In Conversation: Alison Mosshart Is Regaining Her Creative Spark
The Kills/Dead Weather frontwoman details the origins of “Rise” and “It Ain’t Water,” the first two songs issued under her own name.
As a catastrophic pandemic wormed its way across the planet, Alison Mosshart suddenly found herself—like almost every musician—stuck at home, struggling to process her new reality. She and guitarist Jamie Hince, her bandmate of two decades in garage rock act The Kills, had already accumulated a mountain of potential songs for their eventual sixth album. And a number of other projects were on the horizon, including the Third Man Records re-release of Car Ma—her car-themed book of poetry, short stories, paintings, and photographs—and a seven-inch single featuring the first two songs officially released under her own name.
The singer-songwriter, who also fronts rock supergroup The Dead Weather, had plenty on her plate. But stuck in quarantine with a pair of friends in Nashville, Mosshart was at first artistically paralyzed by the unique mixture of malaise and terror swirling around the planet. Her unexpected breakthrough came not with music, but with cardboard: constructing delivery boxes into bizarre, spray-painted sculptures that she compares to “demented pirate ships.”
And as we all settled into our strange new existence, Mosshart regained her usual creative spark outside those makeshift vessels. She spoke to FLOOD about writing music in quarantine, the genesis of her solo songs “Rise” and “It Ain’t Water,” making her own music videos, and how collaborating with other musicians is like “trying to be a psychic.”
How did you get into sculpting delivery boxes, and what’s the best one you’ve made?
I don’t know if it was week one or week two, but my brain was going all over the place. I had this big stack of cardboard boxes, and I broke them down and cut them up into large, sort of flat pieces and took them out into the yard and spray-painted them all different colors on both sides. I had this massive stack of this stuff, and I started cutting smaller and smaller pieces and stacking them and building them. I would just make them as tall as I could before they were about to fall. They kind of looked like demented pirate ships or something [laughs].
Do you think being stuck at home will make you want to write more?
It had a terrible effect on me musically at first—I had so much anxiety and I was in shock. And not only was I in shock, but the whole world was in shock, and I could feel it. I think it was just too heavy—hence, “Let’s make cardboard sculptures for twelve hours. I’ve gotta do something with my hands.” It didn’t need to be meaningful; I just needed to cope. Then around week five or six, I started gravitating toward my guitar and wanting to write.
“Not only was I in shock, but the whole world was in shock, and I could feel it. I think it was just too heavy—hence, ‘Let’s make cardboard sculptures for twelve hours.’”
It’s been good in that way since then, but it took a minute. I kept saying to my friends, “What the hell’s wrong with me? Why can’t I do this? This has always been my coping mechanism!” But for some reason, it just was not coming natural to me. In fact, it felt like I was stuck, just stocked up with too many things. I needed to see the news, read the paper. I just needed to talk to my family and friends. I needed that more than I needed to write a song. Now we’re not in a state of shock. We’re getting used to this—not that we like it one bit. But I think it’s less shocking, and I can feel that, and I feel more comfortable writing music now.
And that brings me to “Rise” and “It Ain’t Water.” “Rise” dates back to 2013, and the final version ended up in the Facebook Watch drama Sacred Lies. How did you know it wasn’t destined to be a Kills song?
At the time, it just didn’t feel like a Kills song. It ended up coming out under my name because I was hired to write a song for a television show where the characters would be singing it. I went into the meeting and I read the scripts and spoke to the director and the writer, and I kind of knew what they wanted: something kind of classic-sounding and blues-oriented that had this triumphant, uplifting [vibe] against a darkness.
I was sitting in the meeting and I remembered this song, and I didn’t say this out loud to them, but I was thinking, “I think I know. I think I have it.” I went home and went through my stuff and found it, dug it out—I don’t think I’d listened to it since 2013. I felt like it was perfect, and I had this little demo of just me singing it with an acoustic guitar. I sent it to them, and they loved it and used it, and that was that. There was no recording of me doing it in the TV show or anything. Their characters sang it.
A few months went by, and they were like, “It would be cool to have your version of it run in the last episode at the end.” So they asked if I’d go into the studio and do my version of it, which was really exciting because I love to go into a studio for any reason. I was there for, like, two hours to just lay it down, and I asked Jamie [Hince] to come in and do some crazy [guitar] shit on top of it. He drove over with his amp and did it, and he was out the door in twenty minutes. That was that. I didn’t think anything about it. Then Domino, my label, heard it and said, “We should release this. This is really cool.” And it is my song. It’s not a Kills song. It’s not a song we decided to work on together. It’s this whole other thing.
You’ve done other work for TV and film before—have you ever been challenged to rethink your approach to a song?
It’s never terribly, terribly hard. When I was working with Lawrence Rothman [who helped curate the soundtrack] and [director] Floria Sigismondi on my song for the horror film The Turning, they had a very specific style that they wanted with very specific lyrics. They weren’t telling me the lyrics—I had to write them. But it was like, “This is what it needs to feel like. This is what it needs to be about,” which is what usually happens with film and TV. I’m trying to visualize a scene I’ve not seen and a story I’ve not read. It’s a really fun challenge. With that, I think I wrote about six things before I got to that, but when I got it, it was like, “Fuck yeah, that’s it. That’s exactly it.”
But commonly, for lots of TV stuff, I haven’t had to write the music—someone will send me the music and say, “Can you write lyrics and sing on this?” I did a lot of stuff like that with Bob Thiele for Sons of Anarchy. Every time I was in LA, I’d go over to his house, sit on his front steps, listen to the music, come up with stuff, sing and record it, and it would be in an episode, like, two weeks later. It’s like a game. It’s really fun.
It’s totally different writing to an existing track—you have a more objective view. It’s like a puzzle: “Where can I fit into this?”
