Name: Bob Driftwood
Occupation: Multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter
Current Release: Bob Driftwood's Crow's Pine is out via Lobby Art.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
Creative processes help me sort out, clarify, and take in things that I’ve noticed and recalled throughout any given day. A way of turning the internal house of mirrors into something coherent, or an attempt to do so at least.
I see music as the best way to chart my mental geography. I value its accessibility and how easy it is to enjoy music with other people. It builds both deeper internal understanding and good community.
I tend to reflect on sensation and interpersonal interaction in my music. For example, the song “Rat Race” was written in a parking lot right after a few of the big wigs showed up to a jobsite I was working on and really peeved me out.
Other times I’ll get an idea from a bird flying by in the sky, or looking up at the moon. I wrote “Another Blue” after driving over Chesterfield Hill in New Hampshire and seeing the sun come up over the snow covered peak of Mt. Monadnock each morning.
What’s funny about writing down thoughts is the many directions that your mind will take you during the process. One word, or description, will bring you somewhere totally unrelated mentally, and you’ve suddenly forgotten what you were getting at initially. I try to keep that spiral going, and, instead of resisting it, following where it takes me.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
I try to approach writing songs like a constant game of chance. I value sincerity and spontaneity in music and art. I try to convey the spirit of chance and randomness in my writing processes, while still pulling something coherent together.
It’s easy for me to be a perfectionist. I like the challenge of making something imperfect, and then being able to repeat that mistake as an intentional artistic gesture. When I think about music that I like, it isn’t always about how perfectly it was played, but what it said while it was played. I think embracing imperfection makes art feel more true to human nature.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
Ah, it really depends. Sometimes, I lean on some “demo” recordings to pull the song together after practicing it for a while. Other times I will come up with something totally spur of the moment and it’ll just come together really fast.
When we were recording Crow’s Pine, we tried to blend both approaches together in different songs. The opening track, “Automatic Masochist” we just threw together after having some morning coffee and busting out some resonant objects and a guitar.
Also, I’m not fond of doing too many takes of a song when recording / writing any final product. I think the music loses its soul after too many takes, at least that’s been my experience.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
I do most of my writing out in the woods.
Usually I’ll go for a walk in the evening in the forests by my house, or go swimming in the creek across the street. I try to bring a notebook with me when I go, and I’ll usually write down an idea or two that I get while watching the trees moving or the water turning. After that, I’ll go home and mess around on the banjo, and try to synthesize banjo improvisations that I come up with to fragments of whatever I have written down. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
A couple glasses of bourbon help get things moving if all else fails.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
I usually start with a banjo part, separate from words. I tend to sit and mess around in either sawmill or standard tuning until something comes up that I like. Once I find a run or two, I try to play the same part forwards, backwards, upside down.
I don’t write songs with many parts, I try to make a couple parts breathe and evolve with the lyrics. After the instrumental part starts making sense, I’ll sing some lines over it and come up with a melody. I’ll keep shaping both of those elements with each other until it feels complete.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
Lyrics come from different points of darkness and light that I do my best to capture. The poems usually have a feel to them that I decide which banjo parts would best suit. I’ll let both elements gradually change and evolve with each other … some poems I don’t find a home for on the banjo, I try to capture them through different sonic mediums, like the last record Boundless Earth, that I self released.
Crow’s Pine I wrote mostly around the winter solstice, which is why, I think, a lot of the songs have a darker feel to ‘em. Writing new stuff in the Summer these days feels a bit more … flowery I guess. Living up here and facing the elements on a daily basis definitely influences both my banjo and lyrical writing.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
I like lyrics that speak to the ephemeral nature of human existence, but aren’t always totally clear as to what exactly is being discussed; lyrical / poetic allusions interest me.
As a writer, I aim to be as true as I can be to whatever I’m writing about and to treat lyrics as further explorations into chance and the intentional preservation of imperfection. Thought is not a linear process, I instead try to chart the spirals. This can often pose its own challenges when writing lyrical lines.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
The music ebbs and flows like a river. Some days I don’t have a damn thing to say, other days it's hard to put things down.
Either way, I think music as a routine practice is important, even if it feels difficult at times. Finding time and space to perform this ritual can be difficult, whether it be the confines of a living space, or the looming sense of other responsibilities creeping up on me, but I do my best to practice and write each day, and allow any work that I have to gradually evolve and emerge.
