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

The Sound of Songwriting: With Tim Kasher of Cursive and The Good Life

7 min read

Tim Kasher Cursive

Much like a lyrical Woody Allen, Tim Kasher doesn’t hide behind his neurosis, he celebrates it. Mature enough to recognize his own self-limitations as an adult, and candid enough to share these tales with his audience, Kasher’s style of songwriting comes off as witty, humorous, self-deprecating and humble – often all in one song and sometimes before the second chorus.

Kasher demonstrates this ability in “Art is Hard,” a sarcastic lament for songwriters who must use their own tragedies as tools through which to boost album sales. “Cut it out – your self-inflicted pain is getting too routine,” he demands from the start. Later followed by, “You gotta sink to swim / impersonate greater persons / cause we all know art is hard / when we don’t know who we are. “ By the close of the song you have a pretty clear image of this type of self-loathing rock band to which Kasher is referring. But if you weren’t paying close enough attention you might have missed the “fan” who screams mid-song, “Oh, Cursive is so cool,” begging the question: who is this song really about?

It’s this type of dark irony that Kasher is famous for. And it’s also what leads to the confusion between the historical Tim Kasher, and the Tim Kasher persona with whom he refers to in his songs.

Last October he released his first solo-album, The Game of Monogamy, which lyrical reads like an hour-long theatrical monologue on the unsatisfying woes of marriage. On stage, in support of the new album, Tim shared an antidote with the audience about a fan 10 years his younger that approached him with a pat on the back offering his condolences, “Don’t worry Tim, it gets better.” Kasher brushes it off with a smile acknowledging that he is implicit in the joke. He understands that his fans sometimes misinterpret his style of lyric writing as 100% truths. After all it was Kasher who set himself up by once singing, “There’s no use to keep a secret, everything I hide ends up in lyrics”, in Cursive’s Some Red Handed Sleight of Hand (and later in the album calling himself out by name). I mentioned this to Kasher in our interview, to which he responded at length – a statement he would later summarized as, “I’m not doing documentary music”.

Could you tell me about the first song you wrote?

I can’t remember the title of it, but I do remember that it was ‘A minor – D minor – E minor.’ I’m going to guess it was called “You Don’t Care if I Die.” It was something along the lines of, “If I shot myself, if I hung myself, you won’t care…” because well, “You don’t care if I die.” That was the first song, it was really bleak and there was no such thing as nuance or subtlety whatsoever. I was probably fifteen at the time.

Did you know you wanted to be a songwriting at that age?

I had been learning how to play guitar at the time – learning Simon & Garfunkel songs primarily. And playing with Matt Maginn [bassist of Cursive], we’ve always played together. At the time we were playing mostly covers. I was just a kid, but I really had a hunch from an early age that I wanted to write my own songs and not just play covers.

What lessons have you learned about songwriting since writing “You Don’t Care If I Die”?

I might suggest that I’m still writing that same song [laughs] it’s just that I’ve learned subtleties and a few more chords [still laughing]. Even though I still use ‘A minor – D minor’ pretty predominately.

Do you ever find yourself stuck in the same progression of chords?

You know I don’t talk about songwriting much with other songwriters. I imagine any songwriter gets stuck with his go-to chords. I have chords that are my comfort chords, but I do keep myself away from them. It kind of goes by album: I’ll set parameters of what I can and cannot do on any given album. For example, “you cannot use bar-chords”, or “you cannot use these traditional full chords that are your comfort chords.”

I wonder if these “go-to chords” limit your growth as a songwriter? If they complicate the process for developing new ideas that don’t sound like songs you’ve already written?

Wow, yeah I’m a big believer that I should start talking to more songwriters to see what others think. And I suppose that what you’re doing.

There are only so many chords you can play – the chords are always going to be the same. Here and there you can stumble upon a new chord structure or composition idea that might really inspire you and then you can work from there.

Ok I can use a really simple example: so you’re playing a simple progression of C-F-G and on most days of the month it sounds like C-F-G, or maybe it sounds like something else you’ve already played, or it sounds like Neil Young or… whatever, it just sounds derivative. But then on that day you’re ready to write the song – whatever that means – then C-F-G can sound very different. It sounds like the first time you’ve ever played that chord progression and it sounds very exciting. And you have all of these ideas and it seems like new chords.

When you were writing with Cursive, what was the process like for presenting new songs to the other members of the band?

