Jacob Slichter Q&A

August 17, 2020
Jacob Slichter is the Levon Helm of Semisonic and an acclaimed author.

“Starting writing is always the hardest part, and it’s a skill that one can cultivate. The recipe is simple: write 15 minutes a day, five days a week. On any of those days, you can keep writing past 15 minutes, but once you’ve hit 15 minutes, you’re allowed to stop and that’s important. Without the 15 minute exit door, you’re likely to dread sitting down to write. Keeping the daily minimum at a low level makes it easy to start. And once one develops the habit of starting, the rest comes much easier.”

One of the many things I loved about your book was how you showed how much monotony is involved in touring. If you could just travel instantly to venues in a Star Trek transporter would the job be absolute nirvana?

I actually fantasized about this very scenario, but I think what I was most hoping to skip was not the humdrum days at the venues so much as the travel itself (busses, planes, etc.). It’s always more tiring than one thinks it will be.

The book came out of your road diaries, which I remember reading online and then hearing you read on NPR. Had you always want to write?

I’d hoped to be a songwriter, and though I wrote songs, I hated hearing my own demos because I don’t like my singing voice. So that got in my way. Meanwhile, I’d been writing prose things on the side and had even once considered trying to write for television. When the road diaries caught on, I felt like I had an audience for my writing voice, and after I got onto NPR, I realized that I might reach a wider audience that way then I ever would contributing one or two album tracks to Semisonic albums. That realization paved the way to writing my first book.

You’ve lived on the East Coast for a time now and teach writing at Sarah Lawrence. What’s a tip you teach to help students get over that first barrier in writing, which is to get started?

I tell them is that writing is not a moral struggle. A lot of students come to me and say, “I have to stop making excuses and get off my butt and write,” but I tell them this mindset is a trap. The problem isn’t their lack of will. The problem is tension, and a lot of that tension is the moral tension produced by not writing on a regular basis. The problem, I explain to them, is they haven’t yet developed the ability to start. Starting is always the hardest part, and it’s a skill that one can cultivate. So I developed an approach aimed only at helping them learn how to start.  The recipe is simple: write 15 minutes a day, five days a week. On any of those days, you can keep writing past 15 minutes, but once you’ve hit 15 minutes, you’re allowed to stop and that’s important. Without the 15 minute exit door, you’re likely to dread sitting down to write. Keeping the daily minimum at a low level makes it easy to start. And once one develops the habit of starting, the rest comes much easier.

I remember a quote from Dan about your book, in which he said he wished you could have enjoyed the experience a bit more.

I remember that. I think Dan may have been referencing my stage fright and impostor syndrome, which I’ve always have and always will, though it’s much better now than it used to be. I never feel truly at home in any of my roles, which may explain why writing and getting to the bottom of my omnipresent discomfort is a constant urge for me.

I think of you and Wesley Stace as the two most interesting musicians who also write books — not have them ghost-written or co-written but actually write books. Any temptation to write a novel?

I doubt I’ll ever write a novel, but I’m almost done with my second book—a non-music memoir focused on religion. And I have other books planned. I’m a big fan of Wesley’s. He’s had me on his Cabinet of Wonders show.

You’re releasing a Semisonic EP in late September. I know we’re still confined by the pandemic but if that wasn’t the case was it your plan to do some touring?

Yes. We had some tour plans in loose form before the pandemic hit.  As soon as we’re on the other side of the pandemic, whenever that will be, we will play some shows.

You write or co-write great songs – “F.N.T.,” “Matador,” “This Will Be My Year” – is it intimidating or wonderful to bring in songs when you’re working with one of the most acclaimed song craftspeople of our time in Dan?

Thank you. I really don’t think about Dan’s reputation when we’re working together, because our friendship and musical partnership goes back so far. His acclaim is a really fun bonus, but when I’m working with him or presenting songs, he’s just Dan. Same with John, who has done amazing work since Semisonic. We celebrate each other’s successes and justifiably or not kind of look at them as our own. When Dan scores another co-writing coup, I feel proud, not only for him but for the whole band.

Do you still write songs?

I’ve written a few since Semisonic stopped touring. After I finish my book, I’ll do more.

I know Feeling Strangely Fine is the album that blew up but I think Great Divide is one of the great debut albums of all time. It’s just shimmering power pop. Did the three of you workshop those songs a lot or did they come together pretty quickly?

The Great Divide songs came together quite quickly and easily, and that intuitive ease has always been a defining aspect of the band. When it comes to making the music, at least, we don’t overwork it.  We try to render it as clearly as intuitively as possible and then move on to the next.