Wes Collins photo by Meg Daniels
Wes Collins On Songwriting Grunt-Work and Jabberwockies
North Carolinian singer/songwriter Wes Collins recently released Jabberwockies, his third album, which was recorded at Chris Rosser’s Hollow Reed Arts Studios in Asheville, North Carolina, and includes contributions from Ordinary Elephant and Jaimee Harris. Collins has been honored for his songwriting on previous album, but is a self-admittedly slow and methodical songwriter, however, in recent days, joining a songwriting group has accelerated his output. His attention to detail in his storytelling is carefully balanced with nuanced tone that doesn’t provide interpretation but allows the audience to build their own experience of the song.
With Jabberwockies, Collins tells a wide range of stories that turn on human connection, whether it’s observation from a distance or close-up heartbreak popping up in the activities of daily life. He’s also recently released a very rewarding book of song lyrics, Super Poetic and Stuff, that shares not only lyrics but stories behind the songs. I spoke with him about the ways that albums, as a whole, tell stories and draw us in, how we share music with others, and the terrifying but rewarding “grunt work” that’s part of his life as a songwriter.
Americana Highways: With everything that the world has been going through, I find the stories behind the albums that are being made right now are particularly inspiring and valuable, so it’s great to talk with you about Jabberwockies.
Wes Collins: I find that I want to know that, too. When I read biographies or an article about somebody I really admire, I find myself skipping ahead, thinking, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but what about the album? What made this particular thing happen?” My interest is specifically around that, especially if I’m really into a record.
My favorite records in my life are the kind where first you like two songs, or three, and then you discover another song on the record. It kind of looks like a wave, then eventually you get all the way through the record, and you like them all now. That kind of record makes me want to know, “Did you build it that way? Was it an accident? What happened with it?” Like Joni Mitchell’s Blue, or Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, these things you can’t stop listening to.
AH: I think that can tie into discovering the whole sound-world of the album once you can hear all the songs. There’s always more to hear there.
WC: I’m biased, being that old, and being into records, my perfect listening session is 18 to 22 minutes. You put on side one or two of the album, and you get to the end of that, then you decide whether you want to flip it over, or whether you want to hear that song again. I always feel like it’s a 20 minute ride. I know that’s anachronistic! It doesn’t really apply to today’s market, but that’s what I want. It’s a drop-the-needle moment where you’re going to be taken on a little bit of a ride, and you’re going on an excursion until you hit the label. These days people are contouring their playlists, and maybe that takes you on a trip.
AH: The way that people used to make mixtapes.
WC: Exactly! I used to obsess over whether there would be one second or two seconds between the songs, or whether it would be a hard smash-cut. That probably meant nothing to anybody except me.
AH: Actually, if you look at TV and radio programs, there does still seem to be a 20-some minute attention span. Whether that can continue in the internet age, I don’t know.
WC: Maybe we were trained for that. LPs can hold more than that, but that makes it sound terrible. When I was going after my Library Science degree, that was my thesis, the history of recording formats. The first things were cylinders that held a couple of minutes, then 78 rpm records held a couple of minutes. That was the attention span for a while. I do think we hit a limit, though maybe it’s just me. I was in my 20s working in a music shop when the CD revolution hit, and suddenly Bob Dylan albums weren’t 35 minutes, they were 55, 60, or even 70 minutes. They were too long for me! It was brilliant, but once you’re bored, you’re bored, and you can’t get un-bored.
AH: So you were working in a record store back then. Do you feel that impacted your musical outlook? Do you feel that you encountered music that you otherwise wouldn’t have?
WC: Oh yes, for sure, but that was mostly because of the people I worked with. You get all these different people, like Championship Vinyl in High Fidelity, who are incredibly passionate about this thing. That punches through to you where it never would have before. That’s why I know who The Residents are, because someone I worked with said, “You have got to hear this.” Even if it’s the last thing you want to hear, you’re going to hear it because you work with this person 25 to 35 hours a week, and you both eventually break down each other’s defenses. [Laughs] They have to listen to some Todd Rundgren from me, and I have to listen to some Residents from them. That lit up a part of my brain that the album cover sure didn’t!
AH: Sometimes when people do that to me, I confess that I resist. It makes me more resistant if they recommend it too much. But almost always the end of the story is, “I can’t believe I waited this long! This has changed my world.”
WC: It can work the other way, sure, if someone comes at you with their eyes swirling, saying, “Oh my god! This is going to blow your mind!” There are bands even today that I don’t get because they were sold to me so hard. I got my DNA ready to receive “the word” and then I listened to it, and it was just a record. It was fine. Sometimes you blow it off, then you hear it at a party and ask, “What is that??” Then you think, “I owe someone such an apology. This is, in fact, aimed directly at my soul.”
AH: There’s value in the recommendation and trying not to over-sell it. I do that all the time and hope it’s useful.
WC: I’ve been that guy, though! When I discovered Nick Drake, I was foaming at the mouth. Everyone was like, “It’s a guy and a guitar. Woo-hoo.” I was this obnoxious guy saying, “You gotta hear this.”
AH: I wanted to mention that your book of lyrics is out and I love that. I wish many more people would do that. What made that happen at this time for you?
WC: When the record was about done, and I was trying to decide if I was going to do a Kickstarter for it, that was a thing I was thinking of. I know some people who have done this, Ordinary Elephant, selling books of lyrics at their shows. For people who write intricate lyrics, it’s nice to have that there, because they go by so fast. There’s another band, from around here Lowland Hum, who would pass out little lyrical books at their shows, kind of like hymnals. I thought that was great, because you can’t ask them to stop and ask what they said.
