A Conversation With:

MJ Lenderman

By Michael Haddad

On March 25 I spoke with MJ Lenderman on the eve of releasing his second solo album, “Ghost of Your Guitar Solo.” We discussed his writing process and some of the music he’s been listening to recently. 

Michael Haddad: How would you describe yourself as an artist to someone who hasn’t heard you before?

MJ Lenderman: I would just say I am a songwriter. I try to make stuff that’s honest, that is me. But genre-wise I take a lot of influence from country music, like, alt-country music from the 90s. I like simpler stuff but lyrically I try to toe the line of being sad and funny because I feel like those are usually the same thing. I guess I just do it because I like it and it’s hard to put it into perspective from the outside because it's coming from me. I don’t have too much to say about how to describe my music I see it as me.

MH: You’ve talked about writing 20 disconnected lines a day as an exercise when you were working on this album, how many of those lines were you keeping and using in songs? Are there any you wish you’d been able to fit in?

MJ: The hardest thing to overcome when you’re writing and you’re trying to get into the practice of doing it, which I was, I was taking it seriously for a while, I’m not really in the practice of it right now, at the time I was trying to keep myself in the practice of doing that every day at least. I would probably use maybe less than 1 line from a session. A big part of that process is rereading the stuff and understanding that you are going to have to revisit something you wrote yesterday that’s not good so it can be tough, but it helped me a lot, and sometimes stuff that I wouldn’t use I would come back to and revisit it later on and see it in a new light and work it into something. I have a project with a friend of mine, we write together, and sometimes in our sessions I would just hand him my notebook and see if he saw something he liked that I skipped over. I don’t really have any regrets about not including lines because I can always go back and revisit something.

MH: When you’re writing are you writing your lyrics or the music first?

MJ: With this practice, I’ll typically go with music first. It comes easier to me. The thing about this writing practice thing is that it gives me a word bank to choose from or maybe like a topic or a starting point. I guess I’ll hang onto chord progressions for a while sometimes it happens at the same time. With the album that’s coming out tomorrow, I would get with my roommates and we’d just kind of goof around and jam and record it on our 4-track and I’d take a microphone and improvise lyrics looking at what I’d written down and sometimes listening back I’d hear something that actually sounded good, so it was sort of music and lyrics at the same time. There’s no real set way to do it, it always changes.

MH: When you’re recording are you using those demos from jams or starting from scratch?

MJ: I don’t like to make demos, usually the demo will be the song, but with those jam sessions they were a little too unhinged, to consider them full songs. Me and my roommate have gone back and listened to a lot of them, and we might cut them up and release them at some point, but it’ll be a lot of sifting. I try not to make demos because you can kind of lose some magic.  I feel when I’m recording myself, I try not to be a perfectionist, a lot of times accidents sound good or better than something you could plan. But that really comes through on this record, but I have a full album that’s already recorded for next year and I actually went into a professional studio and did it and I kind of made demos for that. I just had some live recordings that I did but tried not to get too deep into it and save it for the recording process.

MH: When did you record Ghost of Your Guitar Solo?

MJ: About this time last year. I had just come off a tour with a band I was playing in. It was a west coast thing, and it was just when covid was hitting. We were supposed to play Seattle the day it was the epicenter of covid, the band I was in dropped out, but the two other bands did it. Then we ended up playing a few more shows because nobody really knew what was going on. All these other bands were dropping out of shows, we ended up canceling the last show and driving straight to Asheville from Denver Colorado. That might have been this week last year and that’s when I started working on this album. I had just gotten a four-track with my roommates and I wanted to give myself some boundaries and keep it to only four tracks a song. That actually worked for a couple of them, but I ended up going back and adding to a lot of them.

MH: How do you listen to your own music?

