James Mercer of The Shins talks politics, prose and new music
Though James Mercer, frontman of indie rock darling The Shins technically began work on the band's new album, Heartworms, about two years ago, he confesses his songwriting is far from a linear process.
Mercer’s writing is a labour of love, and some songs on the record have been in the works for close to ten years.
“I’ve always done that, there’s always these ideas where I hit some sort of an impasse with the song, and I can’t figure out how to make it work, so I set it aside. There are songs that I was working on before Oh, Inverted World that I still can’t figure out, so hopefully they’ll come out one day,” Mercer says.
“Some of those songs I’ve been working on for so long. The Fear is a song I’ve had floating around for years. I remember showing Eric Johnson that song when he was in the band, so that would have been touring for Wincing the Night Away.”
Even the titular track has its roots far earlier in Mercer’s illustrious career.
“Heartworms is pretty old, it’s something I was considering for Port of Morrow, but I couldn't figure out what to do with it. Otherwise, everything is new, and I wrote it during that gap after I toured with Broken Bells.”
Despite this, it’s far from disjointed. Mercer effortlessly brings the old and new together to create a cohesive and palatable structure. However, the album is dynamic in its emotions, something that makes a lot of sense when you take into account it was written over many stage in his life.
“I do like the idea of a diverse record. Whether it’s the sentimental soft moments or something like Painting a Hole, where it’s sort of aggressive,” Mercer says.
“I like The Beatles a lot, have you heard of them?” he says with a chuckle, “I like how they’d always have the weirdest bunch of songs, and that’s really cool to me – to show that you can do a lot of different styles, and pull them off.”
Mercer credits his growth in confidence to his partnership with Danger Mouse – the alter ego of Brian Joseph Burton – for their project Broken Bells.
“He helped to break me out of my shell, so it’s given me that confidence. He also encouraged me to try different things that I never thought I could do, like bluesy influences.”
Not just passionate about diversity in writing, Mercer’s talent and creativity as a producer permeates through all of his work. Port of Morrow was the first The Shin’s record that he didn’t produce, something he’s rectified on the new album.
“The thing I missed on Port of Morrow that I wish it had more of, is the weird kooky stuff that happens when you’re alone in the studio, late at night, listening back, and enjoying it and having fun. That’s a process I’ve always used. I find often you’ll come up with some weird idea, and record it real quickly.
“It’s hard to do that when you’re in a professional environment. When you’re with this guy who has a wife and kid at home, he’s also got clients who are waiting for us to finish the goddamn record so he can move on and make more money.”
Name For You is the first single released from the upcoming album, in which he voices his fears and hopes for his three young daughters, his wife, and for women.
“There’s anxiety I have about my kids going out into the world, and I wish and hope that they go out there and feel comfortable, and the world is respectful of them, and they feel confident, healthy and happy. I worry at times that there's, I don’t want to say the world is filled with utter contempt for femininity, but there is a dangerous lack of respect out there, and it’s very frustrating as a father,” Mercer says.
“It’s about femininity, in praise of femininity. But misogyny, it’s everywhere, isn’t it. And there are so many different kinds of misogyny. There are different flavours of it, and it’s subtle. I’ve become more aware of it.”
I point out to Mercer I usually hear my gender referred to as bitches from men in music, and femininity used as an insult, not just towards women, but men. Mercer immediately understands, acknowledging his platform is a valuable tool in helping people better understand these issues, and how their actions and words influence.
“It would almost be more worrisome in some ways to have little boys, because the examples they have out there of what success is, what achievement is, what masculinity is, and what being a man is, it’s nobody I want to hang out with,” Mercer says.
“It’s shameful. It’s disgusting, it’s everywhere. I don’t get how femininity threatens your masculinity. It would be good for people to talk about it more, I just don’t know that it works that way.”
Another very personal track on the album is The Fear, in which Mercer sings about anxiety, and how it can hold one back from enjoying life. Though arguably no creative process is inherently ‘wrong’, Mercer is self aware about his approach to writing songs,
“I’ve gotten a lot better at writing songs. I know that. My goals are different. When I first started writing and having some success, I was a little frustrated that people would say my lyrics were so obscure and ‘I don’t really know what you’re talking about.’
“I’d be like dang it, I really thought I’d explained it pretty well. But I think I’ve gotten better at trying to, while remaining poetic, still have something that has clarity and the real communication actually occurs, instead of it being this nebulous strangeness.”
By Claire Morley
The Shins’ new album Heartworms is out now via Aural Apothecary/Columbia Records through Sony Music Entertainment Australia.