The Decemberists' frontman talks about the violence of childbirth.
Sometimes when songwriters have kids, they – how do we say this? – start to suck. They pen over-earnest ballads about the future or, like, the beauty contained in the flutter of an eyelash. Colin Meloy’s girlfriend Carson was pregnant with his first son Hank, now eleven months old, when he wrote the songs that would become The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife. And not only are they the darkest, most grisly songs of his career, but they’re arguably some of the best. Whether or not you agree with that last part may depend on how you feel about the band switching out their vaudeville/musical theater swing for a darker prog-rock aesthetic – a little less Sondheim, a little more Jethro Tull. But the linchpin of each Decemberists album is the blood-stained stories at the center. Here we meet serial murderers, slain soldiers, lovers pierced by revenge. You can accuse The Decemberists of a lot of things – losing to Stephen Colbert, for one thing – but you can’t say fatherhood made Colin Meloy soft. – Sarah Hepola
It seems like more and more indie rock artists are making children’s albums. Is that something you’d ever do?
I don’t think so. I can understand the temptation, because when you have a kid you do most of the singing around your house and you start making up songs about putting on your shoes and putting diapers on, and don’t pull the volume nob off the TV.
Are those actual Colin Meloy originals?
The last two are, and there’s also a dinner time song.
Do they have lyrics
They do, but I’m not gonna repeat them, if that’s what you’re angling for. [laughs] The nice thing about these songs is that they’re performed for an audience of one, an audience who is usually quite pleased. You can be completely unselfconsious and not consider what people think.
That’s funny, because I always think of having a kid as hampering the creative process, not freeing it.
Well, it frees it when you’re singing songs about putting on shoes. I haven’t done that much songwriting since Hank was born, because we’ve been so embroiled in finishing the album and touring and promoting it. I’ve just now started to work on songs again. I mostly do that in the privacy of my working room. The nice thing about playing guitar is that it totally placates Hank. It’s a last-ditch attempt to calm him whenever he’s upset. He loves country songs. If I play a country song, he’ll just stare at me, or maybe try to grab at the guitar. So I use it just in times of need. And then if he’s in the mood I can play around with different chord phrasings. It’s a great way to get him to stop crying. But, like every little trick that you come up with, he’ll eventually figure it out, and it won’t work anymore.
Is Hank named after Hank Williams, Jr.?
No, he’s named after my great-uncle Henry Meloy. He has a really interesting history. He made his living doing paintings and illustrations for western magazines, so he did a lot of cowboys and horses, and he was the main portrait artist for Katherine Cornell, a ’40s Broadway actress, and he taught art at Columbia. He died in his fifties, so I never had a chance to meet him, but his legend loomed large. And I always liked the name Henry. We didn’t know whether we’d call him Henry or Hank, but we took him to visit the family in Montana, and that’s what sealed the deal. I guess Hank is what they called my great-uncle, too.
I wanted to talk about a few songs on the album. “You’ll Not Feel the Drowning” sounds kind of like a lullaby – albeit a very twisted lullaby about drowning someone.
When I first did the demo, Hank was a couple weeks old, and I remember [guitarist] Chris Funk’s girlfriend was like, “Isn’t that weird? He’s singing that to Hank.” I think a lot of people misread it that way. But it’s actually based on a part of In Patagonia, the hippie travel writing book. There’s an amazing passage where [author Bruce Chatwin] is talking about a ship in a squall and these cabin boys are down in the berth, and one of the cabin boys says to the younger ones, “Shut up, go to sleep, and you won’t feel anything.” It’s not really about killing someone.
But this is a darker batch of songs than your previous albums. Would you agree?
Yeah, I would. I was conscious of that at the time. I remember thinking, Here I am getting ready to have a child and usually this is the point where people, like, dumb things down a little bit.
Were you working out some kind of anxiety?
The only sense I can make of it is, well, a couple things. For one, pregnancy and gearing up for birth is a crazy, gruesome thing. I mean, at one point we watched this video about home birth, and there was just blood and fluid and all this terrible moaning. And then there’s Carson getting bigger and bigger and having crazy heartburn. Childbirth, in general, is a gruesome experience, so some of the imagery maybe grew out of that. The other thing is that, in imagining having a kid, I was also going back to my own childhood, and I had a really morbid imagination. I was really into axe murderers and knights and really violent things, oddly enough, and I think that’s often the default setting for children. We try to forget about that but they love things that are gruesome and gory.
That reminds me of a recent New Yorker article I read about children’s books.
Exactly, that was really striking. How there are all these kids’ books about trying to get your kid to go to sleep, but kids just love violence and potty humor.
Does Hank have a favorite children’s book?
Well, he’s six months old, so he has a favorite book to gnaw on.
Okay, do you have a favorite children’s book to read to him?
We have Good Night Gorilla, and I really like that. It’s one of those go-to-sleep parables, even though it’s the gorilla who’s trying to go to sleep.
Do you think there’s a parenting book that doesn’t totally suck?
We stayed away from What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I’ve heard a lot of negative things – that it’s more traditional, maybe not a very green approach. We used the Sears parenting book for pregnancy, and for our baby books, we have a book called Your Baby and Child, and the A to Z Guide to Parenting, which is a pediatrician guide. We found that they said wildly different things, so we played them off one another. If we didn’t like what one book said, we went to the other book.
What’s the most useful gift you received as a new parent?
One of the best things was these Mustela baby wipes. They have this really nice line of baby products, which we got in a gift pack. After the baby wipes were through, we went and bought some others at the co-op, just like Seventh Generation baby wipes or whatever, and they were crap compared to the Mustela, so we just had to go back. They’re just thick and soft and they smell kind of nice, while most baby wipes just smell nasty. But the problem is they cost three times as much as regular baby wipes. We’re really pratical people, in general, but we only use those.
That gift bag was like a neighborhood crack sample.
Yes, they gave me just enough to get me hooked.
So if the Decemberists’ children were facing off against Stephen Colbert’s children, who would win?
Huh. How old are his kids?
The thing is, we’ve got a ten-month-old and a six-month-old in our ranks. They can’t do much worse than drool on them. Hank is developing a good tackle. But to be practical, we might have to concede.