If you’re making your bread and butter on the fact that the lyrics are worth listening to, it makes sense. When I decided not to do a Kickstarter on this record because I’m probably doing another record pretty soon, by my lights, and I will definitely have to Kickstart that one. I thought instead we’d put a pre-order package together. The way the book is formatted is that the left side is what I can remember about writing the song, if it’s interesting. Then on the opposite page, in italics, are the lyrics of the song.
AH: That’s a very cool choice to include the stories.
WC: I also do that in the intros to songs when I play them live, just to give people a little frame of reference, so I’m not just firing words at people.
AH: It’s a way into songs. For some songs that have deep analogies, it might be good to pique peoples’ interest about it.
WC: I also love hearing a song, and liking it, and then figuring it out later. Sometimes I just love a song because it’s beautiful and lighting up different parts of my brain. Then on the 22nd hearing, I suddenly get it.
AH: Do you ever struggle with choosing how clear to be in your lyrics, or how much you should allow intricacy?
WC: Sometimes I’ll get into this writerly zone, trying to express myself in a writerly way, and nine times out of ten, that’s not the best way to put it. There are songs from my first album where I spent weeks trying to craft this perfect verse, but then I was trying to ask someone how I should describe this thing that happened. And I described the thing that happened to them. Then they said, “Say that!” You’ll get way more of a rise out of that then the pretty thing that you were trying to construct.
AH: I often find that saying something out loud is the only way to start a piece of writing.
WC: I find that some of my favorite writing is like that anyway, like Lester Bangs. He’s just yelling at you off the page. He’s not trying to construct perfect sentences, he’s just trying to pull you down to the book by the lapels. I always find that easier to read and relate to.
AH: This comes back to attention span, maybe. I think that when people feel like someone is speaking directly to them, whether it’s on the page, or in a song, they find it easier to concentrate on that. It’s a more visceral thing. If you get overly literary, the reader or audience has to try harder.
WC: It sure is harder for me. Coming back to Joni Mitchell’s Blue. That feels like someone sitting across from me at 2:30 in the morning. I feel like, at any time in “My Old Man” or “All I Want,” she is so present that she might stop and say, “Jesus, there’s a bug on my leg!” I know that those songs are probably very crafted, but they don’t sound crafted, they sound spilled.
AH: “Jabberwockies” is a very mysterious song, a great one to end the album on and also a great one to make the album title.
WC: That one actually started from the “translitic method,” where you take a poem, or a song, or some piece of literature from another language that you don’t speak. It has to use an alphabet you understand, and in this case, it was a poem in Gaelic. I was at a retreat, and told to take these words and sound out what these words might sound like to you. These words were just junk, like “driveway, stump, teeter-totter.”
Then, one the second draft, you try to take those same words and make them make sense, which means that some words come forward, and some words end up dropping back. By the fifth or sixth pass, none of those words are even there anymore, but what you’re writing has been inspired by this mélange. You end up writing something that you never would have written in the first place.
I hardly ever think, “Oh, I gotta write a song about that!” Instead, I just sit down and the song starts revealing itself to me, generally. Then when I start editing, I realize what it’s going to be about. “Jabberwockies” was in its fifth or sixth pass in March 2020, and my wife Anita and I were getting ready to go on a writing sabbatical here in North Carolina. The pandemic hit, so we instead did an Airbnb at a farmhouse up in Virginia. I started working on songs that were close to being finished. It being March of 2020, the song took on a more apocalyptic tone, I think, than it would have. That was already there, because there was a “monsters in the world” kind of a vibe about it. I was already feeling that way, so I let the song go that way.
AH: I hadn’t heard of that method before. It’s almost like a sound association test instead of a word association test.
WC: Yes, and once you have a draft, it has its own gravity, and it’s going to pull you in that direction anyway, unless you stop it. Generally, when I’m writing, I don’t have much of an intention, and it emerges as I go along. I get something I like, which will be a couplet or most of a verse, and then I’ll do that again. And if those have any connection to them, that’s probably going to be the song. The rest fills itself in between those two points, and then I’m writing to something.
Towards the very end of the process, you’re being crafty. You shave off syllables, or change the melody to make things work. The creative part of it involves a lot of throwing food at the wall for me. Sometimes you write a whole song, and the thing you wrote the whole song around is the weakest thing in the song now, so you have to lose the trigger. You see what happens if you pull it out, and the whole song then collapses, you put it back in.
AH: A lot of prose writers throw out the first few pages of their story that got them started. With a song, that’s a bigger decision.
WC: A lot of times, your second verse really is the first verse. The story is going on in the second verse, and you can infer. The more you don’t say, the better. I’m ruthless about changing things. Towards the end, I might change “is” to “isn’t” or “and” to “not.” I change it all up and see what happens. Sometimes something really cool will happen out of something ordinary you were writing about. If “he” becomes “they,” or the past tense changes to future tense, that’s something. I don’t think I’ve ever ruined a song by breaking it. If it’s not good enough, I gotta break the song. I take something important out and see what’s left. Often, then you can see what’s good about. If it’s shorter, that’s great! No one’s going to get bored.
AH: You’re literally cracking it open and seeing what junctures or possibilities are in there.
WC: Yes, just because I wrote it, doesn’t mean that it has to stay there. That can be de-motivating, realizing that I’m writing things that might not stay in. But I know that I’m not going to get to “the thing” from where I’m standing. It’s all the way down the driveway, past a couple of mail boxes. There’s a lot to it. What I want is on the other side of a fair amount of grunt work. That can be very de-motivating. But it has to happen.
Someone said that every writer hates to write, but loves having written. Having done the work is an amazing work. You can be so proud of that. It may sound pretentious to call it “the work,” but whatever work it is that you have to do, you have to shovel coal a while to get it going. By the time you’re really in a flow, you forget all about that coal shoveling.
Thanks, Wes Collins, for talking with us. Find more info and tour dates, here: https://wescollins.com