There is a grand elegance present in the musical disposition of Calvin Lamothe. The Massachusetts singer-songwriter, a part of our second Beautiful Songwriting collection back in May 2014, has about his work an air of humble magnitude; a sense of exquisite, melancholic import which, whilst drawn from a personal well, takes on the life of a dignified beacon that signals the remarkable depth of emotion a single human can feel. In anticipation of his sophomore full-length release, due in the coming months, ALGB spent some time getting to know Calvin, learning about the spontaneity of his process, why his music perpetually exists within the realms of sadness, and how songwriting has a habit of guiding his thoughts to places he would rather they didn't go.
That happens to me a lot: where I wish that I weren’t writing about the things I’m writing about...
Calvin: I’ve been playing music since I was five. My pre-school was giving away an old piano that was painted this really gross white and had been scribbled all over in various markers and crayons. My parents were like, “We’ll take it!” I kinda started sounding things out, and then started taking lessons. When I was twelve or thirteen, I had been writing a little bit on my own but not really seriously. My mum has twin half-sisters who are both musical, and one of them was in a band called Scary Mansion; I knew that she was in a band, but had never really listened to it. One day I started listening and was like, “Wow! This is really amazing.” To have a family member who was doing that sort of thing really inspired me to write a little bit more seriously, so that was kind of the turning point.
Calvin: For that, I actually have to give a lot of credit to Tumblr. I used to just post random photos, art and other stuff — both mine, and other people’s — then I started following a few other people who were putting out music, be it covers or little original songs. Eventually, I started to post some: mostly covers at first. I have to give credit to my aunt who taught me how to use GarageBand and got me on my feet. Those got a pretty good reception, so I was like, “Okay, this is something that is cool, I love doing and people seem to enjoy.” So then, very slowly, I started to put out some original stuff and that ended up getting a pretty good reception as well.
Calvin: It’s something that I feel I very much need to do. Songwriting has always been the main route by which I process what’s going on in my life, which is kinda why my music is always on the sadder side. [laughs] That’s when I write: when I have something that I need to work through emotionally. So that’s always been the main motivation for why I do what I do, and I think that very much still is the reason.
Calvin: I think the process has stayed more-or-less constant. What I do, more-or-less, is tool around on the piano or guitar for a little bit and come up with something that I like — be it a riff or a chord progression or whatever. I usually try to let the first line or two of lyrics just come spontaneously, because I think that helps me get a little bit more in tune with what I’m feeling. Sometimes I’ll write a line or two and think: Okay, what is that about? And then I’m like, “Oh, this must be on my mind”, so then that’s the direction that the song goes in. That’s always been the process, but I think as I have developed in writing more, I think I’ve come a little bit further in terms of composition, so my music has gotten a little bit less sparse, which I like. On the album that I have coming up, I started to incorporate a little bit more in terms of instrumentation — worked with a cellist and a violinist, a bass player and a drummer — which is really cool and something I’d never done before. Also, even recently, in the stuff that I’ve written since writing the album, I’ve gotten much more honest and frank with my music: stopped trying to be so subtle and using wordplay to dance around what I want to say, which is a new step. I played a show recently where I was singing songs about someone who was in the room — [laughs] — which was a new experience, but it felt good.
Calvin: Yeah, definitely. I’m in my fourth year at school here. You play your first show and no-one knows who you are, and you kind of build your way up. At this point, there’s definitely a student music scene at my school, but it’s rather small, so I feel much more connected to that group now and have much more of a foundation to work on. So, yeah: definitely much more confident in my abilities and also in the community that I have here — that’s given me a bit of a platform to branch off a little bit.
Calvin: The work on the album spans roughly two years, so there’s definitely a broad range. The last EP I put out was all written on piano, and this is a little bit more guitar-heavy. I taught myself the guitar five or six years ago, and I don’t consider myself an expert by any means but I have definitely developed that skill a little bit, which has led to the album having a little bit more guitar than it does piano.
