Published on Blurt – Friday, July 30, 2010
A near-death experience and a traumatic personal loss spawned one of the summer’s most compelling musical offerings.
BY ANNAMARYA SCACCIA
2009 was a significant year for Jesse Elliot. The frontman for the Washington, DC/Lexington, Kentucky indie rock outfit, These United States, faced both death and theft – first, he almost drowned while kayaking in Lake Michigan on a crystal clear summer day and then, nearly two months later, while on tour, his laptop was stolen in the parking lot of the Troubadour in Los Angeles. They’re experiences that left a deep, agonizing mark on Elliot, ones that left him reevaluating life and music.
And it’s those confrontations that also fueled the quintet’s – comprising Elliot with J. Tom Hnatow (pedal steel/electric guitar), Robby Cosenza (drums/vocals), Justin Craig (guitar/keyboards) and Colin Kellogg (bass/vocals) – fourth album, What Lasts, which dropped earlier this month on United Interests. It’s a massive record that’s both earnest and brave, elevating their trademark Americana folk from conjectural dynamism to de rigueur confidentiality. What Lasts is beautiful, even if a little macabre.
Currently on tour in support of their record release, we talked to Elliot about the themes that shaped What Lasts, the personal verses the abstract and the idea of generic creativity.
BLURT: What Lasts is a result of your near drowning experience in Lake Michigan last year. Is this album a way owning that and turning it into something positive with a dark exterior?
ELLIOT: That’s exactly right. That’s a really good way to put it. When I finally made it back to shore, I literally collapsed and was just laying there for hours, shivering…For the next couple of days, I sat at this cottage that my family has been going to for every summer for my entire life. I just sat and looked out at lake, trying to make it through all that. Of course, the only way I was able to do that was by sitting down with the guitar and laying up some songs about it. [Losing my laptop also] formed the album…[It] had…all the sort of rough demos I had done at the lake cottage for the album. It was like this whole thing that has been a really intense, personal experience for me was completely erased. I have a very bad memory, which is why I keep everything on a computer…so then I had to reconstruct it again and the only song that I have left is what became the title track -it just made sense-the song “What Lasts” because I had sent a really rough demo version to a friend over e-mail, so I still had the file in my email, but everything else was gone. It was like, “Oh, the only song that’s left is called ‘What Lasts,’ maybe I should call the album that.’ [laughs]
You sent that demo to a long lost friend, so it seems like a lot of the back story for this album, just reading it on paper, is a sign of sorts.
Yea, it’s kind of funny. I don’t know how much of fate or destiny or whatever you want to call it goes into any particular event but this is definitely an album that is more influenced by some very particular and very sort of unnerving or very uprooting [event], much more so than any album we’ve done.
Would you say you’re more emotionally connected to this album as opposed to your last, Everything Touches Everything?
Personally, I’m more emotionally connected to this album than anything else we’ve ever done, which is a significant [thing] for me on a personal level because I actually don’t think of music as primarily an emotional thing. Music, for me, has always been more an aesthetic thing, more just playing around with words, ideas and sounds as kind of like abstract entities rather than a confessional diary approach. But this time around, I’m definitely like, “OK, this actually really means something to me.” [laughs]
Now that What Lasts is completed, did it change your approach to your craft?
It certainly changed my approach to music or my opinion of putting emotional content in music, which is something I argued with many a good musical friend about for a very long time and I’ve actually taken a lot of flak from friends and critics. One of my favorite lyricists is Andrew Bird and he’s pretty well-known for being a little bit more on the abstract side of things… a lot of how he comes up with stuff is just merely the sound of words and the pleasure the ear gets from particular combinations of syllables and that’s always kind of how I look at it… There’s obviously still a fair amount of that on the album but I think enough of the personal, emotional stuff happening [in it]…I guess in a way is more conventional. It all depends on what you think is the standard for songwriting but I guess most people think that songwriting is a personal, emotional endeavor and I definitely came around to that way of thinking.
Like a spiritual awakening?
That could be it, as well. That could be a different way of it. I’m thinking more of a personal, artistic turning point more so than any other larger spiritual thing, although there’s obviously a lot of that on the album too.
How did you feel after it was stolen just mere months after you almost drowned?
Totally dejected. At least with almost drowning in Lake Michigan, there was like a vital spark, like, “You gotta save your own life right now.” There was a primordial survival mechanism that kicked in. When my laptop was stolen, it was just like pure depression. [laughs] It was really funny because we travel so much together, we’re essentially like brothers in that we give each so much flak and we’re so hard on each other and joke around with each other all the time and point out each other’s shortcomings. But there was this 48 hour grace period after it was stolen where nobody said anything that was in any way negative or sarcastic to me because I was [going to] go over the deep end and toss myself off a bridge or something like that.
You say you have a bad memory, so when you found yourself recreating the songs that were on your laptop, did you find yourself remembering a lot the original material?
