The podcasting duo Sodajerker are back with an absolutely stellar sibling songwriting pairing, who you may just have heard of…
The film world is littered with examples of people who thought their skills in the entertainment industry were universal and have subsequently branched out into music – Keanu Reeves anyone? Not everyone from the film industry who has stepped into music can claim the infamy of Dogstar, but there are some success stories.
Comprised of the noted film score composer Michael – known for his work on films such as Losing Chase and documentary films like The Johnstown Flood – and marginally well-known actor Kevin, The Bacon Brothers have been making music together since the siblings were children. It’s surprising, then, to discover that though their history of writing songs in partnership extends over a period of decades, the Bacon Brothers have only been a working band since 1995. Adopting a style that blends together elements of folk, rock and country among others, the duo have had a productive 20 years together as an official songwriting partnership, having released six albums, contributed songs to a series of films – including the 2003’s Red Betsy and 2004’s The Woodsman – and become well known for their performances at a number of charity and social awareness events.
Here our friends at Sodajerker speak to Michael and Kevin and discover that theirs is a songwriting partnership that’s not about negotiation, but rather about “What can I do to help you make it work?”
We’ll start by asking about Hookers And Blow. Kevin, how did you go about writing the song?
Kevin Bacon: “Hookers And Blow started out as kind of a joke song idea. Because sometimes both of us have written things that are tongue-in-cheek and we have such boring lives that people will say, “So what did you do this weekend?” And as a joke I’ll say, “Well, you know, the usual – hookers and blow. And I thought that it was kind of an interesting idea for a song. And I started out writing it as a comedy kind of thing but it just kept turning into a serious song and I just started thinking about this guy who was living this life of desperation, but had convinced himself that it was the best thing for him and there was no other way for him to live.”
Do you tend to write a lot of hooks and chord sequences or will you start songs with titles and lyrics?
Kevin: “Hookers And Blow was an unusual one because we started with a title. Generally I think it’s ideas and then you pick up a guitar and the chords flow from the idea. I’m in a bad place writing-wise right now, I’ve been working on one song for a really long time and I think it’s a nice song but it’s kind of breaking my back! And I think back on the places that it’s gone and it’s interesting; sometimes it just comes so easily. We have a song called Only A Good Woman. It’s probably one of the best songs that we’ve ever written and we wrote the song in 24 hours – bam, it’s done – and it didn’t take any time at all. So it’s hard, you never know.
“This is kind of a new thing for me, that I’m trying to write with a capo nearby. Because I find that the song might not be working but I don’t want to don’t want to try and transpose it and learn a whole new chord progression, I’d rather just slide the capo up and down and keep the same chord progression and that will sometimes take the song melodically to a place that I didn’t think that it could be. It’s a really good way to write because then you don’t have to say “I want to transpose this but it’s gonna be a pain because I already figured out the chords.”
You each play multiple instruments. Do all of those instruments play a role in your writing or is it more the traditional guitar and piano approach?
Michael Bacon: “I would say we both write pretty much write on guitar. I guess in my style of writing the guitar parts are a pretty big part of the construction of the song. So to write with a piano for me would be difficult, because I’m not really a good pianist and I don’t think I’ve ever really written a song where I wasn’t writing the guitar arrangement at the same time and that’s pretty much the only instrument I write on.”
Kevin: “I wrote a song on the guitar once, a song called She Is The Heart, but I always envisioned it as a piano song. And I can’t play piano, I can’t play piano at all. So I wrote it just trying to think of piano changes. So the first time that I ever heard it played on piano it blow my mind, I was so excited, I was like “This is the coolest thing,” because that’s what I always heard it as. So that was fun. But mostly I write on guitar.”
Is there a lot of negotiation that goes on between you two? Is it ever difficult to say something isn’t working, or “go away and rewrite those lyrics?”
Michael: “I don’t think so. I think it’s more “What can I do to help you make it work?” And it’s not for me to tell you what works and what doesn’t and I think we’ve always been like that. On Hookers And Blow, we’ve been trying to play it live and we haven’t figured out yet. But that doesn’t mean we’re gonna give up on it. Kevin’s going to think about it and if he wants to try it again live then we’ll change the instrumentation, or, you know, whatever. I think that’s more the way that we roll.”
Kevin: “I also think that just because I feel something about something musically, not everybody else is going to feel that way about it; you could put something out there that everyone says is their favourite song but it might not be my favourite song. We’re self-critical enough that if something isn’t working then we’ll know it and make a decision to change it or take it out. In a set list you kind of get the feel that it’s time to move past something. And maybe it’s because an audience isn’t really responding to something, or because they’re sick of it and it’s time to let it go. Our problem now is that we have too many things that we can play, there’s a lot of stuff that we have that we do like and we do want to play, but if we put them in a set then something else has to go. But we do like to revisit things and shake them up a bit.”
We read that you grew up in quite an artistic house and were collaborating on songs from an early age. Is that right?
Michael: “We grew up in a household that was very much about artistic expression: art lessons, dance lessons, acting lessons, music lessons… that was what was important. And also our parents were big music lovers. They knew a lot about opera, about Broadway, about folk music, though not so much about rock ’n’ roll. My mother wouldn’t let me get an electric guitar, she was kind of a Victorian purist that way. But the cello was fine.
“I read somewhere that people who are funny grew up in an environment where everything that was said was fine, and I think in terms of our growing up, anything you wanted to do creatively was totally accepted. We also had a father who was very much like a vector – a sort of combination of creativity and force, taking what you’re doing and pushing it out into the world. So my earliest memory is of when Kevin came along, me thinking “How do I teach him the guitar?”
“So around nine or ten – when Kevin began learning the guitar – we started to have projects and I recognised his songwriting ability instantaneously; I would write the chords for him because he didn’t know how to, but the melodies were all there, the lyrics were there, the communication was there. So before we started the band we were partners in get-rich-quick music writing, preppy rock, eight-wheel boogie, the The Demon Murder Case song, and they were all just absolute failures!”
Kevin: “That was a bad movie and a bad song! I can’t believe we were rejected by the The Demon Murder Case. That’s just embarrassing!”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have over 70 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts –including the full 58-minute interview with The Bacon Brothers – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.