Ep43: Lou Barlow (Sebadoh / Dinosaur Jr / The Folk Implosion) on building a body of work…however the fuck he wants to – Transcript

Ep43: Lou Barlow (Sebadoh / Dinosaur Jr / The Folk Implosion) on building a body of work…however the fuck he wants to – Transcript


SPEAKERS

Laura Kidd, Lou Barlow


Lou Barlow

You know, I think especially the older I’ve gotten and the more records I’ve put out, the less I criticise myself about how I come up with songs, and the more I just am fucking grateful that I can do it at all. (laughs)

Because I used to really get hung up on stuff like that. I’d get hung up on how long something took or other things that I compared myself to, or peers that I compared myself… You know, standards that I was putting myself up against. And I just… less and less and less and less of that. I’m just like, you know, I’m just building a body of work. And I can do it however the fuck I want to.

Laura Kidd


Absolutely, yeah.


Laura Kidd  

Hello and welcome to episode 43 of Attention Engineer.

I’m Laura and this is my podcast. Hi!

Attention Engineer is a show where I share deep conversations with fellow artists about creativity, grit and determination. My aim is to consistently remind you – and remind myself – that creativity really is for everyone….because it really is.

Let’s kick that inner critic where it hurts.

I’m just back from four days away. Away. Out of my house, and in someone else’s. Yes! I drove all the way from Bristol to Suffolk to spend some time with my parents and my sister having not seen them since January 13th 2020. It was…surprisingly normal! After the initial “whoah, I’m hugging someone who isn’t my husband” bit, it was amazing how quickly things felt completely normal – in the house, anyway. Obviously all precautions were taken while travelling, I did my first lateral flow test before I set off – and then another one when the first one didn’t react to my…sample…and I recently bought lots of really comfortable masks off an Etsy seller in a bid to leave the house more and start reintegrating into the world after a very hermitty year and a bit. So, it was a big deal to go so far, to spend some time with other people. It was a lovely weekend and I’m very thankful that we were all healthy enough to do that.

I will be staying cautious and seeing how things go over the coming weeks and months, and I’m not ready to ditch masks or social distancing, personally, but we have to do what we feel is right. It was lovely to get a glimpse of what life could be like again, and just to have a bit of hope makes such a difference, doesn’t it…

Back in The Launchpad, I’ve now finished my 30 day digital reset and am very reluctant to re-engage with all the digital bits and bobs. I feel so much better: calmer, happier, more focused, less tired, less stressed. The intention was never to just have a 30 day break and then dive right back in to my old behaviour anyway, so I’m taking a few days to figure out what my new rules are for all the platforms, to get the good bits from them and avoid the negative behaviour that those addictive technologies inspired in me. The ceaseless scrolling, the checking, the re-checking, the vicious cycle of Twitter to Instagram to Facebook to email and back again. And again. They’re designed to do this to us, and I don’t want to play any more. So, I’m figuring that out at the moment.

I recently asked a question on Instagram Stories: what’s currently stopping you from embarking on your next creative project? The overwhelmingly popular answer was: time. It’s the most valuable thing we have by far. So, what are we spending our most valuable resource on?

This feels like a good moment to say a massive thank you for choosing to spend some of your precious time listening to my podcast. I’ve been making this show for a year now, and I’m so glad I’ve persevered. Launching big projects is always risky, but I try to turn towards fear and resistance these days. If something scares me a bit, it’s always worth exploring. Whether this is your first time listening to Attention Engineer or your 43rd – thank you so much.

It’s time now to introduce you to today’s guest – and there’s a bit of a story behind how I came across his solo work in the first place. If you own a copy of my new album “Exotic Monsters” on CD or vinyl, and you’re someone who likes to read the thanks section, you might know that I dedicated that record to Amy Balmain. I think Amy first saw me play at Hope and Social’s garden party in 2011, but I didn’t meet her properly until 2012. I was making the single cover art for a song called In This Boat and I wanted to make a paper boat out of maps, so I tweeted a request to see if anyone could help. Amy got in touch and we arranged to meet at Victoria Station. She was travelling to work, I think, from Brighton, and was in a hurry, so we stood on the concourse for a few moments surrounded by a whirl of commuters rushing past in all directions, a pocket of calm amongst the chaos. Amy pressed a big folder stuffed with yellow and blue maps into my hands, smiled widely and then was gone, lost in the crowd. When I looked inside the folder I was amazed to find nautical maps of Portland, which is where I’d taken  the photographs of the lighthouse Portland Bill for the inner sleeve of my album Little Battles.

Amy remained very supportive of my music over the years, her name often popping up on Pledge campaigns and Bandcamp pre-orders. In 2018 she commissioned a cover song from me as part of the Brace For Impact Pledge campaign, and when she sent through the name of the song and the artist I was delighted to listen to something completely new to me – I find it far more fun to cover songs I don’t already know. The song was “Home” by Lou Barlow, from his 2005 album “Emoh”, and I had a really fun day making my own version for Amy, and thanked her for introducing me to Lou’s excellent solo work.

