The best songs are the ones that immediately strike a chord--it might be the rolling percussion that makes you want to drum along on your steering wheel/desk/any flat surface available, or a guitar line so dynamic and driving that it slips its way underneath your skin at a minute's notice and lingers in your ears long after you've stopped listening. Sometimes, though, the quiet songs are those that carry the most weight and strike the hardest. Stripped down to the core, these songs don't swagger, or instantaneously vie for your attention, but slowly--magically, almost--float into your head; before you know it, it's hard to imagine that any other song fit as perfectly. It's a gift--a songwriter's ability to create something (lyrically and musically) that speaks volumes without being over the top/in your face--universal and personal at the same time, and Tillman has it. With his new album, out on Yer Bird Records, J. Tillman has created some of the most beautiful/engaging songs you're likely to hear in 2007. {a retelling by that lover_ly :s }


{mp3's courtesy of Yer Bird Records}

S: The new album's called Cancer and Delirium. What was the inspiration for the title? It's such a dark, dark way to name the album, yet some of the songs on there are the prettiest you've done yet.

JT: Most of the songs were written during a week off alone in Paris, and the album title came from a line in Tropic Of Cancer [a novel by Henry Miller], which essentially is about being young and poor and isolated in Paris, so it all came together. That phrase just kept running through my head. That record is also my first time experimenting with some alternate tunings, which I think contributes to the "prettiness" of it.

S: Your last album, 2006's Minor Works, was a slight change in sound for you (compared to the starkness of earlier albums)--it definitely sounds like more of a "band" album. How did that come about--was it something that you consciously wanted to create for the album, or was it just a case of in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time?

JT: "Minor Works" was conceived in a very complete way; I had the majority of the arrangements and instrumentation mapped out way ahead of time. I knew I wanted to take a stab at making a studio record. One of the main focal points was that I knew Iwanted drums. The album was kind of a writing exercise for me, as in "I know I can write ballads, what would it sound like if I tried to write rock songs?" And obviously, they did not turn out to be rock songs. So, in some respects,
that record is kind of a failed experiment.

S: Your albums definitely have been released in quick succession. Is your head just constantly swimming with new thoughts/lyrics/melodies, making the songwriting process an easy one? Which comes first, the music or the lyrics?

JT: I get really bent out of shape when I don't have a project to focus on; I usually end up starting a record because I need something to do. I mean, in some ways it's more romantic than that, but right now I'm sort of losing my mind because I'm going to have to wait a bit to make the next record because of money and time, etc. even though all the songs are written and ready to go. Having to rely on the studio model of making a record is really irritating to me but unfortunately the next record kind of has to be made that way, just by nature of the songs and arrangements. My writing process isn't really worth talking about; they just sort of materialize when I pick up the guitar and start staring into space.

S: Speaking of lyrics, I admire your strength as a songwriter. You just have this way of stringing together your words, along with the music, and making them into something simple and heartache-y and flowing and almost cinematic in a way (to me, anyway.) I love that the end result's something that's simultaneously heavy and fragile all at the same time. (Nick Drake's someone that you remind of me of in that respect, especially on the new album.) Do you draw your inspiration from outside sources (literature, for example) or does most come from things that affect you directly?

JT: Everything I fill my head with has an effect subconsciously, I'm sure, on the way my songs are conceived. My life experiences have a huge affect on what I gravitate to in terms of literature, music, etc. so, sort of a cyclical thing. My limitations as a musician and a songwriter definitely help prevent me from out and out plagiarizing someone else. I've been given a certain quality of voice and tone and I think no matter what I try to write or sing it's going to fall in line with that despondent, "fragile" sentiment. In my head, a song like "Under the Sun" had a stoned, smiley quality but because it's me singing it, it ends up being something a little more convoluted, which I think is interesting. As far as whether my albums have a creative ground zero, I can tell you that most of "Cancer and Delirium" was conceived during a train ride through Norway this last fall...which sounds dramatic, but that's just what happened.

S: Is there a core group of musicians that you use for recording/touring? Do you prefer to have a evolving/changing cast? (ie. the opportunity to work with lots of people, therefore adding different textures from album to album...) Are there artists that you'd like to work with but haven't thus far?

JT: I have a group of friends here in town that help me out when it comes time to record. Most of them have bands/projects of their own and contribute to my songs and records more as a labor of love. I've only ever toured by myself, being as that bringing people along isn't really an option financially, but when I play shows in town I usually just throw together the band and have a few practices in everybody's spare time. I like the sporatic nature of being a solo entity; it allows you to serve the songs without being tied to a set group of other people's egos. I'm really lucky to have the group of guysI have now--I consider them to be the best players in town. With the most recent material I've kind of just been giving them free reign to just do what they think will be the most interesting. It's great for me as a songwriter to surrender some of my impulse to arrange everything.

S: You've done lots of touring in Europe, but not very much stateside besides the west coast. Are there any plans to strike out on an extended US tour, maybe? How did you end up on your most recent tour with Jesse Sykes And The Sweet Hereafter? (She rocks!)

JT: I've spent so much time in Europe this last year primarily because I have a label over there with distribution that's willing to fly me out and set up shows for me. My US tours have been more an issue of friends who have labels and booking agents and vans, etc. asking me along personally. One of the downsides of being a solo act is that there aren't other people invested who can chip in for things like buying vans and booking shows, and when you have to try and hold down a job it's a tall order. But I'm going to be in upstate new york this summer at my buddy's cabin, so I'm sure I'll work out a way to play some shows out there. These things work out. Jesse is actually the person who introduced my music to Fargo, my label in Europe, so it just made sense for us to do a tour together.

S: What sort of music do you listen to when you have free time? Are there albums that you absolutely can't live without (like a musical security blanket of sorts)? Any albums that you're loving in 2007?

JT: Most of the music I listen to is pretty across the board stylistically, though I am definitely one of those "old" music audiophiles. The last few months there's been a lot of Fairport Convention, The Stooges, Davey Graham, The Grateful Dead, Richard and Linda Thompson, Albert Avery, Leonard Cohen, The Upsetter, the '75 Rolling Thunder Revue bootlegs, Freddy Neil, a gospel 45's mixtape by Calvin Johnson, Staples Sisters and the new Innocence Mission, Dolorean, and Stares records.

S: So, what makes J. Tillman happy?

JT: my girlfriend, my brother, a clean, well-lit apartment; a messy bed and a song to sing.

:s; smiles :: [JUNE OF OH SEVEN]