Q&A | Simon Comber on saluting Lesser Stars, as Herriot Row

Simon Comber a.k.a Herriot Row has been penning tunes since his early-2000s student days in Dunedin, and his commitment to the practice has paid off. His latest record, Lesser Stars, is a beautifully crafted labour of love, produced by none other than John Vanderslice (The Mountain Goats, Deerhoof, Spoon) at the cult icon’s Tiny Telephone studio in San Francisco. Sarah quizzed Simon about his serendipitous meeting with Vanderslice; the pros and cons of making music independently in a music industry that’s haphazardly refinding its feet; and some of the literary influences that surface throughout his musical work.

You recorded Lesser Stars with John Vanderslice at Tiny Telephone. How did that pairing come about, and what was special about the experience for you?
I remember being in the computer lab at Otago University and looking up John Vanderslice online because John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats) thought highly of him. The first song I listened to was ‘My Old Flame‘ from his latest record at the time, Time Travel Is Lonely; you could listen to it as an mp3 on the Barsuk Records website. The lyrics were so great – ‘My old flame, my wife’! I didn’t realise that they were in fact all lines from a Robert Lowell poem called ‘The Old Flame‘.

Equally compelling was the strained vocal, the oscillating synths and strings, and the crudely picked acoustic guitar that sounded agitated instead of tender. It all added up to this brooding, utterly fresh song. I became a dedicated fan. Around 2009 I was travelling around Europe and I saw a Vanderslice tour poster on a wall in Berlin. Then I saw him wandering down the same street my hostel was on, so I called out to him. He was really sweet and I ended up going to his show and helping him pack up his van. Years later, when I emailed him on a total whim asking if he’d produce my next album, he remembered me. A week or two later we had booked in some time at his studio, Tiny Telephone.

Image credit: Kate van der Drift

I’d say everything about the experience was special. The fact that I took a big risk – recording with someone you hardly know in another country at a ‘real studio’ is kind of ridiculous when you don’t have a record label to help promote the finished work; the fact it paid off artistically; that I got to spend time in this beautiful studio surrounded by so much amazing gear – from a piano dating back to 1904, to a Gibson guitar amp from the 1940s, to all manner of synths, it was just ridiculous. I also fell in love with the Mission District. I suppose it helps that I love Mexican food, and there’s nowhere better to get it on the West Coast. Most importantly, I’m super proud of the record I came away with.

‘The Beggar’ tells the tale of New Zealand poet RAK Mason. Can you tell us a bit about Mason, and why you were drawn to characterise him in song?
Well the fact is there’s an RAK Mason biography by Rachel Barrowman sitting on my shelf that I still haven’t read, so I can’t lay claim to my song bearing any reflection on Mason’s actual life, but he was a poet with a sporadic output in the first half of the 20th century. The critical consensus seems to be that he peaked pretty early, with the volume No New Thing in 1934, and struggled to keep hold of the muse in latter years. I honestly can’t remember how I first came across this mythic story about him dumping all these unsold copies of his first volume of poems ‘The Beggar’ into the Waitematā Harbour, but for some reason it stuck with me.

I guess I must have been feeling lonely, artistically speaking, because I started to count him as one of my own – someone whose existence and struggles as an artist I could find some sense of identity in. When I lived in Dunedin and was writing what became my first album, all the discourse I can remember was about the work, what you were making, how you were making it, and – if you were so bold – what you were trying to communicate with it. But once I’d moved back to Auckland and dipped my little toe in the murky music industry waters – started releasing records out into the world, booking shows, trying to get radio airplay and press, socialising with people who did the same – so much of the talking point became about that industry side of it, and often at the expense of the work itself as something to be thought about, interrogated, or celebrated for what it had to say rather than how many units it shifted.

It’s hard not to notice that at the moment there is very little compelling critical discourse about New Zealand music. It was refreshing to read Campbell Walker’s recent piece on Bill Direen for The Pantograph Punch because it is so rare to find local music writing with any sense of the depth that musical culture holds, its connection to other art forms, to a sense of any tradition that might reach back before the Beatles and the Velvet Underground. So at some point I was reading these poets like Mason and Robin Hyde, and mentally adding them to my own private little hall of fame. It was some kind of sanctuary from that other side of making music, which can wear you down so quickly if you let it.

“It is so rare to find local music writing with any sense of the depth that musical culture holds, its connection to other art forms, to a sense of any tradition.”

I loved what seemed to be their sense of conviction about art’s importance, the fact they didn’t need to couch that in any sense of hollow irony – as seems to be required by artists promoting themselves online today. So, in writing my song ‘The Beggar’ I think I was trying to restore some sense of pure intent to my own ideas about what it meant to make art – regardless of whether those reflections made it into the song or not – or at least to restore the balance, and that story about Mason was a catalyst. I was trying to write some kind of grace into what seemed like a pathetic act. I guess this is the long way around of saying that the song has nothing to do with RAK Mason’s actual life, and a lot more to do with one unqualified story and a bunch of his poems floating around in my head for a while, and this weird sense of community and renewed purpose I got from reading these poems by people who had died before I was born.

