“Very Self-Conscious About Everything”: An Interview with A.C. Newman

A.C. Newman
Shut Down the Streets

A conversation with Carl Newman — the primary songwriter for the New Pornographers and who just released Shut Down the Streets his third solo project — is funny, pleasant, and just slightly painful.

Newman (who goes by “AC Newman” for his solo work) is honest and charming — and about as far from a “rock star” as a rock star can be. At 44, Newman is new dad and recently dealt with the death of this mother: not the usual chicks-and-cars-and-swagger stuff of a rock ‘n’ roll hit. But then this is a guy partly inspired to become a rock musician when he realized that Husker Du, “the coolest punk band of the moment, was made up of a guy with a handlebar mustache and another other guy who looks like a chubby preppy.”

Seeing that as a teenager made Newman realize “there doesn’t have to be an artifice there. You can just do what you want, and you don’t have to have some look or be part of some movement.”

Shut Down the Streets is hardly rock-by-the-numbers. Lyrically, it reflects (enigmatically, as with all of his lyrics) on Newman’s unique moment in life — middle-aged pop if you want to be cynical about it. Musically, these are ten sturdy but quirky songs full of unforgettable details and strong harmonic movement that turns left at moments when right turn would be the obvious choice.

In our conversation, Newman spoke about going his own and blending in to the band, about wanting to write complex music through using simplicity, and about his good fortune in being an introvert who makes his living on a stage in front of people.

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Your rock songs contain more complex harmonies — fancier chords and harmonic colors — than almost anything that’s been on radio in the last 30 years. Have you always heard music that way? Are you really more of a 1970s singer-songwriter than a 21st century power-popper?

When I first started writing songs, I was looking to Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach/Hal David, and Jimmy Webb. If you look at their songs and try to play them — they’re very strange and complex. No one thinks “Wichita Lineman” is a weird song. They just think it’s a country song. But if you really sit down and listen to it, you go, “This is a strange song.” Even the lyrics. I’ve always carried that with me. Because the first time I tried writing songs I was going for that — it became a part of me, even when I’m doing something more straightforward.

When I picked up the guitar, I loved the Pixies. So there is a part of me that wants to chug on a barred chord for a few bars or to play a power chord. But when the New Pornographers started, we started adding elements from The Cars, and Blondie, or The Stranglers. All through that, my music has been infused with those early, more complex, influences.

“Sing Me Spanish Techno” was one of the more popular songs on Twin Cinima, yet it has a very complex pre-chorus with tricky harmonies.

That song is a different kind of complex. It is a lot of simple elements put together in an odd way. It’s not complicated like some classical piece or something by Thelonious Monk. I want to do complex music but I’m not that masterful a musician. So I often throw together a lot of simple elements. It’s not that difficult to change chords or add a level of harmony, so I do that a lot.

I want the song to go somewhere else so I change the chords under the melody and that changes the feel of it. All of sudden your song can take a left turn. Going way back, there a song on Electric Version called “From Blown Speakers” which I wrote as a three-chord song, but decided, no-no, I’ve got to do something else with it. I just moved the chords around under the melody. But I kept the three-chord part for the big outro.

I remember when we were learning “Sing Me Spanish Techno” I would practice it with John and Kurt, the rhythm section and then I would come back a few days later and say, “I rewrote ‘Spanish Techno’. All of a sudden the second verse wasn’t the same as the first. The chords change and the melody changes. That the kind of stuff I did back then.

Rock music is generally supposed to be simple and direct. Do you worry that your music will be considered “pretentious” because it’s complex?

I’ve heard all the criticisms. They’ll stone you no matter what you do. With the advent of the really simple, primal two-person rock band, there is that attitude. If something is really ornate and baroque, people just aren’t into it. At the same time, Grizzly Bear are ornate and baroque and are massively popular.

It’s interesting to think about the influence of Brian Wilson. At the core of it, I like the way the chords move in his songs. I listen to “God Only Knows” and I think, I want to write a song that moves like that. And yet, when I play it, it’s like a garage rock song. But then there are other bands that take the production style of The Beach Boys but write songs that are a lot simpler than Wilson’s. A lot of bands have really mastered that delivery style.

Your songs seems to be built on craftsmanship rather than just your identity or a “sound.” People might cover your music well for that reason.

I feel that way more with the new record. It used to be that whenever I would get ready to play an acoustic show, I would sit down and ask, “How many of my songs can I play acoustically?” and there weren’t that many. It seemed like the rock elements were really essential to the songs — you could remove them and play the songs acoustic. But with the new record, Shut Down the Streets, I feel like I can sit down and play every song as an acoustic song. I think that these songs could be covered. I don’t [think] anybody would, but somebody could do a cover of “I’m Not Talking” and it would make sense. The song can stand on its own more. Over the last five years, I’ve tried to move toward that more.

