SJD walks us through the creative process behind his latest and greatest album, Saint John Divine.
Sean James Donnelly, aka SJD, is a national treasure. All seven of his albums are top-notch—a level of consistency that’s no mean considering the eclecticism of his oeuvre. His latest Saint John Divine, released earlier this year, is arguably the finest to date. It’s more upbeat than the Taite Music Prize winning predecessor Elastic Wasteland, and like his best work, texturally unpredictable and lyrically poignant. Simply put, it’s a great collection of great songs. To mark the album’s release, SJD has announced shows in Wellington and Auckland that will feature a string quartet and full band, along with the wonderful Shayne Carter.
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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: Why music?
SEAN JAMES DONNELLY: I guess that I can’t really do anything else. I’m a little bit obsessed with it. I always think it’s time to give up and do something else for a change, but I just keep obsessing and thinking about it. I was one of those slightly introverted kids and it provided—as opposed to a lot of people [for whom] music is about coming together to celebrate and dance and have a good time—much more of an escape from the miseries of teenage-dom. It became that other thing too, but first and foremost, it was an otherworldly thing. I wasn’t going to use the word dimension, but there it is.
BG: This is your seventh album in 17 years, so I suppose your momentum has been going a reasonable time?
SJD: Yes, yes. There are periods when I’m not into it, but I always come back to it.
BG: Elastic Wasteland was almost entirely self-done? How much of a change of dynamic was Saint John Divine?
SJD: It was entirely different. Two-thirds of the songs on Saint John Divine were written before I wrote the songs for Elastic Wasteland. Elastic Wasteland was put together in one go. It was over a productive three month period. I wrote the album as I was making the sounds etcetera. It was a musical anomaly. I had given up the idea of doing more SJD stuff and worked on that, and when I finished it, it made sense to call it SJD because it seemed to fit with a general spirit of wild and slightly confusing eclecticism that’s associated with my name. That’s what it was. It was a very introspective and somewhat miserable.
BG: I was going to suggest claustrophobic.
SJD: I hope that there’s some warmth to it, but I long wanted to make a synth-pop album and that’s how it turned out. It’s a miserable synth-pop album.
BG: There are very few synths in Saint John Divine. Was that liberating?
SJD: It was a deliberate strategy. You can’t beat a good process. One of the limitations we set was that there can’t be any synths on the album. There have been things that have been electrified for sure, and treated and messed with, but no actual synthesisers. I’m not sure if we’re going to stick with that with the next album but it seemed like a good thing this time around.
BG: You almost set the tone straightaway with the strings in ‘I Saw the Future’. It’s quite a confronting sound given the trajectory of the last couple of albums.
SJD: Yeah, maybe I thought I’d been a little too confronting. Wasteland is what I’d call a confronting album. I hope with this one, it’s a space you can enter into. While it’s heightened and rarefied, it’s one that’s warmer and a more generous space to enter into. It’s not that the melancholy is gone, but there’s almost a sense of hopelessness with Wasteland, whereas this one is a very hopeful album, yet one that entirely acknowledges that most of us live quiet lives, with quiet desperation most of the time.
BG: Do you think the stereotypes of digital versus acoustic sounding instruments play into the difference in albums?
SJD: I think it probably does, there is an element of that. In most sounds there’s warmth and detail. To me, it was just how I’d written the songs. I’d written the songs on a piano and there was no way that they were going to be at their best played in an electronic format. They’d probably be at their best with real musicians playing them with actual performances, and good performances. There’s a degree of in the moment-ness, extemporisation, on tape there too.
BG: So quite a bit was found in the recording process?
SJD: Yeah, a lot of those songs—for example, ‘Helensville’, ‘Through the Valley’, ‘Was I Always Here’, more than that actually—we’d play the song and we’d do that classic SJD thing of jamming for ages at the end of it, and there’s quite a few of those songs in which I’ve taken the best bits of jams and done arrangements over the top over what was there. At one stage it was looking to be a longer album, because we’d do, say, 20 takes and there’d easily be a five or ten minute jam or longer at the end of each take.
BG: And in the past you haven’t been afraid of releasing a very long song.
SJD: No, no, I won’t be afraid of that.
BG: When I interviewed you for Songs from a Dictaphone, you admitted that you were a bit of a perfectionist, but this feels looser or unpredictable. Was that just a front?
SJD: I don’t think I am quite a perfectionist in the traditional sense of the word. I’m not really happy until it rings true to me. Perfectionist would imply that all of the mess gets brushed out. My brand of perfectionism is figuring out the right mistakes to leave in and leaving certain bits undercooked because they have a certain authenticity or verisimilitude, or what comes across in the performance is entirely organically in line with the content of the song. It just has to ring true to me.
BG: Your music also rewards repeat listens. Do you find yourself fighting this—and I’ve heard you talk about this before—the instant gratification of MP3s, and the immediacy that people expect when they listen to a song?
SJD: It’s not my gift to be able to do that. Even in the way I talk, I’m not very good at just saying something that instantly communicates. It’s not my gift with music. It’s slow-burn material. Anything that I write that seems to have instant appeal I lose interest very quickly. The time that it takes to record it, arrange it, mix it, I’m heartily sick of it. That’s my failing probably.
