He’s a songwriter in his own right, but Colin Meloy of Portland indie troupe The Decemberists is also an appreciator of music, the pop hits and the deep cuts. In 2005, his Colin Meloy Sings… EP project made its debut to coincide with a solo tour. Over time, the series has tackled the music of Morrissey and Sam Cooke, as well as lesser-known names like English folk revivalist Shirley Collins, via limited-run tour-only EPs.
Since their wildly popular 2011 album The King is Dead, The Decemberists have been relatively quiet, allowing some of its members to play with the rustic ensemble Black Prairie, while Meloy launched a series of children’s books with his wife Carson Ellis. But this fall he is out on the road again, hitting up Glenside’s Keswick Theater on November 2nd, and this time he brings an EP covering the music of The Kinks; you can hear his rendition of “Do You Remember Walter?” at NPR Music.
On Tuesday I caught up with Meloy on the Phone from his Portland home; you can read our conversation below to dig into the origins of the Sings project, the function of cover songs in general, the greatest era of Ray and Dave Davies, and what might become of the new songs he’s testing out on tour.
The Key: You’ve been doing these Colin Meloy Sings EPs for about eight years now. What were the project’s origins?
Colin Meloy: The first solo tour I did was in 2005. It seemed like kind of a novel project, as far as just having something on the road to make it an event, and maybe induce people to come out to the shows. I think I mostly just thought as excuse to take on a weird project. And I think just Morrissey had drawn me because he is one of the few artists that I know pretty much his body of work, inside and out. I don’t think there is a single song that I don’t know pretty intimately. I mean, since 2005 I guess I haven’t really kept up with the post-You Are The Quarry output, but certainly prior to that. And it was fun to kind go through and dig through B-sides and kind of re-record these songs as my kind of interpretation of them. So that sort of set a precedent and so for the next solo tour I figured I should just keep doing it, and doing it in the same fashion. And that leads us to today with The Kinks.
TK: Were the other artists in the series ones that you knew their body of work just as intimately?
CM: No. With Shirley Collins, I kind of had given myself a crash course over the course of a year or two. So that came at a time when I felt like I was being kind of like a scholar of the British folk revival, and she was one of my intros into that. And it was also an opportunity to kind of maybe expose people to Shirley Collins; people who maybe haven’t necessarily known about her. And then with Sam Cooke, I just had a love for those songs. They’re the sort of songs that are just in your bones, everybody just knows them. I tend to think of them as pop songs and they do have a nice intimacy that I thought would translate nicely to really simple, spare renditions. So that’s really where the Sam Cooke one went. And The Kinks was trickier. I feel like I was really stumped this time around. I have their records and I know their work really well, but I never actually dug in that deep. Aside from playing “You Really Got Me” with a high school band, I had never actually learned a Kinks song really. So it was an opportunity to do that.
TK: I’m a little intimidated by how many albums they have. And I know a lot of people, a lot of people I know are in the same boat. With you, what do you think it really was that kept you from diving in till now?
CM: It’s the depth of the work and it just runs the gamut. I mean there’s just tons of kind of tossed-off stuff, as well as, songs that you know, but never maybe spent the time to really sorta focus in. They’re baroquely arranged, which can sometimes distract from the lyrics. For example, it was sort of a revelation to me that “Waterloo Sunset” – which I think everybody knows as being this love letter to London, so much so that it was even performed at the opening ceremony of the Olympics – that if you dig, if you get under the hood and actually learn the song it’s kind of a really sad song about an agoraphobe and kind of a misanthrope. I think that strain, that attitude goes through a lot of his music. So where it seems like this really romantic tune about the beauty of the London skyline, it’s actually about a guy who just doesn’t leave his house; which is kind of amazing. Continue reading →