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Interview: Gretchen Lieberum Looks At Songwriting

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In my conversations with Gretchen it became obvious that first and foremost she is a songwriter. Her passion for the art was not only evident from the interviews, and in her bio, but in the incredible details in the songs themselves. I was curious whether she was a methodical writer, who focuses on the art in a ritualistic way, or was the type who had to wait for the muse to strike. Her response,

If I have some kind of a deadline to fulfill then I’ll write every day, usually at a coffee shop, always by hand. Otherwise, inspiration really has to strike. I’ll often come up with lines in my car. There have been times when I’ve written a line on a gum wrapper with eye-liner while in the car.

Almost as obvious as her passion for the art is her obsession for perfection. When I asked her if this perfectionism was something that only applied to songwriting, she replied,

I am a perfectionist all around, and particularly about my music. When I was younger, I used to cry every time I walked off stage after singing. And I mean every time! I’ve certainly gotten better about letting things go and not trying to be perfect all the time, but I’m still pretty hard on myself. If I describe something I’ve done as ”pretty good”, then my friends and family think that it must be really amazing!

Both the passion for the art itself and her striving to get everything just right, comes out clearly in the music – one song in particular, “You Closer” from Gretchen’s recent release Siren Songs. The song, and the entire album on a different level, is her cathartic process of dealing with the death of her close friend.

“You Closer” is a song I wrote for my friend who passed away. I had written a few songs that were literally and directly about her, but they were all so sad and depressing! She was such a lovely person, and I wanted to write a song that reflected her light. The music of the song is upbeat for that reason.

As was discussed in the review that appeared here earlier this month, the music and instrumentation to this song is incredibly light and upbeat, to the point of being even uplifting. It is only when you listen deeper, take in the lyrics and absorb the meaning, that you realize how profound and mournful the song really is.

I don’t play an instrument, so I usually work with a musician to help me compose the chords behind the melodies and lyrics I write. In this case, I wrote the lyrics and the melody first. The first few lines reflect how I was feeling about life and the world after she died, that the world is heartless, and has no meaning or spirit. “This world’s nothing but…objects colliding” means that I was seeing the world as violent and primitive, and also seeing the physical world on purely a molecular, biological level. Basically, I was feeling pretty nihilistic! The rest of the song is just me speaking to my friend directly. In one line I ask her to “invade the waves of my radio”.

Gretchen went on to relate how important and relevant that one line was. It was really a testament to how the answers and even the consolation for our grief could be right there in front of us, or how they could come to us in the slightest and strangest ways.

For a while after she died, it seemed as if every time I turned on the radio, I heard this song that always reminded me of her, Maxwell’s version of the Kate Bush song “This Woman’s Work”. It always made me smile, and I imagined that maybe she was trying to communicate with me through the radio! The line “I’ll watch the water” is a reference to two of my favorite jazz songs, “I’ll Cover The Waterfront” and “Key Largo”, which I covered on Siren Songs. Both songs are about people looking out onto the sea, waiting for their loved ones to return. So I wrote that “although this story’s over”, I know she isn’t ever coming back, “still I will watch the water”—meaning there is still a part of me that can’t believe she is gone and is still waiting for her to return. But there is also something about the image of looking out onto the sea as hopeful, not sad. I’m also saying that I will never forget her. At the very end of the song, I sing her name, Serena. I went back and forth over whether or not I should keep that in the song. I wondered if it was too personal. In the end, that became the reason I left it in.

[ADBLOCKHERE]In the interview Gretchen gave me last week, we spoke of how she approaches songwriting and breaks it down. She went on to explain how this applies to “You Closer”. Having taken the time and struggled with the lyrics and the melody, it came time to work on the instrumentation and the music.
When the lyrics were finished, I went to the house of the keyboard player my producers often work with, the very talented Keefus. I sang him the lyrics and melody and he wrote the chords underneath on his piano, which we then recorded at his home studio. A bass-playing friend of his, Christopher Thomas, just happened to be hanging out at Keefus’ house that day, and laid down the bass track in one or two takes. My producer played a little pattern on a drum set, which he then looped. Finally, Keefus took a sample of some weird old elevator music record, programmed it into his keyboard, and that became the vibey-stringy sound in the background. So, the music of “You Closer” was written and recorded in one day.

I want to take the opportunity to thank Gretchen Lieberum for being our debut Featured Artist at, and for openly and candidly giving us a peek into her life, her music, and her style of songwriting.

For more information go to our index for all the coverage on Gretchen Lieberum.

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About Connie Phillips

  • Adebayo Onabule

    What a wonderfully consummate end to the interviews. Major kudos to you, Connie. This was a very well packaged experience and I look forward to reading future reviews. Special thanks go out to Gretchen for sharing all the vivid details about the creative process and her passion for what she does. It’s absolutely contagious!

    peace and love!