Interview with Jesse Norell

Hello fftb family around the world.  We have another interview for you today.  Twin Cities rockaholic Jesse Norell.  You may have seen Jesse in the bands Copy and/or Reticence.  Jesse is a writer on and has been involved with Misplaced Music Radio.  Jesse is the most ripping nice guy guitarist I have ever met.

 FFTB: Think of the last song your wrote; what were the steps taken to complete that song? 

[j] The first thing I do is consider my purpose or audience for the song. Recently I wrote a song that was auctioned off as part of a church missions trip fundraiser. So I had to consider what style of music and type of lyrics would fit the person that purchased the song. Another song I wrote was in preparation for a worship leading job that I was interviewing for. So the music and lyrics has to fit the situation. I try to come up with a series of interesting guitar parts that hang together. The guitar parts can’t be boring, nor can they be so busy that it detracts from the vocal melody. Next I hum some random stuff and hopefully something memorable sticks. At this point I’ll record some ideas into a Dictaphone and come back to it. Then I return with more objectivity, which is the point when a lot can get reworked or the whole thing could get the ax. If I get past that stage, I’ll slowly struggle to find words that fit. I’m comfortable rearranging the music of a song long after it’s “done” but I give myself a cutoff for lyrics when I stop torturing myself and call it quits. I’m always my own worst critic, which I hear is common with songwriters and other artists.

FFTB: Is it better to be great at 1 instrument or decent at many?

[j] It depends on whether you are leading or following. If you are leading a band by writing songs and singing, a knowledge of the other instruments that are involved is very helpful for communicating with the other musicians. If your role is to support another songwriter by playing the bass, for example, then you should focus on being really stinking great at the bass to be able to contribute what is needed for each song.

FFTB: Would you consider lyrics to be music?

[j] No. I don’t think of lyrics as music, but rather a vital part of music. I think of lyrics and vocal melody as so important that sometimes I feel like instrumental music is only half of a song. I used to think of lyrics as poetry, but I was disappointed to discover that the poetry classes I took really didn’t help me write better lyrics all that much. Lyrics are a unique beast and writing them well is an art form that is distinctly different from any other. Very few popular artists do this well because, in pop music, lyrics are somewhat peripheral to success.

FFTB: How do you approach playing songs live when the recording have extra tracks?

[j] This is a tough question. One of the hardest things to do as a songwriter is to have a clearheaded, objective, outsider’s perspective. Sometimes when listening to a song I wrote, my mind will fill in the gaps, so it’s helpful to have someone else tell you if a song sounds hollow without that extra guitar part. I’ve tried looping, but that can become a nightmare in a live setting after a while. I’m used to playing in a guitar/bass/drums trio, but I hope that future projects will have an extra person that can fill in those gaps and provide some of the ear candy that can add so much to a song. 

FFTB: What is the recipe for a great song?

[j] You have to start with creativity. A song does not have to be so unique that it approaches bizarre, but it shouldn’t sound totally familiar either. Songs should be somewhat memorable. I am a huge fan of non-obvious hooks. I believe all great songs are filled with emotion. Songs without emotion tend to be dry, background music. Great songs have time and thought poured into them. They are honed and refined. If the song is brought to other musicians, positivity is necessary as negativity can squelch the greatest of songs.  

FFTB: What is your favorite fantasy creature? 

[j] The chimera. Lion, goat, snake… three fantasy creatures for the price of one. Breathes fire. Bonus!

FFTB: Do you have any common themes you use lyrically?

[j] I went through a phase where I wrote a lot about how the media affects society. I’m a sucker for breakup songs, which fueled the creative fire a few years ago when so many of my relationships were falling apart. None of them were the typical, boy-girl breakup songs; my wife and I came through all that just fine. The effects of sin has been a big theme in the past too. 

Currently I’m trying to be more positive. I’m done with being mopey. I’ve been getting more excited about writing music for church services that really expresses something truthful about who God is. I also see myself telling someone else’s story for a change. Especially giving a voice to those who can speak for themselves and trying to fill in the gaps where social justice is absent.  

FFTB: Who are your top three favorite songwriters?

[j] I’ll answer this question in two categories. The first contains artists who know how to put together great songs from start to finish. They can see how their songs fit together with each other. They write great melodies, solid lyrics and all work well solo or with their band: 

David Bazan (Pedro the Lion)

David Crowder (David Crowder Band)

Glen Phillips (Toad the Wet Sprocket) 

This second category contains some of my favorite guitar players. They are first and foremost mad-scientists on the electric guitar and then work with their band to make their creations into great songs. 

Tom Morello (Rage against the Machine)

Matt Bellamy (Muse)

Bill Mike (Bill Mike Band) 

FFTB: Any advice for young aspiring musicians and songwriters? 

[j] Be creative. Don’t copy anyone else.  

Dream big and have vision, but don’t quit your day job.  

Make music you love, because no matter how awesome it is, somebody’s going to hate it. If you make music to please somebody else, even you won’t like it and you won’t please anybody.  

Be ok with failing and remember that you’re on a journey. Most people’s first songs are terrible, which is good because otherwise there would be no way of seeing how far they’ve come. 

Wear earplugs or turn the amps down because tinnitus is not all that cool. 

Find a group of people that are positive and will support you. There is so much work that goes into trying to make money doing music and it’s tiring and lonely doing it by yourself. Being creative and organized is difficult and rare, so use those skills if you have them or find somebody who can be organized for you. 

Don’t get caught up in the scene. There are way more unhealthy ways to do music than healthy ways so be on your guard. 

Don’t give up at the first sign of discouragement. Give it time and persevere. But if you go through long stretches where you’re really unhappy with what you’re doing musically, it may be time for a change. 

Huge FFTB thanks for sharing your thoughts Jesse.  Please make sure to check out some of the projects Jesse is involved in…


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