The notion of the songwriter as poet is generally a tedious one that can cheapen both the complexity of songwriting and what makes the poet’s work unique. For all but the most dire fans it seems that there is an especially low correlation between good lyricists and good poets (see: Billy Corgan, Jeff Tweedy, Jewel, et al). Yet, there seems to exist, in songwriting, a capacity for story telling that can utilize the varied fictive devices of a short story without compromising what is unique to the songwriter as an artist. The lyrics of John Darnielle, the voice of the band The Mountain Goats, exemplify what the narrative structure can do within the framework of a song. Darnielle has built a long career out of his ability to take narratives and weave complex stories—or vignettes of scenes that don’t fit neatly together—into engaging parables that dissect the human condition.

The narrative structure is not unique to American songwriting; rather, it seems a crucial point of musical development in all cultures. Music has traditionally been an integral part of the human condition, a means of celebration, of protest, of mourning, a way of passing along our stories, and our history. Nonetheless it seems prerequisite for an artist if he is to enter that elusive pantheon of uniquely “American” songwriters. A songwriter entering those ranks will, by definition, tap into the rich history of American music within a listener (consciously or not), into the well that houses Alan Lomax's early field recordings; the early roots music of artists such as Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger; the songs of the 60s by artists like Bob Dylan or Paul Simon; and the songs of Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, and Randy Newman through the 70s. There are only a handful of songwriters in America who can access this rich history while retaining a sound all their own. Darnielle is among that handful, building his reputation as a narrative songwriter on the backs of dozens of recordings. From gritty basement recordings like Nine Black Poppies; to a plethora of EPs, like the recent Satanic Messiah EP; to modern classics like The Sunset Tree, Darnielle‘s work has a literary quality; stories are the hallmark of his songwriting (aside from a singular voice, and an ability to turn convention on it’s ear). While Darnielle continues in a tradition that captures the disparate and personal American experience, he also does what is necessary to continue a tradition: He surprises and distorts the very tradition he is a part of.

I had the opportunity to talk about the songwriter as storyteller with John Darnielle, through e-mail, earlier this month.

InDigest: Your writing has a very fiction-like element to it, almost cinematic at times. How does literature, and the narrative-process, fit into your song-writing?

John Darnielle: It's more literature than cinema - I will say, sometimes when I'm writing I'll have the TV running just to supply ambient noise. I used to do that all the time, less now. But to me cinema is always going to be a sort of more limited branch of literature (as is songwriting: a specialized branch, a cul-de-sac) - I keep books, big narratives, in a place of privilege, it seems to me that they remain the condition to which other things aspire.

ID: Are there particular literary figures who have informed your work as The Mountain Goats?

JD: I mean I assume everything I've ever read feeds into what I do. Early on the poetry I was reading - Berryman, Lowell - was pretty explicitly a source; then, later, and now, I find sacred texts - from any tradition, really, though Judaism Christianity and Vaisnavism have been the big ones for me - a huge source of interest - they tend to spur ideas for me. Old old stories, you know.

ID: Do you find your song writing fitting into the pantheon of song-writers who are story-tellers?

JD: Yeah, I think so - it's kind of impossible for me to think of a song that doesn't also tell a story. That whole period in the early nineties when indie-ish bands were into "abstract" lyrics that didn't tell stories or have beginnings middles & ends, God I hated that - I mean, a story needn't cohere exactly, or even be clear, but I always want there to be movement. Or almost always, Get Lonely was kind of an attempt to limit the movement as much as possible without arresting it.

ID: Is story-telling something you are actively listening for in other songwriters, as well?

JD: I do listen for good lyrics in others but I'm not strict about how they become good - like, I was listening to the new Guns N' Roses this morning, and the title track, it's doing some interesting "assume a stance, see what it seems to say" lyrical stuff but I couldn't really tell you what it was "about." I don't distinguish between poetic and non-poetic, my understanding of poetry is that everything fits into that particular box.

ID: Do you feel like there are specific figures that really speak to your writing? Does the influence of a band like Black Sabbath exert a different force against your output over a figure like Dylan or Dinu Lipatti?

JD: Well, Dinu Lipatti's a personal reference to a time when a girlfriend was thinking about him a lot - in that song he's a sort of icon from our secret religion, not himself. I don't really think a lot of the stuff I listen to seeps into what I do - metal, for example, I'm a pure fan, I have no aspirations to join in the dialogue. Anybody who loves Chopin must also love Lipatti but the high school years I'm referencing in that song have more to do with personal iconography than with his work.

ID: Does something like metal have an exact influence on our work over just the general idea that it exists in your life?

JD: In my music, as I say above, hardly at all, except maybe as a model for the sort of attitude one should have toward one's work - always kick ass, always go all-out, try to reach everybody in the room. As a writer – I mean, I think the imagery that metal favors - horrific, ghoulish stuff; darkness; gore - that's stuff I'm drawn to, too, though I usually don't write directly about it. I don't know. As I say, I am more fan than participant with regard to metal.

ID: Location seems to be a major narrative device in your work, be it New York, Florida or Texas, it’s omnipresent. How do places figure into your writing process?

JD: Yeah I always feel like places have personalities - I don't imagine that idea originates with me or anything; I also think the sounds of place names come to carry their own resonance, which surely varies from person to person and culture to culture ("Nueva York" means something different than "New York City," maybe entirely different), and when I use a place name, it sets a whole bunch of unexamined ideas loose, which is what I want. I prefer to not know what I'm doing at least a little of the time.
The Songwriter as Storyteller: An Interview with John Darnielle
By: Dustin Luke Nelson