She was really pleased with the cover, which made me very happy, and towards the end of 2019, when I was touring with Robin Ince, I got to enjoy a big squeezy, smiley Amy hug in Shoreham by Sea. If I’d known that would be the last time I saw her, I would have held on a little longer.

Amy passed away at the end of last summer, and the world is a poorer place with her gone. It might not always feel like it, but we all have an effect on the people in our lives, and even though we only met a handful of times, she had a big effect on me, and it always felt like a great compliment that she enjoyed my music. Knowing that she enjoyed Lou’s too, I just had to invite him to be a guest.


After decades on the road and the never-ending hustle of life as an artist, Lou Barlow has tapped into a new confidence in the chaos. In 2021, the concept of balance feels particularly intimidating. Now more than ever, it’s clear life isn’t just leveling out a pair of responsibilities. Instead, we’re chasing after a flock of different ideals with a butterfly net. On Barlow’s new solo album, Reason to Live, he has come to an understanding of that swirl rather than trying to contain it.

After albums with Sebadoh, Dinosaur Jr., Folk Implosion, and under his own name, listeners may have felt they knew the construction of a Barlow song, even that they knew Barlow himself. “People have this vision of me as this heartbroken, depressed guy, but this record feels so true to who I am, to this rich life I now have full of people I love,” he says. “The songs culminated over the last five years to show that music has returned to its central comforting role in my life. Now I’m home.”

This one’s for you, Amy.


Laura Kidd

So just to get started, please could you introduce yourself to the people listening?

Lou Barlow  

My name is Lou Barlow. I’m an American musician, currently residing in Massachusetts. Greenfield, Massachusetts.

Laura Kidd  

Very nice. I have only been to Boston. So I don’t know where Greenfield is.

Lou Barlow  

It’s on the other end of the state, in the farmlands and rolling hills.

Laura Kidd  

That sounds lovely. That sounds really nice. 

Lou Barlow  

Some people like it! (laughs)

Laura Kidd  

(laughs) Yes!  We’re speaking just a few days after the new Dinosaur Jr. album came out. 

Lou Barlow  

Yeah. 

Laura Kidd  

And a couple of weeks before your new solo album comes out…

Lou Barlow  

Yeah!

Laura Kidd  

…as you well know. So how are you feeling about all of these things right at this moment?

Lou Barlow  

Depressed. 

Laura Kidd  

(laughs) Why is that?

Lou Barlow  

I don’t know, there’s just something about when records come out and I’m in the midst of it. It’s like, I get really excited, I mean, I love making records. It’s the funnest. I love it, you know, just being so immersed in something, and then tweaking it and becoming so proud of it really. And then when you realise you’re in the midst of it being released into the world, I just know, there’s just gonna be things, it’s… I want to say this without seeming like a very negative person, because I’m not a negative person…

Laura Kidd  

Right.

Lou Barlow  

And I believe that’s supported by the fact that I continue to be a musician and I love the process. But releasing something into the world is like, I then have to sort of gird my… is gird the right…? like, “gird myself”? 

Laura Kidd  

Yeah! Steel yourself.

Lou Barlow  

Then I have to steel myself for the inevitable disappointments and backlashes. Because that’s also part of the process, is that I put something out, and then I have to realise what I didn’t achieve with that, and what I want to do next. And I sort of live in this wonderful bubble until the point when a record is released, where I’m like, this is it, and this is the pinnacle of what I can do at this point. And this is my next offering to the world. But then I have to go through and just disassemble the whole thing and figure out what I didn’t do right and figure out what I want to do right the next time around. 

Laura Kidd  

Mm-hm.

Lou Barlow  

I love the fact that I can actually fool myself or just be in the bubble as long as I can. And actually, this time the bubble has been lasting quite a long time, because I’m very proud of both records. And I’ve been living with them for quite a while in this state of pre-release. But now that it’s coming down, I feel this sort of self-inflicted anguish kind of setting in. I was just complaining to my wife about the particulars of a Pitchfork review of my songs on the Dinosaur Jr. record. You know, it’s coming. I’m like, “Oh God, that again!” I don’t wanna… when do I stop? Because…anyway.

Laura Kidd  

(laughs) We’re just meeting now, so you don’t know about this, but I’m putting my fifth album out the week after your new solo album comes out, right? The reason I’m laughing along – and my regular listeners will know why – is because basically, I think I do this podcast to reassure myself that everyone else feels exactly the same way…

Lou Barlow  

Okay.

Laura Kidd  

…and I’m not completely bonkers. Because, I don’t get Pitchfork reviews, but whatever reviews I do get, they’re never quite worded right. And they never quite get it, obviously. 

Lou Barlow  

Yeah. 

Laura Kidd  

And I think it’s just a common thing. And for me it’s not about controlling what people write about what I make. Because if they like what I make, I try and think well, the intention was good, they liked it. But there’s all those particulars, like you’re saying. You might think I’m just this crazy woman far away in Bristol giggling at you, and why is she laughing at me? 

