Mike Gordon gets excited when he talks about making music. Whether he's telling a story about sitting in on his buddy Brett Hughes' weekly honky tonk gigs or the process of rewriting a song on his new album Moss, he tends to get on a roll. He often describes the creative process as one of discovery, followed by consideration, discussion, listening, editing, adjusting, listening -- over and over again, until that undefinable moment when a song is "finished."
We originally spoke for a segment I was writing for Vermont Public Radio about the making of Moss. Once the segment ran, I knew that our entire conversation would be of interest to Mike's fans and perhaps people interested in the songwriting process. That's what you'll read here.
During our conversation, Mike and his producing partner, Jared Slomoff, spoke in depth about their process for arranging and recording the songs on Moss, especially their emphasis on trimming away anything that was unnecessary. After working together for nearly ten years, they describe their working relationship as almost "non-verbal." They've developed an innate sense of whether or not something works, a connection Mike refers to as a "special relationship."
I know some of the songs on Moss were written during the same period as those on The Green Sparrow. Are there new songs as well?
Mike Gordon: It's been a combination. In 2007 I took the whole year just to write, for the first time ever. "A whole year, no gigs allowed" was my rule so I could stay focused. And my goal was to write either, I don't know, 50 songs or three albums' worth. So, in a sense, this is the second album, but in another sense, I've evolved since then. So the idea of then [in 2007] writing a whole repertoire was a little weird, because each year I'm a different person, Jared's a different person...
So half are from that era -- and we reworked those a lot. And that's been very interesting. The editing process has been paramount here. The idea that something isn't fixed, necessarily, in any phase.
Then the other bunch of songs are since then. Just along the way.
What was the editing process like for changing the songs that had originally been written in 2007?
Jared Slomoff: It changes from song to song. In some cases maybe it's the lyrics no longer resonate; in some cases, there's something rhythmic that we feel could be better, or the arrangement could be different. It really changes from song to song. It's just about trying to figure out the way in which the song could translate the best and make the intention the clearest -- at the time.
What about evolution? A lot of things have changed in the past three or four years. How did that reflect lyrically or thematically on the album?
MG: So much changes in a person's life, even from month to month. It's hard to put in a nutshell what would have changed, but... well, I could give an example. This one song that's evolved a lot used to be called "Break It Down," and now it's called "Idea."
It was a song that always seemed to sound just right in a lot of ways when I would play it for people in '07. Especially musically. But the overall concept wasn't resonating. [Then at one point while making Moss,] I was listening to a forty-two CD series of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand on the treadmill every day. Even though I don't agree with her politics, it got me so much that I couldn't relate to my song anymore. It was overtaking my life and the song. It was making too many questions for the song that I couldn't answer, so I abandoned it for a while. When I revisited it, I kept some of the lines but rewrote it in a way that did resonate. The song originally was sort of about breaking things down, and Atlas Shrugged was suggesting using your mind to build things and not break them down.
I needed to be a little more positive, and there were all these questions that had been raised. What's the relationship between the character singing the song and the person in the song being sung about? That was sort of ambiguous. I like ambiguity sometimes, and I like the feeling of being disoriented sometimes. That shows up in the grooves and rhythms that are a little strange. Even in lyrics. I don't think they should be too connected... But certain ambiguities don't sit right and that was one of them.
I've been quoting lately, I think it was John Prine, who said, "When you write songs you don't write, you edit." And that song got edited year after year after year. And it's not because there was some strange obligation to it; it wasn't on a checklist: This song has to be used! It was more because it was resonating all along the way. Something wanted to emerge that I couldn't figure out. And Jared was helping and couldn't yet figure out what that wanted to be.
Then when the album was done I was very happy with how it turned out and I came up with this idea to rewrite the song again, because I thought, Well, just as an experiment, let's see what it would be like if it were more kind of catchy in a way that a lot of people could relate to -- letting go of the story entirely and having it be non-sequiturs and fun. What if it were more radio-friendly? Because I love cranking up songs on the radio when I'm in the car. What if it became more like that? More catchy.
So we did this whole other experiment that really worked. So now there's a third, or probably ninth, version of the song that's going to be the radio single and has different lyrics from the album. Otherwise, it's still the same song, basically. The song was "Idea" and now is called "Another Idea."