MJ: This album in particular was kind of funny because I would just write something and record it immediately and I knew that there was going to be an album eventually. It changed so much what songs were going to be there, I scrapped some and compiled a bunch and it eventually felt like a full thing. Once I got it done and Dear Life agreed to put it out, I burned it to a CD and had it in my car. I’d listen to it there every once in a while. Usually, when it comes to listening to my own stuff, I’ll listen to it until it’s released and then it kind of becomes its own thing. You let it go into the world and it's not mine anymore. I try not to think about it too much, I’m not really a perfectionist but if I hear something that really sticks out and bugs me, I’ll change it. You can hear this album is pretty loose and kind of sloppy in certain ways but once it comes out if something bothers me with it that’s just too bad. It's kind of a good thing I feel because I can learn from it and its motivation to be better in the future. I’m not the kind of person to obsess over getting something perfect for years.

MH: In Gentleman’s Jack I feel like you’re saying to take what you have now and make the most of it, id that what you were going for?

MJ: That one is funny, I saw it as kind of like a broad thing about being a person, being small, it’s hard to explain to go back. I wrote that song really quickly, I might have had that Jack Nicholson line, that might have been something I had written down before, but those lyrics came out in what felt like 30 minutes. The last song on the album is the first version I recorded of that which I did with my roommates on the four-track, and I didn’t really teach them the song. We just kind of played through it like five times and I picked one that worked out and then I went back and made a softer version, the one that came out already. You were talking about doing the best with what you’ve got. I like that, and I think that’s super important with music, knowing where your limits are and how to use those to your advantage. That’s kind of why I went into the recording placing limits on myself, and then once you get something down you can expand on it if you need to, but I think it’s important to know your limits and what you can do.

MH: What have you been listening to recently?

MJ: This past week I’ve been listening to Johnny Paycheck a lot. Lambchop, big lambchop fan.  I like the new Euphoria Again album, I’ve been listening to some old Lucero, some Smog, my buddy Colin Miller just put out an awesome EP on oof Records. That’s kind of what I’ve been listening to. I go in and out of being inspired by listening to music. I’m not super heavy into anything but I think my favorite kind of stuff right now is like Johnny Paycheck, Waylon Jennings, I like that 70s country that got a funky vibe to it. I like the stuff they talk about and I think the groove of it is fun and funny. I’m kind of trying to experiment with that sound a little bit right now myself too.

MH: When you write are you listening to stuff as a reference for tone or are you more so going into an album intending to make something that sounds like nothing else?

MJ: I do think about that, I was able to get away from it a little bit with this album, but for example, the first track on it is a repetitive chord progression with just a guitar solo for like the whole thing. It’s very Neil Young influenced, kind of like a Cortez the Killer kind of thing. Sparklehorse is really influential for me recording myself. I like what he does. The last album I made I had a sound in mind. It was very derivative of Magnolia Electric Co. and Jason Molina and Palace Music so I kind of wanted to get away from that and try to focus more on the lyrical aspect because that’s the most intimidating thing to me and I guess the most exciting thing as well. Silver Jews is a band that I love so lyrically that’s been really helpful to me. I’ve kind of tried to be like a student of songwriters like [Dave] Berman and other guys that I like. Sonically something that I’ve really been trying to emulate is the Band. I’m a drummer as well and I love Levon Helm and the way that band plays. That kind of thing is more exciting because in my last album I was like: every song needs to be at least five minutes long, there can only be three chords max, and it’s got to be slow as hell. Now I’ve gotten to more of a mid-tempo range, played around with that.

MH: Is the next album going to be breakcore?

MJ: Maybe, we’ll see, but I’ve moved on up to the mid-tempo slacker jams. 

MH: Is there an album that you think everyone should listen to at least once?

MJ: The first thing that comes to mind is Bright Flight by Silver Jews or Purple Mountains too, that album is crucial. Purple Mountains really changed the game for me, and I’d recommend it to anyone to really sit down and listen to it. It’s tough to hear now, I listened to it the first day it came out and after that I was just like, music is done for me. Obviously, with his passing, it has a different weight to it now but if you haven’t heard it, I’d say a song like “Darkness and Cold,” just from a songwriting standpoint, is just like a perfect song. There is so much to learn as a songwriter from something like that, every time I revisit it, I notice something new and that’s been really helpful for me.

MH: Do you have anything else you want to say?

MJ: Go check out the album. Thanks, Dear Life Records for putting it out and buy a CD or a Tape, if you want. Go Hokies.

You can purchase “Ghost of Your Guitar Solo” on Bandcamp. Or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.