Lou Barlow  

Oh, I… (laughs)

Laura Kidd  

I’m just nodding and appreciating what you’re saying very much. And it makes me feel better. That you know, 20, 30 years into your career, you’re still feeling this way. 

Lou Barlow  

Yeah.

Laura Kidd  

Sorry! (laughs)

Lou Barlow  

Yeah. (laughs a lot) No, I’m glad some good comes from it…it’s useful to actually hear that from other people.

Laura Kidd  

Yeah. It is.

Lou Barlow  

Like, I love it when I see really successful musicians complaining about reviews. 

Laura Kidd  

(laughs) 

Lou Barlow  

Or battling with other bands, you know. I love it. I get so much vicarious… it’s so hilarious to me because I’m always like, Jesus, you’re huge, what’s your problem? (laughs)

Laura Kidd  

Yes. Exactly.

Lou Barlow  

(laughs) What can you possibly…? 

Laura Kidd  

It’s almost like we’re all human and the same kind of things hurt us in the same kind of ways.

Lou Barlow  

I know and they just never stop and then just no matter… you’re never quite sealed away enough, you’re always vulnerable. 

Laura Kidd  

Yes, of course. 

Lou Barlow  

That’s what it is.

Laura Kidd  

And if we weren’t vulnerable, then I don’t think we’d be writing songs. So it’s that kind of thing, isn’t it? The thick skin. I don’t have a thick skin. And I know that that’s not a bad thing. Because it means I can write music that means stuff to me and to other people. It does mean though, that things do hurt me. 

Lou Barlow  

Yeah.

Laura Kidd  

But it’s interesting you talk about really successful musicians, because that’s how I think of you as being. Do you not see yourself as being as successful as these other people you’re talking about? 

Lou Barlow  

No. 

Laura Kidd  

Oh, okay. (laughs)

Lou Barlow  

(laughs) I mean, I’m not talking about accolades and reviews, to be honest I’m just talking about my life, the lifestyle that I’m attempting to support: putting my kids through school, paying medical bills.

Laura Kidd  

Yeah.

Lou Barlow  

I still, in a lot of ways – actually in all ways – I live on a razor’s edge with what I do, and I always have. And a lot of that is due to just me being an idiot, probably, or just making a lot of poor decisions as I went along, both personal and business wise. But I don’t want to get caught up in that. 

Laura Kidd  

No.

Lou Barlow  

I also know that, yeah, I do think I’m successful. And I’m very grateful for what I have. I just wish I’d made some better decisions along the way, so I didn’t feel quite as vulnerable as I do. You know, I just wish I was a little smarter. (laughs)

Laura Kidd  

Yeah, we’re not gonna dwell on it, but I do think it’s useful for people to hear that just because you love a musician doesn’t mean that they have all the money in the world and can do whatever they like. That’s it, you know. Everyone’s a person.

Lou Barlow  

I mean I still have so much I want to do as far as just like building my own studio and gear. And, you know, the fact that I still just work in such a basic way and that I have so little at my disposal, gear wise and stuff. It’s my own fault. But you know, I do wish I… there’s a lot that I’d like to do, which is great, too. 

Laura Kidd  

Yeah.

Lou Barlow  

It’s great to still have such intense desires about what I want to get and what I want to do, you know.

Laura Kidd  

Definitely. And you have very neatly segued into the thing I wanted to talk about, which was not just the new album, but you are well known for recording at home.  And I record at home, and people like you recording from home and at home have really influenced me in doing that. Because it shows that you don’t have to have a shiny, shiny, posh studio recording of something to make it worth something to someone else, you know.

Lou Barlow  

Mm-hm. Definitely.

Laura Kidd  

Hopefully we all do know that. (laughs) So I was just wondering, was the new album recorded at home as well? 

Lou Barlow  

My solo record? Yeah. And actually even even the Dinosaur Jr. record was recorded in J’s house.

Laura Kidd  

Okay. 

Lou Barlow  

Yeah, I mean, the solo record, I did do it at home. But there was one song that I recorded on the road, you know. I do the final mixing… I do have a studio in the area with a guy that I really trust that I’ve worked with for years, and I do take my sessions to him. And that’s that’s where I sort of finalise the project. 

Laura Kidd  

Yeah.

Lou Barlow  

But yeah, as far as the recording… yeah, for sure, at home.

Laura Kidd  

Yeah. I was talking to Juliana Hatfield last week for an episode, who is one of my one of my absolute favorites. And we were talking about how having no limitations can be a bit of a problem. So she was saying that she hates GarageBand because she used to record on an 8 track I think. 

Lou Barlow  

Mm-hm.

Laura Kidd  

And she was cool with that because the limitations are there. But with GarageBand or Logic or whatever you use, you can obviously have infinite tracks, infinite sound options, infinite everything. So do you have any any ways to stay focused enough to finish songs and finish albums? Do you set yourself parameters or rules or anything like that?

Lou Barlow  

Well, I work on Pro Tools LE, so it’s this really basic version of Pro Tools. I think I only have 16 tracks. 

