The New Pornographers have been a band for over 20 years, and the title of their new album presents what seems like the only possible pathway for keeping with the times: Continue as a Guest. But in anticipating “the long fade out,” amidst the day-to-day chatter and chaos, they also find ways to steady and propel themselves forward. After touring in support of 2019’s In the Morse Code of Brake Lights, Carl Newman began writing the new record – their first since signing to Merge – at his Woodstock, New York home, which both heightened this separation from the hectic pace of the world and allowed him to explore different approaches to songwriting and recording. He repurposes older material, adopts perspectives other than his own, and leans into a lower register that feels natural yet balances off the lyrics in often ambiguous, slightly discomfiting fashion. But alongside the lineup of Neko Case, Kathryn Calder, John Collins, Todd Fancey, and Joe Seiders, and with contributions from saxophonist Zach Djanikian and Sadie Dupuis, the solitary, reflective undercurrent of the music springs to life in a new, refreshing way. “Whatever you’re selling, I’ll take it all,” goes the chorus of ‘Firework in the Falling Snow’, embracing the waves of change as they come.
We caught up with A.C. Newman to talk about how Liam Kazar, Woodstock, isolation, a tour bus driver in Reykjavik, Iceland, and more inspired Continue as a Guest, which is out today.
Liam Kazar’s singing
He has such an expressive, vibrant, and sweet voice.
Yeah, it reminds me of something very classic, but I can’t quite place it. It reminds me of a record you might have heard on the radio in 1973. I thought he was such a crooner. A lot of people who sing, they have this affectation, and I love that he had something very effortless and honest about his voice. He never feels like he’s reaching. And I thought, I want to try and sing like him – not that I was going to imitate him, but it was like chasing some quality. When I was singing, I found myself just trying to sing in a way where, if I felt like this is beyond my voice and doesn’t feel comfortable, I would change the melodies, I would move the notes around until it feels comfortable.
It sounds like there was a balance between that effortlessness and trying to be mindful of how you approached your vocals.
I think the effort was more into my thoughts about singing, like before I sang. There are some songs where I didn’t like the way the vocals were going, so I thought, “Just play the song, just sing something freeform.” Or I’d do it first thing in the morning when my head was kind of clear. Even if it’s gibberish, just play the song and see where your mind goes. And that was a very interesting exercise, because you’d realize which melodies you love, because your mind would naturally go back to some, but sometimes you just create new ones that felt more comfortable.
Woodstock, New York
How did the home environment there affect your overall approach and the ideas you came up with?
There’s something about the nature there – I hate to be a hippie about things, but there is something just calming about nature. We have a stream running through our property, and sometimes just lying on a hammock and listening to a stream just feels transcendental. You remember: Maybe this is closer to what life should be like. Even though you go back inside and start looking at your screens and whatever it is you do. The history of music there is kind of inspirational, and it’s nice to think in your small way that maybe you’re continuing something that was started a long time ago, that’s not even necessarily music, because it used to be a lot of artists and painters before the musicians showed up in the ‘60s. It’s a place where art and music are given a little bit of a higher place.
It feels like a comfortable environment. There’s lots of like-minded people – I know more musicians there than I did living in a big city. It’s a place where people come and make music because it’s very conducive to that. It’s a very shapeless influence, but sometimes you just need a good environment. I’ve spent enough time rehearsing in windowless, mildewy practice spaces, so it’s nice to be working in a place where everything around you is kind of inspirational. But I haven’t started writing songs about trees. I don’t think I’ll ever start writing about trees, but we’ll see. That’s more Neko’s thing – I don’t want to start working in her lane.
Mandolin as a Drone
I definitely hear that in ‘Marie and the Undersea’.