You reference and draw on a number of other literary influences in your lyrics. Can you identify and explain the background to a few more?
The title of the album is also a reference to Mason. He has a poem called ‘The Lesser Stars’. I don’t care how huge a New Zealand songwriter gets, there will almost always be an argument to be made about how much huger they probably could have been had they been born in a larger territory – aside from maybe Lorde and Neil Finn, but even then! Lesser Stars has an element of self-deprecation in it, obviously, but the payoff, for me at least, is in the beauty of the title. It just straight out sounds better than ‘stars’ by itself, or ‘Lucky Stars’ for that matter, and is richer in meaning. So there’s this notion of the thing less seen being more aesthetically pleasing!

Purchase Lesser Stars via Bandcamp

I also adapted Robin Hyde’s poem ‘Neon Lights’ into a song. I first read her at Auckland University. I don’t remember why, but the novel I read was Passport To Hell, even though it was The Godwits Fly that was on the New Zealand Literature syllabus. Passport was just incredible. It evoked wartime so vividly, and my god, what a title. I got totally lost in it. I came across a review of her Collected Poems in The Listener years later. It caught my eye because Peter Simpson had reviewed it and Michele Leggott had edited the collection. I’d taken a great New Zealand Literature paper taught by Simpson at the Tamaki campus – I remember Janet Frame’s chilling State Of Siege being on the course – and an American poetry paper at Auckland with Michele as a tutor.

Simpson said the collection cemented Hyde as one of our major poets, which was a big call to make about a writer known mainly as a novelist and journalist. So at some point I found this rather hefty tome at Hard To Find Books in Onehunga and this slight little poem ‘Neon Lights’ peeked out at me one night. In a funny way, the idea I could set it to music came back to Vanderslice. If he could get away with singing Lowell, maybe I could get away with singing Hyde. I related to the ambivalence expressed so gracefully in ‘Neon Lights’ – how sometimes you want everyone to notice you and other times you want to be utterly anonymous.

Image credit: Connor Crawford

I noticed that Vanderslice hadn’t been pure about what was usually such a pretentious conceit. He’d just grabbed the lines he wanted to, left a lot out, changed words here and there to make it sing better, or to just be playful and irreverent. He wasn’t trying to align his craft with the supposedly higher art of poetry. He was having fun. So I changed a bunch of words, and even wrote a whole bunch of extra lines, and that’s when it started to feel like a song in its own right rather than an exercise. It was an experiment that eventually wound up on this new record because it seemed to fit. Since finally putting out the record it suddenly seems a shame that Robin Hyde will never get to hear it. But I sent it to Michelle Leggot, and she gave it her approval, which is about as close as I’ll get!

You worked at the Auckland Central Library for a long time. Did the job influence, or interact with your songwriting?
That is a hard question! I don’t think the job interacted with my songwriting process in a way I could measure. A lot of the time, inevitably, it just detracted. In a way, the people I worked with were the influence, maybe more than the job itself. From poets to cartoonists to conceptual artists to musicians to short story writers, I had so many colleagues that were also artists after hours. Running late for a shift because you’d got caught up in some long-winding conversation in the lunchroom about Clarice Lispector or Bill Callahan was a common occurrence.

“From poets to cartoonists to conceptual artists to musicians to short story writers, I had so many colleagues that were also artists after hours.”

In a way I would often feel more sense of artistic community in the staffroom than I did attending a gig. Work colleagues tend to be like families – you don’t get to choose them. Yet in my job at Auckland Central Library there were many colleagues I thought of as kindred spirits, and that was always enriching. The other side of a job is how hard it is to maintain any sense of headspace for artistic ideas when doing what was often repetitive, tiring work. For a while I was in the habit of trying to write little haikus in between serving customers, and the odd time I even managed to write a song lyric during a meeting – one of the songs on the new record had its first draft written that way! – but at some point I realised those little exercises you need to do to keep yourself sharp just weren’t happening anymore and drudgery had fully set in.

Once that headspace is gone, it’s incredibly hard to claw yourself back into a place where ideas are flowing through you and you are listening to them, interacting with them. I’d say that sense of being jaded would have set in a lot quicker at many other jobs though, and for every hour of wishing I could extricate myself there was an hour where I was down in the library basement hunting out the books I hadn’t read by David Ballantyne or some long-forgotten poetry essay by R.P Blackmur.

You have a capacity for complexity, but tend to keep your lyrics relatively simple. What, to you, is the power of a pared back line?
One of the fun things about writing is that simple words don’t always have simple connotations. I tend to admire lyricists who can evoke a complex situation without resorting to an overly complex set of words to achieve it. It’s hard not to notice that for all the emotional depth in Leonard Cohen’s songs, he loves simple rhyming partners – and they can be simple without being obvious: ‘ring the bells that still can ring/forget about your perfect offering’. I mean that’s so inconspicuous, so ‘simple’, but also, who else would have thought of that rhyme? And that’s before we even get down to how effectively that one couplet expresses so many of life’s compromises. No one likes a show-off, and a show-off lyricist is just the worst. The listener can hardly be expected to empathise with your song if they feel talked down to at the same time. I mean, it’s no different to having a conversation. If you talk down to someone, if you punctuate your sentences with endless humble brags, they’re less likely to be receptive to what you’re saying.

