You might assume a musician who's been making music for well over a decade would have the process of creating a song down to a science. But Tim Kinsella, the mastermind behind the prolific Chicago group Joan of Arc, claims he still doesn't have a clue what he's doing.
"I really don't know how to say this without it sounding like an affectation, but I honestly have zero idea how to write a song," Kinsella says in a phone interview. "Every [song] that has ever popped out of me has been a surprise. All I can say about it is I am open to the idea of songs happening, and I am aware that I am open to it, but the songs sure don't manifest when I'm in any way aware of wanting them to happen. The one real trick is that I play music a lot, so that helps. But I play music only because that is a default setting of mine and a manner of loving life and being joyous and absorbed, not because I am trying to write a song. If a song happens, that's great, but a song is not an ends I am playing for. I play to play."
Some of that recent "playing" resulted in enough songs for a new album, the eclectic, downtempo Boo!Human, technically Joan of Arc's eleventh full-length album. The band, which features a rotating lineup of regular collaborators along with Kinsella, has managed to release almost a record a year since the mid-'90s, mostly because Kinsella doesn't sit down with the intent to pen a new album.
"Writing is a continuous process, born probably more from restlessness than anything else," he explains. "From this amorphous pile of source phrases or melodies or guitar patterns, specific records then get sculpted in a more conscious manner, according to thematic resonances. Some bits of the record might be four years old and just didn't find their place on previous records, and some bits were recorded and then only considered after already having popped."
The recording of Boo!Human, which Kinsella describes as "balancing and negotiating between constant right-brain and left-brain," also wasn't approached in the typical manner. Kinsella went into the studio with no overall vision or goal in mind and tried to give himself new ideas in a unique manner.
"I go into recordings expecting to be surprised and often set up situations to try to do that," he says. "Of course, I can't put a bucket of water above a cracked door and then surprise myself when I'm wet after opening it, but I do bits of social engineering and leave bits open-ended strategically, etc. I rarely hurry anyone through indulging any particular avenue they may want to pursue even if it seems unclear or inappropriate to me. There are ends in mind, of course, but these are broad enough that fulfilling their requirements leaves a lot of wiggle room."
One might also assume that for Kinsella, who spent his formative years as singer of the influential indie band Cap'n Jazz, this process of crafting a new record would get easier over the years. But Kinsella, who equally cites cave paintings and the "subconscious social necessity of [Britney Spears'] public destruction" as influences over his work, hasn't found the process any less mysterious, nor does he have any idea if he is now considered influential himself. What he does know is that he is just another guy who happens to pop out compelling records fairly frequently. Whether anyone else likes his work doesn't really matter, which may very well be where his longevity lies.
"The records are each, of course, very much reactions to their predecessors in functional ways and that seems to me as it should be," Kinsella says. "I wouldn't see much satisfaction in repeating some approach over and over. I sure enjoy returning to ideas after not thinking about them for a while, and they seem new because I am, of course, a different man than the last time I may have attempted such an approach. But the records would suffer greatly if I allowed popular reception to intrude upon them each being only as they should."
Joan of Arc, Goodbye Ohio, Uno Lady, 9 p.m. Friday, July 25, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., 216.321.5588, Tickets: $10.