Blowing on Embers: The Jayhawks’ Gary Louris on Writing with Others
This month we’re launching a new feature at No Depression— Spotlight — to help you get to know some of the best bands in roots music, and we couldn’t be more excited to get started by getting to know the Jayhawks. Since blasting out of the Minneapolis music scene in the late ’80s, the Jayhawks have seen more than their share of ups and downs as a band, but they’ve consistently put out music that many consider an alt-country blueprint. To get our July 2018 Spotlight started, we talked to frontman Gary Louris about the newest Jayhawks album, Back Roads and Abandoned Motels (out July 13), and the secret sauce of co-writing songs. Throughout July, we’ll have more stories and other Jayhawks goodies, and we’ll feature new Spotlight artists each month, so stay tuned!
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After three decades, alt-country icons the Jayhawks have more than enough songs to fill a long set list, songs written by Mark Olson and Gary Louris together in the early years, and then primarily by Louris alone after Olson’s exit.
But an album holds only so many songs, so Louris has amassed a long list of extracurricular credits over his career. He’s co-written songs with the Dixie Chicks, Jakob Dylan, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, Nickel Creek, Dar Williams, Carrie Rodriguez, and many others, and fans have taken notice.
The Jayhawks’ latest album, Back Roads and Abandoned Motels (out July 13), compiles nine songs Louris has written with and for other people, chosen largely from fan requests. There are also two new songs Louris wrote alone for this project.
The idea for the album, which features new recordings of each song by the current Jayhawks lineup — Louris on vocals and guitars, Marc Perlman on bass, Tim O’Reagan on vocals and drums, Karen Grotberg on vocals and keyboards, and John Jackson adding guitar, mandolin, and fiddle — came largely from Jackson, who also happens to be the senior vice president for A&R at the band’s current label, Legacy Recordings.
“He said, ‘You know, there’s a lot of people requesting songs you’ve written with other people,’ and he knew a lot of these songs and was a fan of the songs,” Louris recalls. “He suggested that people might want to hear our take on some of these songs I’ve co-written with other people.”
One of the most requested is “Everybody Knows,” one of four songs he wrote with Natalie Maines, Emily Robison, and Martie Maguire for the Dixie Chicks’ 2006 album, Taking the Long Way, which won Grammys for Album of the Year and Best Country Album.
It’s a long list, far more songs than could fit on one album, so Louris, along with Jackson and longtime Jayhawks “right-hand man” PD Larson, had their work cut out for them whittling it down. In addition to the songs’ popularity with fans, another big criterium was whether it worked as a Jayhawks song.
“We kind of archived what we thought was the best list, and started playing them, and certain songs made more sense than others with how they sounded with us,” Louris says. “That’s really how it came about.”
Also making the list was “Gonna Be a Darkness,” written with Jakob Dylan, which finds longtime Jayhawks drummer O’Reagan taking lead vocals and Jackson adding a new element to the band’s sound with shimmering mandolin. “Backwards Women,” written with the Wild Feathers but never recorded, hearkens back to the classic Jayhawks chimey guitar sound, and nearly every song on the album features the rich harmonies, including trademark “oooooh” vocals, that make the Jayhawks the Jayhawks.
But in another long-running Jayhawks tradition, there are new elements in the mix as well, most notably a lead vocal from Grotberg, who starts off the album with “Come Cryin’ To Me,” another co-write with the Dixie Chicks.
The band also extended a tradition, originating with 2003’s Rainy Day Music, of recording largely live. Back Roads and Abandoned Motels, produced by Louris, Jackson, and Ed Ackerson in the band’s home base, Minneapolis,was recorded over 10 days, with only a few overdubs and parts added separately.
“It was really pretty much just pushing the record button, and this is what we sound like in the room,” Louris says.
Being able to craft that sound on songs that he had a hand in but not complete control over previously was rewarding, Louris says.
“When you co-write a song, and then somebody else records it, you kind of send off your child to go away to boarding school, in a way,” he says. “The song goes away from you and it’s recorded and you don’t really have much input in how it sounds, the speed, the production. So as much as I love the older recordings by other people, it was fun to have complete control and say ‘I want this song a little faster, maybe a little different sound, maybe a different key, slightly different arrangement.’”
After all, this time around, the songs were for a Jayhawks record. And fans who might attempt a side-by-side listen with the original recordings will hear some differences.
“It sounds like a Jayhawks record,” Louris says. “It doesn’t sound like us doing a bunch of covers.”
Louris could probably write a book on songwriting with others, both because of the depth and breadth of his experience and because it’s clear he’s given the process and the outcomes a lot of thought.
“It’s really an interesting process when you walk into a room with someone you didn’t know, and after four hours or something you’ve kind of opened up and talked about very personal things, because usually with lyrics you’re starting to talk about pretty deep issues and you get to know the other person really quickly,” he says. “I’ve made some really good friends doing it.”
"A lot of times you’ll just hear somebody play a little phrase or say something, or you might do the same and they’ll pick up on it, and it’s kind of like a little ember. You’ve kind of got to nurse it, you’ve got to blow on it and get it to continue, because if you don’t keep it moving, it can go out."
His co-writing sessions are generally arranged well in advance, but that doesn’t mean the actual creative process can’t be spontaneous.
“Most songwriters, they’ll have some song ideas in their back pocket so they don’t get stuck, but what I’ve found usually is even with preparation it’s best to just see what happens when you’re sitting around,” he says. “A lot of times it’s just you catch yourself off guard. You’re just talking to each other, and usually when you’re talking you’ve got guitars in your hands in you’re kind of doodling around, and a lot of songwriting is trying to get around your conscious mind and see what’s flowing. So a lot of times you’ll just hear somebody play a little phrase or say something, or you might do the same and they’ll pick up on it, and it’s kind of like a little ember. You’ve kind of got to nurse it, you’ve got to blow on it and get it to continue, because if you don’t keep it moving, it can go out.
“There’s a certain art form to kind of nurturing an idea even if maybe you’re not sure if it’s good enough, or you’re not sure if you like everything about it or what the other person’s suggesting,” he continues. “You kind of have to keep on a positive roll and eventually you come up with something that is great.”
Co-writing isn’t for everyone. It requires compromise, and the ability to let things — including the songs themselves — go. It requires being open and honest with someone you might barely know. But it also comes with plenty of rewards, including a high likelihood of having something to show for your efforts at the end of a session.
“For me I like it because if I write by myself, I can procrastinate and just go, ‘Well, I’ll finish that later. This is a good idea, I’ll come up with another new idea …,’ and the next thing you know I’ve got 50 little ideas but I don’t have a single song,” Louris says. “When you write with somebody else, you kind of have to bring it to the table, you’ve got to close the deal, and that’s the beauty of co-writing. Sometimes I miss having that steady person to bounce things off of, but I’ve been lucky enough to write with a lot of good people.”