Burning houses, dying fish and other silver linings.
A short interview between Jason Webley and Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls
AP: Your new record is called "The Cost of Living" and features artwork of a house that bears a striking resemblance to your own house on fire. There's also some burning homes threaded in the lyrics. Are you grappling with some issues here, Jason?
JW: Yeah. The burning home idea actually came about semi-unconsciously. Last summer, a friend of mine in El Paso showed me the artwork she had made for a metal record - a doll house with flames coming out of it. The image stuck and seemed to resonate the songs, so I stole the idea.
But it is my house. I made the model on the cover out of leftover pieces of wood from the little houseboat where I live. The fire and the water are actually stained glass windows. When I was a kid, my parents built stained glass windows together professionally, so they helped me design and build them.
I'm not really answering the question though... why are there burning houses in my lyrics, why is there a picture of my house on fire on the cover? I guess, in my life there is always a bit of a sense of panic, a feeling that maybe I am really missing the boat about where I should be putting my energy and attention. And that while I am scampering around the world touring and writing songs and answering e-mails, something very important is burning down somewhere.
Also, very literally it has just been a hard couple years. A few very close friends have died, one of whom was very close to my sense of what home means. And in the weeks while I was finishing this album, right after he helped me cut the glass for the cover, my father became very ill. He is doing well now, but while I was finalizing the the mixes and the artwork, there was a strong chance he wouldn't live.
AP: When I describe you to people I often find myself comparing you to Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. " They Just Want" reminds me of the simple yet profound lyrics that Cohen pens. Do comparisons like this drive you crazy or can you take it as a compliment?
Yeah, I remember one of the first times I ever went out on the street and performed, I was in Chicago and this amazing old black street singer came and yelled at me for being on his turf. He softened a lot when I responded politely, and then he said "kid, you've got a hell of a voice, who are you, the bastard son of Tom Waits?" I hardly knew Tom Waits' work back then, but I knew he was cool and I was really flattered. But a couple years later I had heard comments like that a hundred times. And yeah, it kinda drove me crazy. Sure. But now it doesn't come up as often. I don't know if I sound different, or if people are just politely avoiding the topic, or what.
People don't mention Leonard Cohen nearly as often, and I am usually happy when they do. When he is at his best there is some kind of miracle that happens in his songs. Every now and again he finds a simple combination of words, so familiar that they are almost a cliche, but somehow you've never heard anything quite like them, and they open a door in you and you see something in a way you never had before. I love that. The first time I ever heard "Suzanne" and really listened to the words, I was just stunned that a song could do something like that.
AP: There's a lot of darkness on this record and in your songs in general... but there's also more of a silver lining in some of these songs than in your older stuff. I find the same thing happening with my music, and sometimes its very self-conscious because I don't want to hang out in the pits of gloom and doom as much as I used to. Do you find yourself writing in that direction deliberately?
JW: That's funny, because I feel like this album is maybe my darkest. Or at least, I am not as conscious of the silver linings as I have been with my older ones. With the old material I would definitely plant some sort of optimism in almost every song very specifically. Lines like "maybe the world isn't dying, maybe she's heavy with child" or just the title "Dance While the Sky Crashes Down" are very explicit examples of that.
But these new songs feel different to me. Most of them are just my responses to some rather difficult goings on in my life and in the world. If they are optimistic, it isn't through any kind of force on my part. In fact, when I was close to done with this record, I remember listening to it and thinking, damn, this is an album that never smiles at you even once.
But it is interesting that the songs somehow sound less gloomy to you. It is good to hear actually. I'd really like to think that in the end all of my music is somehow optimistic. I feel like right now it is very fashionable to have lyrics are kind of, I don't know, nihilistic. Almost anti-life. I don't want to be a part of that. I'd like my songs to be pro-life. (laughs)
AP: What's with the fish?
JW: Have you ever seen salmon spawn? It is really intense, and kind of ugly. All of these fish, their bodies already falling apart, beginning to decompose even before they die, pushing and fighting their way upstream. There's something so poetic about how these creatures that are born in little streams, go out and live in the oceans for years and then when they are old and falling apart they return or try to return to these places where they were born.
I remember the first time I saw them. I was walking in the woods and I crossed this little footbridge, and looked down and saw them. Dying fish flailing around among dead fish. It was really shocking to me, and somehow deeply sad. I remember looking down at them, trapped in this visceral struggle, and just thinking "fuck." And wondering who was on the bridge about me looking down at me and thinking the same thing.
Metaphors like this can often feel cheesy or clumsy, but I really is something huge here. In my mind I feel like the salmon help me understand somehow all of our involvement in the middle east. Baghdad and Jerusalem aren't just random cities in the desert. They are the places where our Western cultures evolved from. All three of the major Western religions, modern concepts of agriculture and just the basic idea of what a city is, all of these things come from the Fertile Crescent. We learn about it in school, but we don't really connect the idea with modern geography. Baghdad is right there between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Western Culture is totally going back to its mother, and it is going back there violently. I don't think it is right, but I do think there is a terrifying poetry to it.
I think similarly in my own life, probably in everyone's, there is some kind of constant pull back to our roots. In ways we don't really understand. Like the salmon - I don't think they consciously know that they are going back to where they were born or that their struggle is noble and is perpetuating their species. I think they just know that they are doing this thing, and it is hard as hell and really sucks. They don't see the bigger picture, and I don't think we do either.
So anyway, yeah... that's why there are fish.\
"the cost of living" is available now at www.jasonwebley.com