Okkervil River's chatty, silver-tongued frontman Will Sheff sat in a circle of high schoolers yesterday in Austin, teaching a songwriting workshop at the Austin Bat Cave, a Texas affiliate of 826 Valencia, the writing and tutoring center founded by novelist Dave Eggers. Sheff, along with drummer Travis Nelsen and guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo, instructed seven students during the free, two-hour lesson, which started with the students sheepishly coming up with reasons why they couldn't perform their songs. A girl with a nose ring needed a piano. A boy with a Nirvana T-shirt needed his bandmate.
But Sheff was there to hear the kids play. He singled out a big, athletic-looking kid who hadn't uttered a word in the first half of the class, but who'd grazed his acoustic guitar with quiet determination during the intermission. "Do you have anything you want to play?" Sheff asked. "I kind of do," the boy said, "but I'm only average at guitar right now." After some gentle coaxing, the song was played. There were a few hiccups but overall it was lyrically evocative and delivered with passion. Sheff, head down and eyes closed, stroked his beard and slowly rocked his worn Hugo Boss dress shoes against the hardwood floors, in time with the beat. After the performance was over, the place went bonkers with applause.
"I really like the specificity at certain parts," Sheff offered. "Like, when you say something like, taking down the picture frame, that makes me really picture, you know, you taking down the picture frame. It's very concrete. It takes me to that place. I really like that."
Sheff said just getting words down on paper is key to the songwriting process. "One big mistake you can make," he said, "is you write something and you say, oh, that's really stupid, that's too stupid. What you should do is just keep on trying, even if you think it's stupid, because after you loosen up, you slowly start to feel more comfortable, and you might turn that thing that you think is stupid into something that's really good. And if it is stupid, throw it away. Who cares?"
Sheff also stressed patience, citing "Lost Coastlines" from Okkervil's most recent album of pop brilliance, The Stand Ins, as a song that took nearly a year to complete. More than anything else though, Sheff said practice, practice, practice is paramount. Thanks to his thoughtful, encouraging, complimentary approach, Sheff barely had to nudge the rest of the kids to perform.
The girl with the nose ring belted out an a cappella number in the realm of Gwen Stefani. Sheff acknowledged her ability to command attention. "A really strong, decisive voice is a really special thing," he said. "People always respond to it."
After another performance, the conversation morphed into a discussion about writing from the heart. "I wouldn't be afraid," Sheff said, "to really put as much as you can of your own experiences and emotions and feelings into it, because when you do that your song is going to ring real true."
"I don't really think there's, like, one way you have to write anything," the boy in the Nirvana T-shirt interjected. "Like, I have a song about Jabba the Hutt, and I think that's cool."
"Yeah, it absolutely doesn't matter," Sheff replied. "You can write about anything. And there are no laws about words you can't use, ways you're not allowed to say things, subjects you're not allowed to talk about it ... ."
"It's America," another girl declared.
"Exactly," Sheff said. "You can make it as silly, or as serious, or as bizarre, or as light, or as happy, or as sad, you know, as you want it to be. As long as you can make it work in the end, you can do it."