Gary Louris of The Jayhawks

by Dan MacIntosh

The Jayhawks have a song on their 1997 album Sound of Lies called "Big Star." It's not really about Alex Chilton's band, but maybe it is. Jayhawks singer/guitarist Gary Louris lets his subconscious do his songwriting, and that part of his brain was likely occupied with the thought of Big Star, the critically-adored but popularly neglected band that musicians have claimed as an influence since the '70s.

The Jayhawks formed in 1985, with Mark Olson writing the songs with Gary. Based in Minneapolis, they were one of the first bands tagged by the music press as Gary describes The Jayhawks as an "in between" band - you've probably heard of them, but they're far from famous. Kind of like Big Star.

In 1995, Mark Olson became an ex-Jayhawk when he left the band to join his wife, the folk-rock singer/songwriter Victoria Williams, in a new act called the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers. Sans Olson, The Jayhawks released three album, including their 2000 set Smile, which was produced by Bob Ezrin of Alice Cooper and Pink Floyd fame. Ezrin called Gary an "inspired writer," but not as a compliment. Gary can't write without inspiration, which isn't always productive, but leads to some memorable work. He did manage to pull off some writing sessions with the Dixie Chicks, contributing to four songs on their 2006 album Taking The Long Way, including "Everybody Knows" and "Bitter End."

Olson returned to The Jayhawks for their 2011 release Mockingbird Time, which became the band's highest-charting album when it peaked at #38. Their crowds are bigger than ever, but their audience is still intimate. As Gary points out, longevity can trump adulation.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): For a lot of the Jayhawks songs, your name and Mark's name are credited together. Did you truly collaborate on all those songs, or was that like the way they did it with Lennon/McCartney where you were both listed on the credits even if just one of you wrote the song?

Gary Louris: Well, I think it's a little bit of in between. There's no clear cut answer. Let me turn this down a little bit. It really varies, you know. There are songs that are 99% me and songs that are 99% Olson, there are songs that are 50/50, there are songs that are 70/30. It's one of those things where we just decided it was all going to balance out at some point. But it's mainly having a person across from me to validate what I'm doing.

It depended on the period. I think in the early days there was a little bit more of 50/50, and then as time went on and we moved in different places, it become more of I've got this, he's got that, you like this? Cool. Well, what would you change? And there may be slight little tweaks. On the last record it became more of a 50/50 thing again, because we just sat across from each other and wrote. But certainly there are Gary's songs and there are Mark's songs, and there are some that are Gary and Mark songs. But I think it was a good decision to just put our names on everything. It was definitely a conscious decision to make it less of an ego thing.

Songfacts: Would one of you be more a lyrical guy and the other guy be more of a musical guy, or did you both do those things in equal parts?

Louris: Well, there's not a clear cut answer for that, either. I think Mark was always more of the lyric guy in certain periods of our career. But again, it's not 100%. That depended on the song. And as time went on, of course, when Mark left, I took over the lyrics completely 90% of the time. But I went to the school of Mark Olson as far as lyrics go. I was always more comfortable with the melody - I think you'll find that with most people in music. It's like you can come up with a million melodies, but the lyrics are more difficult.

So I guess there's no clear cut answer. You could say that Mark wrote more of the lyrics, but it really depends on the period. There are three or four records where I did most of the lyrics myself.

Songfacts: How difficult was it when Mark left? I think you made the albums Sound of Lies (1997) and Smile (2000) without him.

Louris: And Rainy Day Music (2003), right.

Songfacts: How difficult was that for you at first?

Louris: The first record was difficult. It was kind of liberating in a way that you just said fuck it; people will love it or hate it. But then I always felt like every record was going to be a last record and who cared. At this point, I'm just going to do what I feel is what I want to do, and if people love it, cool. If not, that's the end of my career. [Laughs]

But looking back at it, Sound of Lies was an incredible experience. And with Smile and Rainy Day Music, they each had their own different attributes. That was very difficult the first record. I think it was kind of a letting go, kind of a giving up for Sound of Lies, where I said, I'm going to do what I think I've always wanted to do without Mark and let the pieces fall where they may.

It was some people's favorite record, but it sold the least. But then there were other aspects to that. The record company was in disarray, they didn't promote it. A major shift in our image led to it. But to this day there are many people, that's their favorite record. And it's probably the most, I don't want to say depressing, but it's the most heavy record that we ever did.

Songfacts: One of the things that I love about your music is that it always seems to touch an emotional nerve. When you write songs, do you have to be in that frame of mind almost as if you're going to emotional extremes? Does your frame of mind have to be right to be able to write the kind of music you create?

