March 22, 2010

An Interview with Beth Thornley

In a little bit over half an hour and through ten eclectic, well-crafted songs, Beth Thornley illustrates the possibilities and creative sweep of pop on her latest album, Wash U Clean.

Having written it, for the most part, on the piano, Thornley enriches the work with resonant, unmistakable melodies that wouldn't sound out of place on an early Elton John record. And in exploring a tapestry of styles both classic and contemporary, she holds it all together with the conviction she imparts in her voice.

Is there any one particular style that poses a great challenge for you as a songwriter? Do you take easier to writing a ballad, for instance, than to writing an upbeat song?

The different kinds of moods that are on the album, I feel pretty comfortable with. And even though it sounds like a large spread, because it all really falls under the melodic-pop umbrella, I’m okay with them. What I will never do is try to write a full-on R&B song. I’ll never try to write a full-on hip/hop song, or a full-on metal song. I mean, I borrow a little from R&B; I borrow a little from hip/hop. I don’t know that I borrow from metal; maybe I do a little bit. But whatever I’m doing is really going to fall under the melodic-pop umbrella. So I’m pretty comfortable as long as I don’t go too far in any of those directions. And what I really enjoy is writing with different feels. The fact that the grooves might change doesn’t bother me at all. I like that. And a lot of times I’ll have a groove in my head when I sit down to try to write a song so that I kind of know where I’m going. So if it made it to the album, it’s likely because I felt pretty comfortable getting it there.

Do you have to set time out to concentrate on songwriting or are you always quote, unquote, on?

Maybe a little of both. I do have a time of day I like to write and it’s in the morning. I like to get up and get a cup of coffee and sit down and spend at least two or three hours doing that. I can’t do it every day because sometimes I have other things I absolutely have to do. And on those days I’ll try at least in the afternoon to put an hour or something in. I’ve [also] got a little notebook, like so many other songwriters and musicians do. I have a notebook and a pen with me all the time. If I think of a lyric or an idea, I’ll stop and I’ll jot it down. So there are times when I actively am away from the house and I’m still thinking about music, and ideas might come to me and I’ll take the time to write them down.

You have an affinity for melody. Is that something that comes naturally for you?

No, I will try, three, four, five, ten melody ideas. If I get the chords that I like, I will spend a lot of time. I will usually write the first melody that comes to my mind. And then I’ll try to make it better. And then I’ll try to make it better again. And then I’ll try to make it better again until I feel I’ve done everything I can do with it. So it is not the first thing that comes out. Sometimes I go back to the first thing, but usually after I’ve tried several other approaches to make sure it’s what I want to do.

You strike an evocative, somber mood on the ballad, “What the Heart Wants.”

That was [about] a very painful experience. It finally got to be a relief by the time I got around to writing it; there’d been a long time between that break-up and when I finally wrote the song. The person I was breaking up with kept asking me, "Why are we breaking up?" but I just kept saying, "I don’t know. All I know is it’s what I need to do. I’m sorry." There was nothing wrong with this person; he was a fine person. It broke my heart. And I always knew it broke his more, but it broke mine too. For years I just never had an answer. He doesn’t even know I wrote the song. Or maybe he does. I’ve never called him to say, "Hey, I wrote a song about you." I don’t even know, if he knew that answer, if that would be a satisfying answer, but that was the only thing I could come around to. That was the best I could do.

You bookend the album with two infectious, upbeat songs ["Wash U Clean" and "A To Z"]. Was that intentional?

No, not intentional, except I did labor for quite a few days, no telling how many hours, over song order. There’s a lot of variety on the album, so just as soon as I would get into one mood there would be another mood. And I’d say to myself, "Does this mood follow that mood? Is it okay?" I tried so many different orders, and it just kept coming back to the one that ended up on the album. And “A To Z” just kept falling at the end and the more it showed up at the end, the more I thought, This is a perfect way to end the album.

It’s a great sign-off.

I would never have thought about using it that way had I not had those particular songs to put in an order... I really felt like opening with “Wash U Clean” would be a good way to go. And ending with “A To Z” was kind of a good-feeling way to end. So I kind of stuck with those as my parameters and filled in the blanks.

You must be satisfied with how the album turned out.

I’m quite pleased and happy with it. I’m very happy. Maybe when I turn 80 and I look back and I see my albums laying side by side, I think I’ll still get a really happy feeling looking at this album. The colors on [the cover] are so pretty and some of the songs are just happy and fun. And I think that’s not a bad thing at all.

Wash U Clean is available now at outlets both retail and online. For more information on Beth Thornley, please visit the artist's official website.