Spinning Yarns with Colin Meloy

Colin Meloy's vocals often swagger– but sometimes they just lope around aimlessly, seemingly irrespective of whether he's singing with the Decemberists at the time. But it's always easy to overlook the awkward phrases because the composition underneath is so expertly crafted. Then again, maybe we're just caught up in the storyline– the band's 2006 album, The Crane Wife, was their first for a major label, but that didn't stop them from loading it up with long-form song cycles based on Japanese fairy tales and Shakespearean comedy. Thanks to a degree in Creative Writing and a songwriting sensibility for which "literate" seems to turn up as the most handy adjective, Meloy has put himself at the nexus of folktale and folk-pop. By sheer force of novelty, that's a pretty cool place to be.

The Hook: Until recently your solo EPs consisted mostly of covers. Are you saving your compositions for the Decemberists?
Colin Meloy: I guess I see no reason to try to distinguish between what's an appropriate Decemberists song and what's an appropriate Colin Meloy solo song. It's not like I'm writing a lot of folk songs and a lot of disco songs. The rules of the Decemberists are open enough that I wouldn't reserve a song for something else because it didn't fit– because anything fits.
The Hook: When you're writing, how important is it to be able to think in terms of all the arrangement possibilities that the band can provide for you?
Colin Meloy: When I'm writing them, I'm typically envisioning some sort of arrangement with different parts. The music I write I think of as being "orchestral folk-pop." You need a band to do that.
The Hook: A year ago you said that you only once considered doing a solo record, and only because you had been obsessing over Springsteen's Nebraska.
Colin Meloy: Obviously [the tour EP's] are nothing compared to what it would take to record something like Nebraska. I guess the only similarity is that I recorded them at home. I think at the time I liked the idea that Springsteen had the guts, when he was known for this giant bombastic Americana, to suddenly retreat into the incredibly somber and dark, quiet world that that record creates. I think that's really impressive– in the midst of a booming career, to make a totally non-commercial record.
The Hook: Do your narrative and melodic threads ever conflict? How do you solve that problem?
Colin Meloy: I don't know that the narrative is really in danger, because if the narrative isn't there, the song isn't there. But there have been times when I'll get stuck on a lyric, maybe two lines, and will go into the studio and have to try to do it on the fly. Oddly enough, two times I remember involved rhyming a word to the name of the city, so it's an exercise in going through the alphabet and going through all your options. We just recorded a song that's kind of a re-imagining of the world of Valerie Plame from the perspective of one of her connections in the underworld, and the issue was rhyming "world" with "Berlin," which obviously doesn't work. We ended up going with "on high" and "Shanghai."
The Hook: I'm having a flashback to Carmen Sandiego here...
Colin Meloy: It's hard, and people do rely on rhyming dictionaries, and I've gone to one from time to time, but I've gotten by fine without one for years and years. Instead, I have my initial word and my rhyme word that I need, and I sit there and go through the alphabet. Say the word's "bottle." I sit there and go "A-B-Coddle-Dawdle," and on and on until I've landed. It's really that nerdy and mathematical. It can be really tedious, like doing Excel spreadsheets.
The Hook: And have you ever resorted to actually using spreadsheets for this?
Colin Meloy: Oh, no. I meant that as a metaphor– think of the most tedious thing you could be doing in an office job. There are moments like that in songwriting. People shouldn't think it's the constant inevitable lightning strike of inspiration. It sucks, too. If you hate your job and wish you were in a band, well, it's not all that great.
The Hook: Did the birth of your son affect the storytelling element of your music? Do you tell him stories?
Colin Meloy: I do. I thought there was a part of me that was going to soften up. It's a cliché, the songwriter having a baby and then writing these weepy saccharine ballads about how wonderful it is to be a father. I actually found I was writing more darkly and more violently in some way. I used to sing him a battery of songs every night. Recently, for whatever reason, he doesn't like to be sung to and likes stories to be told to him, so I've been making something up. Of course, he's a really easy audience; he's kind of a pushover.

Colin Meloy performs at the Satellite Ballroom on April 12. $20-$25, 8pm.