Talking to John Darnielle about writing his new album,
and then reading too much into it.
So, you’ve got a new album Transcendental Youth. How did that come about? Did you go in with a story you wanted to tell?
No, that’s the thing I specifically don’t do. I definitely don’t sit down and say, “Oh, I’m going to write about that.” Generally speaking, I just work … I guess the best way to phrase it would be, I notice threads, and I try to follow the the direction they’re going. For example, I’ll have five songs, but two really seem to be speaking to each other in some way—not in some super obvious way, but they should be of the same thread. I just have to let it develop.
I have to look to the distance, I have to be improvising to some extent, I have to make things up as I go along more and more.
That’s interesting, because the first and penultimate tracks on the album—“Spent Gladiator 1” and “2”—sorta spoke a story arc of sorts, starting in this kind of positive place and ending in a much starker location. That wasn’t something that you wanted to accomplish?
No, no. I can’t work like that. When the second “Gladiator” song was being written, I don’t think I’d even called the first one “Spent Gladiator 1” yet. I was listening to the two songs, and I realized they were expressions of the same thing, just of very different perspectives—one is climbing up a cliff, one is hanging on to a cliff. So I named them that to reflect that.
But I don’t work that intentionally … There’s this thing where you’ll hear people say, “Oh, now I have to write this song about how this guy goes from one place to another, just to get that guy to this other place.”
You have these songs where people are saying, “And now I drive to there,” and it feels very BS.
Playing off of that, I noticed you have a tendency to change the language of your songs …
I don’t think of it ahead of the time. I have several voices—and hopefully more coming—I try on, but it’s not something that I sit down and think, “What language should I use now?”
I always wonder about that, because A.E. Housman will do this amazing juxtaposition of English words with Anglo-Saxon roots verses English words with a French root …
But I think you just get a feel for it.
I think there’s a definitely tendency to try and read as much of an autobiographical narrative into your songs. Is that something you wouldn’t necessarily encourage?
The thing is, I’m not meaning to encourage or discourage a particular reading strategy. However anybody enjoys listening to this stuff is cool with me, for the most part. A writer needs, for the most part, to stay out of putting interpretations on his material, except to correct serious misconceptions … But short of that, I think it’s a leeway to over-coach people’s readings.
I make stuff. Where people go with it, that’s the reader’s privilege.
Got a Boston anecdote that you wanted to share?
The first time that I went, in ’94, it was huge show for us, that was the first time that Rachel and me did five shows on the East Coast. Our Boston show—or Cambridge, really, it was at the Middle East—we had such a good time.
It was one of the towns that sold us on the idea you could do this thing where you go to a town you’re not from, a place that you’ve never seen, and have an amazing time. My first time in Boston I was ready to move there.
Yeah, and that was with [Folk Implosion's] John Davis. Who, a year later, I’d do the notorious “Unrehearsed Covers of The First Smith Album” show with. That was terrible. [Laughs]
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