A Conversation with TW Walsh


“You love the internet/It fills you up with existential dread.”—TW Walsh, “Public Radio”

When my alarm goes off each morning, I blindly reach out for my phone on my nightstand, and then I lay in bed, scrolling through Twitter for 10-20mins until I feel like getting up. This used to be somewhat of a warm-up period, something to help prepare me for the coming day. But recently, it has become a means to set my anxiety level for the next sixteen hours.

I’ve started to reassess this. How can I stay plugged into what’s going on right now without being constantly angry or afraid?

Well, like most things, a balance must be struck.

Over the past week, I’ve been fortunate to exchange a few emails with musician, TW Walsh. His new album is called Terrible Freedom. It’s an album about fear and liberation, which seem to be fitting themes for our time.

Our discussion follows.

Dane wrote on February 7th at 11:57am:

Your last record, Fruitless Research, came out almost exactly a year ago. At the time, I connected with it because it helped me better contextualize the social/political climate of last winter. But now, post-election, it hits home with me even more so.

I’m thinking of songs like “Young Rebels” and “Body/Mind.” I appreciate that these songs don’t shy away from how harsh the world can be at times while still maintaining a certain sense of finding truth and holding onto it with all that you have.

There’s a comfort in that for me and it speaks to the kind of lessons I want to impart to my sons, now more than ever. As a father, do you find yourself exploring certain issues through your writing so that you can pass that insight on to your kids?

TW replied on February 8th at 7:26am:

Thanks for the thoughtful words. I wouldn't necessarily say that I use writing as a vehicle for processing things. I process things internally and naturally, and then when it's time to write a song, what comes out first is whatever's at the top of the pile.

 As a creative/sensitive person and as a parent, the main thing I'm trying to do is to model for my children a healthy way of interacting with their environment. How do you balance the fear and anger that the modern world draws out of you while being a compassionate, balanced, healthy human? It's important to be in touch with all of these painful aspects of our collective humanity without allowing them to overwhelm you. You have to cultivate a tender heart and a brave spirit. If you fall into hysteria or you completely shut down, then the cultural terrorists win, in a manner of speaking.

We like to pretend we're in control, but we're not. Our life has a life of its own. I'm trying to learn to ride the river, and to be content wherever it takes me. I want my children to grow up knowing how to ride the river instinctively.

You mentioned finding truth and holding on to it. My path is to find delusion and to let go of it.

Dane replied on February 8th at 12:24pm:

I like that. I think I apply that concept to how I live my life, finding delusion and getting rid of it. Of course, it’s easier said than done and it’s a constant effort. Plus, I’m well aware that delusional people don’t recognize their own misconceptions a lot of times, so it’s hard for me to say what I am or am not, outside of saying I try to stay grounded and sincere.  

I search for delusion within my creative output too, not so much in my efforts behind why I choose to write a story or a song, but more into what I expect to get in return.

I learned a few years ago that writing primarily to please others isn’t exactly satisfying on a personal level. Also, just because one may set out to gain a fanbase or to sell a ton of records, it doesn’t mean that they’re likely to do either. So there’s definitely a self-defense mechanism built into my current method as well.

How would you describe your creative approach to your new album? Has your perception of releasing music changed over the course of your career?  

TW replied on February 9th at 1:49pm:

I used to write songs on guitar or piano, and then would move on to arranging and recording them after they were written. It guaranteed that the song was good, but sometimes it was difficult to find the right vibe for the arrangement. Sometimes it felt like starting over (in a bad way). Over time, I began to improve at building parts and arrangements first and adding vocal melodies and lyrics on top of them. I get excited about a beat or a bass line, and I just follow that road. With the software I use, Ableton Live, it's easy to change the key of a song to better fit within my vocal range. So that's how I typically work now. A song starts with a riff, a beat or a particular synth sound and I build a world around that.

As for my perception of releasing music, my experience has definitely shaped that. I have friends at every level of success in the music industry. Some have become wealthy and some struggle to make a living. Personally, I've never made a living recording or performing my own songs. It's definitely been a net lifetime financial loss. Right now, moving to a self-release model, I'm trying to set up a break-even situation, and early indications are good. I appreciate the help of the small labels who have put out my records, but I have enough experience to do it moving forward, and the manufacturing and distribution tools are readily available. Publicity is tricky...it's a bit of a black art, and there's definitely a lot of luck involved. But mostly, I'm trying to leverage social media to get the word out, like everyone else.

