Chris Castig Co-founder of Adjunct Prof at Columbia University Business School.

The Sound of Songwriting: with Sherrie Dupree & Stacey Dupree of Eisley

8 min read

Poet Rainer Marie Rilke gives a young poet the following piece of writing advice: “There is only one way: Go within. Then draw near to nature. Pretend you are the very first man and then write what you see and experience, what you love and lose.”

This is how Eisley’s songs feel – there’s a fresh-faced sincerity in Stacey and Sherrie’s approach to weighty topics like love and loss – as if they are describing the world being seen for the first time.

For example, on the track “Just Like We Do” where Stacey asks her first boyfriend, “Did you know that people love each other?” Other times there are moments of dark discovery – most evident on their second album “Combinations” – where Stacey’s youthful voice sings a verse of “empty caskets” and “my parent’s death” on “Many Funerals”. Then followed by the track “Invasion” where a delicate vocal harmony carries spiteful stares at death with the words, “And it’s you that would take the breathe from my throat / You that will take the cherished people that I hold.”

When Stacey was growing up she was intrigued by her older sisters – Sherrie and Chauntelle Dupree – playing music around the house. She explains, “At the time I was eight and they were in their early teens so at first they were like, ‘Go away’. But I would sit at the door and listen under the crack and try to sing along to the harmonies and stuff.” Stacey began writing songs shortly after, eventually proving she was a “worthy” member to join the band.

That was fourteen years ago. Since then, the Dupree sisters – along with their brother Weston and their cousin Garron – have been dedicated to writing and performing as Eisley. “It’s pretty much our full-time job – [although] we occasionally have things on the side, like I do illustrations and tattoos for our fans,” Sherrie tells me. “Yes, but when we’re not on tour we write constantly. There are easily hundreds of Eisley songs we’ve written that haven’t made it onto any of our albums,” Stacey adds.

I like to think that Eisley didn’t have to “pretend” to resurrect childhood memories – as Rilke offers with his advice – because I imagine that they may have actually been seeing and experiencing the world for the first time when they wrote many of Eisley’s songs. While Rilke’s provides a valuable tool for writers – if occasionally Eisley’s songs are reminiscent of a fifteen-year old Jenny Lewis, that’s because many of the songs were written when Stacey and Sherrie were actually teenagers and listening to a healthy amount of Bob Dylan, Rilo Kiley, and The Decemberists.

I sat down with Stacey and Sherrie Dupree down at SXSW this year – just hours before they would headline PASTE’s 2011 SXSW Showcase – to discuss their songwriting process, and some songs from their new album “The Valley.”

Can you tell me about the process for writing an Eisley song?

Sherrie: “It kind of depends on the song. Stacy and I write. We used to write a lot together, but I think as we got older we developed our own unique styles and became more individualistic.”

Stacy: “Individualistic and less dependant on each other.”

Sherrie: “We come to each other for perspective I guess. But we don’t write so much together in one room. Like we used to just fiddle around. We haven’t actually tried that in a long time.

We’ll complete the song, or have a rough sketch of the song and bring it into practice. We demo on GarageBand, and show it to the whole band if we’re writing for a record. And then we have everyone kind of pick through their favorites. Everyone kind of weighs in and writes their own parts and shapes the overall Eisley experience.”(laughs)

How much of it is done in GarageBand? Do you scope out all the drums and each of the parts?

Stacy: “I get more into producer mode when I’m in [GarageBand]. It can get kind of ridiculous. Ridiculous and meticulous.”

Sherrie: “I’m not as particular. It helps to write to a drum loop or a beat, because it helps me to get a feel for the song.”

Stacy: “I always try to get Weston [Eisley’s drummer] to write beats but he’s lazy and won’t write me beats. So I have to rely on the GarageBand ones.”

Wait, so most Eisley songs are written on the same one-hundred or so pre-programmed drum loops that everyone has built into their copy of GarageBand?

Sherrie: “Yup. Because when you’re writing a song you need to give it a backbone. And from there you can take [the song] and give it to the drummer. Weston is a fairly creative drummer, and he totally shifts the song into something cooler than what you thought it would be.”

So there is some flexibility between your original composition and what ends up on an album?

Sherrie: “Yeah, we’re very flexible taking a song away from what we thought it would be. [laughs]”

What was that laugh for?

Sherrie: “I’m just laughing because we’ve definitely progressed into being more flexible and it wasn’t always like that. I know that on the first couple records I would get more like… Stacey what’s the term? [Stacey doesn’t answer, but makes a silly face]. Well OK, we use the term ‘butt-hurt’. Just like more sensitive when someone would have ideas or suggest something about a song. It’s something you have to grow into… because you want to be like, ‘No! That’s my part!’”

Do you ever fight over it?

Stacey: “Yeah yeah! She’s…” [gets all excited and loud for a second]

Wait remember this is about songwriting!

Stacey: “[pauses] Not really about songwriting. But especially in the studio. There’s tension because there’s so many people trying to get there opinions in. ‘I think this song’s better,’ and “No, I think this song’s better.’”

Sherrie: “If there is something that all of us are battling on – we isn’t that often – it turns out that most of the time we have the same goals. Which is probably because we’re related and grew up in the same house. So I ultimately trust her, if she wrote the song.”

Stacy: “And vice versa, in the end I have to trust Sherrie if it’s a song she wrote.”

Was there ever a song that you wrote and though, “This is too personal for Eisley”?

