Name: Tamara Lindeman
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current Release: The Weather Station's Ignorance is available from Fat Possum.
If you enjoyed this interview with The Weather Station's Tamara Lindeman, visit the band's official website, which will also take you to all social media channels.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you?
For me, the impulse comes most often from something that feels unsaid or unseen. The moment something feels like it has already been expressed, the desire to write the song fades, but anything that feels tangled or knotted or uncertain holds songs in it for me. All my songs come from unresolvable conflicts.
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?
The songs themselves are all chance, I only rarely see them coming ahead of time. But in terms of records, I find that I have to have a clear vision, and I have to know, roughly, what the purpose of the record is, philosophically. When I know what it’s here to do, what it’s here to say, it’s a lot more likely I’ll actually make it, and that purpose will push me through the messiness of writing and creating.
Similarly, if I know what I’m trying to say, in a broad sense, it makes it easier to understand the songs as they emerge, and easier to finish them.
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'?
No. Sometimes when I start writing the song, what I write is the finished version. Sometimes it’s the first version of a hundred. Sometimes it’s something I never finish. So no, there’s no prep process or early versions.
In terms of tools though, I have found in the last couple years that a certain level of organization is really key. Like, I have a system for numbering and organizing voice memos. And I write everything lyric related in a notebook that has a table of contents that I keep up to date, so if I’m in the moment and need to find something I wrote before, I always know where to find it. It’s nerdy stuff but it’s changed the game for me.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating?
I mostly write songs in the morning. So it’s less about what I do beforehand, and more about what I don’t do. I need to get started without looking at my phone; I need a certain amount of space from responsibilities and emails and concerns more than anything. My blank slate just woke up mind is the most creative one, I find.
Sometimes I’ll read something over coffee, poetry, or a really interesting book, something to get my mind started in a non pragmatic way. The last time I was able to get into writing mode, I was reading a couple pages of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim At Tinker Creek each morning, and it awakened my mind in just the right way. I think because it’s a book about seeing, and I think music is all about seeing also.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
The first line is easy. I never have trouble starting a song. I only have trouble finishing songs. My notebook is a graveyard of beautiful songs I began and never finished.
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 always have to grow together with the music. Very occasionally I’ve snagged a line from a notebook and put it in a song, but I think it’s very important to only write lyrics while singing. I feel quite strongly that lyrics are not poetry, and poetry is not lyrics.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
I’ve literally been writing a book about this subject for the last two years. So … I have more to say on this particular subject then I can fit here.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
The first session with the song is really key; I always exhaustively voice memo and transcribe everything that happens. When it’s coming from the subconscious, it’s really key to gather all the material that comes up. Usually everything that ends up in the song comes from these flow moments when I’m not thinking, just singing and playing. Then it’s the tricky thing of determining which verse to keep and which to let go. Finding rhymes for unfinished lines. Moving syllables around to fit more beautifully in the melody. Adjusting the philosophy. That’s a process that can take a long time, depending, and can be slightly more pragmatic.
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?
No, I feel like I’m steering the ship. To me it’s far more about trying to figure out which part of me can enter the control room; managing the critical, perfectionist part, managing the self conscious part, making sufficient space for the confident, certain part, making sufficient space for the creative, strange part. It’s always me steering the ship, it’s just trying to manage which part of me has their hands on the wheel.
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?
Yes of course, this happens all the time. I think this is a huge part of the discipline, is knowing when the new idea is a part of the song, and when it’s simply another song that needs to be written. Same goes with overdubs and editing and recording; sometimes the instinct to add one more overdub is actually an instinct that needs to be channelled into something new. This is something I’ve gotten the hang of the last few years, understanding when to let a new idea germinate into another song. It’s very satisfying, actually, to declutter a song and discover you actually have another song, or two or three.
Having a clear vision and purpose for the record is another thing that makes this easier; when you know what you are trying to make, it’s easier to say no to ideas, or simply set them aside for another thing.
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?
Yes and no. It feels critically important to my life on earth. And playing piano and singing feels very spiritual to me. But so does walking in the woods.
I think the spiritual side of music to me is in the moment, when I’m in the centre of a note, singing, improvising. There’s no song I’ve ever written that does not have a spiritual moment within it, that came into being because a spiritual moment happened when I was writing it. And I can chance upon that spiritual centre, sometimes, when I sing it again.
But to me writing a song is a little more prosaic; it’s trying to pin down some of this spirit into something you can live in. It’s like building a house. I used to be a lot more spiritual about writing songs and that honestly almost destroyed me. I think of the song as a structure you put in the spiritual place. Sometimes you look up from that place, and the sunset just blows you away. Sometimes you don’t look up, and that’s ok; sometimes the song is just shelter.
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?
It’s only finished when it’s mastered. Well, actually, it’s not always finished then. Really it’s only finished when they send you the test pressing.
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?
I improve and refine a lot. For me this is the discipline; knowing when I’m actually still improving the song and when I’m actually destroying it. In the past few years, I’ve started getting much better at knowing the two mindsets and being able to distinguish between them.
But yah, I can improve and refine a song and recording forever, or sometimes it can be done right away. There’s no time limit, you just have to know.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally?
I’m horribly involved in mixing and mastering. I’m a nightmare to work with, honestly. But I think the mix and master is critically important. I’ve seen stunning albums die on the mixing table, and so I’ll fight to the death to prevent that from happening, to make sure the magic is preserved through that crucial process.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this?
I don’t personally feel a sense of emptiness when I release something. I honestly feel quite relieved.
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?
To me writing music couldn’t have less to do with making a great cup of coffee. Making a great cup of coffee is all about knowing exactly what you’re doing; the more knowledge the better. It’s not the case with writing music. To me music is far more capricious. It will always hide on you, always lead you on a wild goose chase. You have no idea what’s going to happen. You really just have to be really aware and really present, and capable of moving, breaking, and changing.
It’s nothing like a mundane task to me.