BG: You mention that you think Saint John Divine has more warmth, but there are still some unsettling moments in it. I’m thinking of the unusual chord progression in ‘I Saw the Future’, which I find quite unsettling. Or the pregnant pause in ‘Little Pieces’. Or the horns in ‘Invisible Man’. It doesn’t let you settle into the songs. You happily throw the listener.
SJD: It’s not so interesting is it? I’m not a big Bon Iver fan, put it that way. I hope I don’t upset any readers by saying that. As much as that is eclectic outside of the box, a lot of it is very easy-listening, with not a lot that’s challenging the listener. There’s this outsider art… sure it was recorded in a log cabin, but there’s a lovely roaring fire and it’s a comfortable place to enter into. I’m not into alienating listeners necessarily. It’s not about unsettling either. To me those sounds and textures and slightly alien or unexpected things, I almost want to say are exhilarating. It doesn’t quite fit because it’s not really fast exhilarating music in that way. There is no beauty that hath not an element of strangeness to it. First and foremost, as much as I try to deny it, more than anything in music, and besides an emotional congruence or resonance or truth-telling, I like things to be beautiful. That little weird thing you throw in makes it more beautiful.
BG: And I guess it goes back to my earlier question of your music rewarding repeat listens. I know can’t imagine ‘I Saw the Future’ with a straightforward chord progression, for instance.
SJD: No, for god’s sake, it’s a song about dreaming about the future and finding your loved person not there, and not being able to find somebody. It’s an unsettling lyric and it’s organically in tune with the words. If it’s too normal, it doesn’t do the job of putting the listener in that place.
BG: The lyrics are quite raw at points. Is this the most emotionally upfront album you’ve made?
SJD: Probably, but I’ve always had moments where I do that. I find that difficult because it’s a real toss-up. There’s always a strong element of irony lyrically and musically going on too, but I don’t want that to be the thing that it’s all about. I want to be able to use it as a writer uses it, as a device. Mostly because I want to communicate with the listener. I think I’m a little too emotionally upfront in a slightly off-putting way, and in the end I can’t really be anything else and that’s how it comes out. A song like ‘Little Pieces’—it made perfect sense to me at the time, but now looking back six months after the album has come out, it sounds a little bit like a lecture. Maybe that’s not so good or maybe I should own that a little bit more. You do what you do.
BG: Also with your music, the lyrics have never been the be all and end all, it is how it works with the instrumentation and textures.
SJD: Absolutely. I just want to write good lyrics. It’s really important to me. Part of making something that stands up to repeated listens is that once you get to the music, you can start to discover things in the lyrics, it keeps bringing you back. But then again, sometimes you get too wordy or too complicated or whatever, and you make the music a bit redundant. A lot of where the irony comes from—the narrator straightforward or unreliable, or he or she—if it’s a miserable lyric or sad and melancholic, I hope the music undercuts it or draws a line underneath it. That’s why I want the music to be beautiful in some way. This is really hard for me to say, but I’m saying this. The music or sometimes the backing vocals are saying, “well look, it’s good that you said that, but there’s a lot of beauty in that, and the world is not such a bad place.”
BG: ‘I Wanna Be Foolish’ seems to have a good contrast between lyrics and song.
SJD: I don’t know that’s probably the most straightforward pop song I’ve ever written. It’s got that Warren Zevon thing about it: the lyrics have an unfinished, off-the-cuff quality about them, and it’s just a three-chord song, a straightforward pop song. I was seriously considering not having it on the album and just releasing it as a single by itself. I think of it as a palette-cleanser.
BG: I know it’s a common tactic for writers, if they’re working on a particular novel to read similar things, and given the way your back catalogue has shifted with each album, do you operate in a similar mode? Do you listen to the type of things that would inspire the sound you’re after?
SJD: I definitely did with Wasteland and also with Dayglo Spectres as well. With this album, no not so much. I guess I was going back and listening to things that I like. I’ll always go back and listen to Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. I’ll always go back and listen to Joni Mitchell or Judee Sill or Aretha Franklin. A lot of the sounds on the album are things that have been in my mind for a long time. Before I made Southern Lights, I really wanted to make a country-rock album. I felt I wasn’t up to it. Even this time around, the songs have a slightly country-rock vibe to them, the way they stretch out. Even now, I’m not quite up to it, so it ended up being what it was.
BG: This is the first of a trilogy—is there much still to come from this collection of songs?
SJD: I’ve got a few lying around that didn’t get used on this album. At the time I said it’d be nice to have three albums that sit together, and instrumentally they won’t be exactly the same, but they’d be of a piece. They won’t be another abrupt left-turn or whatever. But having said that, I’m starting to listen to a bit of dance music, Squarepusher and Aphex Twin. I don’t know. Maybe I should just do the sensible thing, and if it’s a side-project, just call it a side project.
BG: You say that Saint John Divine is the best thing you’ve ever done?
SJD: I think so.
BG: How quickly did you realise that you’d nailed it for this one?
SJD: I sort of knew when I heard the demos. I had about 12 or 13 demos, and I thought if I do this right, this would be the best thing. There were a few months I spent with it and I didn’t really do anything. I didn’t know how to proceed. We had just a bunch of recordings of people playing these songs and I wondered how much I could mess with them. Then I realised it is very much my style to mess with it, play with it, and edit it. The song seems more completed. I was aware as I was making it that those were the best songs I had written. And there are some now that I think, even though they have been around for a while, they’re quite good but not quite as good as I thought. But there are others that I’d be proud of forever.