“More a literature nerd than a computer nerd,” Alaskan singer-songwriter Marian Call offers the rare opportunity outside academia to get one’s lit geek on. Excerpted from an interview conducted with The Magazine last fall as part of a long feature that will be in our nearly finished book, Call walks us through her songwriting process and the surprising but overdue experience that became her song, “All New (Heart Shut Tight).” Also: pancakes.
The Magazine: It’s evident in your songs that you have a good sense of craft, both in the music as well as the lyrics. Do you find that having studied literature, having that kind of background helps, or—
Call: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I love assignments. I always loved homework. I was such a nerd. I was really like a school nerd; that’s the kind of nerd I was more than anything else. I liked homework. And I liked tests. I took the SAT recreationally extra times; that’s how much of a dork I was…
It’s hard for me to see a song if I don’t construe it as like a little problem for myself, a problem to solve. There’s something very right brain about the idea, and there’s something very left brain about the solution.
For “All New,” for example: what was right brain was the first few lines that came to me when I was just utterly depressed and lonely, walking around New York, by myself, with no one to really see and nowhere to go. I had come there to spend time with friends who turned out to not really have time to see me, and I was just so down. I was walking around the streets, and the hook came to me. And I just sang that over and over as loud as I could, not caring who stared at me because it’s New York, and it doesn’t matter. You’re all crazy there anywhere.
Magazine: Yeah, people singing down the street is nothing new.
Call: Oh, no, not in New York. I love New York for that reason. It’s wonderful. But I was walking down the street singing the hook, and the hook was very right-brain raw inspiration. That was the spark. And then the left brain starts taking that and reconstructing it, going, “What can I do with this? Let’s look at—What’s the common—There’s something new, and there’s—The word ‘new’ here, this matters. Why New Mexico? Where can we go from here?”
And that’s when I came up with the idea to include the other states. I was like, “Oh, good, that will give me a structure to write my verses around.” Now I know that, whatever I do in this song, I must mention New Jersey and New Hampshire and—
Magazine: —New York and—
Call: Yeah, exactly.
Magazine: Getting New Orleans in there was good.
Call: New Orleans, and New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland as well. Which I still haven’t been to, but I will. That’s why I come back for the Maritimes, because they’re also new. I don’t want to forget Canada; everyone always forgets Canada.
But, yeah, I feel like I can rest on my judgment of what’s cliché and what’s not just from having— It wasn’t just reading: it was also being really into structure. And assonance. And consonance. And rhyming techniques.
Magazine: And prosody—
Call: And scansion, yeah, exactly. Meters and feet. Lots of that. And also courses on, like, the act of adaptation, which I took on Jane Austen, but was about the act of looking at a piece of literature and making a piece of art about it and what that act involves. Which is totally super-nerdy stuff, really heady and theoretical. But I just loved it. I eat that up.
Magazine: You even start “All New” with an acknowledgement of the artifice of the fact that you’re writing a song.
Call: Yeah, I wanted to start it with a dream sequence: I dreamed a dream of doing a thing. “I Dreamed a Dream” is actually one of my favorite songs from childhood, from Les Miserables, which I just loved. But you can’t start a song that way and be taken seriously. “I dreamed a dream”? No. So you backtrack and basically say, “Stay with me. Stay with me here. This is just another love song, but stay with me because I have something to say.” I almost feel like I have to apologize whenever I write something that’s remotely about love. I feel like I’m letting myself down.
Magazine: How come?
Call: It’s so human! [disgusted groans] So weak! [Interviewer laughs] No, I think that’s what that song is about: it’s the experience of learning. I didn’t experience love in that way until that year, the kind of love that makes you stupid and idiotic and believe things you know aren’t true. The kind of love that makes you weak and pathetic and dumb and make bad decisions. I never experienced that before.
So I thought that basically all the love songs were just kind of—I don’t know what I thought they were. But I remember that year finally having the realization, much later than everyone else, who I think had it at like 16, 17—but I just sort of skipped that, I think. Late bloomer.
I had these realizations at 27, much later than everyone else, that love feels so strong that it makes you do crazy shit that you shouldn’t do. Really that song is about coming to grips with that realization that, Okay, the songs are real. The love songs and the stupid “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” the “Love, Love Me Do,” the “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”: every cliché is true. It was embarrassing, you know? Because I didn’t want to write about that stuff. I thought, Oh, that’s for mortals. A little bit. It was very haughty, in a pathetic, laughable way.
Then it really happened to me, and I realized that no matter what you feel like your intellect or detachment or control over your emotions is, it’s—No. No. It will take you down. You’re done.
Magazine: But is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Call: It was good to realize it. It was very good for songwriting. I got good songs out of it, so that’s what counts!
No, it was miserable and horrible and awful and devastating, and I made some bad choices. But it was also humbling and important and humanizing.
Magazine: Do you find any difference when you’re writing in terms of writing a song that is your self as the narrator as opposed to a dramatic monologue where you’re a character? Or, is your self always a character in the song?
Call: [laughs] Yes. Yes, and all of the above. Sometimes I am myself, and I’m talking to myself. And sometimes myself is in character. Often I’m writing about someone or as someone else, and sometimes people get confused. “Vanilla,” for example, everyone was like, [sheepish] “Do you have an eating disorder?”
Magazine: [laughs] Oh, no.
Call: I’m, like, “No!” It’s an exaggerated caricature version. It’s a little sarcastic moment. Tongue in cheek. “I Hate You,” for example, is like an exaggerated version of self because I could never say that to anyone. But when you’re singing, you’re allowed to sometimes. That song is really just about wanting to express a pure emotion than you’re ever allowed to express about someone if you’re a polite person.
Initially I had a line in there that I didn’t keep in, about how “I wish you were the bottom pancake, squashed and drowning in syrup.” [Interviewer laughs] Yeah, I wish you were—Blah! But you can’t. You can’t say that to someone. And a line about how I’m not allowed to say it, but I can sing it! Because it’s cute.
Magazine: And it’s not you.
Call: And it’s not me. Then I can go back to loving you, but I just need to say I hate you, and I’m only allowed to say that if I sing it. Man, I wanted that pancake line to stay in there. It just didn’t fit.
Kellie M. Walsh is a writer, editor, and Web and content strategist. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, The Rumpus, PopMatters, and on the Web sites of Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, and a seven-piece jazz band. She also runs a tiny creative-services business with her husband. They live with an army of houseplants in the New York City area.
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Photos by Brian Adams.