An Interview with Jake McKelvie

We caught up with New England-based musician Jake McKelvie following his show at Parkside Lounge in the East Village. McKelvie is a touring musician and songwriter, provides lead vocals and guitar for his band The Countertops, and hosts Crashing Your Planet, a music podcast featuring participants of the independent music world.

McKelvie is as dry and sarcastic as his lyrics, both in person and in his on-stage banter. From tales of ill-fated tours past to jealousy-inducing interviews with Pavement’s Scott Kannberg, our conversation was amusingly interrupted several times by Parkside employees, adding comedic punctuation (and in one case, a real cliff-hanger) to our conversation.

Canvas & Cassette: You’ve just set out on a summer run of shows—is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to this time around?

Jake McKelvie: We’re going to the West Coast on this tour. I’ve played a couple shows there, but it was part of this ill-fated tour that I was on a few years ago where everything sort of fell apart. So realistically, this is my first time actually touring on the West Coast. I’m excited about those shows in particular, because I don’t have much of an idea of how they’ll go. I mean, not a lot of people come to see me in general (laughs) so I’m not expecting a whole lot. I’m curious to see how the West Coast treats us, because it’ll be our first time—me and Tyler, my tour mate—playing in a lot of these places.

C&C: Generally, do you prefer playing locally, or are there perks to playing both familiar and completely new venues?

JM: I’d say there are good and bad things about each. Playing locally is great– and when I say local, I mean pretty much anywhere in Massachusetts or New Hampshire, or just New England in general. There’s a handful of spots where we play and we know that a certain number of people are usually going to come. Which is great, but at the same time, personally I get to a point where I feel like we’ve been playing to the same people over and over again and they’ve seen us do this a million times, so I start feeling self-conscious about whether people are getting tired of seeing us? It feels weird...

C&C: You have to have fresh jokes every time...

JM: (laughs) Yeah, and that’s the nice thing about touring, playing different places, playing with different bands, ideally playing to different audiences. But of course the potential downside to touring too, is you’re playing places you don’t play a lot or you’ve never played before and you have no idea if there’s going to be anybody there. I mean, I’ve definitely played to zero to three people in the past, and any band has done that same thing. You’re also kind of risking the car staying functional the whole time...

C&C: Has that ever happened to you? Having issues like that?

JM: Yeah, well what I mentioned before about having sort of toured the West Coast before, a few years ago I did kind of a solo tour and tours with this other band, the Heligoats. I got into a car accident on that tour, in Minnesota—

At this point in our conversation, an employee of the venue stops by to congratulate Jake on a great show.

JM: So yeah, I got into a car accident...

C&C: Well, that was a real cliff-hanger!

JM: Didn’t mean to keep you in suspense! But yeah, that tour sort of unraveled, I ended up buying another car, I was on the road and then that car broke down. It was this whole mess. So that was the worst predicament I’ve had as far as touring. And that’s ingrained in me now, every time I’m on tour, I’m like “please don’t let that happen again.”

C&C: Literally anything but that.

JM: Yeah, so far so good. We’re in a pretty reliable car this time around, so...

C&C: Along the same vein of touring, are you partial to the songwriting process or the touring process?

JM: The biggest thrill that I get out of doing any of this is the performing aspect of it all. I enjoy finding things within the songs to do differently with each performance, just kind of goof around with the words because there are a lot of components that can be shuffled, or sung differently, or whatever.

C&C: It was interesting to see your songs performed live after hearing them on Bandcamp, because they’re kind of confessional almost, or they sound like letters. But seeing them live, it felt more like storytelling. Are any of those ways that you approach writing songs?

JM: Sure, some of them are, some of them aren’t. The most recent solo EP thing that I did was sort of narrative, I created a character and had these songs focus around that person; for those, the narrative preceded the song. Whereas with other songs, especially with the full band (The Countertops) there’s less of that. Those songs are more non-sequitur, not really pertaining to one thing, more “stream of consciousness” type deal. I feel like I don’t really know anything about songwriting or writing in general. I feel silly ever trying to explain it.

C&C: In some of your songs there’s also a bitterness that reveals itself. Does your songwriting ever start from a feeling that sort of evolves? I also don’t know anything about songwriting and haven’t actually written songs—at least you’ve done that (laughs). So I’m very curious about that process—where it starts, how long it takes, and when you feel like you’ve finished.

JM: It’s a very drawn out thing; it’s very rare for me, at least these days, to sit down and then thirty minutes later have a new song. I would say a majority of them are combinations of getting an idea for a line, writing it down, after a while shuffling the lines into place, and then they sort of end up falling into what ends up becoming a full song. It’s a lot of taking pieces and arranging them rather than a formulaic process. It’s a lot more, I guess I’ll use the word “abstract.”

I guess I never really have the feeling like I’m writing for a record, so much as I really just wish I could write a song and then eventually there is one, and I’m like “okay, there’s another one we can add to the pile” (laughs). It’s more, because I write a full song so infrequently or at least so sporadically it does kind of become a numbers thing for me, where I just want enough to be able to have a new thing to put out versus “oh, I’m writing these songs for that thing and this song for that thing.” It’s more like, I want there to just be songs and we’ll figure the rest out later.

