Diary Of A Songwriter: Alex Toth
Things get increasingly meta when this diary entry from the Tōth man form the basis of a brand new song
Tōth’s debut album Practice Magic And Seek Professional Help When Necessary, is described by its creator as, “A breakup album before wholeness, but after the anger…” It’s a fitting account of a stunning indie-pop record which manages to eschew bitterness and blame in favour of healing and understanding, and a testament to the songwriting and character of Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist, Alex Toth.
Having recently returned from a lengthy stint on the road, Alex had time to chart a week leading up to the album’s release. Fighting with tour fatigue, vehicle troubles and an entirely inappropriate diet, our diarist is still able to play a short set, make a few new beats and write some songs…
A seven-week tour of the United States and Canada ended today. I get to my apartment in Brooklyn around 3:30pm, drop my bags and instruments, lie on my bed and weep. Surreal to be home. 10 minutes later I get up and go to a nearby coffee shop before the kitchen closes at 4pm. There’s this ‘chia overnight oat’ breakfast bowl I’d been craving. The barista just released their first two songs ever onto the internet and wants me to hear them. I listen as I eat my lunch and we talk about songwriting from across the bar.
I have a 10-minute set to play in Chelsea at a storytelling event, so when I get home I run through it and test out my new guitar – the one I bought a couple of nights ago in Richmond, VA. I know nothing about guitars. For the most part, with instruments, I prefer for them to come to me sort of cosmically, rather than make a decision about what to buy. This one is a 1960s Harmony Alden from my friend, the amazing singer/songwriter Matt Davidson, aka Twain. It’s small and semi-hollow which means a) I can sort of play it acoustically and write songs from the road and b) is lighter to travel with. Not being able to easily write music on the road is maybe my least favourite aspect of touring. I start to feel disconnected from a huge part of myself.
My set in Chelsea goes well (says my sister and others) but I feel weird about it and question the entire [Tōth] endeavour. Lol. I think I’m just really tired and fragile from the road.
I have breakfast of pizza and salad around 1pm at my one of my favourite spots with one of my favourite people. I walk home slowly. It’s a beautiful spring day in Brooklyn. I’d fantasized about this moment often, during long drives on tour. I’m still in a heavy exhaustion daze but it feels more like euphoria in this moment.
Back at my apartment, I write two ‘happy birthday’ songs. I’ve made about 50 of these over the last couple years for friends and family and I realized recently that I’d like to release them all at once on an album called HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Rules for birthday song: 1) make the person feel good. And recently I added, 2) make it as short as possible.
The first one is 30 seconds and takes me an hour to write and record. The second is 12 seconds and I write/record in 10 minutes. One of them is for the 9-year-old twins from my Picture Of You music video. They’re the coolest! And they just turned 10.
A note about the songwriting process… I like to write a lot. At least a little ditty every day, when I can. I realized after the fact that text messages songs and birthday songs are a great and low-pressure way to do this. It’s so much easier to write for just one person and to know exactly what you want to say. It takes no time. And it keeps me connected to the spirit of invention in the form of sound and words.
In the morning, I take my van to an auto body shop in Queens. The door is fucked up again. They agreed to fix it for free since they didn’t get it right the first time. I throw my bike in the van. Another beautiful spring day, though while biking home I get stuck behind a very fume-y truck and have to plug my nose for a couple of blocks. Around this moment I decide I want to buy two bouquets of flowers.
I deliver the first set off to my record label, Northern Spy, in Clinton Hill, because they’re sweeties. We talk about my upcoming shows in Japan and album release stuff and they give me a copy of my forthcoming debut LP on CD. Vinyl isn’t ready yet.
The second set of flowers goes to someone special in Prospect Heights. As does the CD.
I get home in the early evening and endeavour to make a ‘song-a-day’. i.e. a real song. Whether or not I make a song-a-day every day or not I still call it ‘song-a-day’. Rules: 1) at least two verses and a chorus of lyrics, melody and form. 2) don’t go to bed without finishing it and printing an MP3, (don’t spend too long on it). 3) It’s typically very sparse, production-wise: chords + vocal + maybe one other element. In theory, there’s no such thing as getting stuck because if it’s shit it doesn’t matter (in theory). You can change it later or just make another song on another day.
The song, called Face The World, is a promising seed I had in my voice memos from February, but haven’t had a chance to work on until today. In the new verse, I was trying to express the ironic contrast between the chaos and violence in the world with the fact that all beings are constantly making babies. I didn’t nail it, it just came out sorta “cute” and this depresses me.
I make breakfast for a friend – gluten-free toast with almond butter, blueberries and honey on it. And black coffee because I still haven’t done a thorough grocery shop and don’t have cream.
Inspired by Miranda July’s film The Future we decided to post a dance-a-day video to a private Instagram. I procrastinate about a huge list of administrative upkeep by making a dance beat and video of me dancing to it. I get caught between wanting to just make a fun beat and wanting to write a love song over it. So I spend way too long on the project and forget to eat, etc. I still haven’t done any yoga or meditated since I’ve been back from tour and I’m all over the place.
I really need to get centred. I wake in the actual morning, read a page from the Tao Te Ching and meditate first thing. The Tao today says, “If you let yourself be blown to and fro, you lose touch with your root.” There’s been a direct correlation in the quality of my life—relationships, work/songs, well-being—and doing lots of silent meditation. And exercise always helps. So I do that too.
I make another dance beat today. I want to write a song over it but don’t want to shoot in the dark lyrically — that wormhole killed me yesterday. So I write down what’s on my mind: my ex breaking up with the person they broke up with me for and how acoustic guitars are better than synths for writing through heartache, because you can lie down while you write through the pain. Then I hop in the shower and random phrases start popping in my head that seemingly have nothing to do with what was on my mind.
I start chanting (in the shower) in a dejected voice, “The apple falls down/the cherry’s got a worm in it/the peach is in the tree/and none of the fishies in the sea know what the fuck they’re doing.” Melody and more lyrics come over this dance beat. Initially, I don’t know what it means but I sort of figure out what it’s trying to say and direct it more and more. This still blows my mind. How, if I stay out of the way, surprising things come out that I can make sense of later. Anyhow, I like what I made today. I’m dancing around my apartment as I listen over and over.
Today I turned the diary entry from yesterday into a song; basically verbatim. I improvised melody to the already written, non-poetic autobiographical words and then figured out how I wanted to canvas it harmonically on the guitar. I think Sun Kil Moon taught me the validity and amazingness of this approach. Including recording the demo, this whole process took about 45 minutes. While it was very rewarding and I kind of like the song, it’s also a bit cheeky and doesn’t really address the weight of the emotions I feel. I title the demo Guitars Are Better Than Synths For Writing Through Hard Times.
After this, I go hang out with one of my best friends and songwriting collaborators Benjamin Lazar Davis. We eat tacos, talk about music and life and go to the Russian baths on East 10th street. It was a much-needed re-connection and I feel amazing after… Increasingly in touch with parts of myself, I’d been missing for a while from winter and early spring on the road.
Tōth’s debut album is out now. For more information, head to tothtunes.bandcamp.com