The Evolution Of A Songwriter

After more than three decades of making music and songwriting, David Olney has come out on top, at least to many music critics, fans and to himself. He is praised as one of the best songwriters in music today by many, including Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstandt and the late Townes Van Zandt. Who knows if he will ever make it into the mainstream. Regardless, critical acclaim follows everything he releases. In past years Olney has performed at the South by Southwest music festival, and this year he will be playing again, debuting his 12th studio album, titled "Migration." Now the often brutally honest David Olney is letting go of the past and looking straight ahead.

Olney spoke with Jupiter Index, via telephone, from Nashville, TN, about songwriting, birds migrating, the music business, and more.

Editor’s note: Since this interview, Olney has released in 2018, This Side or the Other. He also keeps up with his music follows on every Tuesday, with his program, “You Never Know” Songwriting Series on YouTube.

Michelle Llaguno: You have a new album coming out in April, tell us a little bit about it.
David Olney: It's called "Migration." I play a lot of electric guitar in it, which is a stretch for me.

Did you co-produce it, like your last album "The Wheel?" And how did production go?
Yes, I produced it with Robb Earls. It kind of got bogged down because I was looking for a flamenco, classical guitar sound and I couldn't find someone to do that. I finally ran into Michael Johnson, and he played on one [song]. Later on I ran into German guitar player, Thomm Jutz, and once that piece fell into place then the production went very smoothly.

Tell us about your new song "Lenora."
The song "Lenora" is about two birds migrating south, one bird is in love with the other bird named Lenora.

Where do you find the inspiration for your songs?
I don't sit down and try to think something up. I've been doing it so long that there's just part of my brain trying to make a song up. I remember making up a song while watching leaves fall off a tree, or watching birds fly, which set off "Lenora" and some other songs. Usually it's more an image than an intellectual idea.

Your songs are very literate with different characters and plots, are you an avid reader?
Yeah, I read a lot. I think it's more that I'm interested in theatre and acting. I sort of see things in a theatrical way.

How does your interest in theatre and acting contribute to your writing?
Instead of writing things that may have happened to me, I'm more interested in creating a character and following what they would do in a certain situation. My writing is not very autobiographical.

I read a review that said your music was "too dark and thoughtful for mass popularity," do you think that's true?
Yes. There is a lot of thinking about death, and things like that. Some people can write all love songs very well, I don't happen to be one of them. I just have to do what I do best.

You've been involved in the music scene for more than 30 years, how has your music evolved?
In the beginning you tend to want to let people know who you are, what kind of person you are through your music and your songs. The more I did it, the less I wanted to. [Now] there's less of me in the songs. It's a weird thing, it's too simple to say the songs aren't about me if it came out of my head. I've been able to explore what I'm like more thoroughly by thinking outside of myself. I look at other people and wonder how they act, and I end up having to compare it to how I would act. Writing about myself doesn't interest me, but finding out about myself does.

Tell us how your spiritual side contributes to your music?
It's always there, but I kind of struggle with that stuff. I think the songs reflect that struggle of how much you can believe in an Almighty or guiding spirit in the universe, and how much you have to sink or swim on your own wits.

What do you love or hate about living in Nashville?
Nashville is my home now and its familiar streets. I love my house and family. I hate the music business. The art part of it, the creative part is always the most interesting. I've seen too many projects start out with such hope, but get sunk on the rocks of business. I'll be much more comfortable living in Nashville when I stop thinking about the country music business. It was kind of foolish of me to think I could make an impression on it, my audience is somewhere else.

Which is more enjoyable for you; writing, recording, or performing live?
I guess the biggest thrill is writing a song, and getting an idea that it is a good song. It's what God must feel like, something didn't exist before and now it does exist. That's pretty amazing. Also, getting up in front of people and just letting it fly, just letting it loose is a wonderful feeling.

Can you share with us one of the defining moments of your career?
I used to be in a band called The X-Rays, it was almost like a punk band, very rock 'n' roll. Leaving that band and going back to being a folk singer was a big moment for me.

You have been critically acclaimed and admired by your musical peers, are you content with your career thus far, and what's in store for the future?
Yeah, I'm happy with it. It's amazing to me that I've been on the margin of the page for all these years, but I'm able to still get out there and do it. I don't think I would be a very good famous person, I think that would bug me. I like anonymity, to work so you get enough of a reputation so you can go out and work and pay the rent and at the same time still be able to be in secret out there. Sometimes I feel like a spy out there, or a fly on the wall, and I really enjoy
that. As far as what the future holds, I think this new CD is probably the best thing I've done.

So, I'm looking forward to going out and letting people know about that, and hopefully I won't get too famous.

by Michelle Llaguno