Laura Kidd  

Okay.

Lou Barlow  

So that’s it. And I tried to acquaint myself with another digital audio workstation and I couldn’t do it, it was like learning another language. I know Pro Tools really well, or well enough to do the basic things. But because I can’t figure out how to upgrade, because everything is all online now and Avid, that owns Pro Tools, are a huge pain in the ass (laughs) and they are aggressively difficult for artists to work with, unless you have a lot of resources at your disposal. So I work with an absolutely bare minimum Pro Tools.

Laura Kidd  

Yeah.

Lou Barlow  

I like that. I like that I have that limitation. I do like the limitation of having, you know, a 16 track limitation on what I do. 

Laura Kidd  

Yeah.

Lou Barlow  

So what else was I saying? So you were saying, as far as recording at home..?

Laura Kidd  

Yeah, just how do you stay focused enough to complete things? I mean, I know you’ve been doing it for a long time. So there is that, there is the repetition of it.

Lou Barlow  

Well, for this new record, for instance, I composed the songs for this subscriber project. So I did a thing, you know, with my record label, where every month I came up with a new batch of songs. And this could be like, archival releases, it could be anything I wanted. But I kind of put myself to the task of like, every quarter, you know, every three months, one of these monthly instalments would be new songs. So it had very strict deadlines. I had to be like, you know, if I’m going to do these four new songs, they have to be done at the end of the month, you know, because it’s going to be on cassette, or it’s going to be on vinyl. So because making physical product is such a… you have to really plan these things out these days. And the turnover is pretty intense…

Laura Kidd  

Yes.

Lou Barlow  

…it takes a long time, it can be very drawn out. So I had to sort of play within those guidelines, and those deadlines, and it was awesome. So every quarter, when I would write four new songs, or two new songs, I had a deadline. So that was great. I did a lot of things like I used to do, and actually I used cassettes a lot. Because I do have that limitation of 16 track, I would take a mix, I would record instrumentally, and then take those tracks and dump them onto a cassette player.

Laura Kidd  

Right.

Lou Barlow  

I could get that feel of the cassette, which I’m so in love with still, and I would take back from the cassette onto the Pro Tools, so then I would have a two track. I would then have 14 tracks in order to finish my vocals and whatever embellishments that I think need that kind of digital clarity. 

Laura Kidd  

Mm-hm.

Lou Barlow  

So I was able to work between the two, but then also with this deadline. So it was like, you can’t sit there and tweak the part. I mean, there’s a very limited time to sit and tweak the most perfect vocal performance. And also, if you just bounce everything down to a two track cassette, it’s like, no, you’re not going to be tweaking those backing vocals now and you’re not going to be messing with that guitar, because you put it onto cassette. And now you’ve also thrown off the tempo and everything so you can’t tweak that stuff. So good luck trying. That’s how I did this record. 

Laura Kidd  

Right.

Lou Barlow  

I did it in that way and like, the immediacy of it, and then also just the feeling of like, that’s what it is, man. Sorry. (laughs) I love that because it really did make me… because these digital ways of working can just make you the ultimate navel-gazing, nitpicking…you know.

Laura Kidd  

(laughs) I think it makes you commitment-phobic in a way. 

Lou Barlow  

Yeah, it does! 

Laura Kidd  

Because you can just record a clean guitar and go “I’ll figure the sound out later”. 

Lou Barlow  

Yeah. 

Laura Kidd  

Whereas for me, I feel like I need to create the sonic world as I’m going, as I’m collaging and layering stuff up. 

Lou Barlow  

Yeah, exactly.

Laura Kidd  

Otherwise, I might not write the vocal that fits the song because the sound isn’t there for the guitar yet and stuff like that. 

Lou Barlow  

Yeah.

Laura Kidd  

So yeah, that’s a really cool way of doing it. Now is not the time for me to pick up my computer and walk around my little studio and show you my tape recorder. But it’s in the corner. 

Lou Barlow  

Oh, you have a tape recorder?

Laura Kidd  

Yeah, I got obsessed and bought some stuff off eBay last year.

Lou Barlow  

What specifically did you buy? Reel to reel, or?

Laura Kidd  

(laughs) No, no, it’s cassette. 

Lou Barlow  

It’s cassette? Oh, cool.

Laura Kidd  

Yeah, it’s got two decks. And it’s got really good ins and outs and stuff. 

Lou Barlow  

Oh great.

Laura Kidd  

So I can do exactly what you were describing. I did it in a song that didn’t make it onto the new record, but might be on the next one. 

Lou Barlow  

Nice.

Laura Kidd  

But I was gonna ask you actually, when you were talking about the tempo, because yeah, when you record the tape back in, it’s just gonna be slightly out, isn’t it? It’s gonna be whatever it is. 

Lou Barlow  

Yeah.

Laura Kidd  

And that’s kind of cool, too. I think that sticking to tempos all the time, it’s not very human. Although it can work really well.

