Name: Wes Tirey
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current release: Wes Tirey's The Midwest Book of the Dead is available from Dear Life Records as a double CD, double cassette, and a 65 page lyrical chapbook.
If you enjoyed this interview with Wes Tirey, visit him on Facebook for recent updates. For more music, visit his bandcamp store.
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?
I’ve always been attracted to stories and details and externalizing an aesthetic idea or feeling. I like the challenge and adventure and work that goes into the whole process: the feeling of a song entering my orbit, breaking down its parts, finding the mood and chords, etc.
Other forms of art are surely inspirational, specifically short stories. I often cite Raymond Carver as an enduring influence –– in content and style, but mostly style. I like things cut down to the bone –– super clean –– but still open to interpretation. I tip my hat to him a couple times on The Midwest Book of the Dead on “Fugitive” and “My Father at Twenty-Two Years.”
In the early days of Covid –– first two weeks or so –– I was on the phone with my buddy Gabe and said something about lockdown being a relief in that we’re all overworked and underslept and could at least catch up on rest. He told me, “that’s the shit you need to be writing about” –– so I let that idea settle for a bit and wrote “Overworked, Underslept” within the next day or two of that conversation.
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’ve done it all kinds of ways with all kinds of results. When I think of my own songs that I think are pretty good, though, they tend to be the ones where I let myself get out of the way and allowed the song to guide itself. They just sound more “natural” to me, if that makes sense.
I used to be much more intentional with curating a group of songs that I knew were going to co-exist in a cycle. There’s an excitement to having that kind of control over the theme, but you can really write yourself into a corner.
When I started working with Ryan Gustafson on The Midwest Book of the Dead, I wanted to be free from any kind of conceptual restrictions. No overarching narrative. Every song a blank canvas. Build it from the ground up. I just trusted the process and knew that in the end a narrative that was out of my control and far more interesting to engage with would emerge.
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'?
Everything starts with pen, paper, and guitar. I don’t often play with a backing band, so everything’s written with the intention to be played solo in a live setting. The album version might change depending on other instrumentation, but the bones of the song are the same.
I wouldn’t say I have early versions, but I definitely go through a number of drafts –– plenty of rewriting/editing. It’s the little things –– a slightly cleaner rhyme, alliteration to keep the pace and rhythm steady.
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 tend to write in sprees –– a few songs over the course of a few days, five or six songs in a month, and then I won’t write a word for weeks and weeks. I’ve learned to just trust that process, despite it being frustrating sometimes.
I write almost exclusively at night on my porch. When I’m working on a project I just keep a notebook and pen on the table at all times. I’ll take a long walk into town and have a couple drinks at my favorite spot and be social, then walk back home and write while I’m having a nightcap. If I’m really chugging along I’ll stay up really late and work till I drop. Otherwise, I’ll save whatever for the morning and afternoon the next day to revisit/edit in my office/sunroom. It’s taken some time, but I’ve finally got my office into a really comfortable space to work in –– all my guitars, plenty of books to pull from the shelves if I need to, and plants I haven’t killed yet.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
The first line is the easiest because it comes so unexpectedly. A couplet or verse just kind of shows up with a skeleton melody to it. Then I’m off to work. It’s the middle and end of a song that tends to be a pain in the ass.
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?
I don’t think lyrics and music need to grow together –– that’s up to the person who’s writing them. I tend to work on them in tandem -– though there are always exceptions. The lyrics to “One Among the Many” came in a flash, but I didn’t put them to music till much, much later.
As for lyrics, they come from all over: shit you hear other people on the street say, conversations with friends, conversations with strangers, books you read, movies you watch, shit you haven’t thought about for years that comes back to haunt you. It’s the good and bad and everything in between.
I personally like to keep some distance between myself and the material. I lost my job in the early days of Covid, but I never wanted to write about it too directly. So I wrote about a character losing their job instead. There’s no obligation to the truth –– just getting the story right.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
Technically good? Aesthetically good? It’s hard to say sometimes. Some lines are so good you just shake your head and wonder how the hell they pulled it off.
I like lyrics that I can see –– like a photobook, slideshow, or movie. Lyrics that are a visual story that feel both of my own time and of a different time.
I like lyrics that get down to business but don’t take the easy way out. As long as I’m writing that way then I know I’ll be okay.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
If I’m lucky, it emerges at a pretty quick pace. I’ll get a lot on paper and then carve everything down over the course of a night or two. “Bang the Drum Slowly” began as a free association exercise –– maybe a full page worth of words and phrases related to a theme. Then I circled what stood out and started to whittle it down further; a rhyme scheme and rhythm started to reveal itself and then it was a matter of arranging the impressions/visuals. Similarly, “Wild Blue Yonder (Two Riders)” started out as three or four full pages that I cut down over the course of a day or two to one page.
