On more than one occasion, I've passed along James Toth's songwriting tips and tricks to help musician friends out of a rut. These are just a few of his actionable suggestions for a creative in crisis: "Put a capo on a random fret," "Write a song that sounds like what you imagine the unheard band/record sounds like, based solely on the description in the review," "Borrow an instrument from someone who plays the same one that you do."
Toth writes a lot of songs — an understatement buried under the weight of his catalog — and he's constantly challenging his own methods in making music as Wooden Wand. For Clipper Ship, recorded in Chicago, Nashville and parts of Kentucky, Toth flipped his process and wrote the music first, lyrics second.
"When I first started writing songs, I used my music as a vehicle for words, because that's what my childhood songwriting heroes seemed to do. (Not that there aren't incredible arrangements and playing on albums by Leonard Cohen, Dylan, John Prine, etc., but I'm not sure anyone would necessarily prefer instrumental versions of those albums.)," Toth writes NPR. "This time I thought it would be fun to write music first — most of what I listen to at home is instrumental music — to see if it would affect the way I approached phrasing, melody, structure, maybe even lyrical themes. I was pleased to find that it did all of those things. Additionally, having music that could stand on its own felt like some small artistic victory."
While Wooden Wand has explored a lot of Crazy Horse-ian rock in recent years, this album catches Toth in his folky-songwriter guise. Where past acoustic efforts have had a rough-and-tumble, almost forceful way about them, there is something genteel and practically impressionistic about Clipper Ship. The arrangement for "Mexican Coke," in particular, flourishes quietly in its movement, yet blushes rosily with violin, dobro and clinking percussion.
"Violin is by the great Jim Becker (Califone, Iron & Wine) and the dobro is by Jim Elkington (Tweedy, Brokeback, Richard Thompson)," Toth says. "I just played the guitar part and those guys started playing over it, and came up with their respective parts on the spot. Glenn Kotche is on percussion, and I think Darin Gray is in there someplace, too!"
Toth adds that the song "deals with the increasing necessity of the 'side hustle,'" using the cane-sugar soda as currency for time. But even when the side hustle overtakes the artistic and normal life, Toth sings, "Where there's a will, there are ways."
Clipper Ship comes out May 5 on Three Lobed.