I think ‘Marie and the Undersea’ and ‘Pontius Pilate’s Home Movies’ and ‘Last and Beautiful’. When most people pick up a mandolin, they usually play a mandolin melody, something that’s kind of country or bluesy or bluegrass, and I’m not a mandolin player, but I just thought, “What if I pick up the mandolin and just like, play it like the Ramones? This song is in the key of G, what if I just strum really hard on the G chord on the mandolin and let this texture that runs underneath it?” Not just using mandolins like I’ve been wondering to buy him a banjo. I haven’t found one yet. Just using that very specific, unique attack of an instrument in a different way than it’s normally used. When I think of things like mandolin and banjo, I think my advantage there is that I don’t know how to play them, so I’m going to pick them up and not go to where they would normally go. I’m going to use them in a more amateurish, simpler, and abrasive way, just because I don’t know any better. Sometimes you just have to embrace your weakness.
The first single from the record, ‘Really Really Light’, I took an unreleased song that we recorded with Dan Bejar. It just sat around for years and never quite came together, but it had this little chorus section which I really liked, which was, “We sit around and talk about the weather/ My heart’s just like a feather/ Really really light.” Because the last 10 years of pop music, you always hear about that, like, Beyoncé interpolated ‘Maps’ by Yeah Yeah Yeahs into her song. And I thought, “I’m going to do that, but I’m going to interpolate a song that no one’s ever heard. I’m going to interpolate a song that’s only been heard by people within our band.” And that just felt like a fun exercise. And I’m still doing it, because I’m currently working on our next record and I’m doing things like sampling unreleased songs by us. It’s a fun way to do it, just make your own samples.
A trick I used to do is, if I was stuck for ideas and I was trying to write new songs, I would play the previous album backwards. I would just record it completely backwards and listen to it, and a lot of it just sounds like backwards music, but occasionally, these really cool melodies would jump out. There are very limited results you can get it, but even if you listen to a whole album backwards and it gives you enough ideas to write one song, it’s worth doing. I’ve always liked doing that kind of thing. Even though the end result is a pop song, I love getting there using interesting methods. It doesn’t have to be noticed, but it’s enough for me – I know it came from an interesting place, and it just makes my job a little more interesting, because it can get boring just picking up a guitar or sitting down at the keyboard and playing.
A tour bus driver in Reykjavik, Iceland
It was a simple thing, just a very short story about things that influence you in your life. It was a tour bus that holds 20 or 30 people, and it left at eight in the morning out of Reykjavik. It was in December, so the days were very short. The tour started in the dark, and by three in the afternoon, it was already getting dark. Because it was starting to get dark, the driver thought he was a little behind schedule, so he said, “It’s starting to get a little dark, so we’ll be playing cat and mouse with the light, I think.” It was one of the things where I was like, “That’s good.” I was just looking out the window, looking at the landscape of Iceland that basically looks like Mars. And. I probably just typed it in my voice notes in my phone and then read it later and thought, “There’s got to be something I can do with this.” And a couple years later, it became the song ‘Cat and Mouse With the Light’.
That’s the part I love about creativity – talking about how writing can take many forms, sometimes it’s just listening. I think I read somewhere that Stephin Merritt from the Magnetic Fields would just go to a coffee shop and listen to people. A lot of writing is just kind of absorbing, whether it’s listening to a lot of music or reading books or watching movies. Just the idea of taking in every detail around you, realizing there’s maybe no detail too small that it can’t be pulled out and turned into something unique.
It’s interesting that that title came about so incidentally, because light as a motif is something that runs through the album.
But different meanings. I thought that when I was looking at the track listing. I remember thinking, “Is that too many songs with light?” But it doesn’t matter. Going back to Liam Kazar, I was talking to him about his record and he said, “Yeah, I have a lot of songs that mention shoes for some reason.” There’s a certain kind of iconic imagery or iconic words that just show up in music all the time, and I don’t think it’s a problem. Like, I love talking about the heart. There’s something about using the word “heart” in a song, which I feel like, why not use it like you would use the word “the”? It’s such an elemental word – go crazy, why not have every song be about the heart, you know? It’s that thing inside of us that makes us go, why shouldn’t it be central to so much of our art?