Definitely half of it did. I think a lot of the reasons I write songs or that I love music is because music is sort of like a memory device for me. I think for a lot of people that’s true in general. Music is a very memorable thing. When you hear a particular melody or a particular turn of phrase, it gets inside your brain. Sometimes, all it takes is one or two times and it’s in there forever, which is what I really love about music in general. Also, I kind of look at it as like, “OK, the stuff that’s worthwhile will stick around in my brain and the stuff that’s not will be gone forever. Who cares?”
Actually, I had one experience like this a long time ago with losing 258 pages of writing once back when writing was kind of the main thing I did. I left a notebook on a plane [in 2003] and that was equally crushing. That was actually maybe more crushing but the attitude I had was basically, “Well, you know, you just gotta keep going and hopefully the good stuff resurfaces. If it’s good enough to be buried in your subconscious, hopefully it comes back at some point.” I would guess that maybe 50 or 60 percent of what was originally there came back and what didn’t come back was replaced with new stuff that maybe was better, maybe wasn’t as good. I guess we’ll never know but I like to tell myself that maybe it’s a little bit better than what was there originally.
Maybe it’s an “everything happens for a reason” scenario?
Sure, sure, yeah. I think that’s quite true. It’s easy to get personally wrapped up in it but from an objective point-of-view, from a bird’s eye point-of-view, does the universe really care that I lost my laptop? Is it going to affect the course of human history? Probably not. [laughs] So, yeah, I’m just trying to look at it with a personal – whatever you want to call it – discovery process or something.
In addition to what happened last year, what other themes are on What Lasts?
It’s a lot about loss and a lot about death and a lot about how people deal with those things. I think that’s such a generic description that I’m almost hesitant to say that. I feel like any album or any book or anything ever that [deals with that] [laughs] it’s generic to say, “Oh, it’s about life and death and love and loss and all the stuff that comes in between and how people deal with all that.” But for me, it’s about my own sort of personal coming close to that point or something and then thinking back. The other thing about losing the laptop, too, is that I actually ended up going back and digging up other songs that popped in my head that were about the death of a very close friend when I was younger, and the death of a very close family member when I was really young. I had these songs that I always considered maybe just a little too personal or just not really what I wanted to put out there like an artistic product… I guess it sort of dredge up other memories of other songs that I haven’t thought about or look at for five years because they were about the deaths of close friends and family.
Thinking in terms of destiny, could you say that losing your laptop and going back to those songs after five years was a catalyst for closure?
Yea, it could be. It’s hard to say but I think it’s always good to say, “Would this happen because of this?” because you don’t know. You don’t have the control scenario and the variable scenario. You don’t get to say, “Well, this is the normal way that things would have happened and this is the variation of that.” All you have is that one particular variation, so I think it’s really hard to say whether that in some way would have [been a] better experience in the end. I certainly don’t regret anything. I think that experience in Lake Michigan was a very, very intense one and shocked me back awake in a lot of ways and losing the laptop was the same thing. It was a serious slap in the face from the universe and I was like, “OK, I’m going to get my shit together and get my thoughts down and figured out what it is I really want to say because stuff goes way very easily.” I think that’s the central theme of the whole thing-how easily everything slips away and the futile way that you try to hang on to that but at the same time you’re not futile. Maybe it really matters in a personal way.
It’s easy to agree that love, death and loss are generic themes for artists. But do you think that what you say isn’t as important as how you’re saying it?
Absolutely. Not just creative but just life. Just like jobs and the way people live and the families they have. There’s only a certain amount of experiences that we all go through and they basically boil down to birth, growing up, falling in love and out of love, going through tragedies [and] important experiences, losing other people and eventually taking off from earth yourself. There’s not that many different things that human beings do.
That’s one of the reasons why I love [music]. In some ways, [you] have this very constrictive form that you want to work in… You have three and half minutes to say something that is worthwhile and I’m kinda happy working with those obstacles… within the specific aesthetic form because that limited set of experiences you have to deal with it or the limitations on what you can say as a rock ‘n’ roll band really forces you to think about what you need to bring to this to put your personal stamp on it that makes it something other people can relate to or not relate to. I guess I don’t have any other way to say things than the way that I do… but I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with it just on a personal level and it’s really nice. I think it’s a nice place to be at when you’re writing songs.
Lyrically, how did you touch on those themes uniquely in the new album?
It’s one of the hardest questions to answer, I think, without either sounding completely pretentious or completely self-doubting and self-loathing… I think any job, most people oscillate morally between moments of extreme confidence and extreme self-doubt… But that’s a scary way to answer that question, so I think you have to, I don’t know, it just like a job. You just keep doing what you’re doing and you tell yourself that, “Maybe I’m not saying anything unique or in a unique way.”
I guess you do it for yourself, at the end of the day, because you don’t really have another choice. You do it for yourself and the people immediately around you, bandmates and creative collaborators, [and] you sort of work out visions that you all have. I think one of the reasons I like music a lot is because it forces you to smash your visions together with the visions of four other people in a room, so that, to me, is where the really uniqueness comes in… I think I’m kinda saying a lot of the same things that other people said before but maybe if I say them in my particular voice at this particular moment with this particular combination of other sounds and other people, [combining] that line with that sonic moment, that’s where the real magic happens.
[Photo Credit: Sarah Law]