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The Eastern: State Houses by the River

The annual APRA Silver Scroll award acknowledges excellence in songwriting, so at Elsewhere we modified our Famous Elsewhere Questionnaire and tailored it to be specifically about the craft of songwriting for this year's five finalists.

First out of the gate is Adam McGrath of the Eastern (their album Hope and Wire reviewed here) for his song State Houses by the River.

He offers a quick disclaimer in that he answered the Questionnaire a few months back (see here) so this time out is giving different answers where relevant . . .

The first song which really affected you was . . .

‘Five Feet High and Rising’- Johnny Cash, “Me & Bobby McGee” - Kris Kristofferson and “GI Blues” Elvis as I mentioned in the last bunch of answers I did for this excellent questionnaire. All exist in equal measure in my brain…

But today I’m gonna mention ‘Lonesome Loser’ by the Little River Band as it was all over the Radio Avon here in Christchurch when I was growing up and my mum listened to the radio all day and it felt then that that song was playing every minute.

I loved it though, when I was a kid I use to take songs very literally and think about this character called the lonesome loser and the fact that he was beaten by the queen of hearts who I imagined was the same queen of hearts from Alice in Wonderland. Very strange.

Years later I was about 15 and hanging out with my friend Chris Pope we were drinking this rocket fuel we used to call ‘the bean juice’ that we brought off this kid from school and had to pick up from a bush in a cemetary. It was a potent, throat ripping stomach lining lifting drop to be sure.

Anyways we were going through these tapes Chris had (he had excellent taste he turned me onto Black Flag and the Circle Jerks!) and getting drunker and drunker and we find this one without a label, we put it in the deck and its just song after song from our chldhood all by this one band, we knew evey song, but neither of us knew the name of the band but we had the best day ever drinking bean juice and listening to this tape.

Turns out it was the Little River Band (a less punk rock band may never have existed) I made the connection a few years later after hearing “Cool Change” on the radio. I never got to tell Chris I had cracked the mystery as he died from an OD just out of his twenties. But I think of him often and when ever the LRB pops up I smile and listen to my heart burst as I think of him and me, that day, the tape deck and the lonesome loser.

Your first (possibly embarrassing) role models in music were . . .

In my last answers I noted Richie Cunningham from Happy Days as he had red hair. A few years on it was Darryl McDaniels from RUN DMC as he had glasses. Never underestimate the power of having role models who are not adverse to showing their handicaps.

bruce_springsteen_ticketsThe one songwriter you will always listen to, even if they disappointed you previously, is?

I have only been disappointed by four Springsteen Songs. The first three; ‘Hearts of Stone’ from disc 1 of Tracks, ‘Leap of Faith’ from Lucky Town and ‘Part Man Monkey’ from Tracks four. All of which have eventually endeared themselves to me (although the vest/shirt combo from the ‘Leap of Faith’ video is still hard to reconcile and the cod reggae lite of Part Man Part Monkey should never be repeated).

However number four continues to bamboozle me ‘Queen of the Supermarket’ from Working on a Dream is just plain madness (although the checkout beeps at the end always get a laugh out of me). So one out of hundreds ain’t bad. So yeah The Boss 4 eva!

As songwriters: Lennon-McCartney or Jagger-Richards; kd lang or Katy Perry; Madonna or Michael Jackson; Prince or Pink?

Ok favourites from each vs each other  ‘Anytime at All’ by the Beatles is beaten by ‘Ventilator Blues’ by the Stones but what a fight like Ali & Frazier. kd Lang is immediately crowned Queen of the Ring as I don’t know any Katy Perry song. ‘Billie Jean’ wins on points over ‘La Isla bonita’. And Prince just cocks an eyebrow in Pink's direction and she runs from the ring screaming.

The three songs (yours, or by others) you would love everyone to hear because they are well crafted are . . .

‘Anchorage’-Michelle Shocked; ‘Comrades Raise No Glass For Me’-Stephen Forster; ‘Lonesome Town’- Ricky Nelson

Melody first? Words or phrase first? Simultaneous?

The last song I wrote is about John A. Lee and the words formed after reading a paragraph from his politcal notebooks immediately in my head. But I’m rarely that lucky. It’s different everytime, songs choose how they arrive I’m not lucky enough to decide for ‘em I’m just thankful they come at all.

The best book on music or musicians you have read is . . .

I left a long list in answer to this last time so now I will merely say..

‘Please Kill Me: the uncensored oral history of punk’ by Legs McNeil

If you could co-write with anyone it would be . . .

Barry Saunders…Dean Hapeta…R.A.K. Mason…Mick Jones…Smokey Robinson…Shel Silverstein…Walt Whitman… Dylan Thomas… Sam Hunt… Patti Smith… Carson McCullers… although it would probably be just me watching them write while I cleaned the ashtrays, filled the glasses and kept the wolves from the door.

The three songs you'd insist anybody listen to because they might understand your songwriting style better are . . .

‘The Clampdown’ by The Clash; ‘Pissin’ in the Wind’ By Jerry Jeff Walker; ‘Yer So Bad’ by Tom Petty

The last CD or vinyl album you bought was . . . (And your most recent downloads include . . .)

The last CD was ‘Little Feat’ by Little Feat; The last vinyl was ‘So Far So Good…So What’ by Megadeth; The last download was ‘The Rules’ by Saigon & Staik Selectah

One song, royalties for life, never have to work again. The song by anyone, yourself included, which wouldn't embarrass you would be . . .

‘Desperados Waiting for a Train’ by Guy Clark

One line (or couplet) from a song -- yours or someone else's -- which you think is just a stone cold winner is . . .

“Slow dancing in the dark on the beach at Stockton's Wing

Where desperate lovers park we sat with the last of the Duke Street Kings”

-- Backstreets’ Bruce Springsteen

Songwriting: what's the ratio of inspiration/perspiration?

For me it's 1 to 99 percent…if its easy it probably ain’t worth much…everything is better when you put some sweat and muscle behind it, the head and the heart and the hands are all equal in my book. It seems that most folks want the most they can get for the least they can do, I’m constantly trying to work that thinking out of my system. The craft is the engine, the art is the paint job.

Ever had a song come to you fully-formed like it dropped into your lap?

Yep a few and some ones I liked at that. But I don’t reckon they would have arrived unless I‘d beaten myself up over a hundred inferior ones. Bukowski said ‘The gods are good, they just want to make sure."

hwfcbrAnd finally, in the nature of press conferences in Japan, “Can you tell me please why this is your best song ever?”

Maybe you could ask Lindon Puffin, he entered the song on my behalf…there was an intervention of sorts where my friends basically said the fact that if the world was mud then I was a stick and I should stop being a dick and enter a song in the scrolls (I’ve never been able to bring myself to nominate myself…trust me I realise this makes me sound stoopid)…I said ‘nah its cool’ and he went and entered it anyways.

I’m proud of the song though, it does the job I asked of it and it tries to look at ‘we’ rather than ‘me’ even though its in the first person…or something…ah jeez its hard to talk about…I had this heckler in Paekakariki once who said ‘You talk to much’, I said ‘you drink to much’ whch shut her up. But she was probably right.

For other Apra Silver Scroll nominees' answers go here.

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