Interview: Alan Semerdjian’s Brave Songs For Loud Times

Alan Semerdjian is a published poet/essayist, released his third indie folk/pop album Quiet Songs For Loud Times in 2013 and teaches English at Herricks High School in New Hyde Park, NY. Here’s how he does it all…

Please tell us about the theme of Quiet Songs For Loud Times and why you chose that name.

I was getting to a point in my life where I was seeing these exterior pressures of the world. I’m talking about the consequences of the economic disasters of 2008, 2009, war on terror and what happened to people’s lives because of that. Individuals in different parts of the world were having trouble living in the same space. Those were the external “loud times” that I was seeing; loud problems that were screaming and yelling for attention. Then there were these deeply personal and introspective loud times like I’m getting older, turning 40, will I have a child in my life one day, what does family mean, what do love and mortality mean? Those are the inner conflicts or inner loud times. I started writing songs that address these things in my life. But many of the songs were coming out quietly and I thought what an interesting paradox. As soon as I started seeing it on that level, it made a weird sense that we are creating quiet songs for these loud times so that became the album title. All of them are quiet but certainly there are moments at the end of More that are really cacophonic. The majority of the album is an introspective quiet look at issues that we all have to deal with.

Break Down is also on the more upbeat side.

Yes, Break Down is louder too, which is funny because I didn’t write it like that. I wrote it as a folk song on a guitar. It wasn’t meant to be loud, rockin’ and alt-country but it morphed into a louder song.

Can you describe the route a song takes from starting solo with a guitar to a studio recording with multiple instruments?

There are different paths for each song. But the typical path involves sitting with the basic tracks (vocals and guitar) for a week or two after having recorded with a click track – usually I record with a click track when I know I’m playing with a band – and then I start laying down drums and percussion afterwards, maybe re-do my guitar tracks, and then all the colours come after that; pianos, mandolins, banjos, synthesizers. That’s the typical way I do it.

The Big Beauty was recorded in an interesting way because I recorded all basic tracks of the album in one incredibly long session in a Woodstock, New York clubhouse. When a songwriter does that, the band he’s recording with must be extremely rehearsed and then they can do two or three takes of each song and use the best one.

When you have a full album recorded, mixed and mastered, what makes you choose a specific song to create a music video?

I’ve only created four or five formal music videos for all of my work. I don’t know right away and have to let the music sit for a while and see what resonates for other people and me. After listening to my album The Big Beauty, my filmmaker friend Haik Kocharian approached me and said he wanted to collaborate. He told me that Can’t Wait was the most visually stimulating song but I didn’t necessarily agree with his decision for that record. I was thinking Your Love, I Can’t Tell You How or Bad Dreams. Can’t Wait stood out to him so that was the impetus for me to look back at that song and then I agreed to collaborate for the video. Now I’m working with a friend on a potential video that will involve animation. The truth is when making a video there are multiple artists involved so I really want an inclination and aesthetics of others. That’s true collaboration.

Tell us about the different projects you’ve been in and how that’s altered your path as a songwriter.

I love to experiment as an artist, writer, musician and human. My first project musically was a band called Surreal, an alternative rock band born in the 80s. We had a blend of U2 meets Pavement and other 90s alternative rock. We always had an inclination push the envelope. We were too indie for the hippies and too hippie for the indies. After Surreal came Milquetoast, a hybrid singer-songwriter/jam band. We had these funky tunes that we’d extend as well as little nuggets of songs that we would improvise over but we really weren’t a jam band it was kind of an identity crisis. During that time I got really into free jazz and started a project called Watercats and collaborated with a multi-instrumentalist named Daniel Carter, performing spoken word poetry over music. Somewhere along the way I made a record by myself called Hero City and played about 50 to 100 shows in bars. It was recorded truly do-it-yourself style, my first attempt at making a solo album. That led to the three more Alan Semerdjian albums. The thread that runs through all these projects is this notion of innovation.

Describe two of your most vivid poetic memories and how they shaped you into the artist you are today.

In high school I was listening to U2 and Depeche Mode with my friend Keith. While we listened to the cassette tapes we talked about how the music inspired us at particular moments. In that moment something in me said I hope somebody’s able to say this about my work one day. It’s amazing that we talk about songs and works of art in ways that are meaningful to others and those people talk about those things to others and so the conversation around art became something that I wanted to create.

For the second moment, I was listening to a Pretenders song Back On The Chain Gang. Chrissie Hynde carved an authentic way of singing, which was an invitation to create my own unique voice. Towards the end of the bridge of that song, she holds this one note that proceeds to make sense in the bridge and creates a wonderful transition back into the verse. Just one note, which is totally uplifting and a moment of triumph in songwriting and craft. Songs are not just inspired; they’re crafted, too. I realized it’s not just inspiration that creates a song but a particular set of choices that really create the effect, and that turned me on tremendously.

I definitely understand what you mean about that note in the Pretenders song. When people listen to music, it could be just one letter of the word the artist expresses that helps them connect in a special way.

