Life, death, and the New Pornographers

Unflappable frontman Carl Newman talks about his long-running band’s new album and making simple songs sound hard.

January 30, 2020
Life, death, and the New Pornographers Ebru Yildiz

When power-pop greats the New Pornographers dropped their latest album last year, In the Morse Code of Brake Lights, the release cemented the long-running and perpetually lineup-shifting band’s eighth album since 2000’s breakout Mass Romantic. If you’re of a certain age, that means it’s been 20 years since you first heard Carl Newman’s serpentine and sugar-sweet songwriting — a milestone, to be certain. But when I catch up with him over the phone last year, he has different achievements on his mind: specifically, a recent inclusion on the Wikipedia page of notable musicians residing in Woodstock, New York.


“I’m pretty sure I didn’t put myself in there. I think somebody else did it,” he chuckles from his upstate New York home. The singer/songwriter and family man has lived in Woodstock over the last decade, where he’s seen the bucolic and storied area change demographic hands myriad times over that span. “There's always waves of people coming here,” he marvels. “The mid-late ‘60s wave of cool hippies are now just the grumpy old people who want everyone to shut up and go away.”

As evidenced by the self-produced sparkle of Brake Lights, Newman’s been too busy in his home studio to yell at gentrification-shaped clouds: “I've got my own little set up here where I can just make records by myself and work as much as I want. Whenever I need a world-class musician to play with, there's plenty around here. Even though it's a little town, it's full of people.”


More importantly, Newman’s multi-purpose domicile has given him a new outlook when it comes to the frequency of which he’ll be releasing New Pornos material — a theoretical gambit equally influenced by the ever-changing shape of the music industry. “I've been thinking a lot about how the industry has changed — the model we've used for years and years, we can't really use anymore,” he explains. “Putting out a record every two or three years with a big advance and a marketing and radio team is great, but there's another way to do it. Perhaps the era of this one big record that you put out every few years and milk as long as possible is gone.”

Read on for our conversation, as well as the New Pornos’ upcoming tour dates. They’re great live! You must see them if you can.


How is being a parent working out for you these days?
Like most parents, I love it. There’s an element of Stockholm Syndrome in there — this little person has got me kidnapped until the end of my days. But that's the way you want it. I'm shocked at how much I like having a quiet life. I always think of my all-time favorite song, Gerry Rafferty’s "Baker Street," which is about a musician who wants to get away from the rat race, find a little place, and settle down. The last line is like, "But you'll always be a rolling stone," and I think, No! That's where it ends for me.

This new album arrived two years after Whiteout Conditions — the shortest amount of time between New Pornographers albums in the 2010s. What made for a quicker turnaround than usual?
I was going at a pretty good click, but I started slowing down around the time my wife became pregnant. I didn't want to be on the hamster wheel of the band, and I felt very careful about not losing that time when my son was very young and newly alive. All of a sudden, I realized, "Shit, it's been four years in between New Pornographers records."


The good part is I was financially stable enough that I didn't have to rush another record out. Oddly enough, I want to put out another record in 2020, but I have lots of crazy ideas like that. I have a lot of unfinished work, you know? The music that gets released is the tip of the iceberg. I also think that it's possible some people get older and start thinking, "God, I should start speeding up how I release records." Thomas Pynchon went ten or fifteen years in between books, and then he put out two or three novels in the span of six years. I think, "Maybe he just knows he's approaching death, and I'm going to do something in this life, I should do it."

As you get older, is death something that's on your mind more?
I don't know if it's anymore then it usually is. Over the course of fifteen years, I've seen more death than I wanted to. Both my parents died, my half-sister Catherine's mother died of ALS, my sister died of ovarian cancer, and one of my best friends’ wives, who he'd been with for over twenty years, died of cancer. It was very strange to be dealing with people dying at the same time as my son being born. You become very aware of the cycle of life, so as much as I think about death, I also think about what's coming up for my son. They coexist.

Sometimes I wonder how much the average person thinks about death. It must be spiking, because death feels much more like an ever-present possibility in America now.
People aren't worrying, "Oh my God, one day I'm going to die as an old person." It's more like, "Oh my God, I hope I don't get murdered just randomly in some place that I don't expect."

This is the first New Pornographers record that you produced entirely on your own.
At the end of Whiteout Conditions, when I was having trouble with a song, I realized, "Oh, I can fix this." I can just go in my studio and mess around. It wasn't just me being a mad scientist — it was being able to do the thing that I wanted to do, whereas before I had to stand behind someone's shoulder and go, "Hey, can we do this?"

Do you feel like you've changed as a songwriter over the last twenty years?
I've evolved lyrically. The early songs were word salads. I was less concerned about the lyrics back then, and now I feel kind of insulted if people think my lyrics are word salads. I used to mess around with complicated song forms more — Twin Cinema was the apex of that. I had all these songs that were very asymmetrical, and I came out the other side of that and felt like I didn't want to keep writing songs like that.

On the last two records, what's been different is trying to build these songs around not very many chords, but in a slight-of-hand way. "Falling Down The Stairs Of Your Smile" only has two chords — it just goes back and forth, just in different ways. "Higher Beams" only has three chords, but I messed around with it so that anybody listening to it doesn't know. I've always been fascinated by Neil Diamond — how all his songs have the same three chords, but he figures out how to do new things with that. I want to go deeper into that, but stranger and weirder.

01-31 Portland, OR - Roseland Theater
02-01 San Francisco, CA - The Fillmore
02-03 Los Angeles, CA - The Fonda Theatre
02-04 San Diego, CA - The Observatory North Park
02-05 Phoenix, AZ - Crescent Ballroom
02-06 Santa Fe, NM - Meow Wolf
02-08 Dallas, TX - Canton Hall
02-09 Houston, TX - White Oak Music Hall
02-10 Austin, TX - Emo's
02-11 Oklahoma City, OK - Tower Theatre
02-12 Kansas City, MO - The Truman
02-13 Omaha, NE - Slowdown
02-15 Englewood, CO - Gothic Theatre
02-16 Salt Lake City, UT - The Depot
02-20 - 21 Melbourne, Australia - Melbourne Recital Centre
02-23 Perth, Australia - Rechabites Hall
02-25 Brisbane, Australia - The Triffid
02-26 Sydney, Australia - The Metro Theatre
02-28 Canberra, Australia - Canberra Theatre
03-01 Adelaide, Australia - Adelaide Festival
03-03 Wellington, New Zealand - NZ Festival
03-09 Sudbury, Ontario - Northern Lights Festival Boréal
07-11 Toronto, Ontario - Phoenix Concert Theatre

Life, death, and the New Pornographers