Corb Lund describes the process of writing lyrics like this: “It’s like pulling individual hairs out of my head, one by one until I’m left with a mohawk, and the mohawk is the song. Very painful.” We talked to the Americana artist about his approach to his craft, his acclaimed album Cabin Fever, co-writing with Hayes Carll and more. We hope he didn’t pull any hairs out answering these questions, because this is one of our favorite Writer of the Week interviews in a long time.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Marty Robbins. Kristofferson. The Queen guys. Neil Diamond. Lots of metal bands: Slayer, Entombed, Witchery. The contemporary guys I like are mostly all my friends. Hayes Carll, Evan Felker.
What was co-writing with Hayes Carll like? How did the two of you meet?
It was pretty natural. I don’t co-write much actually. The only way it ever happens, as it did this time, is for me or someone else to have a chunk of something largely written and possibly structured out, then getting together to put the flesh on it. I had a chorus for “Bible on the Dash” already sorted, and a rough melodic and lyrical concept for the verses. We hung out one afternoon and finished it over some beer.
Hayes and I met years ago at a festival in Manitoba. We’ve done a ton of trade-off tours since then. He’s helped us in Texas, we’ve helped him in Canada. I’m biased I guess, because we’re friends, but he’s one of my favorite contemporary writers.
You were quoted as saying “chaos and irreverence inform the way I write.” What did you mean by that?
I try to approach the country/roots idiom with some abandon. I borrow a lot from older country musical styles, but it always seems to end up a little tongue in cheek. I absolutely love old music, but I try not to bow down to it too much. I think it’s more respectful to treat it like I treat any other music I like, and slap it on the back or punch it in the arm once in a while.
I handle meeting older iconic writers the same way. I think they probably appreciate being treated like a human being/peer rather than it getting all weird. I hope, anyway.
How does the new album compare to your previous work?
My latest record is my best, of course! But seriously, we did it almost entirely live, with very few overdubs, no click track, live vocals. I’m very happy with my past efforts, but this was a refreshing change. My band and I have played thousands of shows together, Grant is the new guy, and he’s been with me eleven years. So I started thinking it was a shame not to use that resource a little more overtly. Keeping live vocals enables lots of subsurface interaction between all of us. And also, the themes on this record are a little darker than usual I think. Which I’m fully down with.
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
I think it was ‘We Used To Ride ‘Em’, which is a song about rodeo nostalgia, as told from the perspective of a pair of spurs that have been in my family for three or four generations. My grandpa rode in them, my dad did, I did, Reg Kesler did. It has my one of my favourite chord changes in it, using the major chord on the flat seventh degree of the scale, C in the key of D in this case. I’ve always thought that was a mean change.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
I’m working on one called ‘Butterfly’ about an old school ice hockey goalie not wanting to change his style of playing net.
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
It’s like pulling individual hairs out of my head, one by one until I’m left with a Mohawk, and the Mohawk is the song. Very painful.
What percentage of songs that you start do you finish?
Probably like 7-10%. I leave all kinds of wreckage along the road. Once in awhile i revisit some of the old chunks if I’m feeling stuck.
Do you have any standards for your songs you try to adhere by when choosing them for an album?
Yeah, sure. I have an extremely fine internal filter. It’s killing me. Most of the stuff I write doesn’t see the light of day. I’m very particular. I’m a complete songwriting snob. Most of the time when I hear people’s records I immediately think they should have put a lot more time into it before they showed anyone. I’m a jerk, but the songs are your legacy.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
Most anything that I’m interested at any given time. I’m lucky that I’ve developed an audience that is used to me writing about strange topics. Because of this, I’m able to use just about anything that intrigues me in my life as field research. I’ve got songs about card playing, apocalypse survival, cattle breeds, oil rigs, military history, goth chicks. Whatever spins my prop.
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
I like “Priceless Antique Pistol Shoots Startled Owner” for a lot of reasons. I love the melody and the way it changes over top of the chord changes. When I first discovered the melody I was really excited about it for about a week. I don’t think I’ve heard the melody before, which is getting rarer and rarer for me. I also am kind of proud of the lyric. It tells a story in a vague and specific way at the same time, and it has a title like a newspaper headline. The thing reflects my interest in antique firearms. And it’s got yodeling. The song is kind of a sleeper on the record that only diehards will probably pick up on, but it’s one of my favorites. Every record I make ends up having a couple on it that are just for me.
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
It stays about the same. Sometimes easier, sometimes harder, in about the same cycle as always. One thing that gets easier is you get more confident about whether an idea is good or not. On the other hand, maybe that’s complacency. So maybe it’s not such a good thing. Overall, it’s fucking hard.
Are there any words you love or hate?
I like making up words that Ineed. And if people can grok what they mean from the context, I consider it a success. And I like flowery eighteenth century British words, the way people in India still use them: ‘Fantastically’ and ‘Excellently.’ I guess I like adverbs.
The most annoying thing about songwriting is…
Poorly written songs that make a zillion dollars.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter, and why?
Ringo Starr. Just kidding.
What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?
‘The Sky Above, The Mud Below” by Tom Russell is a fucking masterpiece for lots of reasons. Being ancestrally from the West, I’m a sucker for cowboy noir. The bartender/sheriff/judge forcing the Mexican horsehair-braiding rustlers to cut off their own locks and braid themselves nooses? Yes, please. And the song is seven minutes and completely holds my attention, that’s a pretty good sign. It’s a perfectly structured masterpiece.