There’s definitely a bit more of the honest songwriting that I was just talking about, and I think just being able to collaborate a lot more on this record was a big change. The last EP, I put the whole thing together in my bedroom using GarageBand and did all of it myself — nobody heard it before it was released. On this one, I had someone else recording with me and doing all the technical stuff, which let me focus a little bit more on the creative process. Also, I was able to get feedback from him and all of the other people who were involved in the process: the other musicians that I worked with. Just having other musicians be on the record is a huge and exciting change too.
Calvin: I think, probably, the melody and the vocals have always been most important — just because my accompaniment is usually pretty minimal. Especially on the guitar where I’m not quite as skilled. So definitely developing a strong melody, and just the vocal parts in general: using harmony to build on a song is really important to me, and there’s a little bit more of that on this album than on previous ones. I think the atmosphere of the overall song is something that I try to craft a little bit too, especially on the upcoming record.
Calvin: Hmm. I’d never thought about it that way… I don’t think that the work has a huge influence on my mood, just because the writing process itself is what helps me work through the things that I’m writing about — I think I come away feeling much better after having written something. People are always — especially after I play shows — like, “Can’t you ever just write a happy song?” Or they’re like, “Oh, I’m worried about you.” I’m like, “No, I’m fine.” [laughs] It’s just that when I’m happy, I don’t feel the need to write about it. I don’t have to process it — I just want to live in that happiness. So people only hear the one side. I have a full spectrum of emotions going on — [laughs] — but the sadness and the anger are just what come through in the songs because that’s what I need to write about. I will definitely listen to some of my own songs when I’m down and processing those same kinds of things, but I think it actually keeps me happier overall to be able to write about the things that I write about.
Calvin: I think it’s always been pretty prevalent. [laughs] This album is definitely a little bit more self-focused. One of the big songs on the last EP I released, She Took Your Breath Away, was about a friend and her relationship. This album, there are definitely a lot of songs about other people, but they’re about other people in relation to me — and then there’s just a lot of introspection as well. So, I think the sadness is a constant, but the subjects have shifted a little bit.
Calvin: I don’t know that I have an answer to that question. Because of the way that I try to let the lyrics come as they come, it sometimes feels very spontaneous. I’ll write a song about something that happened two years ago, and I’m like, “Oh, I guess that’s still on my mind.” I didn’t set out like, “I’m upset about this thing; I need to write about it.” I’ll just be playing piano and all of a sudden I’m singing about something that happened in the past. So, sometimes to me it feels very incongruent: where I’m in a certain mood, I sit down to write, and all of a sudden I’m transported into a totally different space. It’s really exciting to feel like you have very little control over your songwriting, but also it’s a strange feeling, sometimes.
Calvin: It definitely depends. Sometimes I’ll get a line or two, then identify what I’m thinking about, what I’m feeling, and write a whole song in ten minutes. Sometimes I’ll take a month or two, and sometimes I just never do. My voice memos on my phone are just filled with unfinished ideas and things that will probably never see the light of day. I haven’t quite figured out what factors go into what gets finished and what doesn’t, so that’s a mystery I’m still working on.
Calvin: It’s definitely always been a process that I just need to do. If I weren’t songwriting, I don’t know what I would do with my feelings. It’s definitely the best and the biggest way that I process everything that is going on in my head. So I think it’s really something that keeps me happy and healthy and going strong. Also, the fact that I have been able to reach people around the world, and even the people closest to me, with my music, who have really felt it and reached out to me and said, “This is something that is really important to me” — that has been incredible, and something that my twelve-or-thirteen-year-old self would never have anticipated. So that is definitely a huge motivation as well.
Calvin: It’s really personal music — I’m writing, first and foremost, for myself — but I guess the biggest thing that I like to communicate is the idea that struggles and pain can be turned into something like music. And then, also, if people are able to relate in any way to the stories and the feelings that I’m communicating, I think that is enough for me.
Calvin: I think that’s the big one, definitely. People are just like, “Will you ever write or play a happy song.” I try! Sometimes I sit down and think: Okay, this is going to be the time that I write a happy song. This is the one. It just hasn’t happened yet. [laughs] Because that’s not the way I think through my songwriting process. So yeah, I think that is probably the biggest misconception that people have: “Oh, sad music. He must be the saddest boy alive.” [laughs] And that’s definitely not true — I hope. I can’t think of any other huge misconceptions that people would have.