The idea of Machu Picchu
Why do you specifically mention “the idea” of Machu Picchu?
When I was writing the song ‘Last and Beautiful’, it’s just the place I pictured. Sometimes when you’re writing about something, it’s not even that you’re describing it, but sometimes a song makes an image pop into your head. In that song, it’s the idea of wanting to escape to some magical place, wanting to leave your life and find something that’s higher, find something that’s maybe more important, but not wanting to do it alone. Whenever I was writing, pictures I’d seen of that were always popping into my head, and I thought, “Why is that?” Obviously, it is one of the more famous magical secret places, you have to make a great effort to get there. That’s just an example of: sometimes, you just have an image in your brain when you’re writing, and it’s not always someplace far away, sometimes it’s just the image of a place in your yard or a memory of something from your past. Your brain takes little snapshots, and I think part of art is to try and just describe them, however efficiently or inefficiently.
The way of perception of time seems to stretch and contract at various times of day in various states of mind
I’m curious if those differences in perception was something you were just generally more aware of or if it’s an idea you wanted to reflect in a specific song.
I spend so much time on the studio that, like, I noticed that if you’re drinking alcohol, the song sounds faster. And then I’ve noticed that when you listen to a song first thing in the morning, it sounds slow. Sometimes you’re working at night and you’re like, “This is a great tempo,” and then you wake up and you listen to the same song again, and you think it’s too slow. I don’t know what it is, but I think to myself, could it be that when you take a break from it and you go back to the song, your brain is processing the information? The computer in your brain is processing the song again, so maybe it feels slower, but then as the day goes on, your brain doesn’t have to spend as much time processing the song because it’s already done that. It made me think about the way that people listen to music, and I think most people who hear my song, they’re gonna hear it the way I hear it first thing in the morning, because they’re going to be processing it as new information. So I thought, “Whatever I think is the good tempo first thing in the morning is the tempo I should use.” And even if later in the day, it starts feeling too fast, I thought, “No, I should stick with the early one.”
There’s a specific line in the song ‘Bottle Episodes’ where I was referring to that, the line, “There’s so much to remember we will always come in slightly late.” It has a very literal meaning, but I think I was also using it as a metaphor for processing the isolation of the pandemic. I was talking to Mitch Easter about this, about how, in modern recording, you can, put everything on a grid. You can give everything robotic precision, and you can look at it on the screen and go, “Everything is perfectly timed.” But sometimes you listen to that music that is perfectly timed, and you go, “It doesn’t sound right.” And you realize that there’s a certain element of being early, of anticipating, or there’s a certain element of being late, that is part of music. When you’re trying to find some kind of perfect performance, it’s actually not perfection.
Phil Ochs’ All the News That’s Fit to Sing
I like the idea of: sing the news. At the beginning of the pandemic, when I was trying to write lyrics, I was so sick of myself. I didn’t want to write about myself, I didn’t want to write about anything that was personal, because I just thought, “Who fucking cares?” I thought, “I’m so privileged. All this shit is going down and it’s bad, I have my home here. I have my home and my space and I can go outside into nature. I have to figure out how to step outside of myself.” And I thought of Phil Ochs.
I started writing the lyrics for ‘Marie and the Undersea’, and I was reading about nurses. It was at a time when being a nurse was like being in a war zone. And I decided I wanted the song to be a tribute to someone else. There’s a line in the song that says, “There is no room for imagination, someone once said.” And I took that exactly from the news – I was reading an article about somebody who was working in the emergency ward, and they were saying how it’s so stressful that there is no room for imagination. I thought it was such a sad and poetic way to put it. It also made me think of my own privilege. It’s like, I have room for imagination, I’m not going through that. But these people, all they can think of is just trying to get through the day, trying to get through the chaos and go to sleep, and then wake up and go back into the chaos. I wanted it to be about them, and that felt like a breakthrough. When I wrote that, I thought, “I’ve finally written something here in this pandemic that is not bullshit, because it’s not about me.” And that propelled me forward.
