Kurt Vile on the Creative Process

Where do the ideas come from? We ask Philly’s most buzzed-about musician.
Photograph by Jauhien Sasnou

Photograph by Jauhien Sasnou

PM: When does the process for creating a new album begin?

KURT: I’m always creating — at least writing. One thing ricochets off the other. There comes a time where you’ve accumulated a bunch of songs and it’s time to make a new record. Then you go out on the road and perform it. That music takes on a life of its own, because you play it differently every night.

PM: Sounds like you find most of your inspiration on the road.

KURT: Not necessarily. The stuff I write on the road is more universal. There are other times, like when I visit my parents — they live in the suburbs, but compared to where I live in Northern Liberties, it’s like the country. There, I can tap into playing acoustic or banjo in their backyard. Then there’s when I’m in the studio, coming close to a deadline. I feel like some of my best work comes out of that, when all of a sudden you can fill in any blanks, music-wise or lyric-wise, on the fly, because you have your mojo going.

PM: How important is your environment?

KURT: I’m constantly shooting to build a cooler vibe in my studio. I just got back from tour and cleaned it up. I put down this cool Oriental carpet next to the piano. I like lights. The room can’t have bad lighting or be dim. I like to look around and see vintage gear: analog synths with multicolored buttons, lots of vintage guitars and pedals, a random picture of Bob Dylan in his Christian phase.

PM: Has your process evolved since you began putting out music?

KURT: I strived to be on a label that would pay me to go in a studio and put out my shit for real. I have that now, but I feel pressure in a different way than I did before. That’s part of becoming an adult and having a family.

PM: What’s the pressure? To put out songs that have more mass appeal?

KURT: Definitely not. I’ve had encouragement [from the label], like on Smoke Ring for My Halo, to go back and keep working to make it better. If I had come out with a bunch of weird songs on the next record — too many downers — they might say something, but I strive to be as great as somebody like Neil Young. I strive to make classic records — not in a sellout way. I want them to be unique, and in my own voice. I want to do something different than what’s already been done but still blow as many minds as possible.

PM: Does the desire to make more money and support your family influence your work at all?

KURT: There are decisions you make based on gaining more exposure. If somebody wanted to work with me that was huge and maybe not exactly my style — as long as it wasn’t too ridiculous, I would consider it. I’m all about doing whatever I can, as long as it’s with integrity, to be more of a success career-wise and financially.

PM: So what’s inspiring you these days?

KURT: A couple of my favorite songwriters right now are classic-period Randy Newman, and an amazing songwriter named John Prine. His lyrics are heartbreaking. There’s certain Southern Gothic fiction that I’m getting heavy into — Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy books. I’ve always been consuming. That’s just part of my personality, and it feeds into my music.

Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

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