Sherrie: “I’m kind of an open book with my songs and my personal life. I really am and I’ve always been like that. Stacey’s a little different – wouldn’t you say?”

Stacy: “Well, I guess I’m not scared to present them. But I’m totally fine if the band feels that [one of my songs] is not good for an Eisley record. So I just try to throw everything in there and then whatever gets tossed back is fine.”

Sherrie: “It helps having two songwriters, because then we have double the material to pick from. All our records will have anywhere between 30, 35, 40 songs per record. And that’s a lot of material. But if we have everyone in the band listening, and if everyone’s favorites end up being a pretty similar grouping then that helps boil it down.”

How many hours a week do you put into writing for Eisley?

Stacey: “Well, if we’re touring we don’t usually write on tour. We take breaks.”

Sherrie: “I haven’t written anything in about a year. We just take it easy and get around to it whenever the time comes.”

So you don’t feel forced to write? Like, “I’ve got to write a song today”

Stacey: “No! No way. That would be so tiring. It just comes and goes. There’s an ebb and flow.”

Sherrie: “Stacey, what’s that you say about writing? [directing her question to Stacy] It’s like a little pet or something?”

Stacey: “Yeah, writing is like a pet. It comes and goes and you just have to keep your eye on it. But eventually you know it’s going to come back to you.”

I wonder why people write songs?

Sherrie: “We’re probably just all narcissists.” [laughs]

“No, but a lot of people say that about musicians – it’s just that world. When we started doing it we didn’t ever go [in a snarky voice], ‘Let’s be in a band! This is going to be so cool.’ It’s just we started doing this because we love music, we had a passion for music, we loved singing, and we loved doing it. It kind of just developed naturally. It was something that we all just loved.”

Is there any favorite song you have on the new album?

Stacey: “What a hard question – there’s so many that I love.”

Sherrie: “I like playing ‘Sad.’”

Stacey: “Yes, playing ‘Sad’ is really fun.”

Sherrie: “I also like playing ‘Ambulance.’ There’s not a lot of songs that I don’t have to constantly need to concentrate on singing.“

Stacey: “You just like rocking out. I see you rocking out on that song.”

Sherrie: “I do! I just get to play the guitar really loud.”

Do you know what all of each other’s songs are about?

Sherrie: “I’d say no, there are songs of [Stacey’s] that after 6 years I have no idea what they are about.”

Does it say who writes which songs on your albums?

Sherrie: “It does on the new record. Above each of the songs it has the name of who wrote it – because everyone is always asking. If you can tell our voices apart, then typically whoever is singing the main vocal wrote the song.“

Sometimes it’s really difficult to tell your voices apart – they blend really well.

Sherrie: “Yeah it’s even hard for me.”

Stacey: “I have the nasally voice, and Stacy has the sultry voice.”

So now I’m going to name a few song – and get your reaction.

Sherrie: “Our songs right?”

Wow you really are a narcissist! Yes ok, your songs.

Sherrie: “Oh no!” [laughs]

10 Cent Blues
Sherrie: “That’s honestly one of the ones that I’m also like, ‘What’s happening.’ Yeah what’s it about? [directing the question to Stacy].”

Stacey: “Well it’s not a story from real life. I mean, it’s not one girl in particular – just about jealousy. Getting into my Texas vibe. [laughs] It’s kind of sassy I guess, like ‘Girls will be jealous’, you know?”

Sherrie: “It’s just a fictional fairytale. I had the original beat for it, and it’s just kind of bouncy and silly. Which inspired this weird journey.”

Where did the idea for come from for the lyrics of at the beginning of the song: “Out one day, with you Hallelujah / We found a wood with Trolly’s on wheels / Rolling all around the hills / Hallelujah”?

Sherrie: “I was probably just writing some fantasy novel. I don’t remember, it was so long ago. Sometimes when I write I kind of just like the way that things sound, or I just get a vision in my head that I put into words.”

I think the word Hallelujah is an interesting word. Whenever I hear that word in a song it sticks out in a memorable way.

Stacey: “Yeah, we’ve used it twice (in two different Eisley songs)”

Sherrie: “Sure, it’s very jubilant. Hallelujah! I’m happy!”

Sometimes there’s this really poignant imagery like in the song “One day I slowly floated away” there’s the line, “All the war horses wore rubber bands / to hide their hooves from sinking sand”.

Sherrie: “I was listening to a lot of The Decemberists when I wrote that song. Can you tell?”

No I never noticed a direct connection with the lyrics from [“One Day I Slowly Floated Away”] and Colin Meloy’s lyrics.

Sherrie: “I’ve talked to him before through email. He’s an English major, and he’s lyrics are really neat. I love whimsical poetry that he uses. So that kind of inspired that song. It’s a wartime song about some who’s love is at battle.”

Is there a place that you go in your head to draw these ideas?

Stacey: “Yeah it’s very visual, and you have to go there in you head. I don’t even know what that lyric means, but I was thinking of some kind of device to keep horses from sinking and I thought of rubber bands.”

Where were you when you wrote the song “The Valley”?

Sherrie: “That was one of the first songs on the record. I was probably living at home still recording it on GarageBand.”

What musical ambitious do you have in regard to Eisley and songwriting?

Sherrie: “I would love to write, not really a concept record, but a completely fictional children’s storybook and put it all to music and have the whole thing flow. Abbey Road is like that, all the different musical styles go with whatever is happening with the lyrics. That would be such a fun project.”

Stacy: “Yes, I love that idea.”

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Chris Castig Co-founder of Adjunct Prof at Columbia University Business School.