We decided a long time ago, like in the 90s, even before Cursive, that we can speed up the process if I come in with a finished composition. That’s not saying that I’m just the one that writes the songs, but I write the composition: the chords and the vocal melody. I come with a completed song and then we start throwing around all these ideas about how the drums should be, what kind of bass part, what kind of guitars.

To give proper credit to the bands: the kind of junky song that comes out of my house is often a hell of a lot different from what it becomes. It’s a fairly plain idea where I see potential. I’ve definitely had to push songs, like, “Wait, no, you’re just not seeing it how I’m seeing it in my mind. I think this can work.”

Can you think of one song in particular that took more convincing than others?

There’s a song in the middle of The Ugly Organ, it’s called “Butcher the Song.” It ended up being one of the more important songs on the record as far as it being this adhesive for the first half and the second half of the record. It’s an important storytelling song for the album. But the music was really weird, and it was really hard to convince them of what it would become, to the point where I started convincing myself, “Ok maybe this song isn’t working.” It wasn’t until I took a last crack at the lyrics that it all kind of made sense and everyone was like, “Oh, ok this all makes sense now.”

What songs are you most proud of having written?

On this last record, the song “Strays” is where I feel like I’m actually hitting some kind of pure nerve that I was trying to find. On Happy Hollow it was “From the Hips.”

There are a few of those songs on each record – and that’s what keeps me going. The other songs aren’t filler; it’s just that not every song is that one special song that made the album for me. I wonder if John Lennon looked at one of his albums and would say, “All eleven of these songs are gems?”

How was songwriting different on the solo album you just released [The Game of Monogamy] – where you don’t have the support of a band to bounce your ideas off of?

It’s just a different process, one that I don’t mind. I would bring musicians like Erin Tate [drummer for Minus the Bear], Matt Maginn [bassist for Cursive] and Patrick Newbery. We’d flesh songs out until they were like, “That sounds great,” but even when they were unsure at times they would be like, “Well Tim, it’s your album.” And I kind of like that because I felt like, “Yeah, don’t worry about it. I like it and I think it sounds cool.”

The new album is so much more literal than your work in the past. I wonder if that was deliberate, or if you even recognize this?

I take that as a big compliment, and not that I’m achieving something as some great lyricist, but just that I’m in the constant process of trying to become a better writer.

People recognize this album as being so literal – and it’s actually not. There’s fiction on it and I think that I’m getting better at fiction writing, to the point where people don’t know the difference anymore. Not that I’m trying to confuse people, but it’s tough because it’s not like it’s supposed to be autobiographical. It’s not like I’m lying.

You can’t break down fiction and say it’s lies and truths. I’m trying to write these pieces of writing that are based off of all these experiences, and I’m trying to craft them into a better song than life actually is. That makes it fiction to me. Of course there are very literal nods to my own experiences, but it weaves in and out of with these fictional characters – I don’t see it as me, but as these people that resemble me.

So I’m assuming a song like Sierra is fictional?

Yes. That’s a good example of a song way back from 2002 that still to this day people have the impression that I have a daughter. It’s not a total piece of fiction, but it’s about if I were to [have had a daughter].

I write something like Sierra because it sounds like it could have stemmed from the possible different choices in my life. I would never write something that wasn’t in my autobiographical nature. And so I’m writing about experiences from my life. It’s almost like historical fiction.

On some songs you cross the line between the biographical and the fictional to the point where it comes off as intentionally vague. A song like Sink to the Beat or Art is Hard comes to mind. It’s this Woody Allen moment where the listener wonders: is this about Tim? Or is he talking about someone else?

I think that’s for the listener – or viewer – to decide – you have to make those decisions for yourself. I’ll watch a Woody Allen film and think: this is clearly coming out of his own life. I don’t hold him to it, but you can recognize that he’s working through certain things. He’s in a safe place because he’s doing stuff that’s totally out there.

The songs that you just mentioned, Sink to the Beat and Art is Hard, that stuff is pretty out there. It’s stuff where it’s fully self referential, but it’s also so ironic and fairly tongue-in-cheek by playing with the concept of what rock and roll is about.

They are song about songwriting, aren’t they? You have a lot of those.

I do that because I have a lot of interest in self-reflexive writing and that fourth wall concept. It’s harder to have that [forth wall] in music, but that’s that idea anyway

The term rock star is just so defamatory and I used to get really pissed off if friends would say that word – it’s just obnoxious. But some people really embrace it, and I think it’s fairly obvious that lyrically I’ve tried to be the antithesis of it by deconstructing it as much as possible in this way. And that’s why I write a lot about the songwriting process.

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