We spoke with Alec Ounsworth about reaching inside another’s soul through song, why people fear public speaking almost as much as death, finding humor in upsetting situations and respecting the intelligence of his audience.
When I’m speaking onstage, I am a little bit nervous. I have a tendency to ramble, and most people don’t understand what I’m saying anyway.
This is an argument I use to basically irritate every friend of mine who’s a musician, but I truly believe mood, emotion and psychedelia can come from plain old words and chord choices rather than your choice of pedals or whatever. Early Bob Dylan and Van Morrison can be just as far out anything else without a lot of technology or magic tricks, and it seems you value that idea too. What are your thoughts on the power of plain old music, rather than monkeying around with having a particular “aesthetic”?
I agree. Dylan is my number one, and he has always been. If you listen to The Basement Tapes, there’s nothing idiosyncratic going on regarding what they’re playing, exactly. Even on something that has fewer instruments, like Blood on the Tracks or Desire, these are albums where he had an unusual ability to reach inside of you. That is something that I try to be very careful about, to not go too far in terms of “weird sounds.” I know a lot of people who do, but to me, that’s not the main thing. That said, I’m not against it, but I agree with you. I think it’s mostly about reaching someone lyrically, melodically or both.
Definitely. And while we’re on the topic of performance, it’s kind of odd to me how speaking in public or being on stage is such a fear for people. I get the jitters, too, but if you read about it, it’s statistically close to “fear of death” on the list for most people. Do you ever feel nervous while in front of a crowd? If so, what goes through your head?
When I’m speaking, I am a little bit nervous. I have a tendency to ramble, and most people don’t understand what I’m saying anyway when I’m speaking onstage. So I guess I’m not that nervous, because no one understands me. When I play, that’s when something shifts in me and it gets natural as the show goes on. Even as a tour goes on, I feel more well-adjusted. But I’m always nervous. Every time, I’m nervous when I’m going out there. Even after doing this and playing live for at least 15 years, I still feel that way. What goes through my head is, “Let’s just get into the song,” because that’s what I know. When it’s off-the-cuff, I have a tendency to not speak up too much because I can be a little flighty while I’m onstage.
Some people are really good at it, though, like Randy Newman.
I’m glad you mentioned him. I just saw him play in upstate New York, and he was making the same quips about every song he’s made for years, but he was still so funny and personable.
Oh, I always do. That’s my problem! That’s the only thing I do. I don’t write for anybody else. If anybody else likes it, then I’m happy to have connected in some way, but I can’t imagine — unless I was doing something for a film or something like that, or specifically for something else, then I would be writing a song for someone else in particular. But my albums are for myself, and then if people are on board, that’s great. But if you start writing for an audience — I don’t even know what that means, necessarily, because people are individuals.
To bring up Randy Newman again, he’s kind of rare to me because he always respects his audience’s intelligence, even when he’s writing very opaque songs from multiple perspectives. He trusts that they can follow along, even when he’s wildly misinterpreted.
He’s lucky, and he knows he’s lucky. That’s one of many things I like about him. He remains modest, because he knows that’s all there is. You can only count yourself as lucky that anyone pays attention to what you’re doing.
When you’re on social media, it does feel like the world is coming to an end sometimes. But if I were to dwell in that realm all the time, I wouldn’t be able to do anything.
I’ve noticed that a lot of press people have asked you why you have such an “optimistic band name,” but I think that’s a little bit of a lame and reductive question. I think of how nearly every really, really funny person in the world has something very dark deep-down with them. So I’m curious about your demeanor — do you tend to react to tough situations with humor or light?
I’m probably on the darker side. One of the reasons for the name is that I appreciate if I were not so dark a lot of the time. It’s almost like a hopeful call to imagine things could be better. Frankly, I think things aren’t as bad as they seem most of the time.
For me, it’s my anxiety talking, and that often comes through in the albums. But I do think there is cause to try and find humor in a given situation. I might have been better at that when I started the band than I am now, but it slowly returns here and there.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to put the constantly upsetting things going on in the world in perspective, or how to compartmentalize them in relation to my personal life. Do you tend to put a barrier between what goes on in the news and your own day-to-day issues?
Yeah, I do divide it quite easily. I read the New York Times every day, but that’s kind of it. That’s as far as I go. I don’t delve into what everyone’s saying on social media or anything like that. It can still be difficult to read about a lot of what’s happening, but it’s a fairly balanced perspective, so it doesn’t throw me into a dark place. When you’re on social media, it does feel like the world is coming to an end sometimes. Things don’t seem right and things seem difficult, but if I were to dwell in that realm all the time, I wouldn’t do anything. I tend to keep that separate from what I do. I’ve got my own problems.
I remember reading about a well-known person I won’t name, who cheated on his also-famous spouse and people were really upset at him online for his infidelity. He said something that was essentially “I get really agitated about what people say about me online, but then I step outside and it vanishes, it doesn’t exist.” Even though he made a bad decision and should face the consequences, I found that to be a pure way to illustrate what we’re talking about, that compartmentalization.