Yeah, it’s all about communication. I love working with other people so much, and I love sitting and trying to understand what that thing is they’re thinking in their head. People hear something and know exactly what they want, but trying to communicate that is a truly different thing. It’s like trying to be a psychic—and not only a psychic, but trying to give them something better that they never even thought of. It’s like trying to enhance the project, rather than complete the project.
Yeah, if you’re just finishing their sentence, what’s the point?
Yeah, yeah. They can finish their own sentences. [Laughs.]
“Rise,” of course, led to you recording a brand new song, “It Ain’t Water,” for the B-side to the seven-inch.
I got excited because I had this other song I’d just been obsessed with that I wrote at the end of last year. It’s one of those things that, if I pick up a guitar, I always play it to myself. It’s the first thing I’d play for months and months. I really loved singing it. I got to go into the studio with Alain Johannes. That guy just blows my mind. I love him as a musician, as a producer. I love all the things he’s done. It was so fun working with him, giving the song the feel that it has. Again, it’s another song that was just an acoustic guitar and me. Now it’s got this incredible E-bow part on it and these rich shaman drums. It’s fucking dope! [Laughs.]
There you have it. It’s not like there’s this big plan to do solo stuff. I do write things all the time in television and film, and generally if I record it, it’s just for that project. It doesn’t get released because I’m in the middle of five hundred other things, so there’s no point. In this case, we just felt like putting it out. And by the way, it’s really saved my ass during quarantine because it’s kept me real busy [laughs].
It’s fascinating to think about how artists, especially ones in multiple bands, manage their catalog and decide what songs go in what piles. Do you ever have an inkling of, “Oh, this feels like a Kills thing”?
Totally. There will be a song where I’ll know Jamie will love it, or there’ll be a song that I know it’ll work so well as a heavy, crazy-ass rock song. And there are other songs that are just not made for it. There are things that, if I try to bend them or shape them into that genre or style, they’d lose their magic.
Sometimes I’ll go back through demos from many years ago of stuff I was writing in the studio with Jamie—stuff that was just there, but we just didn’t do. Sometimes, lots of years later, those things feel so interesting and so fresh and so “now.” It wasn’t their time then, but it is their time now. Songs just tell you what to do. They’re the boss. You just have to listen and be patient. It always feels good to me when a song ends up finding a home that feels right. With these two, this is what felt right.
It’s definitely great to have so much in the works, even just as a distraction from what’s happening in the world right now. Plus, you wound up learning to make your own music videos, which is a whole other endeavor.
“Songs just tell you what to do. They’re the boss. You just have to listen and be patient.”
I taught myself how to do it because I couldn’t go film with anybody. The coolest thing that’s happened since I’ve been locked in here is that I taught myself iMovie. I literally went to the bitter edge of iMovie—there’s nothing else I could do. I was done. So I got Final Cut Pro, and I’m in heaven. I’m just making films now. I love it.
I know you have some background in filmmaking from years ago, editing with the old-school style of VCRs and multiple TVs.
I did a video/film class in college for one semester, and I always made little videos and stuff when I was younger. I loved it. We had a VHS camera, and that’s how you edited. I’m sure professionals didn’t do it that way, but that’s how my brain could figure it out: get a whole bunch of VCRs and edit from tape to tape, back and forth, re-filming off TVs and all of that.
A long period of time went by, like fifteen years, where I didn’t have a working video camera. I got myself one in November, and it was like, “Oh shit, man, this is different. Things have changed.” It’s just a little digital video camera, which I’ve been making this stuff on. Doing the “Rise” video, I’m still coming from that old editing way, and you’re kind of blind. iMovie replicates that thing where you can’t see what you’re cutting into. So you make an edit, and whatever is underneath, it’s like, “Surprise!” Nothing is lined up on the screen, and you have no idea. You have to keep chopping and chopping it until you get what you want or it’s a happy accident.
I’ve been [comparing it] to making a fanzine: It feels like a punk thing where you’re throwing shit through a copier that doesn’t have much toner, and you’re trying to do overlays and you don’t know how it’s gonna work, and you get some cool result and you’re like, “Yeah, I meant to do that.” Well, no you didn’t, but it’s awesome. That’s how iMovie [works]. I was laughing about it because it’s so old school. The video was like a string of happy accidents. I edited that to the point where I couldn’t edit it anymore without losing all resolution.
You said recently that you have four songs pretty much earmarked for the next Kills album. Is that still the status?
I don’t know how many more—Jamie’s so secretive. He likes to sit on them and not show me until he’s completely ready. I’m the opposite. I just fling songs at him all day and night, and he’s just like, “Stoooop!” It’s great; we’re like the perfect partners. I’ll be like, “I wanna hear it; I wanna hear it.” And he’s like, “No!” But then he [lets me hear it], and I know he’s about ready to blow my mind. It’s at the point where we have so much stuff and we have to go through and make real decisions about which songs we’re gonna take to the finish line.
I know you’re not interested in having a quote-unquote “solo career,” but now that you’re releasing these songs, do you think it’ll make you want to write even more?
I don’t know. Again, it’s like, I have so many songs. It’s really exciting for me to go into the studio because it’s such an expensive endeavor, and so is releasing a record of any description—even a song. For me, there needs to be a real reason. It’s not to just throw songs out there. As reasons arise, I’m sure I’ll record a song here and there. I can’t say. Right now, the idea of going into a recording studio seems like a faraway dream. How am I gonna do that? [Laughs.] I’m glad people are receiving these songs so well, and that they’re making people happy. Right now, it’s a nice thing to be able to put something new into the world: [songs], videos, just work. I like working. But who knows? I’ve got no answers.
I think that’s the case with pretty much everything on the planet right now. Hard to make too many plans.
It really is, yeah. [Laughs.] FL