Do you ever worry that you reveal too much?
I’m in the songwriting business, not the wallpaper business.
How do you feel about the whole War On Drugs episode now?
The band tweeted that they wanted confirmation of my stage banter, and they got it. They tweet, I write songs. That’s how it works.
Have you read any of the thinkpieces?
I’ve got a picture of someone who died at the age of 34 next to my bed. So I’m not interested in people’s bitching and whining. Be grateful you can walk across the street. Someday it will end. Go outside and put a smile on someone’s face. Tell a joke or give a $20 bill to a homeless person. This Christmas, when I see someone sitting there lonely and hungry, I’m handing them a $100 dollar bill and giving them a hug or a handshake, if they want it. You know why? Because I want to make people’s faces light up with happiness on Christmas Day. I’ve had a great year, have gotten lots of hugs and applause and big paychecks. I’ve made a living doing what I dreamed of doing since I was a kid. So I’m gonna pass around some money and love to those who have been less fortunate than me.
Do you regret any of the language you used?
Language? Who are you, Tipper Gore? I’ve got a great sense of humour and anyone who doesn’t share it is entitled to go cry about nothing.
I was surprised at how much you knew about the War On Drugs’ sound. Do you keep up with new music?
Their music drowned out my entire set in Ottawa. I got familiar with their music whether I wanted to or not. I listen to classical guitar music and I check new music out when I’m at festivals, but when you’re a full-time musician, you’re busy with your own music.
Does the press stereotype of you as a grumpy middle-aged man – exacerbated by stuff like the War On Drugs spat, I guess – annoy you? There are times when it looks like you’re using it to your advantage.
I was a grumpy 20something, I used to pick on Evan Dando, for shits and giggles, between songs. I’m funny. I don’t know what’s going on out there in the press – slow times, maybe. But yeah, War On Drugs asked for a song, I gave them one. Press girl in North Carolina loved my hillbilly remark so much, I made her a shirt. If people don’t want my banter soaking up all the press, then MAKE A GOOD ALBUM OR PLAY A SHOW THAT’S WORTH TALKING ABOUT. My hillbilly comment stole the show at Hopscotch? Not my fault. My War On Drugs banter upstaged you in Ottawa? Not my fault. If my banter is more noteworthy to the press than your music – not my fault.
I play two and a half hour sets and fly all around the world. Do fans want me to sleep in their basement all weekend? I’d love to but I’ve got another city to play the next day. What do people want from me? To join Facebook and tweet? ‘Hey fans, here’s what I’m eating today! Here’s a picture of my new salt and pepper shakers!’ I make albums and I sing my heart out and I’ll sign everything in your backpack when it’s over. I’m sorry if that’s not enough for you. I’ve put as many hours into my music as any successful lawyer or doctor. I’m here to make music and I don’t believe in wasting time.
How would you like to be remembered?
As a great artist who inspired other artists to make music.
And do you think, right now, that you’re a great artist?
Does songwriting work as therapy, as a purgative process, for you?
Yes. I spent all day in the studio today and it felt great. When I put words together, forget it. No-one can touch me. You tweet and play Bob Dylan covers? Good for you, congratulations.
Are there any songs that are too emotionally difficult for you to play these days?
“Somehow The Wonder Of Life Prevails” [From Perils From The Sea] is really hard for me – really fucking hard. Ah man, it’s hard for me to talk about without crying, but my friend committed suicide when he was 21. I was in Pacific Grove, California when I found out about it. He committed a crime when we were young and did some time in a detention centre. Anyhow, he was living with his parents and one night he left their house and drove into a tree. That’s all I want to say on it. But every verse in that song kills me. There is the verse about my father and a bad scrap we got into when I was young, but I love him with all of my heart because he got me my first guitar from Sears when I was probably seven.
The hardest verse of all is the one about Katy [an early girlfriend and key muse, who died of cancer in 2003]. I saw her the night that she passed away. What she would have given, to see her daughter turn one. Her death destroyed me – friends had to take care of me – I couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks. I remember calling Ivo and just crying my guts out to him and he sent me the most beautiful card. I’ll never forget all of the support I got from friends. But with time, you get a different perspective. Katy always wanted to have a child and she got to do that in her life. I think of her every day of my life. Every single day.
Do you get bored of your songs after a while?
Yes, that’s a necessary process in growing as an artist. Songs just sort of die out, for me. my passion for them. I can’t hang around a project too long, tweaking this and that. It’s just boring and I need to get to the next song. I see poetry around me every day and I have to capture it.
What’s your oldest song that you’re not bored with?
“Black Kite”. Anything that precedes Among The Leaves is a strain to play. But I played “Mistress” this year at one show, in Maine, because there was a guy in a wheelchair and he kept yelling out for it and that he’d waited 22 years to come see me – and I believed him, because he was in a wheelchair and it was my first time playing Portland, Maine. After the show, he wheeled himself up to me and asked for a hug and I gave him one and he would not let go. I mean, he would not let go. It just killed me. His name was Mike. Mike, it’s not my favourite song any more, but if I ever play “Mistress” again, it’ll be for you, because you’re the definition of strength and bravery and that hug made my fucking year.
How easy is it for you to write songs now?
In my sleep, on walks, on airplanes. Lyrics are the easiest thing in the world. Just find an understanding girlfriend and write what’s on your mind.
How does your girlfriend feel about you revealing so much in your lyrics?
She knows that I have to be true to my art. Our relationship is deep. All you need to know is that I want to live a very long time. I wish I could live ten lifetimes so I could spend them all with her.
You seem to reveal so much in your songs, and guard your privacy so assiduously outside of them?
When you’re a professional, you develop a thing called boundaries. You don’t just let anyone walk into your home. I’m not in this business to be everyone’s best friend. I don’t let any stranger walk into my backstage area. Having boundaries is part of being professional. If you want to get anywhere in this world as a professional, you have to have boundaries.
In 2004, you told me, “I’m happy, but there’s a lot of people who probably think I’m an asshole.” Do you still believe that?
I’m making a new album as we speak, and trust me, it won’t be wallpaper. Is that bad of me to do? Does that make me an asshole? My mom is coming into town tomorrow for 10 days and I’m going to play Scrabble with her all day long. Does that make me an asshole? I’ll be in Europe for the fourth time this year and will be taking my music to Israel. Does that make me an asshole? A friend of mine is sick and I send her money. Does that make me an asshole? When Jason Molina died, I contributed the first track turned in, to help raise money for his family. Does that make me an asshole? When Tim Mooney died, who wrote a song for him?
Every day of my life I have positive interactions with people. I go for walks and I make people smile at coffee shops, banks, restaurants. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t make someone smile. I see my girlfriend every night and when she looks at me, I smile and she smiles. That’s all that matters.
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