Donovan Quinn has already proven himself to be one of the more gifted folk-pop songsmiths of the past decade through his work with Verdure and The Skygreen Leopards. But his recent efforts backed by the 13th Month have been particularly notable for their pitch perfect blend of pop, rock, and country songcraft and darkly imaginative lyrics, both enhanced by a well-considered analog sound. Donovan answered some questions about “Your Wicked Man”, his brand new full-length co-released by Soft Abuse and Shrimper Records, and about some of his other recent projects.
There seems to be more of a pop/rock backbone to some of the songs scattered throughout the new album. As you set out to record this album, were there aspects that you were interested in exploring as a songwriter that were maybe different from the first album you released with the 13th Month?
Both 13th Month albums were designed as pop records. Your Wicked Man has more focused choruses and no country jams so I suppose it is more pop in a technical sense.
Generally speaking I gravitate towards poppy, easily digestible stuff that you can dig deeper into. As opposed to things that want to draw your attention to their inaccessibility, or difficulty, which more often than not is a front. For every Beefheart or William Gaddis there are a million guys just muddying the waters for no good reason. The Kinks, Stanley Kubrick, F Scott Fitzgerald -- those are people I look to for inspiration in terms of layering your work so that it can be enjoyed at whatever level you want to take it.
You have two quotes that adorn the back cover of “Your Wicked Man”. One is from Bobby Beausoleil that reads, “I think probably my life would have gone differently if I had been able to afford a surfboard.” The other by Martin Luther that states, “For where God built a church, there the Devil would also build a chapel.” For you, what is the significance of these quotes in relation to some of the themes you were writing about on the album? Did you have these ideas in mind as you were writing the material?
Those two quotes were the epigraphs for a book I was working on that has yet to be completed (which probably won't be completed). So I had them in mind in that the songs on YWM were covering a lot of the same ground as that uncompleted book.
I guess I look at both of those quotes, especially when put together, as cautions from two men that were right to be cynical. It's hard to be succinct about it; if you listen to the album then I think that you'll see the relevance more clearly than me explaining it.
You mentioned that you are inspired by certain artists that layer their work and also that these songs were covering similar ground as a book you were working on. I’m guessing that for many a quick reading of the lyrics would suggest that you are writing about a rather dysfunctional relationship and its aftermath. Would you be willing to describe the role of fiction versus autobiography in your songwriting process? Do your lyrics, in some sense, sort of dictate what direction a song takes?
What I mean by “layering” is having the lyrics mean more than one thing at once; or having more than one concern at once. So a love song or relationship song to me is always a way to work in a variety of subjects that interest me; whether it’s autobiographical or not. Like “Winter in a Rented Room” is about the aftermath of a relationship but it’s also a way to talk about the effects of living in a city, windows (literally and metaphorically), depression, lack of communication, entropy, etc. The human relationship is real (or it isn’t) but it’s also a way of dealing with relationships with other things both concrete and abstract. Actually I’d say that that song in particular is more about windows than love. It’s concerning someone who can’t look outward but wants to; thus the line about “out with the window shoppers” and all the allusions to dim light. It’s also Dante’s limbo (“there’s fire in the well/ here in the first ring of Hell” “I need a friend in the Government to see me through the border”). Point is that I hope someone could enjoy it at face value as a song about a guy missing a girl. But if you wanted to look deeper then you can find other things that may interest you.
Certainly I’ve had many bad relationships but there’s not much autobiography in “Your Wicked Man” except for “Open Flame”. It naturally reflects my life and obsessions but I’ve hardly ever written about something specific that happened to me. If it comes off as confessional then I’m stoked!
Are there any significant differences between how you approach writing and recording with the 13th Month than with the Skygreen Leopards?
I try to make Skygreen Leopards songs funnier and leave a chorus or bridge open for Glenny D.’s vocals.
One of the things that I really appreciate about both of the albums you have released with the 13th Month has been just how incredible they sound – that dreamy analog quality to them. Could you describe how working with Jason Quever (Papercuts), both as a sound engineer and as a musician, has impacted your songwriting over the years?
Jason is amazing. We've done 4 records together now. Two with Skygreen Leopards and two with 13th Month (which are really collaborations between Quever and myself -- with much support and funky bass from Nick Marcantonio). He has a great ear for both sounds and performances and he works hard to make sure that you get the best of both. That involves a lot; everything from working on a piano part to using the right reverb to directing me with a vocal and so on.
Our collaboration hasn't really changed my songwriting process but it's changed the criteria I use before bringing a song to the studio.
Could you tell us a little about the video you made for the song “Mom’s House”? Is this song indeed based on a particular psychedelic experience?
The video was thrown together using public domain film from an old anti-drug movie and then some animatronics from unused footage for a cigarette commercial. I cut them together in a way that hopefully can be viewed as a darkly humorous story of tripping and paranoia. It cracks me up whenever I see those golden headed cops hauling the 60's hipsters off to jail. Dream Police style. The kind of nightmare figures of the trip seems to correspond to the police force. The above mentioned quotes are relevant to the video.
"Mom's House" lyrically isn't psychedelic. It's a sweethearted song about my mom singing to her dog.
Aside from the “Mom’s House” video, have you done much in the way of other film or video work?
No—but I want to!
Have you begun working on any other projects since the completion of “Your Wicked Man”
Me & Ben Chasny have a duo and some great songs that have yet to see the light of day. We need to do some more recording before anything is released. I've been really excited about that for a couple years now. Jason Quever and I have also been thinking of ways to start a new band but that's in the earliest stages so who knows what we'll do. Then there is always a lot of 13th Month stuff in the queue so hopefully we can get another one out before too long.
Has the Verdure moniker been officially put to rest?
Yes. You could classify the Verdure stuff under juvenilia. Personally it sounds like trash to me.
Do you have any tour plans or other live outings scheduled in the coming months?
Hopefully we'll be touring sometime soon. We're looking for a good band to hook up with but nothing solid has been booked yet.
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