A lot of songs in this record ended up becoming quite personal, but a lot of the songs that I was writing concurrently, which are on the record I’m working on right now, I’m trying to make the entire record not about me. Or at least, if it’s about me, I want it to be from the point of view of a character in the story. It’s not just me talking about my brain. It’s such a common way to write, but it’s new to me. So again, maybe I’m just arriving at the same place that everybody has arrived that for the last 70 years of pop music, but for me, it’s a new approach.
How people listen to music: do they want to hear the melody or do they want to hear a good voice moving notes around?
That sounds like it’s connected to the song ‘Angelcover’.
Oh, very much so. There’s not much to the lyrics, it’s a pretty short song, but in my brain, I thought of it as a kind of George Saunders short story. He writes these very surreal, funny short stories. I was just thinking of the idea of the muse, the idea of: I’m lying in bed and there’s this angel of God trying to give me some advice, and telling me that nobody cares about the melody, it’s all about the way it’s delivered. And I thought that’s kind of true – as a person who’s always been a student of the song, I’ve realized a beautiful melody sung badly is not nearly as good as just a shitty melody sung beautifully. I think most people just want to hear a really nice voice. So I think in this song, this angel telling you the hard truth is also a metaphor for when the cortisol wakes you up at 4am. Those are the moments when you start having weird conversations with your brain, so the metaphor was that, instead of me talking to myself in the middle of the night, I was just having this dialogue with this angel of God that was trying to give me some advice. And the main advice was: it’s not about melody, it’s about the delivery.
This record was written in literal isolation, but I feel like so much music is written in isolation. Think of somebody like Brian Wilson – he made this music which is so joyous, but he was an isolated, sad person, and he wrote a song like ‘In My Room’, which reached out to all the other sad, isolated people. When I think of just me trying to write music in this world, it is me just trying to reach out to the world. Having grown up being a shy, introverted person – a lot of people naturally go to that, but they still want to reach out, so it makes sense that art is a way to do that. If I looked at everything I’ve ever written, I think the overarching idea that runs through a lot of it is just trying to get out of yourself, trying to reach for some sort of connection. Or a frustration at not being able to reach outside of yourself, or a joy at finally having found something that is outside myself. I think it circles around that. I feel like a lot of music and art is a satellite moving around the gravity of that kind of isolation.
The transformative power of love vs. the way we transform love
Does love pull you out of your isolation? Or does it pull you out for a while, and does your isolation start to distort it? It’s something to think about when you’ve been in a relationship for a long time, because they change. There’s the beginning of a relationship when it’s exciting and you’re in love, and years pass, and you still love the person, but it changes. And it’s like that with everybody. A lot of people maybe have a childish view of love, and they say, “Well, I don’t feel the same way now as I did in the beginning, so maybe we should get a divorce.” But you’re never gonna find a person where you meet them and it’s forever like you just met them. That’s not how the world works. When you’ve been together for 10, 25, 25, 30 years, what does love turn into? Obviously, you have to put work into it, and I think that’s the idea: you have to ask yourselves, “How much of this love has been changed by me? Has been changed by us? How much of it has been changed by time?”
I think that idea runs through a few songs. Some of it’s fictional, like the song ‘Cat and Mouse With the Light’, it’s not really about my life. It’s about a concept of when people can’t communicate – they love each other but there’s something blocking them. That was the line, “I can’t stand that you love me.” People don’t mean to come off that way. It’s like they forget to communicate how much they love a person. I think what’s happening in the song is a little more violent, more dysfunctional, because lots of people have been in relationships where that dynamic is there. There are people that naturally push people away. At some point, we’re all on our own trying to figure it out. We’re all different, we’re all unique. When you take two unique people with everything they’re made of and you put them together, it’s a unique formula every time. You can’t read a book that tells you how to make it work, so everybody’s trying to write their own rulebook for love and success and longevity.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
The New Pornographers’ Continue as a Guest is out now via Merge.