But some songs take much longer, which comes with its own kind of magic in the process. It’s like browning the beef before you make a beef stew that simmers all day. Always worth it to brown the beef to get the flavors right.
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 don’t think I’m ever in strict control of the process. Or I’ve learned, at least, that when I try to stay in strict control the song usually turns out pretty bad. But a song can get away from me and then I’m tasked with reining it in. That happens plenty.
I just get a sense of who’s narrating or what story is taking place between characters and see what unfolds organically. That’s part of the “raw” process, I guess.
There’s more control in the editing/rewriting phase. I like my songs to have some kind of narrative-element, some kind of story –– but I try to stay mindful to not give too much away. It’s like there are things happening in the story in between verses, too. It’s more interesting when people piece the story together on their own.
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?
Sure, plenty of songs end up being like a “choose your own adventure” thing. You try this, you try that. You think about humanizing a character more or changing their back story. I struggled with that on the song “Arkansas.” I couldn’t make up my mind if I wanted that character to be redeemed or not. So I just left it up to the listener what happens after the song ends.
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?
I like what Richard Hugo writes in his essay “The Triggering Town” –– “The poem is always in your hometown, but you have a better chance of finding it in another …However, not just any town will do. Though you’ve never seen it before, it must be a town you’ve lived in all your life.”
The creative space is like wandering a country that’s somehow known and unknown at the same time. You’re the guide and the guest.
It’s spiritual for me in that I’m aware I’m interacting with some kind of intangible energy or source, but I don’t think about it much beyond the moment. I get a sense of accomplishment and contentment from the process, but not much spiritual catharsis.
Performance is different. It’s its own kind of physical and emotional release to hit the zone and meet the song on a deeper level in a live setting.
I saw Susan Alcorn play here in Asheville maybe four, five years ago, and it was one of the most spiritual sets of music I’ve ever seen. True Zen. Like a pure breath of air behind the music.
For me, that’s the ultimate spiritual relationship with what I do with my music –– just being present in the moment with the song.
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’m driven by the creative urge to narrow the story and presentation down to the essentials –– I know the feeling when I’ve honestly reached that point. When it’s clean and aesthetically pleasing to the eye on the page is a good sign, too. When I’m going through multiple drafts of a song, I always start over on a fresh page and write everything over again. By the time I get to the final version it looks like an untouched draft.
I’m pretty bad at staying organized. I have an ever-growing stack of yellow legal pads I’ve hung onto over the years. This year for the sake of convenience I’ve moved a bunch of fresh material to a Google Doc for easy reference, but it’s like starting a new creative habit I’m not quite used to yet.
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?
If I’ve fully finished a piece –– meaning, if I’ve given it the stamp of approval lyrically and arranged the music –– there’s not much, if any, going back to it. I value the editing process, but at a certain point you have to decide if you’re going to abandon the song altogether or let it be the thing you’ve labored through.
Moreover, time changes songs and what they mean. It’s possible to grow closer to a song that you might have been a bit skeptical about.
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?
Like I mentioned above, when Ryan and I got to work on The Midwest Book of the Dead, we took something of a blank slate approach. We recorded my vocals and guitar and then built everything around it from the bottom up. My one rule I had for myself was that if Ryan asked me to do another take, I’d do it. If he told me the first take was good, then I wouldn’t do another one. It felt nice letting go like that and creating with that kind of trust.
As for mixing and mastering, if I didn’t have to be involved with that shit at all I’d probably record more. I’m really impatient. When I’ve completely wrapped up the tracking sessions, I’m ready to get it over with and move on. I don’t really nerd out or get hyper-controlling on that end of the process.
I leave the mastering in the hands of my good buddy Andrew Weathers, who I’ve worked with on a number of albums/projects. I send him the mixes and then he sends back the masters and we never have to really chat about changing anything.
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?
Goddamn, it’s never felt empty to me –– if anything, it’s incredibly fulfilling and the ultimate sense of closure. It’s permission to move on to the next thing.
There’s no ultimate threshold to cross to get back to the creative state. I just try to keep in good enough shape for when the next song starts to show up.
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?
Well, as someone who’s worked in the coffee industry for fifteen years, I can say it is inherently different than writing a song and that I don’t even know what expressing oneself through making a great cup of coffee even means.
There’s a science to coffee. There’s no science to songwriting. Songwriters talk about process and craft and what works, but we all know it’s something we can’t quite explain, in the end.
Engaging in mundane tasks without any sense of self-expression is exactly where the material starts to work itself out under the surface, anyways.