Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon mainstay Mark Kozelek tells Doug Wallen about nylon strings and writing songs about touring.
Mark Kozelek has been at it for 20 years now, which might explain why he cuts loose a bit on his latest album. Though forever known as the brooding, wistful songwriter behind Sun Kil Moon and before that Red House Painters, Kozelek peppers his fifth solo record with the arch wit fans will recognise from his stage banter. And yet Among The Leaves unfolds in a stream-of-consciousness sigh.
“That's true,” says Kozelek. “Most of the lyrics were written quickly. I just did it, got it over with. I was tired of the process – agonising over each word. I just wanted to spit it out and move on.”
That idea of powering through material might seem odd from a man who sings with molasses-dripped deliberation in his drawl, but Kozelek sounds free and even propulsive as he breezes through fluid nylon-string guitar melodies. If there's still melancholy hanging in the air, the mood is leavened by self-aware song titles like The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman vs. The Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man. “I just felt like venting a little,” he admits, “and it was actually less effort going with long titles. Trying to figure out the perfect short title can be more work.”
As for that defining nylon softness? Kozelek came around to it after buying a 5CD set by Spanish classical guitarist Andres Segovia while touring New Zealand a few years ago. He had studied classical guitar some as a child, but not much past the age of 15.
“That album reintroduced me to the art,” he recalls. “In the actual classical guitar world, I'm ranked about as low as a player could be ranked. Most classical guitarists wouldn't appreciate my technique, as I'm a steel-string player first. But I'm playing guitar more than I did in the past, and that's important.”
Listening to Among The Leaves is a bit like following Kozelek on tour, considering how many songs dovetail into reflections on a musician's life. “What kind of man travels and sings?” he asks on That Bird Has A Broken Wing. UK Blues is about touring with the London riots in the backdrop, but any potential grimness there is cut by Kozelek quietly mocking British food.
Then there's Sunshine In Chicago, which details the ritual of pulling his guitar from its case as well as watching his fanbase evolve from cute girls at Red House Painters shows in the '90s to the aging men at today's gigs. It reads like a diary, with Kozelek inserting himself into the lyrics even as he cracks jokes. It turns out he wrote the song backstage in Chicago and debuted it just 15 minutes later.
“A lot of my songs – not all – are in first-person perspective,” he observes. “It's what I do; I'm used to it. I'd had a really bad show the night before in Ottawa, Ontario, [at] a poorly organised festival. Sunshine In Chicago probably came about by trying to shake my bad night in Canada off of my mind. I think I just wanted to do something funny, distract myself and make the crowd laugh a bit.”
While Kozelek has always been more funny and easy-going on tour (“I play requests. My sets are pretty loose,” he says) than his sadness-instilled albums might lead one to think, Among The Leaves conveys a weariness with touring. Is he ever tempted to leave the road behind and just make records instead?
“I don't know if that's an option, the way the music industry is going,” he replies. “Albums are free now; you don't have to buy them. Touring is a big part of how I – and a lot of musicians – make a living. It's work, but there are worse jobs, I suppose.”