Lou Barlow  

No, I remember when I first started, the first 10 years that I was working on Pro Tools I’d just be like, can’t we just pitch something down? And they’re like, no, actually. I’m like, why can’t you? I mean, to me, that’s like… it takes away. I mean, we so often reference older recordings and the magic of the 80s, 70s, and so much of that has to do with these little things that aren’t quite right, that aren’t directly on.

Laura Kidd  

Yeah.

Lou Barlow  

And also the temperament, like how temperamental these tape machines can be. And then also how, The Beatles being the most obvious example of this, but pitch control is a really big part of what the atmosphere is of those records. You know, altering the pitch of the tape machines, between overdubs and mixdowns and whatever is a large part of what we recognise as listeners as being these sort of magical textures.

Laura Kidd  

Yeah, well, atmospherics is a really interesting word to use. Because I think the fact that anyone, and I think this is a good thing, but anyone could create very high quality sound into a computer, it doesn’t mean that atmosphere is not important anymore. And that’s the magical part of it, for me, anyway.

Lou Barlow  

Yeah.

Laura Kidd  

Hearing that a person made something, hearing the breath and hearing…not big mistakes, but imperfections and stuff. Because otherwise, it kind of gives this impression that life is so perfect, and I’m not perfect, at all. (laughs) So it doesn’t sit with me very well. 

Lou Barlow  

Yeah.

Laura Kidd  

I just love your description of how you made that record. It’s even more interesting. 

Lou Barlow  

Cool, awesome. 

Laura Kidd  

Good work! (laughs)

Lou Barlow  

Whoo! (laughs) 

Laura Kidd  

Staying on the subject of this brilliant new album of yours, the press release has a quote from you about music having a central comforting role in your life, which really resonates with me as well, as a songwriter. Is that what the song “In My Arms” is about? Because it sounds like it could be a love song. But to me, it sounds like it’s about music.

Lou Barlow  

I realised yesterday, the song is about my music.

Laura Kidd  

Okay.

Lou Barlow  

About my guitar, practically. I mean, it’s about my guitar, it’s about a tape machine. It’s about a guitar and a tape machine! That’s it.

Laura Kidd  

(laughs)

Lou Barlow  

And the song opens up with a sample of a cassette recording I did in like, 1982. And when I was first discovering my strumming styles, and I was first layering things onto portable cassette recorders, and then playing them back out through a larger cassette recorder through the speakers and then recording it back into the portable cassette recorder. And then how when I did that sort of rudimentary multi-tracking thing that I did when I was, I mean, 1982 I was 14, 15? (laughs) But when I did that, that was when I just got addicted to it, I guess you could say, or where I just really became very impressed with myself. 

Laura Kidd  

Wow. (laughs)

Lou Barlow  

You know, I was like, “Oh, I love that I love the way that sounds”. And I would just be like, I don’t know of anything that sounds quite like that. Maybe just me just with my sort of idiosyncratic way that I strum this classical guitar that only has four strings on it, maybe this is my path forward. Maybe this is my way into this mysterious and intimidating world of music. Maybe that’s my way into it.  And it was. But it’s so funny, even when we talk about digital, all these ways of recording are changing and evolving over the years. And how it can really remove you from the process. With this particular project, I was like, I’m going back to the beginning. And I’m going to find that spot. And “In My Arms” was the last song that I recorded for the record and basically it’s almost like a love song for the project. 

Laura Kidd  

Yeah. Mm.

Lou Barlow  

I’m going to do a video for it, so I’ve been trying to think about what the song is about,  what images would work with it, what can I do to bring out the emotional part of the song. And I just had this realisation, like, wow, this is about my music. This is about my youth. I don’t know if I’ve ever had any lyrics that were so blatantly self… I mean, I’m just like, this is my gift. You know, there’s a line: “What is this outrageous gift?”

Laura Kidd
Yeah, I love that line.

Lou Barlow
“You’re in my arms again”, and I’m like, wow, that’s really uncharacteristic of me to be so bold, but that’s really what it is. Like, I when I heard that, when I was 15 years old, and still what I hear today, when I do allow myself the time to go back and listen to things that I’ve done and immerse myself in my own output and my own history, it’s a very satisfying and very ego boosting. And for me, it’s such a big part of the foundations of me, the basic foundation that keeps me going and gives me the strength to continue to move forward, you know?

Laura Kidd  

Yeah. I love that you put it at the beginning of the album as well, because it means that we can just get right into that feeling that you’ve had at the end of the project, and then kind of go through it as well with you. 

Lou Barlow  

Yeah. I was able to think about it enough and able to, the first time really ever, to form almost like a concept around a record. And a concept other than just like, “This is me and my feelings”, you know. Because in a way, a lot of the lyrics on the record are pretty obtuse. I mean, I don’t really know what I’m talking about. Some of the songs are incredibly personal, some are very political. But I just feel like I took the pressure off myself to be intensely autobiographical the whole time and make it more… you know? And then focus on textures too.

Laura Kidd  

(laughs) Yeah. When it comes to the meanings of your songs, then, if they’re not so autobiographical that it’s obvious to you when you’re writing them, does it ever happen that six months later, a year later, 15 or 20 years later, you realise what the song was really about? 

