I’m good. This past month, I’ve been busy getting everything ready for the album release. Now, I’m just happy to have the record out there, and to see that people are digging it.
Can you talk to us more about your single “American Dreams Denied?”
“American Dreams Denied” is my attempt to write a catchy, anthemic song that captures a political mood that I think is in the air right now, especially among other people my age. A lot of people feel frustrated and squeezed economically, and I think people are craving ways to express their frustration collectively.
Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?
Earlier this year, I was just noticing how—between the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns, Black Lives Matter protests, and many other political movements that are active and in the news right now—we seem to be living through a period that feels similar to what I imagine the 1960s felt like. After a period of relative stability, our society seems to be shifting and changing very quickly. Of course, the 1960s was also an era where there were a lot of popular songs that captured the political mood—“The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Fortunate Son,” “Ohio.” I felt we needed a song like that for 2016, so I decided to write one.
The single comes off your new album How To Dream Again – what’s the story behind the title?
The album title comes from a song on the album, which is about creating a set of guidelines to live by once you realize that the American Dream—which, above all else, is about striving to get ahead—is really just a bankrupt lie. This is a process that happens on both an individual level and a collective level. So on the one hand, the album is about my own moral and emotional growth—about learning to love someone else despite not having many examples of successful relationships in my life, and about learning to live in accordance with my values. But it’s also about this process that I think we’re going through as a society right now. I think that many people in the U.S. and across the world are starting to realize that our entire society is set up in a way that is harmful, and even lethal, to a large segment of the population, and we’re beginning to ask how we can “dream again”—or how we can set up a society that works better for a larger number of people.
How was the recording and writing process?
The writing process was painstaking and involved a lot of dead ends and second guessing, which is normal for me. I spent about two years writing the songs that ended up on this album. I’d written close to 30 songs, and spent a lot of time revising them and deciding which ones should go on the album. I didn’t set out to make a record that was so political, initially. But because of what I was reading and thinking about at the time, I felt compelled to write more politically-oriented material, and then these larger social themes just emerged, and that guided a lot of the songwriting and revising.
As for recording, that was pretty quick. Once I had the songs ready, I just rehearsed them with my live band and we tracked them all live in three days at 25th Street Recording in Oakland, Calif. I also flew my buddy John Calvin Abney—an incredible guitarist and songwriter—out to California to play lead guitar, which turned out to be a great call. His playing added a lot of energy and spontaneity to the songs. The goal was to capture a lot of the grit and intensity of the band, and I think we accomplished that.
How has your punk upbringing influenced your new solo career?
I think starting out in punk bands was great preparation for me because I got used to the idea of having to do everything myself on a shoestring budget. These days, it seems like every music act—whether you’re a singer-songwriter, a rapper or a metal band—is basically run like a punk band, at least at first. You have to learn how to set up your own tours, make your own records and videos, make your own merch, and get your own press.
What role does Berkeley plays in you as an artist?
It can be difficult to get by as a musician in the Bay Area. I think I heard recently that San Francisco is the most expensive housing market in the U.S., and Oakland is the fourth most expensive. I think that most artists’ lives are full of struggle regardless, but it’s definitely amplified as the cost of living gets higher. I think that sense of struggle informs some of my songwriting. That being said, there are also great bands and songwriters in the Bay Area, which is important to me—I think that a healthy sense of competition inspires me to grow as an artist.
What draws you into roots music?
It’s funny, I don’t really think of my songs as being that “rootsy”—my biggest influences are people like Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Tom Petty, who were really just mainstream rock acts in their heyday. But I guess that “Americana” and “roots” have become such catch-all terms that they can be used to describe everything from bluegrass to soul to classic rock.
How has your English degree have shaped your songwriting skills?
In high school, my entire life revolved around playing in bands. I wrote songs with those bands, but they were more about riffs and musical hooks than lyrics. Lyrics were usually an afterthought, mainly because I didn’t know how to write them. When I first went to college, I had a really difficult time finding other musicians to play with, so I decided I needed to learn how to write songs that work without a band. I was studying poetry in my English classes, and the concepts of rhyme and meter gave me a template for songwriting. I also noticed that the great songwriters I was studying on my own time—Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen—were similar to a lot of the poets I was reading in class in that they seemed to love words, and took delight in playing with their meanings and sounds. In college, I ultimately ended up devoting way more of my time and attention to learning to write songs than to my schoolwork, but the English classes definitely helped.
What books get to work as an inspiration source for the lyrics?
Around the time that I finished my last record, I could almost feel my mind shrinking. A couple of years of working so hard at my music career had pushed everything else out. I had lost track of what was going on in the world. I remember trying to write songs and feeling like I had nothing to say. I probably enjoy reading more than anything except for playing music, and I’d barely read any books during the entire year of 2014. I realized that I needed to refill my brain –for my own emotional health and sanity, and also for my songwriting. So I just dove in. I rediscovered my love of going to the library, and I read a ton of books that were relevant to how I was feeling about the political, social and economic issues of the time. I read a lot of Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein. I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Meand Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. All of the reading that I did definitely influenced the writing for this album, but I can’t remember a particular time when something I read led to a song. It was more like I was filling up my brain with these ideas, and they just seeped out into the songs naturally.
What aspects of politics did you get to explore on this material?
Mainly, I see this record as a documentation of my own thought process and political maturation over the last two years. I touch on a lot of different political issues, but it all kind of comes back to the same question which is, “How should I live my life?”
What have you learned from your experiences sharing the stage with some of the biggest acts in the scene?
I think playing with bigger acts is helpful because it helps me calibrate my sense of what a “good” song is, what a “good” band sounds like, or what a “good” show looks like. When you see great bands or songwriters play on a somewhat regular basis, you realize how much work you have to do to get to that level and you measure your own work against it.
Any plans to hit the road?
Yes. I’m doing a few short tours in late 2016, and I’m starting to think about plans for 2017 as well.
What else is happening next in M. Lockwood Porter’s world?
Trying to get this album out to as many people as possible.