The New Pornographers
Carl Newman rambles eloquently on playing The Game, ever-weirder ways to write songs and always sounding new
By Jim Phillips
If ours were a truly civilized society, Carl Newman would be King. For now, he is front man and chief songwriter for the Canadian pop band The New Pornographers. I had the pleasure of speaking with him last week as he took some time off during the band’s North American tour.
The New Pornographers’ latest recording, Challengers, is being rightfully hailed as brilliant and nearly perfect pop. Mostly what I wanted to know during our short chat was how Newman and the band were coping with a life in the music industry and just exactly what mix of genius and lunacy goes into making such a complex yet utterly listenable record. And, of course, what the future holds.
Newman is viewed as an outsider in the music industry, I suppose. But he is a successful outsider. And that is a different thing entirely. When I questioned him about the life he’d carved for himself and the geeky, record company weirdness that must inevitably go along with it, I was surprised at his pragmatism and downright healthy ambivalence to the subject.
“It’s definitely a fascinating way to make a living,” he says. “And I can’t forget that. You know, that I’m trying to make a living. But I don’t really think about it. Or I don’t think about it as an industry. I sometimes think of it as a game. Like, where you try to figure out how to make your way. I don’t know. I guess I’m just happier as an artist. Somebody else moves the music around. It’s our job to create it.”
There is a lot of music to move around: In Newman’s case, three critically acclaimed Pornographers albums prior to this one as well as a solo record funded by a grant from the Canadian government. Newman was excited to talk about the processes that he uses to keep himself flush with new material.
“Oh, there are so many weird ways to write songs!” he laughs. “When I first start out, I just try to open my mind. And hope something good comes out. But specifically, I like to sit down with the guitar and have a random piece that just comes out of me and I try to extend it into something more involved. Or sometimes I’ll have an idea and sing it to my Blackberry, which dumps straight to my iTunes. Then I’ll check my iTunes in a month and have like 30 song ideas in there. There are just an endless number of ways to approach it.”
Clearly having broached a subject near and dear to him, I ask Newman if he is more interested in the outcome of the songs or whether he begins with more concrete ideas and aspects of his personal life that he expects the end result to conform to.
He pauses, as if this were the most important issue in the world today. And then says finally, “Definitely earlier on I was only interested in the end result. There are some hints at a personal philosophy on this new record, more personal songs. But I think, overall, I am still more concerned with an interesting result. I mean, I would much rather create something that sounds new rather than say something new. Ya know?”
As for his plans going forward, Newman says he is writing a new solo album that he hopes to record in December and January. And he is, of course, always planning for the next New Pornographers record.
Here Newman begins to ramble a bit, talking only partly to me, but mostly to himself. “You know, it’s tricky trying to always draw the line between my solo records and the New Pornographers’ stuff. I get worried about it. But I’m not really sure why. I mean, think about it. A New Pornographers record is just a solo record with some of Dan’s (Dan Bejar) songs on it and other people singing. And those are both good things. So I don’t ... I don’t know what I’m worried about. Maybe I won’t worry about that anymore. No, I won’t. There. I’m not going to worry about that anymore.”
That sounds good, Carl. I’m glad I could help.
The New Pornographers will be at The Sunshine Theater on Saturday, Sept. 22, with Lavender Diamond and The Awkward Stage. Tickets are $20 (available in advance, with a service fee, through TicketMatser). Doors open at 7 p.m., show starts at 8 p.m.
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