You mentioned your life changed. You’ve been pretty candid about the period you’ve gone through in the last year and half to two years, your bout with mental illness and depression; and going through it in your work. Is there any fear among artists that without a constant harangue or that constant inner conflict, you can’t create, or is that complete bullshit?
I think it is. I couldn’t write when I was at the worst. I didn’t write for years. It’s not really depression, though. It’s a different thing entirely; it’s a Dissociative Disorder. The world literally seems like a hallucination. The world just doesn’t seem real. Imagine living for 20 years as if you were having an acid flashback. That’s what’s been going on in my head. And it will never stop. It’s not going to go away. The challenge is to learn to live with it, to not panic.
The depression or anxiety comes when the world seems like a hallucination. You tend to get a little fat and worried, because, you know, it sucks.
The truth is, in the past year and a half I became completely debilitated to the point where I could not function at all, but it was a long decline. It’s part of the reason I’ve had trouble all of my life.
But as far as creativity goes; if you’re a writer, you write. I write when I feel things. Sometimes I can be very happy and it can remind me of things in the past that are gone. I wrote ‘On A Tuesday In Amsterdam Long Ago’ a few days after ‘Accidentally In Love’ (Shrek II soundtrack/nominated for 2004 Academy Award). They’re both about the same thing. ‘Tuesday’ is about this idea that while I’m completely in love right now, which is incredibly beautiful, what if it’s just a postcard, what if I’m looking at this moment in my life like a snapshot of something that was and now isn’t a long time from now. It’s a very sad song, as opposed to ‘Accidentally In Love,’ which is a completely ebullient song about unabashedly falling in love. I don’t know which of the two I like better. It’s harder to write about something that’s happy, maybe, but that doesn’t mean you can’t. It just means you need to be a good writer.
To write about those things is a lot harder, because it’s harder to be happy…for me. At a certain point, you get tired of trading your life for song. I’ve done it for a long time now, under this impression that my life wasn’t anywhere near as important as being an artist. I’m not sure that’s a very good decision to be continuing to make.
The song ‘Washington Square’ reminds me of the Henry James novel of the same name, mainly because it seems to describe this struggle with identity and self-doubt in a world of wealth and privilege.
Well, it’s definitely about a loss of self, and it’s about losing your mind. It begins with a complete loss of sense of who you are. I hadn’t read Washington Square; so I can’t really say it relates to that, but yes, the first part of this record is definitely about completely losing all sense of your self, and the second part is how do you put your life together when you don’t have a sense of self. How do you go get it if you completely let go of your life while trying to live it again? You don’t know how to do it, so you’ll mostly fail. But that’s okay. Life isn’t always about succeeding in everything. Half of success is in the doing.
I notice a theme of your work is to use cities as a metaphor for whatever you are getting at, whether it appears as the name of a song, ‘Omaha’ or ‘Miami’ or in the case of this record, where city names appear in almost every song and some titles.
I suppose so. I don’t use cities as metaphors so much as I tend to write detail. I think I read once of Hemmingway that you begin with one true thing and then you go from there. You don’t want to say, ‘I love you’ as much as you want to say, ‘All at once you look across a crowded room and see the way the light attaches to a girl.’ The details of what’s going on in the room, the books on your shelf, communicate something about the way you feel. If you just say, ‘I feel this way,’ it actually doesn’t communicate real feelings, because it’s just the words that stand for something rather than mean something. So I believe in writing details, and cities are where things take place. ‘I wandered the highways from Dublin to Berkeley’ from ‘Washington Square’ has to do with the two cities I left behind and ending up in New York City and then having to leave there again.