Kurt Vile is comfortable with his own voice. He hasn’t always been.
The early, fuzz-filled records hid the songwriter’s sharp lyrics behind waves of distortion. But, in recent years, Vile has brought his words higher up in the mix, giving listeners the opportunity to hear them, unencumbered. “I never actually noticed you couldn’t hear my lyrics so well, because I know the lyrics. But the early stuff is DIY, and you’ve got limited equipment, so the best way to make it sound good is to use whatever weird effects you can,” he says.
“[Producer]John Agnello came along at the right time, and started to bring my vocals out on Smoke Ring for my Halo and Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze. And, you know what, when Smoke Ring came out, I was actually pretty paranoid. It sounded so different to me, but that was like the new me.”
And, by his own account, Vile’s satisfied with the new him. On his sixth and latest album, b'lieve I'm goin down…. there’s a cleaner, more confident Kurt Vile on display.
“I’m fuckin’ 35 years old. I’m an adult. I love playing music, and I’ve been doing it for a living. There’s no reason I shouldn’t want my vocals to come through,” he says. “I’ve always been into my lyrics, but this is a super-lyrical record for me. I would start a song on a guitar, but as soon as I’d finished the guitar parts, the words and the melody and the song in my head, all of a sudden I’d be writing it down and I’d have to catch up with the music later.”
Vile admits there’s a definite personal element to his music. To his mind, he’s perfectly comfortable with the idea that a listener might feel as though they know something about his life. “It’s fair to see autobiography,” he says. “I don’t try to make it shown, but I don’t mind if it’s shown. For some reason, the songs that come out realest to me are the melancholy ones. Every record’s had it. The darker the song, that’s when it comes out. I don’t know why, or maybe I do know why. What makes somebody so up and down? Of course, because life is awesome, and life is also really sad.”
But, not all his inspiration stems from autobiography. b'lieve I'm goin down… is as much influenced by the novels of Cormac McCarthy, Philip K. Dick and Flannery O’Connor as it is by his personal life. “I read a lot. But sometimes I get spaced out,” he says, laughing. “I’m influenced by what I’m reading and listening to all the time, straight away.”
Although this latest album has brought Vile’s lyrics into keener focus, the starting point and the foundation to his songs still remains the guitar. Instead of picking up a different instrument for each new song, Vile decided to limit his selection to his 1964 Fender Jaguar, so much so that he bought an exact replica to experiment with different tuning. “I do still love the guitar,” he says. “When I was younger, I’d just be playing guitar non-stop, writing, writing, writing and recording. Sure, I’d go through spurts. But now I feel like I just live music. I’ll be writing it in my head, and when I pick up a guitar, I feel it.”
Kurt Vile’s new album, b'lieve I'm goin down… is out now on Matador Records. Vile will be touring with Falls Music and Art Festival, as well as playing at the Sydney Opera House on January 7, 2016.