Dane replied on February 12th at 6:42pm:

How important do you consider lyrics to your songwriting? 

I know of some artists who create songs primarily as vehicles for their lyrics, while others consider lyrics secondary to the overall feel of the music. I'm interested in what your approach may be.

And then, you mentioned a hope to break-even with this new release, and I know touring is an added expense/risk, but are there plans to tour on this album?

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     Dōke hyakumanben  by Kyōsai Kawanabe, 1864

Dōke hyakumanben by Kyōsai Kawanabe, 1864

TW replied on February 13th at 7:41am:

Lyrics are really important. The basic vocal melody usually arrives with a line or two of lyrics, and I almost always keep those, even if the song goes in a slightly different direction. It's hard to get rid of them, they kind of stick around. 

Songs are different from poetry. The lyrics don't have to stand on their own. For me, the song isn't a vehicle for the lyrics, nor is it the other way around. A song isn't split in half...it's not made up of two ingredients...it's a whole.

So, the lyrics and the music come together, but I do revise everything as I go along. Chords, guitar parts, lyrics...everything changes throughout the process.

As for touring, I don't have a plan. Last year I was playing with a six-piece band. It's hard to make that sustainable. I've been considering ways to do some solo shows. But I don't know. Right now I'm focusing on the record, I suppose. I had some bigger crowds than I expected last year, so that was encouraging.

Dane replied on February 13th at 12:48pm:

I’m sure it has to be encouraging that your Kickstarter goal was met in 7 hours as well. On a much smaller scale, I’ve experienced that there are few things as rewarding as having people support you to the extent that they will back a project sight unseen.

Still, there are so many hang-ups that come along with taking on any creative endeavor. The time constraints, the financial risks, the chance of failure or of expectations not being met etc etc. What inspires you to push past all that?

What drives you to keep creating?

TW replied on February 14th at 1:49pm:

I'm pleased that the Kickstarter was funded so quickly. It's definitely encouraging. On the other hand, I set the goal pretty low...basically the minimum amount I would need to manufacture and ship the records. :) It is rewarding to get that immediate feedback.

At this point, the thing that keeps me going is that making songs is just a natural expression of who I am. I don't really have too much ambition with it. I used to be driven by anxiety, but not anymore. The reason I keep releasing music is that I get good feedback from my friends. It's pretty simple. My expectations are pretty low...they're easy to exceed.

Dane replied on February 15th at 10:45am:

I can definitely relate to keeping expectations low and writing simply because it is an extension of who I am. While at the same time, I’m also a dreamer so my mind often wanders onto all the big things I want to accomplish, the possibilities that come along with attempting anything.

I try to balance the logical side vs. the dreamer side the best that I can, using one to keep the other in check. Again, like most things though, it’s easier said than done, and sometimes too much self-doubt creeps in to tip the scales.

You mentioned that you used to be driven by anxiety. Do you care to give an example of what that was like? What change did you make?

TW replied on February 15th at 11:25am:

One problem with ambition is that it breeds anxiety, and it actually manifests in the mind and body the same way as trauma does. If you feel that you need to accomplish something, there's all of a sudden something wrong with your current situation. You feel kind of hurt, sick and anxious.

 In my old way of working, what would sometimes start out as a purely creative impulse would quickly turn into a project that I had assigned myself. That project centered around asserting my existence to the world, and looking for confirmation that I had worth. Essentially, I was looking for recognition. That way lies madness. It's like cutting yourself to prove that you bleed.

 If you can let go of ambition, you open the floodgates of your own creativity. You let it come when it wants to come, and you let it go when it doesn't.

 What changed my perspective? It's been a long path. I'm in my forties now. But a few years ago, I started studying and practicing some contemplative and spiritual traditions that are tied to Buddhism. That has changed the way I see things.

These are not new problems. People have been working on them for a long time, and we can benefit from that accumulated wisdom.

Thanks again.

Thank you, TW.

TW Walsh’s new album, Terrible Freedom, is available for preorder via Kickstarter. You can find some fundamental ground with him on Twitter