Calvin: Yeah, definitely. Sometimes I feel I end up dwelling on things that are going on in my life because of songwriting. After the album had all been written, I went through a weird, awkward, bad break-up, and wrote way more songs about it than I would have liked to — because this person doesn’t even deserve to have that many songs written about them. So I was like, “Why am I still writing about this?” I was really upset with myself. That happens to me a lot: where I wish that I weren’t writing about the things I’m writing about, but then I have to re-contextualise for myself and say, “Well, if you’re still writing about this, then it’s something that you need to be thinking about still because it’s still on your mind.” So it’s kind of a blessing and a curse in that way.
Calvin: Ooh! That’s an existential question… Most of what I write, I think, is worthwhile for me to listen to. Because it’s pretty personal. But then, in determining out of all the songs that I write what ends up going out into the world for people to listen to… I don’t know. I’ve pulled a few of my songs and left them in the archive because I’m like, “This is a super cheesy song.” Being a twenty-year-old songwriter, a lot of the time I feel like I have to project this maturity because I’m so young — so, making sure a song feels fully formed and doesn’t feel like a teenager is writing it — but then, sometimes, even recently, I’ve enjoyed embracing the youthful quality and the simplicity and more honest songwriting that comes with it.
Calvin: … I feel like this is kind of a corny answer, but I study psychology so — and I think this comes through a little bit in my music as well — relationships, and how people react to one another publicly, but also privately how they feel. I definitely think about that a lot in terms of myself and my own relationships. Figuring out how people tick always really fascinates me — why people do the things they do. It’s super cheesy, but I think that is the big thing.
Calvin: Cats, without fail. Any animal, really… Is that the first thing I think of: cats? [laughs] I think just being around friends and family is always a big thing that makes me smile. Sometimes, seeing things that are unexpected — like, this morning when I woke up to snow. I don’t particularly love snow, but I couldn’t help but smile. Just little, unexpected things that pop up. I try to smile at those — I don’t always. [laughs]
Calvin: I think the first point is when I figure out what I’m writing about because from there I can take it in whatever direction, but I have a thought or an event or an idea. When I feel like I’ve finished a song, that’s definitely another smiling point — I feel accomplished; I turned something into something else, which is a really cool feeling. Also, both in my songs and in other songs I listen to, there’s often one moment that I find myself particularly drawn to, be it the way my voice or another person’s voice sounds saying one word, or a harmony, or one measure of music — hearing that moment in a song, no matter how many times I listen to it, will often bring a smile to my face.
Calvin: I definitely think I’ve come to understand myself better through music, so that is a huge piece. It has also made me a lot of friendships around the world and immediately around me that I don’t think I would have made otherwise. The ability to meet and connect with other creative people has been really influential. And thinking back to Tumblr: way back in the day, I followed someone and was friends with someone in Australia — her name is Wafia — and she, now, is an actual musician and was just touring in the US and released these two beautiful EPs that I listen to all the time. We still talk occasionally, and to have that connection is just so incredible to me. To imagine not having those kinds of connections feels very strange.
Calvin: It’s something that is not super on my radar, just because I’m still studying and music is more of a side project. But, as I think about graduating in a few months, I’m weighing all my options as to what I’m going to do next — because I really don’t have any idea. So, music has definitely been on the radar, and I think: Well, do I want to pursue music? Then, the next question is: What does that mean? There are a lot of other scary factors that play into that as well; just committing to that is a big mental step. So, in that case, the industry is definitely on my mind a little bit more when I think about that.
Calvin: That’s a good question. [laughs] … It definitely defines a lot of who I am, because it’s my main creative and emotional outlet. But, at the same time, like we were talking about earlier, it’s not a full representation; it doesn’t capture the good times and the happy times. I definitely think of myself as a musician, and I hope that other people do too, so it’s definitely a label that I apply to myself, but it’s not completely who I am.
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