Rocket Queen: Talk About Pop Music

The songwriting strategies of Downpilot and the Dutchess and the Duke.

It's a mild but breezy early-fall evening in West Seattle, and I'm on the patio of the Latin restaurant Mission waiting for ceviche and talking to Dutchess and the Duke leader Jesse Lortz about how he initiates his songwriting process. "It starts with [our record label] Hardly Art saying, OK, we want to do another record," says Lortz pragmatically. "I literally just take myself out of rotation in everyday life, and go to the garage and force myself to write songs."Even if it's under duress—self-imposed or otherwise—the world's a better place when artists wielding talent as potent as Lortz's get down to work. Pop songwriting is both art and science, and the Dutchess and the Duke's haunting and gorgeous sophomore album, Sunset/Sunrise, reflects that important duality. Attunement to the human condition and a creative imagination are critical, but so is a sense of hard craftsmanship, and Lortz knows how to build a solid song with good bones. Unsurprisingly, he has to envision an album's whole structure before he can write that first song, which makes the initial launch a tad trying."It gives me a little board to jump from, but that first song is always a bitch," he says. "On this record, the first song [written] was 'Let It Die.' It's hard to get focused first when you know 'I've gotta write a record, it's gotta be good, it's gotta be interesting.' I didn't want to make the first record part two."In that regard, he and his husky-voiced collaborator Kimberly Morrison succeeded. Sunset/Sunrise displays a natural-sounding maturation compared to the more primal and rugged simplicity of their 2008 debut She's the Dutchess, He's the Duke. It's still a dark-hearted affair, wrought with tales of duplicitous lovers and moral bankruptcy, but there are also moving moments of optimism, such as Lortz's ruminations on "New Shadow" about the impending birth of his son. The weight of Morrison's eerily beautiful vocals cannot be undervalued; her contrasting presence balances Lortz's dour tones and ultimately brings those songs to fruition. Because they've played together in other projects off and on for the better part of a decade, their dialogue comes pretty easily."I feel like a jerk saying 'I come up with all of it and I just use her as my instrument,' but we know each other so well and have worked together for such a long's really awesome. For this record, I didn't even play her the demos, she just came in [to the studio] and I had already recorded the music. I handed her the lyrics and she just nailed it, sometimes in as little as two takes. And it totally changes the dynamic of the song. It makes it kind of sexy and sexless at the same time. All the songs are so obviously my experiences, my feelings, and sung from a male perspective, and then she softens it and feminizes it a bit. One of the reasons I involved her in the first place is just the fact that I felt so uncomfortable writing these totally complainy, bitchy, miserable songs. It's not just this guy complaining, it's a guy and girl complaining together."If that sounds like negative navel-gazing, it's part of the record's genius. Sunset/Sunrise couldn't be further from sad-bastard music, and its humane honesty makes it the sort of art that sounds fresh and insightful even after a zillion listens. The Dutchess and the Duke will play a free in-store at Sonic Boom at 6:30 p.m. Wed., Oct. 7; their record-release party takes place at the Crocodile this Fri., Oct. 9, with Dead Ghosts and Meth Teeth.It's a rich week for strong local pop releases; gifted guitarist Paul Hiraga's project Downpilot plays at the Tractor on Thurs., Oct. 8, with Red Jacket Mine and Sweet Secrets, to mark the release of They Kind of Shine. Like Lortz, with his successful mixture of light and dark, Hiraga crafts songs with an ear for universal experiences like heartbreak and existential angst, but with an undercurrent of life-affirming earnestness. And, also much like Lortz, his solitary writing process can be a struggle to get off the ground."I've never been terribly fast in writing songs, but finishing this last one took a bit longer," says Hiraga of the three-year time lapse between the release of They Kind of Shine and his previous album, Like You Believe It. "Being the sole songwriter/producer/engineer on this record was great, but overwhelming at times."His view of successful pop writing also encompasses good old-fashioned magic. "You can have a great melody, great lyrics, an infectious beat, but if it doesn't all magically coalesce then it ain't happenin'. It's one of those great intangibles in the end. Obviously melodic and lyrical hooks are key, but I feel like there's that last 10 percent where the universe intervenes."

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