“You can accidentally spend your whole life working on your own songs, and it gets really insular after a while.” – Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz on his new approach to writing songs
The passage of time, and the way that we deal with it, is a constant theme throughout the music of Counting Crows.
It’s the subject of arguably the group’s greatest contribution to pop music – ‘A Long December’ – and one they return to on ‘Possibility Days,’ a sort of companion piece to the former, which closes their latest album, Somewhere Under Neverland, their first in six years.
Hits like ‘Mr Jones,’ ‘Round Here’ and ‘A Long December’ have become such indelible artifacts of the Nineties that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume the band had gone the same way.
One notable contribution to the Shrek soundtrack, ‘Accidentally in Love,’ which earned an Oscar nomination in 2004, the band have kept a fairly low profile over the past decade as frontman Adam Duritz struggled with addiction and insomnia.
The reason for the gap of six years between records, however, is somewhat more simple. The band set off to do their own projects, which for Duritz amounted to beginning work on a play and, while he was doing that, he felt writing music for the band would be overcomplicated.
“It’s not that I stopped writing or anything,” Duritz tells Something for the Weekend. “I was just writing for the play.
“It was so different writing for other characters for the first time in my life, I didn’t want to deal with the confusion of having to write for two things at once and choose which songs would go where. So I just wrote for the play and then recorded cover songs with the band.”
2012’s Underwater Sunshine, was something the band had planned to do as far back as 2003, when sessions for a covers album evolved into the original album Hard Candy. Duritz’s self-imposed songwriting amnesty presented itself at the right time to finally follow through.
Duritz comes across a little withdrawn and cautious in his speech but he becomes suddenly more animated when the subject turns to songwriting, particularly when he speaks about how taking a step back from his own music has allowed him to write in a completely new way.
He says: “You can accidentally spend your whole life working on your own songs, and it gets really insular after a while. You don’t even notice it happening, but you start to have a very rigid idea of what makes a song good. I’m not sure it’s a particularly positive thing.
“I had been wanting to write differently for a while and struggling with it because, in my life, I have usually written songs in one sitting. I judged them to be good if I finished them; if I didn’t finish them I figured it was because they weren’t good.
“Over the years, I was really starting a lot of things and not finishing them, and I couldn’t figure out why. I would get really inspired by an idea, and then all of a sudden I’d think it wasn’t that good.
“I think what was happening was that I was starting to write from a different perspective and I didn’t really recognise that as a good, different thing – I just saw it as a shitty version of what I’d been doing before.”
“I really thought for years the only way to write really, really meaningful songs for me was to write about myself, because that was the only thing I knew about. When I wrote for the play I realised I wrote some of the best songs of my life, and they weren’t really me, but they were about how I felt.
“If you thought of blue as what’s good, and different gradations of blue as different versions of quality to you in your life, and one day you make something that’s green, you might see it as a really good green, but you might just see it as a shitty blue, a blue that wasn’t right.”
What finally convinced him to have faith in a more character-based style of songwriting was when he played for his bandmates the sketches of ideas he’d previously have thrown away, and they “flipped out,” as Duritz puts it.
Somewhere Under Wonderland’s opening track, an eight-and-a-half minute ballad that follows the lives of two curious friends on the fringes of the society – a song Duritz feels, in many ways, sums up the positive change in his songwriting.
“’Palisades Park’ is not a story about me, but it is very much a story about how I feel, and it is very much related to a lot of experiences I had in my life. It’s also very much a story about two people who are not me at all.
“That was really liberating because I could write about people whose lives I sympathised with, I felt like I understood, I had all this pent-up feeling about, but it’s not the life that I’d led. I think it may be the best song I’ve ever written.”
The song – as, indeed, are many on Somewhere Under Wonderland – is interspersed with symbols and references to cultural landmarks of classic America.
‘Palisades Park,’ for instance, is interspersed with allusions to the iconic boxing match between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries – the first heavyweight title fight between two black men.
“Jack Johnson is a figure in American history that always really intrigued me. This amazing person, this very intelligent, gregarious black man at a time when most black people in American didn’t dare say a peep.
“Jack Johnson lived with a white woman, out of wedlock, and went around beating the crap out of everybody.
“He paid for it a lot in later life – they got him. He was an interesting figure. He’s almost like a mythological figure, like Paul Bunyon chopping down trees. He’s almost like this bigger than life person.”
Inevitably, the song encapsulates its author’s pre-occupation with the passage of time, through his speculation on what Jeffries must have been thinking as he lay, stunned, on a Reno, Nevada canvas.
“That moment in that song when the guy is thinking about memories and remembering where he is. Wherever you are in your life, you can sit there and you can’t figure out how did you get to where you are from where you were, but the thing is that you don’t get to go back.
“You don’t get to go back and figure things out or change anything, and that’s really what it is at that moment in the song. Jeffries is lying on his back, staring at the sky, because he’s just been knocked on his ass.
“He was so certain that was not going to happen, but there’s no way to go back and figure out why – it just happened.”
Counting Crows play the Royal Kilmainham Hospital in Dublin on Wednesday, June 24th.