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A Conversation with Jim Clements

Jim Clements has been writing songs and making records for more than fifteen years now, and, if you ask me, he’s just now hitting his stride. While his three previous albums winningly played all the angles of roots music, his new album, A Failure, is a singular piece of work. It transcends his influences and ends up sounding like no one else but Jim himself. These songs speak to listeners before they get a chance to be pinned down. Listening closely to Jim’s songs always makes me want to find out more about how they were created. I caught up with him last week to talk about songwriting, unreliable narrators, and, yes, failure.

How did you start the album? What were the first stirrings of this project as an album? 

Two of the songs, “Saul’s Blood” and “I Am Here For You” were written ages ago, before my last album [2011’s The Road To Anhedonia]. They were different to anything else I’d written, particularly “I Am Here For You,” which was more unfiltered and stream-of-consciousness than anything else I’d written. They just didn’t fit on Anhedonia, but I held onto them with the plan that one day I’d make a weirder, more difficult, more personal album. That was the first stirring.

That was nearly ten years ago, when you were living in London. Recently, you moved to L.A. What came next?

I’d essentially written off making music, at least music that I would share with anyone. When I arrived here, I was struggling really badly with anxiety, and started I writing just to have an outlet for all this weird energy, but it was all just bits and pieces. Then my daughter arrived, I spent a lot of time just sitting around with her as she smiled and babbled. I had a captive audience, so I began noodling on my guitar, and wrote some more bits.

I then came across this great article by the novelist Christian Kiefer, in which he talked about how he managed to write while being primary caretaker to seven children, one critically ill. He explained that having a novel in the back of his mind gave him something to daydream about while going through the monotony of life, a project that gave shape and meaning to his experiences.. That registered with me, and I realized I needed the same.

The album has such a unified sound; how did you conceive of it as you were writing and recording? How clear an idea did you have of how the album would sound?

It has a unified sound probably because I kept culling songs that didn’t fit until I had only eight left. But, yes, I had an idea of the sound. I made some choices up front: songs would only have drums if absolutely necessary, I wouldn’t be afraid of subtle electronic sounds and ambient pads (strings and synths), I’d keep the voice right up front, and, most importantly, no electric guitar, or any lead guitar at all. This was partly to distinguish it from my last record, which was very guitar heavy, but also to break it away from the “rock and roll” world, and make it more like chamber music.

Can you talk a bit about how the album changed, from initial conception to finished product?

It actually changed a lot less than any of my other albums. It was made slowly, in bits and pieces, which meant I had more control over each aspect, and there were fewer opportunities for surprises, which is a double-edged sword. That said, I like to give my collaborators lots of room to bring their own ideas, so there were some brilliant surprises, like Rich’s synths on The Advice Song, Meghan’s big string arrangement on Comet (I’d asked only for a solo violin), or Kevin’s accordion on Why You Scream. That’s pleasure of working with great musicians.

What were some of the musical touchstones of the album? Were you listening to anything that influenced the direction of the album?

Leonard Cohen has always been a big influence, and that came through here more than ever before. And also some of Cohen’s own followers, particularly Jason Molina.

At the time of recording, I couldn’t stop listening to Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree, and that was the record I gave to Brian as a reference when he mixed it. It’s just this voice and these words and these ambient sounds, and it’s so naked and emotional, without being manipulative.  And it somehow incorporates inorganic sounds in an organic way.

The dream-like, free-form songs like “I Am Here For You” and “Fire Engine Blues” were definitely inspired by the writing on [Neutral Milk Hotel’s] In The Airplane Over The Sea. They’re obviously not as good, but they share that unconscious, emotional, rambling thing; I just turned of my critical faculties while I wrote, and then let it be without forcing it to make sense.

Why “A Failure?” Why that title?

I think the biggest mental shift I have had in middle age was realizing that my life wasn’t going to be anything other than what it already was. I don’t know what I thought it was going to be (I don’t think I consciously thought about anything like fame or wealth or spiritual enlightenment or anything), but I thought it was going to more something other than this. At a certain age I realized, nope, this is it. It took me a long time to come to terms with that. I eventually came to realize that, because absolute goals are inevitably unreachable, failure is everything. And you just have to come to terms with it. I think I have come to terms with it. I quite like making peace with failure. There’s a lot less pressure.

That’s a good answer. Listening to “Not a Lot of Blood,” “The Comet I was Waiting For,” and “I am Here for You” back to back to back, I hear them as three different perspectives on the same failed relationship, with the protagonist (or three different protagonists) standing at different distances from the events in question. How much do you see the lyrical content of the songs on the album as related?

That’s interesting, because actually they’re about three entirely different relationships.

I figured I had it wrong. But having them in order naturally puts them into relation with one another.

Sure, and they’re in that sequence for a reason; I can try walk you through it. “Not a Lot of Blood” is a very old-school Jim Clements song, because it’s an unreliable narrator who is clearly an awful person trying to justify his unpleasant behavior. The first really good song I ever wrote, “Coming Up Roses” does the same thing.

As an aside, I’ve already been a bit disappointed by listeners who’ve missed this, and just think I’m actually an awful person trying to justify unjustifable behavior. Why do people always think the narrator is the singer? Do they think David Bowie is an astronaut?

I do, yeah.

I guess that’s a bad example. He probably was.

And “Comet”?