Louris: Well, for me, it does. There are definitely different schools of thought on that. There are people who just approach it like a job, be it Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, certain people who show up dressed in their suits at 9 a.m. in their office and approach it as a job. I've been called an inspired writer. And that was not a positive comment. It was by my producer, Bob Ezrin. He was trying to tell me: You write when you're inspired, but you don't do the hard work when you're not inspired.

But I need to be inspired to write a song. Either for myself - to save myself - or to fulfill a time constraint. And I'm not somebody who wakes up and writes every day. I just don't. I can't do that. Then it becomes a job. One thing that's supposed to be a benefit of being an "artist" is you don't have to be a 9 to 5er. And in as much as any artists admire 9 to 5ers, because there's structure and there's reliability, to me, the freedom of writing when you really need a song to save yourself is usually when the song is most important.

Songfacts: Not too get too psychoanalytical, but are songs therapy to you?

Louris: Yes. I think songs are saviors in many ways. That's funny, because I've been listening to some old songs, because I'm preparing for a solo tour and I'm thinking about, 'Well, what can I really do that's not cookie cutter.' Part of me wants to write a song on stage every night. It would suck, but there's that immediacy of saying I've got to do it now, instead of saying I can do it tomorrow or whatever.

It's always back door therapy for me. I don't sit down and go, I'm going to write a song because I'm depressed or I'm getting divorced or I'm missing my kid or whatever. I just write a song, but sometimes it's years later I listen to the song and I think, wow.

There's a song called "Caught with a Smile on my Face" that's just kind of a B-side. And it's so applicable, line by line, to my life right now it's almost scary. It's almost like a precursor. Like you were foreseeing something in your life. And that's typically how I write. I write kind of back door. Try to turn off the conscious mind, and right in there there's this weird subconscious mind that flows through you that you tap into.

This isn't for a lot of writers. It's not for a typical Nashville writer, which is a very strange Levi's and whiskey and God and football and beer scene. But for somebody who writes a different way, you write in a kind of stream of consciousness. And that comes from a weird deep well down there that seems to know more about you than your conscious mind. And sometimes it comes back, could be years later, and says, 'Wow, there was something going on there.' I didn't even realize on a conscious level what I was thinking about.

That's an Irish thing, too, in a way. Writing and reading between the lines.

Songfacts: It's interesting that you mentioned Nashville songwriters, because I wanted to talk a little bit about the writing that you did with the Dixie Chicks. And that must have been a different experience for you, because that was not really writing for your own album, or for your own band, but you were really contributing to another artist's effort. How was that experience?

Louris: It was great, and I'd still do it to this day. And I enjoy it. I've been writing with a lot of people. It's part of what I do. It's part of what people do in this period of their musical life when you're not 20, not 70, but like 50-something... it's like you're in between. It reminds me of the old article we did back for a magazine that actually kind of killed us in a way. It's like not being a big artist, not being a small artist, but being in between. We've always been kind of in between.

And what that means is for me writing for other people is something I have to do, but I love to do, because I have a very good publisher and they hook me up with great co-writers, whether they're artists or just writers. And you strike up these very deep relationships within two hours, you know these people's lives and they become your friends.

And I've written a lot of songs over the last couple of years that I am very proud of. And they're not going to be on million sellers, but they'll be on records that sell 20,000 or 10,000 or 50,000 records, who knows? But it's a beautiful thing. And I like collaborating. It's an art form to learn how to sit in a room with somebody and tap into the emotions of the other person and learn how to create something not OK, but great. It's got to be great. You can sit there and check it off your list, 'Okay, wrote a song today, who cares?' If it's not good, it doesn't really matter how many songs you write. They have to be great.

And certainly every song cannot be great. It's like Howard Roark in The Fountainhead. Most of your ideas end up in the wastebasket. You come up with some great, great ideas, but you have to get through the bad ones first.

With co-writing, I like working off other people. I'm not that great at working in a void. And so with the Dixie Chicks, it was great. It was difficult with them only because there were four people. Three of them and myself. And that's difficult, but it worked. It's easier one on one, two people together. To get four people to agree on ideas is always difficult.

But that's my biggest money maker, as far as co-writing, and artistically it was a success. So I can only say good things about that.

Songfacts: Do you have a favorite song that you wrote with the Dixie Chicks?

Louris: Well, I love "Everybody Knows," which is a song we wrote. In Time magazine, when they did an article on Rick Rubin, they named that song as one of the highlights of his career. And I was honored by that, just because he's done so many great things and it wasn't a single. It was "Not Ready to Be Nice" or whatever. But I play it solo, I'm sure I'll play it on my tour, and it just resonates with me.