That’s exactly it! It’s not avoidance, necessarily. You need to remind yourself that you’re connected to other things. It’s not all bad, and it’s not all directed at you, so you need to venture out here and there and look around.
I’d like to veer off from here into the nature of record production for a second. I was just talking with a friend about how the latest Electric Light Orchestra album sounds just like their vintage hits, except it’s just really loud and the drums are massive. I think that will date 2010s records like ultra-compression dates 1970s records. Can you tell me about your favorite or least-favorite styles of record-making that have come and gone?
I think my least favorite was the way they made some of the ‘90s grunge albums, which I think are great albums. They were my bread and butter back in the day. But even Nevermind — great songs, great performances, but a strange approach to production, I thought. Same with Pearl Jam’s Ten. Actually, scratch that. I’ll be more specific about Hüsker Dü.
Putting reverb on drums and things like that — I think that was a mistake. On the other hand, they seem to be mistakes after the fact, but they also make the music stand up in a certain way. We listened to the original and remixed versions of Ten back-to-back on tour, and it made sense. Even though it sounded dated immediately, it was meant that way.
On that topic, it’s kind of amazing to me how some producers will fret about some insignificant sonic detail, the stereo separation, wanting to remake the whole thing on different software, when at the end it’s coming through someone’s iPhone speaker and it’s like it’s going through a garbage disposal. How do you reconcile listeners’ carelessness as someone who obviously puts a great deal of thought and care into your music?
Well, again, I don’t write songs for a certain demographic. I don’t imagine how someone else might consume anything — I know how I do it. I have a very big vinyl collection, and I often buy music in that way and listen on headphones to see what’s going on. I can only speak for how I do it, and I don’t imagine that on any given record, someone’s listening on an iPhone speaker.
We’re all kind of in this together, and it’s not necessarily for the money. It’s gotten a lot harder. But if you can manage to keep going, that’s for the best.
Would that tie back into the Randy Newman idea — again, respecting your audience enough to expect them to play the music back correctly?
Or just respecting yourself. I’m not going to start listening to peoples’ albums on iPhones. I remember David Lynch got really upset when he was discussing people watching movies on iPhones. He couldn’t fathom it! I feel the same way. That’s not my style. But I don’t get too upset, because to each his own. Most musicians put a lot of time and effort into getting every little nuance right, and it’s pretty dismissive to approach it in such a way that you’re listening to whether or not the drums are four-on-the-floor, or something like that.
I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people as to whether music is something we can hang our hat on anymore. I recently had conversations with Colin Blunstone and Chris White from the Zombies, and they were so optimistic about how you really can make a living via music. While I appreciate their sense of graciousness and awe about it, I’m not sure if I completely agree. I don’t know if that statement is as relevant to the present as it was in the 1960s, because many people I know are really struggling to do music!
There’s a lot of anxiety and money issues that come up. I’m not going to name names, but for even a lot of established acts who happen to be friends of mine, this is a consuming thing for a lot of people. As far as The Zombies, that was a different time and the royalty system favored the musician to a degree. If something hit, then it kind of took off. These days, if something hits, it kind of seems to matter more in a live setting. You might get better offers, but you’ve got to strike while the iron’s hot and run around on tour a lot more, whereas you wouldn’t have something like the Beatles these days where you camp out in the studio. Or even Brian Eno, who I don’t think toured very often. There was this luxury to make albums, then people might actually buy them. Or you’d get royalties in other ways. Right now, touring is the way.
I guess the question that this leads to is, what advice would you give to someone who really wants to write songs, pick up an instrument and join this whole rat race?
Oh, god. I think that you have to do it if you’re passionate about it, but don’t have any expectations. Even if you’re really, really talented — I know a lot of people who do nothing and they’re really talented. It’s disappointing, and I’m sure to a degree, it’s always been that way as well. We’re in a relatively arbitrary world, and you have to keep your head above water somehow, you know? I wouldn’t say “Don’t venture in,” I would say that you’ve got to be as creative as you can. You may not be able to count on it, even if you do well.
For me, it is worth it and it has been worth it, if you keep in mind that what you’re doing is communicating your ideas to other people who, as you mentioned with Randy Newman, are potentially likeminded and appreciate where you’re coming from and your perspective. That, to me, is the whole point. It’s a certain level of communication that people have. It made a lot of sense and helped me a lot to listen to more obscure artists — it helped me develop my personality, for better or worse, as I was growing up. That communication was extremely important. We’re all kind of in this together, and it’s not necessarily for the money. It’s gotten a lot harder. But if you can manage to keep going, that’s for the best.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Phone
Published: November 20, 2017
Total questions: 13
Word count: 2247
Reading time: Eight minutes
ability, appreciation, audience, awe, Bob Dylan, Chris White, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Colin Blunstone, crowd, David Lynch, detail, disappointment, Electric Light Orchestra, fear, graciousness, intelligence, iPhone, Jeff Lynne, lyrics, melody, nervous, New York Times, Nirvana, nuance, Pearl Jam, perspective, production, rambling, Randy Newman, reverb, royalty, separation, social media, stereo, The Band, tourist, Van Morrison
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
Related conversations W