That’s an evolution of the writing-in-a-persona thing. It’s about someone who has been blaming another person for all his misfortunes, and looking to the same person to solve all his problems, and then, within the song, realizes that’s a huge mistake, because he’s actually just avoiding taking responsibility for anything – which is something I have definitely done. I think I’ve often hidden behind the unreliable narrator / musical persona thing, and in “Comet” I start to step away from it. And then “I Am Here For You” lacks pretense at all; it’s just embarrassingly, gooey-nosed misery, not trying to be cool, just being honest. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, but I’d be lying if I’m not slightly anxious about presenting it to the world.

I find the transition from “I Am Here for You” to “Why You Scream in the Night” so jarring.

The former is bitter, even spiteful; the latter is as sweet and straightforward a song as you’ve written, I think. How much did you think about those two in juxtaposition?

Not so much while writing, but definitely while sequencing. “Why You Scream In The Night” was written about my baby daughter, and the song is about navigating an entirely new kind of love. She was only a few months old when I wrote it, and she hadn’t developed the very distinct and wonderful personality she has now. It was a new and strange kind of love. I definitely loved her, but not because of her personality or anything she had done, really. I didn’t understand it.

One thing that began to fascinate me was that looking after a baby has a weirdly devotional aspect. I spent most of my day picking her up and putting her down again, and it began to feel like some sort of ritual.

And then there were other times I felt like some sort of serial killer, forcing a total stranger to come home with me and sleep in a bed with walls.

“How sweet you think it’s safer here” is such a great line.

Thank you. It’s very weird to be seen as knowledgeable and trustworthy by my child when in fact I’m neither.

I remember being surprised, when you first shared these songs with me, that you already knew the running order. How much does the song order matter to your idea of what this album is?

I don’t think I write songs; I write albums. I’m actually currently very uncomfortable with the first single floating around in the world without the rest of the album. I sometimes feel like songs on their own are so lightweight. I’m not Brian Wilson or Paul McCartney; I’m not brilliant enough to write anything substantial that’s only three minutes long. But give me forty five…

The album has a starting point, which is “Saul’s Blood (A Dream)” a song about an awful dream that kept recurring during the worst moments of my anxiety days. And it ends with “Fire Engine Blues,” a song about finding a way to be happy in prison, which is a not-very-complicated metaphor for adulthood. So there’s a journey, with stops along the way. But there’s not a clear story in the way that The Road To Anhedonia had a story.

Do you have a regular writing process? A consistent way you write?

There used to be. I would play around with my guitar until I had enough of a melody to hang lyrics on, and then I’d dabble with words until it was done. I’m not sure if that counts as a process. It changed for this record though, often because I had an urgency to say things but not enough melodies to go around. This album contains the first songs for which I wrote the lyrics first, and then quickly found melodies for them just so I could sing the words I’d just written.

Do you think that new process is reflected in how this album differs from your others?

How do you think it differs from the others? Just curious.

To me it’s much less bound by genre than any of your previous work. It sounds sui generis. There’s not really a trace of country (or alt-country) left here. And the cleverness here is always in service of the character or situation; I think some of your older songs went for cleverness for its own sake (which I’m not deriding, by any means!). “A terrible choice keeps making me” is a great line no matter what its context; in the middle of “Not a Lot of Blood” it’s devastating.

I appreciate that. I think that the “lack of genre” you’re noticing probably is related to the method, although I’d not thought about it. I’ve always like the craft of songwriting, like the craft of making tables, and some of my writing has just been the joy of putting together melodies and rhythms and sounds. I still go mad over those perfect crystalline country songs in which not a word or note is wasted, and I loved trying to write them. But there wasn’t any of that with this record. Everything was written totally out of necessity. No chorus? No problem, as long as it did what it needed to do.

Yeah, I think that leads to something that feels less tied to influences, harder to pin down

There’s form here, but you won’t notice it until the fourth or fifth listen.

That’s also probably because this is the first time I wrote an album with no intention of sharing the songs with anyone. If I write a song that sounds like Neil Young, I know I’m safe, because who doesn’t like Neil Young? So I’ll keep writing songs like that. But this stuff sounds like me. I have no idea if people like me.

I thought the narrator wasn’t the singer?

That’s my get-out-of-jail-free card.

Let me ask one last question: you worked on this album for at least a year and a half. You’ve got a young kid and a demanding job, and, as far as I can tell, you are not enormously wealthy. Making this album took countless hours, a ton of work, and put you considerably in debt. Why do it? What drives you to keep making records?

There’s no non-wanky way to answer this question, so prepare yourself.

I figured—but I honestly want to hear your answer.

There are two main reasons, I think. The first and most important is that it makes me feel like a real person. That is to say: I am comprised of strange, weird thoughts and feelings that are entirely intangible and constantly changing, and are really hard for me to really get my head around. But when I try to force those weird thoughts and feelings into shapes – words and sounds – then I’m able to think them. I can navigate them, play with them, reflect on them, get to know them. They’re also outside of me, and therefore feel moremore tangible and real, and therefore so am I.

The second reason I keep working is that I need something to do. If I’ve got a project on the go, it gives me something to think about all day long. I love recording something, putting it on the stereo in the car, thinking about what I’d change, enjoying the interesting contributions made by collabators. It’s endlessly enjoyable to constantly critique and change and reflect upon something that came out of my own head (I never trust a musician who says they don’t listen to their own work. I listen to my own work more than anyone ever will). It’s a valuable way for me to spend a day.

It’s funny that having other people listen to it doesn’t even enter the picture anymore. A good place to be, I think.

by David Gooblar

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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