Working over 40 hours a week in manual labor definitely makes that a daunting task sometimes though, especially if I was doing something heavy duty that day, like mixing concrete or hanging drywall. Those experiences come up in later musings though, so it’s all connected.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I try to follow the music as much as I can. I think imposing strict controls over whatever I’m working on starts taking the spirit out of the sound, at least that’s how it feels for me.
Theloneus Monk said something about always rolling with the first take, that’s where the soul is. I tend to agree with him.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
It’s easy to get overwhelmed when writing your own music, making your own art, you can do anything you want. Music, art, creativity can be very liberating for a lot of people in that way too. If something ain’t workin, I scrap it, if it ain’t broke, I won’t try to doctor it up too much.
As I write more and keep going down this rabbit hole, I find myself less inclined to hold onto something that isn’t worth it. I’ll recycle lines here and there though, so as not to waste too much creative effort.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
Centering, spiritual, enlightening, pain in the ass, annoying, frustrating, disheartening. Depends on the day, sometimes making music makes me feel on top of the world, sometimes it feels like this shit ain’t worth it and I should just stick to construction or whatever the hell else I do with my time.
Trying to track those low points later on has been an intentional effort of mine, and has made finding inspiration on those good days easier. I think it is all spiritual, and not recognizing the spirituality of simply existing, let alone making art, is probably a main factor in so many peoples’ alienation in this world we live in.
A lot of folks I spend time with have trouble finding those outlets, and expressing any sense of spirituality or creativity. The industrial hellscape of modern America makes finding purpose, reason, a sense of place in this world a damn near constant challenge. People are fed up, pissed off, and mostly drunk. We’re spoon fed overproduced, focus group tested music over the radio constantly, and the economic barriers in place that prevent folks from having food, let alone a creative outlet, a near impossible feat.
Country music specifically used to be one of the main avenues for this release for working class folks, but even that has become a bastardized sham of what it used to be. Hank would be rolling in his grave if he heard whatever spews out of the nefarious charlatans of popular modern country music. Or maybe he’d be doing the devil’s dance and singing ads for Bud Lights, F-150s, and chain restaurants just like the rest of ‘em …
Hard to say, but probably the latter though, if we’re being realistic.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
I don’t do much of anything in the writing process digitally, at least myself anymore, which certainly helps put limitations on things.
I usually go through spells of writing a ton, then practicing what I’ve written for a while once I’ve said what I’ve had to. Usually the end of this process finds itself, and the cycle continues.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
I think tolerance for error is incredibly important when making and recording music. Different people and styles have different margins for error depending on what you’re going for. I try to incorporate mistakes that I’ve made practicing songs, and include them to allow the song to come to life. I think imperfection in music makes it more human.
I strive to be able to dedicate hours and hours of time and effort into playing an instrument, yet be humble enough to enjoy the sound of my own mistakes. When I play with other people, I try to keep that energy going, I think it makes the whole process more enjoyable for everyone if there isn’t as much of a chance that you’ll do something wrong.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
I’ve self released stuff that I’ve bounced from 4 track to computer without much effort into digital production, for no other reason other than I don’t understand much of the digital end of production.
On this record, Henry did the recording and production, and we went back and forth for a while making edits to mixes, getting all the levels right.
I try to think about the production end of things in broad terms, rather than editing specific parts to perfection.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
Definitely. A lot of times after I finish recording I figure it might be the last thing that I record because of how much effort that it took to put into it, and the harsh realization that it probably won’t reward me financially.
I hate to speak of making art in financial terms, but for a lot of folks, and myself at times included, it’s better to chase a check than to make art. I had this mentality for a while when I was working as a farmer, but once you’ve felt the feeling of making music, it’s damn near impossible to abandon it completely. I always find myself crawling back to it, even if at a time I swore it off.
That’s probably why there’s so many old guys playing Beast of Burden at your local watering hole, you can’t stop once you’ve started, in whatever capacity that means for you.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
I dunno, I might have thought differently about this one until my buddy showed me his wild coffee rig a while back. If that isn’t art I don’t know what is. I think there is meaning and spiritual purpose to every task that you do, whether you like it or not.
What’s nice about music is the focused effort it takes to uncover something that is so intangible. You’ll never be able to touch it or see it, even when you’re holding an instrument and reading notes on a page. The only tangible elements to it are referential really, which is why it’s special.