WTMD Morning Show host Alex Cortright caught up with The Decemberists frontman, Colin Meloy, to chat about the band’s new album, I’ll Be Your Girl. They discuss working with producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Xiu Xiu, Wye Oak), trying new things in the studio, Colin’s fascination with themes of water, and more. Hear the full conversation, or read the transcribed version below.
Alex Cortight: Colin Meloy, thank you so much for joining us today.
Colin Meloy: It’s my pleasure.
A: Colin, there must be a lot of pride in Decemberistville because this is a really good new album.
C: Oh, thank you so much. Yeah, we’re pretty happy with it.
A: I hear, among many other things, a strong sense of reinvigoration. Like, rebooting the mission. Is that fair?
C: Yeah, I think we really set out to try to create something different. We were kind of breaking out of our own habits and patterns that we had fallen into. Giving ourselves license to try something different. It felt like the right time in our career to try that.
A: Maybe 90 seconds into the album. A minute and a half into “Once in My Life” where you hear Jenny Conlee’s synthesizer and you know immediately we’re into something a little bit different.
C: Yeah, that’s probably true. I mean, I don’t think that synthesizers have necessarily been strangers from our records. We have a history of messing around with them in the past, but maybe not so forward as that song in particular. And it was a big discussion. We all loved it, you know? And were all really excited about it but there was a discussion as to like… “Is this the right thing?” Kind of a “what will people think” thing, but decided to embrace our instinct and our intuition.
A: I really love the cover art of the new album, I’ll Be Your Girl. I mean, you guys have always had terrific artwork because of Carson Ellis. She’s a great artist. She also happens to be your wife. Jenny has this kind of Terry Gilliam-esque rainbow mohawk, or something like that. It’s kind of perfect because she’s adding a number of new colors to The Decemberists’ sonic palette, if you will.
C: Yeah, I think that’s true. I think Chris Funk, as well, brought a bunch of weird synthesizers into it. As well as the producer, John Congleton. So we had a lot of new instruments at our disposal.
A: What else did John Congleton bring to the table?
C: One of the biggest things was just having that kind of objective viewpoint. Somebody who wasn’t necessarily familiar with how we worked in the past, and so was willing and maybe even accidentally ended up being kind of a disruptor along the way, which was really helpful in trying new things.
A: How did you and the band approach the songs initially. Like, as you were writing them and sharing them with the band and they were kind of fleshing them out. Describe that process a little bit, if you would.
C: It worked sort of how I typically work. I’ll write the songs at home on a guitar and we’ll demo them. A few of the songs we’d actually been playing live, which is something we hadn’t done in a long time. I mean, I think it’s probably not since Picaresque that we were actually debuting new songs on the road, or messing with arrangements on the road. So, that felt kind of like a newer way of doing it. Of course, I feel like we ended up scrapping a lot of those arrangements. But at least it helped familiarize ourselves with the songs and inform the way forward.
A: How much authority did you give John Congleton in the process of finely crafting I’ll Be Your Girl. Because I know that can be tricky as a songwriter. You know, you have an idea of where you’re going and the band is with you, and then you’ve got this relatively new guy and he says, “well, what about this?”
C: Yeah. Well, there’s a lot of things he suggested that I struggled with. I think there were definitely disagreements, and continue to be. There are certain things that on the record… you know, certain drums sounds or mix decisions that I’m like, oh, that’s just not how I would’ve done it. But then, that’s why we hired him, you know? We wanted somebody to come in and do things how we don’t do them, which is difficult, but it’s also an important part of the creative process I think.
A: Right. By intention, shaking things up a bit.
A: You know, one of the consistent currents in The Decemberists’ music over all these years is your fascination with bodies of water, you know, rivers and seas. What do you suppose accounts for this lyrical fixation.
C: Oh, I dunno. I grew up in a landlocked state in Montana. I think from an early age, going out to Oregon to visit family. Going out to the Oregon coast was sort of a mind-blowing experience and I think ended up kind of shaping interests and fascinations for me – a love of the sea and stories that come from the sea. And that’s really all I can say to that I think.
A: I’m not really trying to be a psychoanalyst here, but I think it’s pretty interesting. These themes come up a lot. Do you read your kids Grimm’s Fairy Tales?
C: Yeah. There’s a new translation of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that are very unadulterated, unabridged, uncensored, and I started reading them to my 4-year old. And there’s a lot of, like, people’s heads getting chopped off and things like that, and then I ended up having to abandon it. Inspired too many nightmares.
A: Right, or too many questions, like “Daddy, that’s a lot like your song severed.”
C: I know, right.
A: There is something to that with your music, and the new album, too. You combine these really smart and kind of dark lyrics, with pretty jaunty, upbeat music. I think about “We All Die Young,” for example.
C: Yeah. That actually happens to be my 5-year old’s favorite song on the record, and he requests it over and over. Yeah, well I think that that’s just like a tradition in pop songwriting, as far as I know, going back to, you know, The Beatles. The irony of matching upbeat melody or chord progression with dour or dark lyrics. And that’s what I cut my teeth on, that kind of music, and it ends up how I write.
A: One song that really spoke to me upon listening to the album, Colin, was “Rusalka, Rusalka / Wild Rushes,” and even though it’s a longer song it really feels to me like, perhaps the beginning of an opera, like The Hazards of Love or something.
C: Yeah, well the way it came about, it did feel like I was coming back to a mode of songwriting that I hadn’t done in a while. I think after The Hazards of Love I’d kind of gotten that urge out of me. You know, to create these long sprawling songs. And I’ve done some in the interim, but I haven’t found a way, or been interested in putting them on a record, but this is the first time that I felt like it made sense.
A: Colin Meloy of The Decemberists with us today on WTMD, speaking about the brand new album, I’ll Be Your Girl.” Hey Colin, thanks so much for the time today.