That’s right. There’s a moment in my song Melody where I sing ge-o-GRAPH-y instead of geography, which is an intentional manipulation in order to create an effect. If I’m trying to articulate confusion in the poem or song then that behooves me to create that in the delivery of the song.

Describe the energy and reception of performing live solo versus with the band.

The biggest difference is intimacy. When you’re performing solo it sounds like you’re more limited but it’s actually more liberating. I can stretch melodies and verses and repeat parts of the song in a way I can’t do with a full band because the music needs to be rehearsed and arranged. The freedom when performing solo causes a certain intimacy that is otherwise impossible to get. The ideal situation for me is completely solo in a great sounding room with beautiful lighting. Or perhaps a house concert in a living room. But the band can offer a kinetic energy that I alone cannot; and that is totally based off of the synergy within the players. I’ve been really lucky to play with amazing musicians that really push and challenge me.

Where do you draw the line between writing a song versus a poem?

The distinction between the two is really about the music: meter, sonic elements, and the sentiment. The lyrics have to pay homage to the structure of the song, the length of the lines and the tone, chords and key. The lyrics have to marry the sound. In a poem, the words don’t necessarily have to be married to anything. The universe is the only thing to which poetry is bound. The poetry’s other is clearly larger and more open than the lyrics’ other. I’m not judging that one is better than the other. Maybe lyrics are like being in a relationship and poetry is like being single.

What comes first, lyrics or music?

Most of the time, there’s a sense of sound, melody or chord structure.

Have you been writing poems longer than songs? Do you have a specific approach or strategy?

Yes. I’ve been writing since I was five years old. I didn’t start writing melodies or chordal compositions until I was in high school. When I started writing with my band Surreal in high school, I had a set of lyrics that I wanted to put to music and I didn’t really understand how chords or music worked so I figured it out along the way. Now that I have more tools, I start with a musical idea and then words come out of it. Out of all the hundreds of songs that I’ve written, the most popular way I go about writing is to play a group of chords together, make a faint melody and record it while I hum some stuff and improvise words. When I listen back, it’s almost like my subconscious attempts to say something. I ask what my subconscious is saying and then I assemble meaning of the humming. Occasionally, like for Break Down on the latest album, I had a line in my head that I really wanted to make music for You can’t grow up until you can break down. That particular phrase you can’t do this until you can do that came first then I came up with a melody and without any instruments made an a cappella voice memo on my iPhone. Finally when I was in front of an instrument I discovered the key, found the chords and started building the song. But that’s a very rare way of writing for me.

How do you juggle your time as an artist and an educator?

The two inform each other. The content of the classroom is never too far away from the content of the art. If we view education as a place where all parties are learning, then the artist and educator disciplines don’t seem that far apart. This is a deep personal philosophy for me as a human being, and particularly as an educator. I need to be a co-learner in the classroom so my work grows, too. My understanding of particular subjects, for example, enjambment, rhyme and symbolism, is expanded as the kids’ understanding is developed. Timewise it’s difficult because most of my touring happens in the summer, and I stay local during the school year. Logistically, it can’t work out any other way. If I want to be a good educator I need to be near the classroom and if I want to be a good musician/artist I need to be out in the world performing. They manifest at different times during the year. Timewise they’re not as integrated as I’d like them to be; that’s just the reality of the situation. The other reality of the situation is my love for both disciplines creates a ceiling for each one. Peers of mine that I grew up with that have done one thing instead of three things professionally have gone a little bit further in the field. Not in terms of the art that they create, but how well-known their work is to others. It’s harder for me to become educator of the year in New York State, even though I aspire to be the best I can in each discipline, because I’m spreading myself out a little thinner. I’ll take that trade off. I’m cool with the fact that I get a chance to see the beauty in all three of these worlds. I’m really lucky and blessed for that.

What advice can you give aspiring artists to get to a level where their craft will produce a sense of self worth?

The only way to develop a sense of self worth is to put yourself in situations where you trust your instinct. The best way to create self worth is to be proud of the decisions you make, to value these choices and not have too much dissonance with your internal values. Young artists should trust their unique voices and attempt to create something that make an internal sense to them first. Rather than figuring out what makes sense for Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons or Ben Howard, it’s more important to figure out what makes sense for you, and then articulate that internal sense to others. That’s not to say that those artists shouldn’t inspire you. It’s incredible to seek other innovative artists that you’re moved by. It’s important to listen to a lot of different music in and outside of one’s genre. More than anything else, you need to create a sense of internal logic and then articulate that logic to others. Take risks and write something that is urgent. Find that inner voice. Find those issues that you’re grappling with and don’t be afraid to write about them. Bravery is what the songwriting craft is about. It behooves artists now to have this multiple sense of being or doing many things that connect to their art. When music is not your only source of income, some may say you take greater risks with your art. This is an important point to consider. That’s not to say that a life spent in the music industry solely is a great risk or a life that is dangerous. There are a lot of rewards to that lifestyle and I have so many friends who are in that world. There seems to be a new throttle of musicians happening right now. Musicians are producers, writers, educators and engineers. The musician does a lot of things. Some of it may be connected to performing and some of it may not. That’s a big beauty right there.

Interview by Scott J. Herman