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Bothering the Coffee Drinkers: The Multi-Talented Doug Hoekstra

Hoekstrabook Hoekstracd          Songwritersessions

Doug Hoekstra has quietly become an icon of Americana music and the Nashville scene, writing beautifully spare songs that contain genius-level observations about people. As Wired magazine has said about Hoekstra "a lot of people write songs, Hoekstra writes five-minute worlds." So it comes as no surprise that Hoekstra also writes fiction and nonfiction, collected in Bothering the Coffee Drinkers, which won an Independent Publishing Book Award.

The book is just as fascinating as Hoekstra's music. I really can't put it any better than the Midwest Book Review: "Each detail segues compactly into the next and before you know it, the book has hooked you in a distinctly quirky and entertaining way. Like all great music, it sounds easy to do. As all great musicians know, this is a deceptive effect that is only maintained through constant work and practice. [Hoekstra] is like a quirky art collector, putting together odd bits and ends, and then making them into something with an effect so much more than the mere sum of their collective oddities."

Hoekstra has just released a CD, Blooming Roses, which consists of another eleven perfectly understated songs that incorporate elements of country, rock, and even jazz. From the easy-going "Naper Vegas Scrabble Club" to the quirky/driving "Your Sweet Love," Hoekstra has crafted some great new songs. I interviewed Hoekstra recently to talk about both writing and music. How do music and writing intersect for you?
Hoekstra: I don’t know if they do intersect. It seems like some topics or ideas suggest themselves musically, or a song-format, whereas other scenarios suggest prose. Typically, in the past, when I’ve written fiction, I’ve written short stories or essays--I just started on a novel and that’s different from anything I’ve done, due to the scope. It requires more of a workmanlike approach, more structural work, in addition to inspiration. Making a CD takes some time, but overall, I find the novel writing process more like a marathon, as opposed to a sprint.

In terms of songwriting, I tend to favor writing lyrics first, but I think musically as I do this. Certain word schemes or rhyme patterns create natural musical suggestions. And, you might think in terms of how the verses lead to the chorus and/or play off of each other. Or, you might work in an old blues/country form on a particular song, like Dylan often does, whereby there is no traditional chorus.  So, whatever story you’re telling, whatever lyric you’re crafting, that helps suggest the musical background that you’re going to provide. Occasionally I’ll come up with a riff or something that pops into my head and work lyrics backwards, but not too often.

All that said, if I am working with lyrics first, I have to be free to chop and mold, to remind myself there has to be musicality involved, otherwise they aren’t songs. This sounds obvious, but sometimes narrative singer-songwriters can fall into the trap of making really dry records that sound like stories laid over three-chord strumming. And, I want to avoid that, I want my records to hold up over time, to carry hidden surprises in the musicality. What fiction has influenced your music?
Hoekstra: Honestly, I’d say that mostly other music has influenced my music--Dylan, Beatles, Kinks, lots of Stax/Volt type soul, rock steady reggae stuff. People who defied classification and/or constantly reinvented themselves, people like Johnny Cash or Miles Davis. You know, all the heavyweights, really.   I draw inspiration from literature and art, but it’s more conceptual, as opposed to direct. For example, I was at the Met in New York recently and I saw an exhibit on Jasper Johns called Gray. Every piece was in gray.  So, there were lots of patterns or subjects that he typically works on in colors, like the American Flag or the Bullseye, in shades of gray. And after a little while, your eye becomes trained to the nuances, until all gray doesn’t look so gray and as a result, you find yourself focusing more intently on details in each work. So, I thought--why don’t more pop musicians do things like this? Avant-garde and classical and jazz cats do--variations on a theme. But, instead of trying to make sure you don’t get into a midtempo sludge on a record, why not embrace it? Or why not do a set of songs, all in the same key. Or with more or less the same backing, but different lyrics?  I don’t know if my next record will be 10 songs in the key of D or whatever, but this sort of thing gets me thinking--and that’s really how I draw on literature or film or art to influence my music. What music has influenced your writing?
Hoekstra: This probably happens more directly, because I like the sound of words, I think that’s a literary device in and of itself.  You know, a writer like F. Scott Fitzgerald or D.H. Lawrence has music to his prose. Yet, as a prose writer, I tend to be more direct, like Bukowski or Nick Hornby or someone like that. I guess, whatever form one works in, one has a voice and you have to honor that.  You have to know yourself and know where your strengths lie and where you’re weaknesses are and how best to operate within those realms. It’s like anything in life, really. What have you read recently that just blew you away, fiction or nonfiction?
Hoekstra: I picked up a book of short stories by a guy named Denis Johnson, called Jesus' Son that I thought was amazing. I was in a bookstore in Chicago and they had one of these “recommended” tags on it and I took a chance and it was great. Very tight writing, yet high emotional impact. Not trying to be hip or edgy, but naturally hip and edgy. 


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