There's another song we wrote, "Bitter End," that's really great. And so those are the two I would cover.

Songfacts: Do you have favorite Jayhawks songs?

Louris: Of course, yeah, I do. But that really depends on the period, you know. I have so many different favorite Jayhawks songs, but there are so many different periods of the Jayhawks that it's like Genesis or Pink Floyd. They had different lineups. We've had major people come and go. So, of course, "Blue" is the natural touchstone as far as the song that seems to identify the Jayhawks and seems to reach the most people.

But there are other people who just love things off Sound of Lies or Smile or Rainy Day Music. It depends, it's usually, pick your poison. It depends on which period of the Jayhawks you like.

And I have mixed feelings when people say, "Well, this is the classic lineup." I've been there the longest, other than Pearlman (bass player Marc Perlman). I've been there since 1985, certainly after the Civil War.

And so there are so many songs that we have and what excites me about going out on this solo tour is I'm going to touch on all the songs that we haven't been doing. Focusing on Sound of Lies, Smile, Rainy Day Music, and co-writes. Touching a little bit on Hollywood Town Hall (1992) and Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995). But really more shifting into the stuff that I haven't been playing, our covers, our new songs. And I try to write a song a night on stage, it's kind of intriguing to me, just so I can put myself out there and say, "I'm going to write a song tonight." It could suck. But let's try and you'll see what the process is of writing a song. That, to me, is something I would like to try to do.

Songfacts: Well, why don't I just throw a few songs your way that I really like and maybe you could just give me a few thoughts about creating them. The one that I was listening to today that really stuck out, and I guess I never really noticed how much I like it, was "Better Days." And that's off of the Smile album, right?

Louris: Yes.

Songfacts: So tell me about writing that song. Do you remember what inspired it?

Louris: Yes. It was a woman named Michelle McAdorey. She was in a band called Crash Vegas. We totally fell head over heels for each other in a very short amount of time, and then somehow it didn't work. She was in Toronto while I was in Minneapolis, and I was married. It was one of those things.

It was my ode to her. And I still love her. I haven't seen her in so long. But it was one of those songs of regret: I could have done that... if I would have done that... if I could have done this.

So to me that's a Canadian song. That's a song about my time, Toronto, Hamilton, wherever we were where we fell in love and then it ended. It ended quickly and it was like one of those "what could have been" songs. So it's a song of regret, really. And it's an ode to Michelle, and I love her dearly, and I haven't talked to her since I wrote that song. But it's a pretty heavy, heavy lyric as far as my memories of her apartment. That was an innocent little time we had together, but it was a beautiful time.

Songfacts: Well, I imagine another one that's about a girl, "Miss Williams Guitar," was more a Mark thing, because he ended up marrying her.

Louris: That is really a Mark song. I have very little to do with that song, other than playing the riff. That's really his ode to Victoria (Mark's wife Victoria Williams). So I can't really comment on that other than I was there in Louisville at the graveyard and the bar, and I remember all that stuff that is living through the details of that time. That's truly a Mark Olson song. If you're talking about Olson/Louris in a kind of Lennon/McCartney thing, then that's his "Strawberry Fields." I had very little to do with that other than playing the guitar.

Songfacts: I think one of the best melodies you've ever come up with is "Save it for a Rainy Day." It seems almost like a cliché, yet it actually became a very wonderful song. Do you remember composing that one?

Louris: I do. And I am a king of clichés. When you think of songs I have written, I am almost embarrassed. "Blue," "Save it for a Rainy Day," "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me," "Waiting for the Sun" - I didn't know there was a song called "Waiting for the Sun," I was not a Doors fan. I like them now, but I didn't know there was a song called that. Maybe in my subconscious I did. "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" is a famous Motown song. You know, "Blue," that's forgivable, because there are a million songs called "Blue."

But "Save it for a Rainy Day," I thought about that when I used to go to Canada, and there was a commercial for a bank about trying to save it for a rainy day. I thought, 'Hey, maybe they'll use our song and give us some money and use it as their little thing.' But to me it was a perfect example of a song that's not about one person, it's about two or three people kind of mixed all together. I can't mention one of them, because she's well known. But my friend Marina, who was a photographer, was somebody that we had kind of a off time relationship. When she was available, I wasn't, when I was available, she wasn't, or didn't want to be.