Lou Barlow  

Yeah. 

Laura Kidd  

Right. Because that happens to me. And I just think, how did I not know myself enough to know that that was what the song was about?

Lou Barlow  

I did this song once – it’s not on this record – where I thought, you know what, I’m gonna be like a Nashville songwriter, because they put themselves into the place of other people. This is what real writers do, they become characters, you know?

Laura Kidd  

Yeah.

Lou Barlow  

This is what Bob Dylan, this is what the real guys do, the real men and women that write these songs. They put themselves in there. So I’m gonna do that. I’m going to pretend that, you know…

Laura Kidd  

Be a proper songwriter. (laughs)

Lou Barlow  

Yeah, I’m gonna be a Nashville writer for this one. And I’m like, I’m gonna pretend I’m a guy with a girlfriend named Pearl. And I’m gonna sing the song for Pearl, you know. And so I wrote this song, and I just really thought it was a completely contrived piece of songwriting. And then I recorded it, and then I realised it was one of the most autobiographical things that I’d ever done. In fact, it basically was a prediction of the arc of this insane change that I had to go through. And probably the closest, I mean, the most uncomfortable truth that I was living with, was addressed in this song. And somehow it only came out when I thought I was being somebody else. It’s kind of shocking. So how do you explain that away to yourself? Or do you? I don’t. I don’t know. 

Laura Kidd  

You don’t? Well, because sometimes when I think about songs of mine that are like that, I think, I suppose this is my subconscious knowing things that it’s trying to tell me. Like, I know what’s going on, obviously, because it wouldn’t have come out like that. I don’t think it’s magic as such when a song comes out. 

Lou Barlow  

No.

Laura Kidd  

I mean, it’s magical, but it’s not like, you know, someone else speaking through me, that’s not how I feel. 

Lou Barlow  

Right.

Laura Kidd  

So it must be that I know more about myself than I give myself credit for. But it’s sort of on another level that it’s not quite up in the brain yet. 

Lou Barlow  

Right.

Laura Kidd  

So I feel like I can tell myself things about what’s going to happen. But yeah, I should have just known. And then I feel like not a very good adult, because I didn’t figure it out a bit sooner, but it was in a song. (laughs)

Lou Barlow  

It’s another kind of weird thing.

Laura Kidd  

I suppose it’s just…everything’s in there, you know?

Lou Barlow  

That’s one really good thing about forcing yourself to be quick sometimes. And forcing yourself to finish something, without spending a whole lot of time just gazing and picking at it, you know? 

Laura Kidd  

Yeah. 

Lou Barlow  

If you do it real quick like that. I’ve had many instances of that, like, “Well, that was really tough stuff, I didn’t like that at all, it’s too bad”. But then a bit later, you’re like, “Oh, okay. It’s good I did that, good that I pushed myself”. 

Laura Kidd  

Yeah. So do you write things quite quickly, do you feel? Because I think people who aren’t songwriters might look at say, a solo album comes out here and then maybe six years later another solo album comes out, and then there’s another gap. But it’s not like in between you’re working on that solo album the whole time, because you also have several other projects that you play in and write in.

Lou Barlow  

Yeah, it’s odd. I mean, it’s all different. I mean, there’s another song called “Over You” on the record. It’s based on a melody and a lyrical nugget that I came up with in 1982. (laughs) So that’s like ’92, 2002, 2012, that’s almost 40 years old. 

Laura Kidd  

(laughs) Wow.

Lou Barlow  

I mean, that song has been in my head that whole time, you know. And there’s another song, it’s called “Clouded Age” – I started writing that song in, like, 1997. 

Laura Kidd  

Yeah. 

Lou Barlow  

And it was just always in my head in some phase of completion until something just, you know, really kicked in. And I finished it in, you know, 2020. But then there’s other songs on the record that I wrote in five minutes. I mean, top to bottom five minutes, you know.

Laura Kidd  

Yeah. It always a mix, isn’t it? 

Lou Barlow  

It’s a real mix. You know, I think especially the older I’ve gotten and the more records I’ve put out, the less I criticise myself about how I come up with songs, and the more I just am fucking grateful that I can do it at all. (laughs)

Laura Kidd  

Yeah, yeah.

Lou Barlow  

Because I used to really get hung up on stuff like that, you know. I’d get hung up on how long something took or something seeming tossed off. And I’ve had a lot of standards on other things that I compared myself to, or peers that I compared myself to, or standards that I was putting myself up against. And I just…less and less and less and less of that. So I’m just like, you know, I’m just building a body of work. And I can do it however the fuck I want to.

Laura Kidd  

Absolutely. Yeah. And so was that hard work? Was that actual, intentional work to stop comparing yourself to those people who were your people you would compare yourself to?