I’m really proud of the first three New Pornographers records, but by the time I was working on Twin Cinema I was thinking, I’ve gotta do something more here. And I think you can tell. And then people felt that Challengers was the “break-off album” where that’s even more true. There can be a song sung just by Neko [Case, vocalist with the New Pornographers as well as the new record] that doesn’t even have a rhythm section — just an acoustic guitar, a little quiet electric, and vocals.

I’m just trying to keep myself interested. With the new record — I thought, I’m going to try to make a record like this and see what happens.

Now people are going to listen to it and tell me what they think. I really hate that. Even though I’ve made my life as a musician and a performer, I don’t feel entirely comfortable as a public person. That’s partly why I came to Woodstock to live. I like the solitude.

I’m not really been able to buy into any kind of “rock star” persona. It seems absurd to me. At the end of a show we’ll do a big rock ending, maybe. Todd and I will cross our guitar necks. It just seems absurd to me. When the New Pornographers perform, we talk a lot and joke around. That’s just how we are. That conversation could just as easily happen on the bus. That’s nothing new.

Wasn’t that what punk rock or the indie-rock revolution was about? That anybody could get on stage and it wasn’t really about posturing?

I like the idea that somebody would like my records and then would see me as such a normal guy. It send the message that maybe anybody could do it.

The fact that you sing with a bit of a lisp may be part of what makes you so approachable. That’s part of your lack of artifice. It seems very un-self-conscious.

I’m very self-conscious. I don’t really notice the lisp. I look for it now because other people are pointing it out.

Even though your music is quite polished, that little “imperfection” may help you to connect.

It’s hard to say. But, yes, I’m very self-conscious — about everything. I think that is a huge element of what goes into my songs. It’s partly why I’ve never done much songwriting with other people. For me, songwriting is very much a descent into the self. If I’m writing by myself, which is what I like to do, I can be ruthless, I can say, “This is garbage” and throw it out. Working with someone else, it’s hard to say, “Listen, I don’t like what you’re doing. This sucks.” You just can’t say that. Songwriting is very internal, and that’s what’s liberating about it. I’ve been a very shy person in my life. That you can dig deep into yourself and show it to people is liberation. I was a shy guy, but I wrote this song and played it for people and now girls like me: how about that! I kind of parlayed being a very private person into having a girlfriend! That has given me my life — my house and wife and my child and my career, and it all comes from this private place.

It’s interesting that such a private person would be most famous for being in a band that is a collective, where your work is blended with the work of other very distinctive artists. It’s interesting that you should be such a private guy but be involved in something that is so collaborative.

The New Pornographers was assembled with people that I trusted. You don’t want to have to do everything in a band. I can see why it might seem strange for a very private guy to be in a collaborative band. But, looking at it another way, if I don’t want to be the center of attention but I want to have a band, it makes sense to have a band like that where I’m just one of three singers and I can write a song and give it to Neko so I don’t even have to sing it. If I’m feeling self-conscious about my voice, well, I’ve got someone with this killer voice, and she can knock it out of the park. That makes me happy because then my song is as good as it can possibly be.

Why have Neko Case on this record — maybe confusing it with a NP project?

I felt confident enough that this record was really different that I could have her on here without risking confusion. There are a couple of moments, like on “Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns”, that sound, straight-up, like a classic New Pornographers song. If was recorded a bit differently, it wouldn’t be out of place on Mass Romantic. When I was making the record, I thought, Does this song fit? But then I thought, Well, who cares? I liked it.

But there are other ways in which it fits. “Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns” is the song where I’m talking about how self-conscious I am and how being in a band just seems absurd. When I sing the big chorus, “I didn’t mean to live that many lies,” I think that’s what I’m talking about. And that ties into everything I was feeling and still do feel about losing my mom and my child coming. There are so many bigger things in the world than my record coming out. When I find myself worrying about what the reviews will say, I want to slap myself and say, Who gives a shit? This is most unimportant bullshit on Earth. What people are saying about your record is not what’s important. But it’s hard to ignore. That’s part of what I do.

It’s a tough time to be a musician. It’s not easy to sell lots of records, and you have to tour constantly. What are the economics of making a career in popular music work these days — particularly if you’re not just trying to place songs on TV shows or turn yourself into Blink-182.

I’ve been lucky. I have placed songs on TV shows. It’s happened to an absurd level. There is even a new TV show that it doing to use one of our songs as the theme. I’ve been very lucky in many ways. But you still look at the future. How much money would you actually need before you think, I’m set for life. If someone gave a half million dollars, you would jump for joy but you wouldn’t quit your job. You have to really be a rock star before you’re like, “Yeah, I’ve got $5 million and I’m laughing and can do whatever I want.”

It is very strange — but so far, so good. When I’ve worried about money, money has come my way. It’s almost made me a religious man. There have been moments when I’ve been worried and then word comes that somebody wants to use one of my songs in a T-Mobile commercial. I’ve been like, “Thank you, God!”