How do you usually write the lyrics of your songs?
Jen de la Osa (JD): It varies. I do a lot of collecting. I write lines down as they come to me in a notebook. Usually these lines are not terribly specific, but I can see them leading somewhere, or at least setting the tone for a song. When I get stuck on something I’m working on, I’ll comb through the notebook and see if something fits. Sometimes I’ll improvise while playing guitar or working out a melody and one of those lyrics sets the whole thing going. And even yet at other times, it can be much more immediate. If I have the idea for the song figured out in depth and the music all good to go, it can be very easy to just sit down with it all and start hammering out lyrics and have the whole thing mostly done in one go. It really just depends on the song.
Henry Beguiristain (HB): Yeah, I’d agree that it varies wildly. I’m constantly jotting down random lines or ideas as they come to me, sometimes one of us will have larger portions ready. One of our songs, “It’s Got To Be Now”, most of the lyrics were written on a typewriter in one sitting, sans music. You just have to run with what’s moving you. In general, reading books is a huge part of our process. When we work on a song completely from scratch, the two of us will spend hours talking about a thing—chugging coffee by the liter—and lyrics just flow afterward. We’re both pretty merciless when it comes to editing lyrics. Nobody appreciates shitty lyrics!
In your opinion, what is the most important thing in songwriting?
HB: Whether it’s fiction or something deeply personal—whatever the context is—the song needs to be something you believe in. You can always tell when it’s a work product. If you’re not going to care, why should anybody else? Let the bean counters worry about what sells or not. You’re making art, baby.
JD: That’s a rather difficult one to pin down, but I suppose the most important thing to me is that whatever story or atmosphere I’m intending to put across does come across clearly, but artfully. I don’t want to hammer people over the head with it. Most of the times art should be subtle. Songwriting is really about self-expression. Even when you’re writing about someone else’s life, it’s still your impression of it, so I suppose making sure your point comes across is important. I don’t mean exclusively lyrically, either. The music has A LOT to do with communicating a feeling. It’s more important to me that the music does that effectively than the lyrics. It’s the combination of the two that is most powerful.
Are you ever scared of revealing aspects of your personal life/experience to strangers through your music?
HB: No, never. Not at all. I was a pretty lonely kid—certainly introverted—and expressing myself through music, writing songs, that was the way I could connect with the human population living outside of my bedroom. I feel the most free and the most myself when I’m working on music or playing live. If I’m going to let strangers peer into my inner life, I’d much rather connect with someone through a song than an Instagram post or tweet or what have you.
What is the best lyric that you ever wrote (the most meaningful for you)?
JD: I suppose one of the more meaningful lyrics are in our song “Exile in the Night”. Our album Exile takes the subject of our families’ histories as the backdrop—both Henry and I have Cuban exile backgrounds. We’d both been reading the memoirs of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas and decided we’d tackle a more personal subject for us while incorporating pieces of Reinaldo’s book. The song is told from the perspective of someone living in exile trying to find familiarity in a foreign place.
HB: Yeah, I’d say just about anything off Exile is extra special. That record was a moment of truth for Jen and I, and working on that one was pure magic. In a similar vein, though, I’m going to proffer “The Last Time”, off the record before that. That song’s been on my mind a lot lately with our government separating children and parents on the border—that situation is so fucking grotesque and shameful. “The Last Time” was inspired by the Pedro Pan flights from Cuba in the early 60s, and written from the point of view of a parent talking to their child before secretly sending them to the U.S., alone, in the hopes that they’d be reunited soon with a shot at a better life. We must’ve just finished reading Waiting for Snow in Havana and felt moved to write about it. “Those devils who’d erase you/They don’t know the lengths to which I’d go” chokes me up if I think too much about it.
What inspired “Son of the Dharma”, your latest single?
JD: “Son of the Dharma” was written after I’d read a few biographies on Jack Kerouac. I’d read him a lot when I was younger as well as the other Beats. Reading the books, though, you see how he was maybe not the best friend to have around, or even the guy you wanted hanging around at parties. He could be terrible and selfish and moody. And much worse. He drank every day like he would die the next. I’d known some people in my life like that, so I wrote the song from the perspective of being friends with someone like that.
And “A Little Bit Low”?
