of writing about it immediately after is that it allows me to trap the pain in a song in a way that I control it.
What do you do when you have writer’s block?
I don’t really get it with music, but I do with poetry and lyrics. Like any other musician, I think the idea of a muse is 100% correct, and my muse is usually a woman. I usually take a step back and write a bunch of instrumentals or I’ll pick up a new instrument, especially one that humbles me, like a mandolin or a cello.
A lot of novelists tell me that they read someone else when they get writer’s block, and that act of putting someone else’s voice in their head really helps. That’s what you are doing when you pick up another instrument.
I’ve never thought of it that way, but you are absolutely right.
Who are your favorite authors?
I can’t even start this conversation without mentioning Kurt Vonnegut. His writing is so lyrical, and I love the way he writes about humanity. Even in the sad parts, he celebrates the experience of living. Even at my lowest points, I realize that’s the beauty of being able to exist. The second woman I was in love with got me into Vonnegut and Welcome to the Monkey House. “Harrison Bergeron,” the second story in the book, was the first thing I read as an adult that made me cry, as did “Long Walk to Forever.” I read it to my friend aloud the other night; reading aloud is something I like to do because it reminds me of my childhood. I started crying when I was reading it to her. But besides Vonnegut, I also really like the Beat poets, ee cummings, and Michael Connelly.