And so it's a little bit of a poke in the eye for her. But as far as like, "Don't be so sad." But it was definitely artistic license and a mixture of two or three different people mixed together. It's a very enduring song for people. Because when I play it, people sing the "So sad," it's really a beautiful thing, because people love it.

I love to play it because it's got what I call the "money chords." They're the big chords that rise up to the big chords. It's not something you can sit in with a back up band and say, "Okay, follow me." It's big chords. It's not a blues song, it's not a country song. It's got too many chords. But it's a perfect little pop song as far as I'm concerned. Like "Blue." It's right up there like "Blue" as far as the two perfect pop songs I've written.

Big Star formed in 1971, fronted by Alex Chilton of The Box Tops ("The Letter," "Cry Like a Baby"). The band released one album (#1 Record, 1972) before their guitarist, Chris Bell, left after suffering from a nasty combination of addiction and depression (Bell died in a car accident in 1978 at age 27).

Big Star returned in 1973 at the urging of a teenaged music journalist named Jon Tiven, who convinced the band to play (as a 3-piece) at the first and only National Association of Rock Writers Convention, where Chilton, bass player Andy Hummel, and drummer Jody Stephens performed to more than 100 music journalists who left the convention enthralled by Big Star.

With a legion of rock writers on their side, the band released the album Radio City in 1974, which ended up on Rolling Stone's list of the Top 500 of all time. Big Star broke up that same year but re-formed in 1993. They toured on and off until 2010, when Alex Chilton died of a heart attack at age 59.
Songfacts: Well, I wanted to wind things up by talking about one last song. And that's the song, "Big Star," which is kind of a comment on success or maybe the lack thereof. But the title refers to one of those great unsung bands, Alex Chilton's Big Star. Was that all intentional that you call it that, and was that part of your thinking?

Louris: Not exactly. Maybe in the back of my mind. Ironically, I just played last week in Nashville with Jody Stephens, who's in their side band, and Chris Stamey and Mike Mills and all these people. We did the songs of Big Star on the Americana Showcase with a string section and all these fantastic musicians, it was great. I got to sing lead on "Ballad of Goodo" and "I'm In Love with a Girl," and "Take Care," which is one of my favorite songs. Which is really heavy duty. So I got to do all these great Big Star songs.

You could say it about the Velvet Underground or Big Star or The Jayhawks: world's unluckiest bands. They should have been bigger. But everybody in the audience started a band. Everybody that saw them started a band. The old cliché. But it's true.

When I played the Big Star gig, I thought that would be in a theatre with 2,000 people. It was in a club with 300 people. And Big Star was just so amazing, and they still are. And I was so proud to be a part of it. Did it have anything to do with the song "Big Star"? I don't think so. Maybe subconsciously. But it's kind of like that whole idea that you're never going to be a big star. I'm never going to be a Britney Spears or Lady GaGa or whatever, or any people that I know who are huge stars.

I have a lot of famous friends. In fact, I've been accused of hanging out with only famous people. But it's not so. But that's one of those things. It's longevity, versus quick rise, quick fall. And we have longevity. To this day our crowds are bigger, our audience is bigger. Maybe sales are down because people don't buy records, but as far as shows, our audience, we're playing bigger theaters to bigger audiences. We're bigger stars, I guess, I some ways, than we used to be. But we're still low level or medium tier.

Maybe it was a little bit of an opus to the idea of being a huge star. There's a really funny little video we made of that song that not many people saw, made in Canada, where girls were hanging out on me wearing push up bras. But it's not the reality of The Jayhawks. Jayhawks are just slow and steady. And so certainly I would love to have a huge hit and be a big star. Not because of the adulation, because already it's creepy enough at my level to be able to keep your privacy. But just to make the business easier, getting taken care of. But Big Star is my favorite band, probably in the world, along with The Clash and a few other ones.

But, okay, long answer, short. The song was not about Big Star the band. It was just about achieving a place that you thought you wanted to be and maybe it would make you happy. It's a typical human response. If I get there, then I'm finally going to be happy. And in reality, you probably won't be. You should just be happy with what you have.

Songfacts: I always think it's better to be good than famous, and you guys are definitely good.

Louris: Better to be great than famous, not good.

Songfacts: All right, you're great.

Louris: Yeah.

Songfacts: Just don't let it go to your head, Gary.

Louris: Longevity has worked well for us. Our lack of success has worked for us in the long run. Instead of having a steep rise and a steep fall, we've had the constant rise, the slow rise. And today we're probably more popular than we were in the '90s. So I guess you try to say you're lucky. But it's hard to gauge that.

December 18, 2012
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