The Writer's Share

“Be True to the Song First”: Kevin Gordon on Writing, Life, and Art


Kevin Gordon, a native of Monroe, Louisiana, and long-time resident of East Nashville, is an extraordinary songwriter who holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop and deals in “folk” or “vernacular” art.  Gordon sits down with Cristy Zuazua for The Writer’s Share to talk about songwriting, the current state of the music business and his most recent project.

The Writer’s Share: Did you always want to write? How did you get into songwriting?

Kevin Gordon: I started writing what could be called (bad) poetry in junior high–as an emotional outlet during and following my parents’ divorce, and, as a way of dealing with those teenage blues. I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 17 or 18. But as soon as I was able to play three chords I was trying to write songs–it just felt like a natural thing to do. Whether or not the part of my life that is “songwriting” is work depends on the day, I guess. I still work from a fairly isolated place, in terms of not thinking about how commercial something is.

Early on (well, after moving to Nashville) I realized that the songs that were recorded by other artists or used in film/TV were always things I’d written without concern for the marketplace – songs I’d written for their own sake, I guess. And since then I’ve held to that belief: be true to the song first, and then after I think it’s finished, if some opportunity arises, then I’m usually okay with it. Because I wasn’t writing something while thinking how much money I might make from it. I guess it’s kind of a precious attitude, but I pretty much despise that whole market-driven way of working. I’m convinced it’s a major reason why contemporary music sucks so bad these days; the standards keep falling – songwriters pandering to the lowest common denominator as perceived by too-powerful corporate radio programmers – people who don’t seem to have much music in them. And for whom, apparently, it just can’t get dumb enough. Not that there aren’t great writers having commercial success – I have tremendous respect for those who’ve mastered that particular craft – but just because it’s a hit song doesn’t make it art, and doesn’t mean it’s good. It just means you made something that’s making you money. “Congrats on your success, but you’re no Bill Faulkner.” You get a lot of that in this town: If it smells like money, then, “that’s a f*ckin’ awesome song, dude!” There’s so much luck involved. And politics. Like any other business. But it’s difficult to feel like I’m talking about all this fairly, when thinking about it in a general sense. If something I write, whether it sells 50 or 50,000,000 copies, brings something positive to someone else’s life, then maybe that’s enough right there. And I’m sure most of the successful writers on Music Row would say the same thing. I just fear that all the dumbing-down has had tangible, regrettable effects on how we as people see ourselves and each other. And the beautiful mess of a world we live in.

TWS: You usually perform what you write – how does it feel when your songs are picked up by others and they perform those same songs?

KG: It’s always an honor anytime someone covers one of my songs; it’s never bad news. I haven’t really had any mainstream commercial success, but I’ve been more than lucky to have had a few of my musical heroes cut something: Keith Richards, Levon Helm, Scotty Moore, Ronnie Hawkins, Irma Thomas, and others. And now that I think of it, I haven’t actually witnessed any of those folks performing my songs, other than Todd Snider and his band Hard Working Americans, who recently covered “Down to the Well.”

TWS: “Colfax” and other songs of yours paint pretty vivid pictures; have you found differences in the way listeners respond to this?

KG: Even though “Colfax” is about a very singular experience, one thing I’ve learned from playing it live for years is that even though running into the Klan on a field trip isn’t exactly a common experience, a lot of people remember being in the school band. Sometimes the details that get laid out in the lyric, while telling the larger story, can draw people into the song.  The characters in that song, like Danny Amos, or Valerie, who all happen to be real people; everybody knew someone like that, they just had different names.

TWS: Not only do you compose, but you have a gallery; how did you get started with that and does one feed into inspiration for the other?

KG: The gallery is a reflection of the visual art that interests me the most: vernacular art, made by people who live and/or create outside of the cultural mainstream. The artists whose work is in the gallery and in my collection are largely already known within this particular field – I have neither the time nor the capital to “discover” an artist or elevate her profile. It’s literally a labor of love. I buy and sell the work that moves me.  It’s a great diversion or break from the music business, and although it’s ostensibly a commercial enterprise, it’s a very esoteric one, and one that doesn’t have nearly as much to do with my ego as the music biz. I’m more research librarian than salesman. I know the work. Part of what clients pay for when they buy a piece of art from me is that knowledge.

The art does inspire the music, certainly. I’ve written songs about artists I’ve known (Joe Light), or otherwise read about (Pecolia Warner). And I’d say that the attitude that’s embedded in much of this art – its earnestness and its relative lack of regard for, or knowledge of, a marketplace or “art world,” is a positive influence on my own work as a writer, and on my life in general.

TWS: What has been the biggest change you’ve witnessed in the songwriting world over the years?

KG: Honestly the biggest change for me has been my own increasing lack of interest in those changes. Okay, I’m kidding – partially. The most noticeable is the substantial increase in activity regarding the placement of songs in film and TV. Seems like there’s a lot more action there, though because of that, licensing fees have gone down. Otherwise, it’s the same changes that have affected the rest of the first world: technological advances, and the internet, mainly, have made it possible for just about anyone to make a recording, and make one that sounds pretty good. So, while it’s great that everyone’s so empowered with our shiny little boxes, that’s also the downside – everyone is more visible, so there’s more competition. Even just to be noticed. And it can be argued that it’s not just the quality of the work that makes the difference in success but also how sharp one’s marketing team is, along with a certain amount of luck. And a budget. It all has to line up.

TWS: How do you think that will change in the future?

KG: Unfortunately I don’t really see things getting better, overall. All I know to do is to keep doing what I do best, try to do the very best work I can, and not let the bastards get me down.

TWS: What made you want to get involved in The Writers Share projects?

KG: It’s a quality environment. Max has been a great advocate, not only for me, but for everyone he brings in for The Writer’s Share shows. To feel like you’re being presented well, with some kind of dignity, is a rare and beautiful thing. And it makes for better music!

TWS: Can you talk a little about your current projects?

KG: My new record, “Long Gone Time,” will be released in early September. Instead of driving around all this summer playing shows, I’m at home mostly, working with my team to prepare for the release. Which sounds exciting, but really, once we’re done recording the music, most of the fun is over. But it is exciting when good things happen – when your publicist secures a great media opportunity, etc. And I still love touring, for the most part. Like anything else, it’s those good things that keep you going.

TWS: Looking forward to the show!

Join us at the show – and check out more of Kevin Gordon’s latest projects on his website and a few of his songs.

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