AC Newman (but you can call him Carl) is one of those fortunate performers whose work receives nearly universal acclaim from music critics, both as a solo act and for his five albums with New Pornographers. His latest solo outing is called Shut Down the Streets, which is his most personal record yet, and one which reflects on both the birth of his son and the death of his mother. The album has a '70s singer-songwriter vibe and is a departure for the Canadian songwriter whose work heretofore hadn't been as revealing. But all that has changed with Streets. For the latest edition of Tell Me About That Album, we talked to Newman about the record, its personal nature and his favorite '70s one-hit wonders. Newman plays the Crocodile on November 9th.
How much forethought goes into a record? Did you think about lyrical themes and sonic ideas before the writing even began? I knew that the things I was writing about on this record were inescapable. I would have felt completely full of shit after losing my mom and the birth of my son if I didn't express it. I felt like I had to do that. I didn't go into it saying, "That's what I'm going to write about," but when I started writing, that's what made sense and that's what came out.
But do you start with a vision and then drive towards it or do you just start writing and see what happens? Only recently have I starting thinking I should do that. Making a record like [New Pornographers'] Twin Cinema, there was absolutely no vision. We just went into the studio and started working. A lot of our records have been like that. It was only on this last one that I thought, "Let's make a certain kind of record." And now I find myself trying to write a New Pornographers record thinking, "What is this record going to sound like? I've got have a vision for it." But I've never been big on vision. I've always just written songs.
The record has a decidedly '70s vibe, earning comparisons to folks like Harry Nilsson. Who are the most lasting artists for you from that era? Gerry Rafferty was one of them. The City to City record kind of came to the forefront when I was making this record. A little bit of Gordon Lightfoot. There's a lot of one-hit wonder stuff like "Magnet and Steel" by Walter Egan. Obviously I love Nilsson. Even stuff like John Denver and Jim Croce.
Were those artists you discovered as a kid or did you go back to that era to investigate things because you'd been led there by other artists? A little of both. Sometimes you remember songs as a kid and then one day you hear it and go, "This song is great!" and you can't deny its power. None of that stuff was a really deep influence. It's more of a reference point of where I was trying to go sonically. I don't think I really know how to write a song in that style. I think the closest I've done is, "I'm Not Talking," the first song on the album. For the most part, I just write songs and play them the way I think they would sound best.
Do you write for a specific record? Did you know all these songs would be on this record, for instance? I used to just write and then figure out where they would go. For an album like Get Guilty, some of those songs could have been New Pornographers songs, but I just wrote them when I was working on that record so they became part of that album. But this record I didn't do that.
What was the idea behind the image on the album cover? That's just me standing on my property. It just kind of made sense to have this picture of me standing in the middle of my woods with a glass of wine in hand. It is not far removed from my life. Because of the kind of record it is I thought I should put myself on the cover.
The album's title is taken from a lyric in a song about your mother. What was it about that phrase that you thought would make for a good title? I think a lot of the record has these themes of going away, just going through something very difficult and just wanting to disappear somewhere. Shut down the streets -- there's a double meaning there. It was about the death of my mother but also about trying to turn my back on the world temporarily and just go to my own place. There's a sense of isolation of wanting the world to shut down.
When talking about The New Pornographers you said, "Once your band hits the public eye I figure you're allowed to make three albums that sound the same. And then after that you have to move on." What's wrong with just staying the course like The Ramones or Motorhead have done? I think I phrased it like that's what everybody should do but I was just talking about my own band. We'd made the first three Pornographers records and after that I felt like, "Where do we go from here?" I think it was restlessness. It's the kind of thing that makes you want to write TV theme songs and soundtracks. It's the thing that made me want to make this record.
So it's about growing for you as an artist and not so much growing tired of bands who don't change their formula? That does happen, like I remember being obsessed with the first Jesus and Mary Chain record. It was one of my favorite albums for a couple of years but I knew I wasn't going to be into the second record because I knew it was going to be more of the same but not as good. There are bands that are like that, but at the same time, there are a lot of bands that are my favorite bands in the world that have just locked into a sound and are sticking with it. I love The National because they sound like The National and I'd be disappointed if they ever stopped.
Newman plays the Crocodile on Friday, November 9th.