BigMama: Your most recent record touches on a number of controversial topics like suicide, mental illness, LGBT issues and the death of main street America. What drives you to write about these topics instead of things that are more “safe”?
|Photo by Rick Szymanski|
Brad Yoder: I’m a firm believer in writing what comes and I try to pay attention to everything in my life and listening to that and making time in which to make songs about that stuff. So each of those specific songs had specific events. I had a friend take his life about three and a half years ago. That’s a very one-to-one kind of song. A lot of time songs are kind of collages that you kind of piece together, so for me it’s unusual to write a song like “Leave Like This” which is about a specific person. The song about the psychiatric hospitalization started out with hearing about a local musician who had been hospitalized. That song is a little bit more of a collage, in that I was thinking about friends I know. So I took the details of one story and used the emotional connections of another.
I’ve always believed that it’s my job to write the best songs I can and to write about the things that come up and not to edit myself. Certainly faith plays a role in who I am and what I do, but I don’t think a Christian plumber tries to lay Christian pipes. I think you just try to do the best work you can, so that’s the only way I know how to do it, so that’s what I do.
2. BigMama: Have you encountered any pushback from venues for playing a particular song, or have you been asked not to play something?
Brad Yoder: Of course! But not as much as you might think, only because while I’ve moved in and out of different worlds and have certainly done a lot of things in church contexts, I’ve never identified myself as a big Christian musician or song-writer, where Christian is a kind of modifier for the kind of music that you make as opposed to just one part of who I am as a human.
At the point I have 18 years of songs so when I play in certain contexts I play songs that I think will be a good fit. But I have dear friends who happen to be Christian who like all of those songs and who particularly like the very songs that have occasionally brought me into long, painful conversations. The song What Would Jesus Do I’ve most commonly had people react to.
I grew up in kind of a hyper-churchy environment and fortunately that was mostly a positive thing. Everyone gets their bag of stuff you get with your growing up experience and it’s always mixed, so if someone reacts strongly from a more traditional point of view, I can completely understand why they do that because I have a sense of where they’re coming from.
3. BigMama: I love the title track for Excellent Trouble. Can you tell us about the inspiration for that song?
Brad Yoder: Excellent Trouble started this way: A couple of years ago I got a MySpace friend request (back when MySpace was a bit more happening) from a young woman from St. Louis and I did not recognize her in any way. But as it turns out she was someone who had been a camper in a summer camp where we had been teaching French to the young people. And obviously you’re not going to recognize people who went to camp 10 years ago. Or even like 2 weeks ago, really! So I’m looking at her profile pictures to try to remember who this person is. And there was one photograph of her and a friend – it appeared to be them in a bar arm in arm. And the caption was, “Trouble found us that night, but it was excellent trouble.” And as soon as I read it, I thought, “That is really good. Excellent Trouble is a really great adjective-noun combination.”
Occasionally you get an idea that’s strong enough that you just know that the song will write itself and it will be good and that was one of those cases. So I ended up writing it on a drive down to Charlottesville to play at the Mud House Coffee House for tips and I essentially wrote the song and played two-thirds of it that night and then finished it. It was just a strong word idea. I like the way things come together in ways that seem really right.
One of the things I try to do is to go through my day and really enjoy all of the amazing things about being alive and experience gratitude for those things because we get to experience things on an everyday basis that are just mind-blowing and so often it’s easy to over-look them. Some of those things are lovely and joyful and beautiful and some of those things are incredibly sad and there is something also equally amazing and beautiful about having the privilege of experiencing some of those sad things too. Even just to be around, as preachers are wont to say, “Not everyone got up this morning” and we did. So the excellent trouble idea kind of encapsulates that notion of life being full of hard and wonderful things and that there is ultimately, in the deepest sense, something excellent and perfect about all of it. It’s not good parts and other parts, it’s really just good parts.
It’s not to say when something bad happens it’s a good thing, but that ultimately from the correct vantage point, we’re privileged to be around to experience anything.
4. BigMama:Can you describe your creative process? Do you usually come up with lyrics or melodies or themes?
Brad Yoder: It varies a lot. The most common starting place is singing to myself. One part of the process is trying to be aware of things that happen and overheard phrases or things I might read. I’m a big word person so I try to keep track of a few good word ideas. Most days, at some point, I pick up the guitar and just noodle without too specific an agenda. A lot of times this happens if I have a long drive to a gig, I’ll sing to myself and work through things that way.
Sometimes songs come together really quickly and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes I’ll have songs that I wrote half of and then finished the other verse a couple years later. A lot of times that initial idea is strong and perfect and if you’re lucky it points you all the way through to the end and in other cases it just kind of stands there and taunts you.
Most of the time I get ideas from just singing to myself. If you observe little kids, a lot of them do this pretty naturally. If you ask ten 4 year olds if they have written a song, they’ll say yes and sing it for you. I have this sense that writing songs about stuff that happens to you is probably a really natural, kind of normal thing to do. I’m not a big believer in talent, so much. If I had known 20 years ago where I was and how “good I was” at that point – I got this gift of ignorance, which is where if you really enjoy something, you keep doing it because you really enjoy it and you get better at it. And there’s something terrific about the accumulation of that, where you’ve done something for so long that certain parts of it seem easy and natural. It’s like speaking your first language. People will say, “Oh I could never get in front of an audience and sing songs” but they talk all day to people and don’t say, “What if I forget my words?”
I had a young song-writer friend who I hadn’t heard in a while, I heard recently in an open-mic and he sounded really good. I remembered that a bunch of years ago he was all worked-up about wanting to do music for a living and I remember telling him that the first thing that he needed to do was to give up. The second thing he needed to do was to write some songs. He just needed to discard the idea of doing it because the idea was getting in his way and he was thinking 5 or 10 steps ahead of where he was. And he needed to write some songs without the stakes of, “are these songs going to prove that music is my vocation.”
You know, the shoemaker doesn’t go into his shop thinking, “Today I will make a pair of shoes that will justify my entire working life and the whole world will love these shoes.” You just make shoes because it’s what you do. And somewhere along the way you make a pair shoes and you think, “Wow, this is a really amazing pair of shoes!” But probably that pair of shoes is probably related to the last hundred that you made that were very nice and maybe not as incredible.
So my process is to keep going. And that’s also kind of my definition of success really. Because I’m too old to “make it” at this point. Not all kinds of success are available to all of us. But the important ones are. And that’s getting better at what you do and having the music that you do touch specific people in specific ways. And for me that might be dozens of people instead of hundreds of thousands of people. It’s the same thing, it’s just a different scale.
BigMama: What’s the last book that you read?
Brad Yoder: When I have a spare moment, I’m reading Stephen Dunn poetry.
BigMama: What’s your favorite guilty-pleasure movie?
Brad Yoder: I don’t go to a lot of movies, but I went to see Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and that was kind of a guilty pleasure in the sense of “I know this is going to be really hipster.” Certainly over-stimulation!
BigMama: If you were taking a friend out to a restaurant, where would you take them?
Brad Yoder: To any of about a half-dozen cheap, ethnic bites in Pittsburgh. People’s Indian on Penn Avenue, everything is included in the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet.
BigMama: What is your favorite time of day?
Brad Yoder: Dusk, probably. I like evening, as things are starting to get dark.
Brad has very generously donated an autographed copy of his previous record, Someday or Never. It has tons of amazing songs on it (my favorites are Any Day and Famous). I am thrilled to be able to give this to one lucky reader! Here's what you need to do to enter:
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