“The listener can hardly be expected to empathise with your song if they feel talked down to at the same time.”

I find that, when it comes to anything resembling a pop or folk song, if there’s too much narrative detail, too much poetic ingenuity on display, or too many big words that wouldn’t naturally occur in a conversation, that it tends to suffocate the song, and somehow get in the way of that other thing that needs to happen, which is that as a listener I’m going to start projecting onto a song, or rolling my own scene in my mind and filling in the gaps, and thus participating in the experience rather than just being passive. When a song moves you, you’re semi-responsible for that, because you’ve brought meaning to it in the moment you listened to it. My songs might utilise poetic devices on occasion – or steal from the odd poet! – but the lyrics certainly don’t equate to poetry, and you’re probably on the wrong track if you have a pretense towards them doing so.

I used to scoff at songwriters who talked about wanting their lyrics to be ‘ambiguous’, and I still tend to find that a misplaced conceit, a bit of a pose. I think it’s a slightly reductive way to frame the multiplicity of meanings a song can possess, and the way in which those meanings get created. I think a better aim would be to try and articulate just how paradoxical being alive can seem to be, and you’ll need a bit of ambiguity to get there, but you won’t be able to rely on that completely. I just read this cool Joni Mitchell interview where she downplays the influence of poetry on her songwriting with this hilarious Nietzsche quote about muddling the waters to appear deep. I thought that was a good reminder about the limits of ambiguity – and complexity, for that matter – in art.

These are particularly tricky times for independent artists, in terms of the increasingly limited availability of funding and exposure to enable you to pursue your craft. Why did you choose to self-release the album, and what are some of the pros and cons of that approach?
Financially speaking, I’m sure it’s tricky for most recording artists, regardless of how independent they might be from the various factions that make up the music industry. Maybe I have no concept of how much better things could be with a record label, or maybe I don’t know how lucky I am to not be beholden to one. It’s probably both, depending on what day you ask and which signed artist you’re asking the same question of. I didn’t choose to self-release this album – I just didn’t have any other options presented to me that seemed viable.

Image credit: James Woollerton

In a way, the pros are also the cons. When you self-release, you don’t have any other business interests monitoring the production of the record, or giving their two cents about the mixes, or suggesting you need to go back and write a radio single, or telling you your proposed album title doesn’t have enough of a ring to it. But that said, other opinions, yes, even those made from a more commercial point of view, can be liberating and the fact is, if you don’t have to pay a label back for funding the release, you’re also likely to be spending a whole lot longer trying to figure out how to fund it yourself, and in the process it’s damn hard to keep practicing your craft with any momentum.

But it’s probably also going to be hard to do that if you hit the big time with your dream label and spend a year on the road. I used to see something self-released as inevitably more pure, less compromised than something with higher financial stakes, but there are so many things that compromise what you’re trying to do anyway, regardless of who gets involved. When it comes to putting out a record, everything is a compromise. Every choice you make is a bunch of doors closed. I should add that while Lesser Stars is essentially self-released, Arcade Recordings – a micro-label run by Rohan Evans, who manages the Wine Cellar in Auckland – is responsible for the exceptionally tasty vinyl pressing. Having someone else put their hand up to help with the production of something I’d put so much time into was very refreshing and a bit of a confidence boost.

Can you name a few local – or otherwise – artists the curious should look up?
Two Aussie artists I’ve recently discovered – the first is Soda Eaves a.k.a Jake Core who I’m doing a show with in Melbourne in October. He does this spacious, fragile, distorted take on indie folk music – kind of like Machine Translations, speaking of cool Aussie artists, on downers.

Another recent discovery, also from Australia, is The Apartments. Their last album No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal is incredible, but I’ve also had this one particular track from an earlier album on repeat. I almost feel reluctant to share it because I’ve been listening to it all by myself in that dreamy state of personal discovery where you feel like you’re the only person in the world who knows the song, but, sigh, here goes:

Years ago, someone made me a mix CD – remember them?! – and put the song ‘Ghosts’ by the band Japan on it, and thus I was introduced to the singular songwriting talent that is David Sylvian. It took me a long time to get around to researching further, but he has lots of really wonderful solo records. I love this track from the album Blemish – I find the tremolo-heavy guitar driving the song really addictive:

Gosh, I’m talking about all this really down-tempo stuff. This isn’t all I listen to. I think I’m needing music with lots of space in it at the moment, because when you’re putting out a record you get really frazzled and manic, and so I’m using music to just chill out. I’ve been listening to Ambient 2 by Brian Eno and Harold Budd a lot. One last song I want to share – this Joesphine Foster track is a total stunner. My favourite album of hers is Blood Rushing, but lately I have the title track from I’m A Dreamer on repeat.

Header image by James Woollerton.

Simon is an Auckland-based troubadour. His album Lesser Stars is out now and you can listen to and purchase it on Bandcamp.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.