JD: We were sitting around listening to tunes when Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope” came on. The percussion accents made such an impression on me.
In the middle of listening to that, the hook to “A Little Bit Low” suddenly came to me. I went to our bedroom and started working out the chords. The verses flowed quickly after that. I wanted a constant drive to it; a sense of immediacy. I pictured a tune that would be relentless on us to play, enough to perspire profusely on stage.
HB: I remember when you started working on it! You were pretty excited with it. You came down to the living room with the guitar and you were, like, “Guys, stop watching TV. Check this shit out!” It was great.
JD: Lyrically, the song turned out to be a pick-me-up letter. Writing songs can sometimes be cheap therapy. It was a particularly arduous time, and I was singing to myself in the song. It’s about the anxieties that pile up in your head growing into larger monsters. It’s a reminder to shut that mental picture down hence the line: “It’s easy to lose your mind over nothing/Every time you close your eyes you‘re seeing something”. We wrote the bridge the next day and took pains to make sure that it created a musical tension or build that would match the lyrics above.
Do you remember the day you wrote “Empty House”?
HB: Jen and I were living in Malden, Massachusetts at the time. This would have been late 2014. It was a Saturday, pretty rainy day, and we’d set the day aside to write a new song. Typically, whoever’s at bat will bring in a decent chunk of the song, but this particular morning, there wasn’t any agenda. We were more or less working from scratch. When I was a teenager, I remember watching an episode of Alternative Nation on MTV where the VJ mentioned something about Noel Gallagher building entire songs around an opening line. I took that took heart, so half the stuff in my notebooks is potential opening lines for songs. Anyway, Jen was tuning up her guitar, and I’m there desperately flipping through my notebook, praying something would jump out, and it did! I bust out laughing at “Living forever is easy.” It must’ve been something I jotted down while I was out drinking or something and completely forgot about it. The thought of that opening any song was funny to me. It’s such a fucking insane thing to declare! And Jen responds with the second half, “It just takes a clever mind,” and it was just us batting lines back and forth from there. We ended up basing the song partially on how we felt after watching A Band Called Death the night before—a lot of stuff about family and forgiveness and generally doing your best to keep the world from turning your soul to stone. The lyrics got a little heavier and more personal than I anticipated, but I really enjoyed writing this one with Jen. At least lyrically, I’d put it up as some of our best work. Anyway, to answer your question: yes, I remember that day.
To conclude the interview a short Q/A session, please answer the first thing that comes to your mind:
- Define in one word your sound: JD: Fiery. / HB: Lavender.
- The best show you ever played: HB: In recent memory, probably Berlin in NYC this past April. It was part of our first tour back home to the east coast after moving to L.A. We have some songs in a lovely film, All These Small Moments, which debuted at Tribeca and we got invited out to the premiere. (The film and soundtrack album is officially out in January, by the way!) The tour itself became a considerably frustrating affair, which is unfortunate, but we all felt pretty triumphant after that NYC show. Everything about that gig was a fucking delight. We were in perfect sync with each other, we were surrounded by friends, folks from the film were there having a good time… It was a big ol’ love fest. I’d put that in the top three best Aloud shows ever, hands down.
- The one thing that you must have in your backstage: JD: Water, a couch, and a spot to do some vocal warm-ups are really all I need. / HB: That’s three things. You have to pick one. / JD: Who is this guy? I need my three things. / HB: You choosing three things is like taking away mine and Charles’ [bassist] one thing. / JD: Then you shall go wanting.
- The soundtrack of your childhood: JD: The Oldies station. It was on all the time and I knew every word. British invasion and Motown.
- Your favorite song lyrically speaking, but not written by you: HB: I fully reserve the right to change my choice in about twenty minutes, but Alex Turner’s “Piledriver Waltz”. He’s easily one of the best songwriters of the past ten years.
- Last question is “unusual”, we want to know your best relationship advice: JD: Be honest. If there’s a problem just say so. It’ll come out anyway and when it does you’ll have no control over how it does or how emotional it might be, so just talk to each other. / HB: Lying constantly also works! It’s difficult work, but the scale of your web of lies is a magnificent thing to behold just before your life falls apart! / JD: Hey, that’s another way to go.