Lou Barlow  

It was intentional, yeah, because it made me miserable. I think that’s another thing too. I mean, it could be a consequence of, you know, I’m a father, and maybe a consequence of becoming a parent, a consequence of becoming older and not being able to drink as much as I used to, not being able to smoke pot like I used to, maybe not do all of these things. It felt almost necessary, challenging or inciting my creativity. I guess the less that I do of those things, and the more that I’ve just focused on the kind of pure joy I get from recording. So yeah, some of it, it’s intentional, but it’s like, it’s just, I don’t want to be a bitter guy. (laughs)

Laura Kidd  

Yeah, that doesn’t sound fun.

Lou Barlow  

I really don’t want to be that, you know. And if I do get to a point where I’m more comfortable in my life, you know, like, where I do have things that I want, some little boxes that are checked off and some more security that I can bring to my family and myself, I hope that when I do get to those points, I never want to look back with any kind of bitterness. I don’t know.

Laura Kidd  

Yeah, I’ve been working on this. The reason I ask these questions is because, obviously, I’m interested for myself. So the last couple of years, I’ve definitely been trying to plan in more time for reflection and trying to spend more time off the computer and stuff. Of course, the pandemic has meant that jumping right back on the computer…it kind of gives me a free pass. So it’s been a bit more of a struggle, because there’s obviously loads of benefits to that and to feeling connected. And none of this is in any judgey way to anyone else. It’s just I know that I’m more happy when I’m not looking at constant streams of information. 

Lou Barlow  

Yeah. 

Laura Kidd  

And so I find that when I’m away from that a bit more, little things that are written somewhere or things I’ve seen online or whatever just mean so much less because there’s so much more going on in my life, basically. So it’s interesting to hear you say that having a family has affected you in a positive way in that sense, too. Because obviously, if there’s more stuff going on then the crappy parts of music or whatever become a smaller part of your life, don’t they? They just become less of a big deal. 

Lou Barlow  

Yeah.

Laura Kidd  

When there’s children who need you, that’s much more important. 

Lou Barlow  

Yeah. (laughs)

Laura Kidd  

Obviously.

Lou Barlow  

I know people who are musicians and stuff who don’t… I mean, there’s plenty of people who are parents who still are in their own little zones and do whatever they want. 

Laura Kidd  

Yeah. 

Lou Barlow  

But, yeah, it’s been a slow process to be perfectly honest, it’s been very slow. And it’s all, you know, two steps forward, three steps back, four steps forward. I’m always kind of disappointed in myself. (laughs) But overall, making records and stuff, it’s just such a…it’s a real bright spot.

Laura Kidd  

Yeah. And you’ve made a fuckload of them haven’t you? What is it…more than 20? A lot, a lot more than 20 I think. Do you even keep track? Because I know you talk about building a body of work, which I really respect, because I feel the same way about my stuff. Do you keep a track? Do you have a number of albums you want to get to, or a number of songs that’s like, I’ve done it now, I’ve made 1000 songs?

Lou Barlow  

No.

Laura Kidd  

No?

Lou Barlow  

I don’t think it matters. I’ve never really thought that that meant anything. When I hear “prolific”, it’s like, so what? (laughs) Who cares? What does that mean? To me, the one thing I think I have is I am on the quest for an undeniably beautiful song. And it’s always amazing how that standard just changes and evolves, depending on what I listen to, because I try to expose myself to all kinds of music that I’ve never heard. I really like it. And I love Spotify and stuff for that reason, because you just have this wealth of just random shit you’ve never heard whether it’s from the past or right now, you know? So I just love how my idea of what’s perfect is always evolving and always changing. And I do really like that I don’t have any real sacred cows, you know. I love Neil Young, because he’s so beautifully fallible and honest. And so erratic. And the way he switches between these extremes. He’s definitely my guy, as far as that goes. And he’s said a lot of things that I really appreciate about the songwriting process. I don’t know where I’m going with this. 

Laura Kidd  

It doesn’t matter. It’s really interesting.

Lou Barlow  

I mean, like, my son, he’s into music, but he’s really into rap. So we’re listening to a lot of new rap. And then I’m playing him old rap. So I’m finding that rap sort of re-entered my life. I mean, it’s been in and out of my life as a pretty intense inspiration. Not so much wanting to sound like it or ever wanting to rap or anything like that. But I think what I’ve always loved about rap is how the best of it always has the most interesting experimental recording techniques that are happening, it has the most off the cuff spontaneous things that are happening, it has some of the most incredibly insightful and honest lyrics that are happening. It also has the opposite of that all just happening at once. (laughs) And that’s been kind of cool lately, my son kind of, I wouldn’t say forcing me back into the world of rap. But in a way, kind of, because I wasn’t really listening to a lot of rap. It just wasn’t what I was listening to. But now he and I, we’ve got a little Spotify playlist that we work on together. You know, we’ll play things and he’ll be like, “Should we put that on our playlist, Dad?”

Laura Kidd  

Oh, that’s so cute!

Lou Barlow  

Yeah. I’ve turned him on to Wu Tang. He turned me on to Biggie Smalls, because I’d never listened to that.

Laura Kidd  

That’s great that you can be influencing each other that way, because you’ve obviously got all the bands that were so important to you that you can share with him, but he’s gonna bring you new stuff. That’s cool.

