Review Fix chats with singer/songwriter Josef McManus from White Owl Red, who discusses his creative process, range and goals as a performer.
Review Fix: What is your creative process like? This album has such a wide range of emotions conveyed. How do you put it all together?
Josef McManus: When I put this album together I intentionally chose songs that had a wide emotional range, and put them in a specific order to take the listener on a ride that captures the diversity of emotional experience. This was in contrast to my last album, Naked and Falling, where I had the intention to create a solid moody vibe throughout the entire album – I called it my ‘make out album’. I like the concept of creating an album where the songs fit together cohesively into a concept. The way music distribution works now, most people focus on a la carte songs. As an artist I appreciate the format of an album as it can capture a moment in the life of an artist with more complexity and nuance than a song on its own.
As for the specifics of writing, songs come to me at the most random times. Some might call it an ah-ha moment of inspiration. I have to drop what I’m doing and document it, or I’ll lose it. It starts with a lyrical phrase and the beginning of a melody. When I have a moment I pick up a guitar and start putting it together with chord phasing. My lyrics are often a combination of my experiences and other stories that I’ve heard, blending together like spices in a dinner. I make the music I want to hear, I don’t write for an audience. I write music like I cook. I am inspired by what is in season and around the house, then throw it all together in a unique way without a recipe. Writing is about iteration and editing. I usually get most of a song in a short sitting. The rest is playing it, recording it (typically on my phone), listening, revising, reiterating and giving pause to digest then repeating the process until its something that makes sense. When I show up in the studio with these handfuls of songs on paper, we figure it out from there. That’s where Gawain and Kyle and everyone else add their flavor. It’s a dance of chaos and order, ebbing and flowing, a process of discovery. That is what I love about music. I never know how things will turn out. Making music is a form of magic. I’ve talked with Gawain about this. We both feel that it can be a deeply spiritual process. Music connects you to something greater than yourself.
Review Fix: Considering how much range you have as a performer, how would you describe your sound to someone who has never heard you?
McManus:My sound is constantly evolving. I have so many musical influences. I’m all over the place, Americana, roots, alt.folk, folk, indie, punk, alt.country, country, outlaw-country, psychedelic country, indie, You can’t put my music in a box. I just write the music in my soul and that’s a moving target. It works to let the music flow through me and try to give each song a good production. Something I’ve heard more than a few times is that my music is ‘road trip music’. I like that. I’ve taken many road trips in my life and hitchhiked through the west coast and South America when I was in my early twenties. I love the open road and random encounters with people on the journey. This might be a working description, ‘the Jack Kerouac Dharma Bum of songwriting’.
Review Fix: Why does folk still matter?
McManus:I think the source of most music is some sort of folk music, people singing about their human experience. Folk music with a capital F for me is roots music. It is music that focuses on telling a story that at its best delivers an emotional charge in the song. I love folk music. Townes, Lighting, Dylan, Baez, Brant, Welsh, Garcia. Folk music can be a mighty big umbrella. I spent a year at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago back in the 90s and came away with such an appreciation for the bare bones of writing a good song. It’s people-living-their-lives music. Too often, music has become something we consume or do on a computer. I love that it is something I can do on a guitar on a porch.
Review Fix: What inspires you that people wouldn’t expect?
McManus:What inspires me? Honesty, reflection, connection and process inspire me. When something comes up for me I feel it deeply, process it, and let it pass through me. I embrace my emotions. They teach me what I need to know in the now. I also love to dance. Something unexpected would be that I have had a conscious dance practice for years that is based on Gabriel Roth’s 5-rythms techniques. It’s a moving meditation, with an emphasis on somatic awareness. The body has it’s own wisdom. Dancing gives me an opportunity to blow out the cobwebs in my system, get out of my head and into my body. I often get great insights for songs when I am dancing. I’m lucky that the SF Bay area has such a vibrant dance community.
Review Fix: How was Union Fight Song written?
McManus:I was listening to a radio program about a Governor in Minnesota, who was arresting and shutting down occupy movement protestors. That line, ‘Hey Mr. governor, what the hell did you think…” came out of that. I wrote the song quickly in a night or two. Protesting is one of the most patriotic of expressions. The lifeblood of democracy is voting not only at the poll booth, but also with your dollars and your voice and your physical presence in the street. I’m a proponent of dialogue. Solutions come from all levels. We have such a wealth of politically aware songs. One of my favorites is John Lennon’s song Working Class Hero.
Review Fix: What song on this LP do you think has the best story behind it? Can you share?
McManus:They all have stories to them. I think the key to good songwriting is to allow enough space for the listeners to insert themselves into the work and make it their own. That said, the songs ‘Breaking Away’ and ‘Hand-Me-Down Girl’ were both written in the space of a couple weeks. I was processing another layer my past marriage. I got married pretty young. I was amazed that after almost a decade and a half since the divorce, I still was harboring deep emotions from that period. It goes to show that there is always another underlying layer. I was able process my emotions by writing these songs. Songwriting helps me on my journey of growth and leaves me with a shiny little artifact. It’s alchemical.
Review Fix: What’s a guilty pleasure track of yours that gets you going?
McManus:I like to indulge guiltlessly in music and always open new music. Lately I’ve been digging into early 70’s Latin garage/psych-rock bands like Los Vidrios Quebrados, a Chilean band my cousin turned me onto. Having said that, some of my favorites through the years have often been Townes Van Zandt, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Lenard Cohen, the Stones, the Beatles, and Velvet Underground. I think the beauty of music is that there is so much of it that is very good in every genre. They all have something to teach a songwriter. I like to learn from the best.
Review Fix: What’s next for you?
McManus:Something good I hope. Musically, I’m starting to gear up for another album. Honestly I never know what is next. I look at each moment as something new and an opportunity to learn, grow, create and become better.
Review Fix: Anything else you’d like to add?
McManus:I would like to encourage people to write poetry or songs or play an instrument. These are great comforts to turn to throughout your life. Don’t be afraid to write your own songs, poetry, or make art whatever your chosen medium. By expressing yourself in these ways you have the opportunity to reflect on who you are, where you’ve come from, and who you are becoming. Three chords and the truth is the first step on a long journey down the yellow brick road.