Perhaps the sagest songwriting advice ever bestowed to a newbie came not from a how-to book or a multi-platinum recording artist but from some anonymous grizzly guy I saw at an open mic night in Greenwich Village eons ago. After playing two great songs, he sat down to his coffee. Then, a suitably impressed young girl worked up the courage to ask him his secret for crafting these seemingly effortless songs.
"Just go away and write 100 songs. Don't even question if they're good or bad. In fact, just write 100 songs and assume they're all bad. Fill up a notebook with 'em and don't stop until you reach 100," he said. "You'll learn how to write a good song by then."
The girl smiled nervously and walked away. I often wondered if she ever wrote those 100 bad songs. The grueling process of churning out yards of material about everything from graduate school to banana peels wouldn't have allowed her time to get too precious about any of it. The meat of the better numbers might have turned up in more accomplished songs later on, if she were to keep at it. Maybe she decided on the spot that it would be too much work and became a sportscaster or the mayor of Wasilla. Who can say?
Andrew Junker, vocalist, pianist, and songwriter for the Phoenix indie-pop band Kinch, never met that grizzly guy but did write 100 songs. And he did it when he was 12.
"That's true. I've written hundreds of songs," he says. "A lot of the early songs were like bad Radiohead and had this awful drowning-cat warble trying to imitate Thom Yorke. But we were playing original material from the beginning.
"The very first song I wrote was a seventh-grade project. There was this book called A Day No Pigs Would Die [by Robert Newton Peck, 1972, number 17 on the American Library Association list of banned books]. It was about a farming family that raised water pigs. I don't remember the story, but we had an open-ended assignment that we could do anything we wanted, so I thought, Let's write a song about the book. I'd never written a song before and I remember playing the entire melody on my brother's bass and sang it at the same time. Then my older brother listened to it and said that's really good but [said] the cool thing about music is the instruments are doing something and the melody is doing something different.
"That made a lot of sense. I wondered why I never thought about that before. I wrote a bunch of songs right away where the melody had something different than the bass. It was one of those things that made me really want to write."
Between the ages 12 and 14, Junker began playing music and figuring out songs with cousin Brian Coughlin (guitar) and childhood friend Jake Malone (drums) and joined later on bass by Bryan Witt. Even with college slowing their momentum somewhat, they'd been playing together eight years before the release of Advances, their first full-length.
While on a recent road trip, the band pulled out a CD labeled "Kinch Demos," recorded when they were in junior high. Says Junker, "I was kinda surprised. They weren't awful. When it came time for the album, we had a lot of songs to choose from."
They chose well; the brief full-length shows an astonishing ability to reprocess influences to make up the band's self-described "brusque power pop" sound. They come out of the gate like a seasoned Britpop band already on its third album. Comparisons that are trotted out too frequently include Radiohead (understandable, as the Kinch boys are risk-takers; more on that later), The Strokes, Oasis (because of snotty rockers like "Making Out in the Library" and "All I've Done"), Coldplay, and Ben Folds (because of piano ballads like "Memphis" and the time-tricky "Girls Are Such a Problem," which soars into gorgeous wordless "ahhh" airspace in the middle and never comes down).
"Yeah, I can see it. You don't see too much piano-based rock live," he says. "They just hear a piano and falsetto and say Coldplay. We drag around the full 88-key beast onstage. On the other hand, a lot of people say things like, 'You guys sound like Five for Fighting.'" He turns caustic. "Oh, thanks!"
He doesn't sound thrilled when I suggest he occasionally evinces a certain yearning, early-Bono quality to his voice that makes him sound fully committed to what he's singing, more so than semi-detached singers like Julian Casablancas or Liam Gallagher, from two of the aforementioned groups. But Junker quickly brightens. "I think I come across as pretty earnest. And we enjoy playing music. I think that comes across. At this level, you definitely better enjoy making music, playing live and recording because you're not making any money at it."
Insuring, at least for the time being, that the kitty may be light, the band chose to put its first full-length online as a free download, essentially making it a giveaway promotional.
"I think that the option for us was are we gonna sell a hundred copies to friends and family or get people to listen it, and if they like it, they'll buy stuff from us in the future," says Junker. "We want to do this the rest of our lives, so giving our first record away is really kind of a no-brainer."
Thus far, a few thousand people have downloaded the LP. "We did a tour in April and did a bunch of shows in Texas and four weeks in August. I've been surprised how many people have been downloading it from everywhere. You see [that] after you play a city, there's a huge spike in downloads. We printed up a bunch of copies and sold a thousand ourselves." As in the case of Radiohead's most recent album, the option to pay what you'd like, to contribute to the band, is available on www.kinchband.com/advances. You can also buy it online from iTunes, if you feel like paying for something you can get for free.
Having already released a single and an EP, Kinch are on a perpetual recording campaign. Right now, they are in Austin recording a few songs and are set to do a recording with Valley record producer Cory Spotts (The Stiletto Formal, Greeley Estates, Lydia, The Cover Up).
"We want to release stuff," says Junker. "It doesn't take us 12 months to come up with 12 songs. There are bands that put out lots of things. We want to be one of those."
Fri., Dec. 19, 9 p.m., 2008