Lou Barlow  

I love the way kids process music, you know, the way they listen to what they think is cool. It’s so interesting to me.

Laura Kidd  

Are they into your stuff?

Lou Barlow  

No.

Laura Kidd  

Does that upset you? 

Lou Barlow  

I’m not gonna play it for them. I don’t want to sit and listen to myself with them. 

Laura Kidd  

(laughs) No, fair enough. 

Lou Barlow  

Occasionally we’ll get in the car when I’m listening to mixes or something. If I’m in the midst of a record, I’ll be listening to mixes and stuff and they’ll get in the car like, “It’s you, oh my god”. “That’s me.”

Laura Kidd  

(laughs) I was talking to someone recently who’s got kids, and he was saying that it’s funny because his kids couldn’t understand how the thing he did around the house, which is just singing silly songs to them, could also be his job. Because they sort of thought, “But you just sing us nursery rhymes, that can’t be your job”. Like, “That’s not a real job, Daddy” sort of thing. 

Lou Barlow  

Yeah. 

Laura Kidd  

So I was just wondering if they have any sort of idea that that is a job, like being an artist is a job? Because I grew up not surrounded by artists, I didn’t know any. So it took me a really long time to realise that it’s something you can do for a living.

Lou Barlow  

Oh, me too, me too, totally. I had some music lovers in my family, but not musicians. And actually no real artists generally.

Laura Kidd  

That’s interesting. So it is just making it up as we go along, isn’t it? And somehow it’s worked out okay.

Lou Barlow  

I don’t know. My little one’s really funny. She’s five. And she’s, like, a songwriter. She’s throwing rhymes out all the time, she’s trying to rhyme things. I feel like I kind of keep my creative life sort of under wraps, because it’s such a self involved thing. And it’s difficult. I mean, I do want to try to give as much as I can to my kids, you know. It’s tough. But, she’s improvising all the time, like really funny little melodies. And she knows to repeat things, she seems to understand the rudiments of verses and choruses, and just does these wonderful mashups of little bits of things that she hears off of TV shows or Taylor Swift songs or Kacey Musgraves songs. Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see how that goes with her, you know? 

Laura Kidd  

Yeah. 

Lou Barlow  

But it’s always about that cusp. You reach that cusp at some time in your life. You can have all that music and love music and whatever, but you sort of have to get over a bump at some point where you’re like, “I am now going to do this in front of other people, and I am now going to fail. I’m gonna fail. I’m going to be embarrassed. And I’m just going to continue to do it”, you know?

Laura Kidd  

Yeah. Yeah, that can be very hard. I often feel sad as well. I often hear from people who’ve come to my shows, saying things like “I used to play guitar when I was a kid, but then I stopped” or “I used to draw when I was a kid, but then I stopped,” and I think there’s so much repairing we need to do of ourselves when we become adults. And we have to, well not have to, but we have the opportunity to go back and find out how creative we were, but it was kind of punched out of us by life or, you know, a parent not being encouraging or teachers not being encouraging or whatever, or not be able to get over that shyness at an earlier age. But there’s creativity in everyone, it’s not a thing that only special people can do. So it seems to me like kids are full of that stuff. And then sometimes it just gets less and less as they get older, unfortunately.

If you were going to suggest three pieces of your own work to get people into the headspace of your musical world, what would they be?

Lou Barlow  

There’s a song called “Certain Dance Circumstance”. That’s on Spotify. It’s a four track recording. I would recommend that one. I don’t know why.

Laura Kidd  

Don’t need a reason.

Lou Barlow  

No, no reason. “Waltzing With Your Ego”, which is a song by The Folk Implosion, and “Someone You Love” by The Folk Implosion.

Laura Kidd  

Thank you. I just want to say thank you so much for this conversation. It’s been really interesting. I really appreciate you doing it.

Lou Barlow  

Yeah, sorry about the internet. 

Laura Kidd  

No problem. I’m generally sorry about the internet, but it can also be good. (laughs) so thank you. Hope it goes wonderfully with all these new records. 

Lou Barlow  

I hope so too. Thank you.


Laura Kidd

I highly, highly recommend you go and listen to Lou’s stunning new album “Reason To Live”, and I’ve made a deluxe show notes page for this episode at penfriend.rocks/lou with videos and links.

If you’re new here, do make sure you visit my website penfriend.rocks to pick up two free songs and receive thoughtful letters about art and music.

My new album “Exotic Monsters” is out now, and you can find all the information on my website.

If you’re interested in listening to another episode of Attention Engineer right away, I recommend Episode 14 with Sadie Dupuis and Episode 37 with Ryan Miller.

This podcast is a rare ad-free zone, but I do welcome sponsorship from listeners, so if you’d like to find out more about that go to the Sponsorship page. Thanks!

Speaking of which, hugest thanks to my Correspondent’s Club for powering the making of this show and all my music.

I’ll be back in two weeks time with a mystery guest…so I hope to catch you then!

Til then – take care!

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