C&C: That’s very interesting, and honestly very surprising to hear because a lot of what I’ve heard in your songs is that sort of “stream of consciousness” you were talking about. I read an article where somebody likened your lyrics to “a mind wandering,” which is so spot-on. Because of that, I would have assumed that your music just pours out of you, almost like you roll your eyes and put pen to paper (laughs).

JM: Sometimes cool things do reveal themselves. But I guess there’s no one approach to songwriting I feel like I rely on. Anytime I think, “it’s been so long since I’ve written a song, I feel like I want to, I’ll just get the guitar...” it never feels conducive to anything. It’s always too contrived so it never seems to result in any actual progress.

C&C: You kind of have to let it happen. I guess that sounds pretty cheesy.

JM: I think it’s true though. You can’t really force the inspiration, which also sounds really cheesy.

C&C: Are there any musicians or songwriters that are particularly influential to you in the way that you write or approach music?

JM: One of the first bands that I really loved that sent me down the path of the type of music that I’m the most interested in was Pavement. They had a lot of goofy sardonic, kind of nonsensical lyrics and I really enjoy that sort of thing. And then on the other side of that, stuff that I got into at a similar time but is pretty different, is Townes Van Zandt, singer-songwriter, folky, country type of music.

I wouldn’t dare compare myself to either of those people, but as far as what I think I’m striving for, to some degree, is a cross-section of those two things. There’s kind of a forlorn country tinge to a lot of it, but I also don’t really, for me personally, want to be doing super “heart on my sleeve” type stuff. There’s always got to be some sort of tongue in cheek, winking at the camera, like “I realize what I’m saying is pretty silly so don’t take it too seriously” type of thing.

So those are the two main ones I think, and bands like The Weakerthans, John K. Samson is the writer for that band and lyrically is a big deal to me. Then The Mountain Goats to some extent, Bill Callahan, his band Smog was a big thing for me. Those are a lot of the main ones from a songwriting, lyrical standpoint.

C&C: I’m curious about your album covers and merch, they’re so goofy and self-deprecating. Like the “Golden Voice," I laughed out loud when I saw the album artwork because it made me think of middle school, making mixed CDs for friends and not even having a cover, just wrapping the CD up with loose leaf paper (laughs). I’m curious about those sorts of visual representations of your music—is that an afterthought, or is it important to you? Or do you really even spend that much time thinking about it?

JM: I do spend some amount of time thinking about it. Specifically, that “Golden Voice” thing, I just thought that was really funny.

C&C: Was that you or was that somebody else who drew that?

JM: Oh yeah, I drew it (laughs). Those little characters with the big noses, I’ve been drawing those since I was eight and that was always like the one thing I knew how to draw, goofy looking cartoon characters with big noses. That was the first kind of solo EP that I did when I was eighteen. The whole thing was kind of a goofball thing, because there’s a cassette tape that I had from my dad’s old collection called “The Golden Voice of Frankie” something or other. I just handmade all those things.

C&C: Have you drawn all of your album covers?

JM: No, not all of them. So the two Countertops albums— the first one with the orange cover was a painting that my little sister did when she was seven or eight. Then the “Solid Chunks” cover was made by my cousin, who is a middle school art teacher. That was one of her projects for school, the macaroni and cheese hand. Then “The Rhinestone Busboy,” which is the most recent one, I did.

I was making buttons with our bass player Nick last week and I was looking at the different designs we have and I was like, “I think I need to learn how to draw something other than faces because that’s all I can do, is just like goofy looking cartoon characters.” I think there’s a pretty cartoony aspect to a lot of the music, too, which I’ve kind of come around to and might be something I continue.

C&C: The last question I want to ask you, at the risk of sounding creepy–I listened to your podcast when you interviewed Pavement’s Scott Kannberg. I love how you asked at the end about listening habits and was wondering how you might answer the same question.

JM: So I started that podcast (Crashing Your Planet) a year ago and that’s kind of been a big part of what it’s become—me sort of struggling to grasp the fact that over the last few years I’ve really fallen out of what were my previous listening habits. I feel like I used to discover new music a lot or really keep on top of what I thought was new or was interested in, and at a certain point I felt like that was super hard to do with all the new platforms like Spotify and all that sort of stuff. So that’s something I really struggled with, and I got into podcasts a lot, and it’s kind of cliché I guess but it really pulled me away from listening to music as much as I used to.

So for the last year or so I’ve been interviewing people and that has become the last question I always ask them because I’m always super curious—like you’re a musician, and in theory you are paying attention to other music around you, so what do you do to find out what to listen to or how do you consume music? It’s something I’m curious about with everyone because, I don’t know, I feel like I had to consciously tell myself to start caring about finding new music again. So, I’ve gotten a lot better about it over the last year. I think the podcast has helped me to be a lotmore open-minded and look for new stuff more, which I wasn’t doing for a while and I was starting to feel guilty about that. So for as far as what I actually do now—I do use Spotify and that whole thing, and buy records. There are a handful of bands that I just keep tabs on, like my five or ten favorite bands that I’ll pay attention to and buy whatever they put out. In the meantime, I’ve been trying to get into the discovery mode where I’m just trying to figure out what interests me and try to be more active with stuff like that because I’ve felt like I wasn’t for a while. The podcast has been really helpful for that because I’ve gotten to talk to a lot of people, and a good amount are musicians and producers a generation or two ahead of me. It’s pretty inspiring to hear people like that talk about the good music they’re still discovering.

-Marissa Passi