Talking 21st Century Songwriting With Kurt Vile
The first time I met Kurt Vile we played a show together in Philadelphia to less than 200 people. That was sometime in the fall of 2010. When I saw him just over a year later he was headlining the 1,500 capacity Webster Hall in New York City, and Smoke Ring For My Halo, his album released in early 2011, had turned me and almost everyone I knew from simply curious to full devotees.
Kurt, like most songwriters, myself included, claims to not know any more than the listener where his songs come from. Yet the music on Smoke Ring For My Halo, at once poetically aloof and acutely relatable, begged an explanation like little had in years.
It contains that strain of classic songwriting that hovers in your psyche patiently until eventually sinking its hooks in and burrowing deep. Sonically it was perfectly balanced between the beautifully anachronistic and the modern with acoustic guitars and harps woven seamlessly into patterned ambient electronics. And in exploring the self and the challenges of success, Smoke Ring is as timeless thematically as it was musically, navigating emotions that everyone from Dylan to Westerberg have been packing into rhyme, and seducing us with, for decades.
Smoke Ring hasn't seen the sales of, say, Bon Iver, Bon Iver or Vampire Weekend, and it didn't catapult Vile into the stratosphere of those indie icons. Instead, it placed him in a position far more indelible; though not a household name, he's become critically respected from the underground on up. He received his share of skepticism in the mainstream music press, but in the spring of 2011 I had a hard time finding a musician, promoter or record collector in Brooklyn who didn't have at least a definite respect for Kurt Vile and Smoke Ring. Often misapplied hyperbole like "voice of his generation" slowly began to feel not too far off the mark. The '90s had their Kurt and we had ours, so it seemed.
All that love amounted to a lot of pressure over the next two years for a songwriter, especially one who prefers not to overthink a process he himself doesn't even fully understand. His new album, Wakin' On A Pretty Daze, out this week on Matador ,is a beautiful, languid, epic riposte to continued analysis and expectation.
"Waking in the dawn of day, now I gotta think about what I wanna say," he drawls at the opening of the album. He responds as much with the guitars of Wakin' On A Pretty Dazeas he does with the lyrics. On many of the songs, several of which clock over six minutes with long instrumental passages, guitars dominate.
"It's a very guitar composer-y record," Vile said when we spoke in New York in March. After the months he's spent on the road, in the states and internationally, "Playing became like breathing. It was all one in the same," he said. "All of a sudden there were no walls around my brain, everything was wide open and the scenery was vast and changing." The expanded environs allowed Vile to "fine-tune slowly," as he put it, coaxing the songs out over sound checks and late nights in hotel rooms.
Close to 300 late nights in hotel rooms, to be exact. Since the release of Smoke Ring, much has changed for the 33-year-old songwriter. Life was treating him well in that there was greater demand for his music — bigger tours and broader exposure — but he found himself away from home for almost two years straight, during which time his wife gave birth to his second daughter. When Vile laughed and told me most of the songs on the new album were written in a hotel room somewhere in Europe, I joked that he didn't seem to have it that bad.
"Things were going good and people were coming to our shows, which is nice, but it's also draining," Vile said. "And I have a family, so there are all kinds of psychological things weighing you down. So it's not like a cushy lifestyle — there's struggle and urgency in there in its own right."
He wrote his new songs while being pulled in different directions by home and his performance schedule — which has evolved from paying to play at DIY venues in his hometown to touring Europe for 17 weeks at a time.
"Ultimately you want some kind of struggle," he said. "I just think you can't be super cushy — living a sugary sweet existence and necessarily create the best music. The theory is you can't without a little struggle."
The highs and lows of the creative process were another influence on the writing and recording of Wakin' On A Pretty Daze.
"I feel like some of my best songs are the ones where I'm playing and — it's like a vulnerable thing, where I think, 'Oh this is a total scratch. It doesn't sound like it did in my head,'" he said. "And then — it's funny — once you hear it back and it's good, you get all cocky. Like, 'Yep. Yep. I'm the best. Still got it. Number one. I always knew I was the best.'"
Being in the studio, he explained, requires trusting your instincts. "I can get paranoid when that red recording light is on," he said with a laugh.
Though he's considered a dark songwriter by many critics, even oppressively so by some, Vile says he is going more for dark comedy than anything else. "People who don't necessarily have a sense of humor think it's all totally dark. I just know when I write I get excited and laugh a lot to myself."
Even in one of his most sincere musical moments he pointed out a self-deprecating jab. "Like on [ Smoke Ring's] 'Baby's Arms.' It's a beautiful song, but I sing, 'I get sick of just about everyone ... Except for her, as I've impliiiiiied.' It's funny, cause I've already told you this a million times in the whole first half of the song," he said. "That's what I'm all about with music: it's gotta be sad and beautiful and funny, everything combined."
I asked if he reflected at all on his position as a singer-songwriter in a musical landscape short on troubadours. He was characteristically nonchalant. "I mean I'm aware of my surroundings and, you know, I'll like something new or quietly make fun of something new. But ultimately, I don't think about it because obviously music is what I love to do and what I'm good at. I'm really serious about it, and I've managed to finagle a career out of it. I mean, I don't know. Without thinking about it and getting all analytical about it and saying, 'What does it mean to be a songwriter?' I'm just always listening to songs. Just super into music, like, in general. I listen to more like songwriter stuff than say like, experimental stuff."
After a pause he looked out from under his hair and added, "But I guess I don't really think about it."
True or not, it's better for us that he doesn't annotate everything. It's the ambiguity in Vile's songs, like all good songs, that allows them to slip out into the world and into our subconscious to start their long slow bloom.
If I knew too much about them it would be hard to make them mine.
Damon McMahon's Amen Dunes has played with Kurt Vile several times over the past few years.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.