The Persian Leaps – Smiling Lessons (Q&A)

Sweet Sweet Music spoke to Drew Forsberg about making listeners work for the meaning of a song, Robert Pollard, “instant” songs, and getting a kick out of playing with people’s expectations.

The meaning of success has changed over the years. What would success look like for the new record?

The bar gets lowered with every release! Seriously, though, I’ve always had modest expectations. My seemingly reasonable dream is to break even financially but it hasn’t happened yet. Popularity isn’t in the cards for a fifty-something guy making music that would have fit better in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. I aspire to at least being a critical favorite or achieving cult status.

As an artist, you chose to show your emotions to the world. Is it always comfortable to do so?

In my case, I don’t often write songs of a sustained, deeply personal nature. When I do, my approach is oblique rather than a raw baring of the soul. In general, I’m very fortunate and don’t have much to complain about, compared to most people. Most of the songs are more like character studies or exaggerations of things I’ve experienced or heard about. Or me complaining about the music industry.

That said, I’ve written a couple songs that are very personal. One of our early songs, “Hard Feelings ” (from the ​Praise Elephants​ EP), was inspired by my serious struggles with anxiety and depression when I was younger. More recently, “Time Slips” (from the Pop That Goes Crunch​ LP) is about my late grandmother and the guilt I felt over not spending more time with her when I was a young adult and she was in decline.

So, I will occasionally write songs that are personal and emotional. I’m comfortable doing it, but I prefer to make listeners work for the meaning rather than spelling it out. I’d rather be opaque than overwrought.

Any ideas about how to turn this one into a million-seller?

Pay 1 million of my closest friends to buy the album. We did some market research and sadly, that’s the most feasible option.

You can pick 3 co-writers to write new songs with. Who? … and Why?

Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices comes to mind. It should surprise no one who’s heard The Persian Leaps that Pollard is a huge influence on the band. I love almost everything he does, but I have a soft spot for projects/albums where he has a strong collaborator, like with Doug Gillard on many different things or the late Tommy Keene in the Keene Brothers. It would be an amazing experience to send him some instrumentals and have him return them with lyrics and vocals.

Honestly, though, I’ve yet to write a single song in collaboration with someone else. It’s just not how I work, for better or for worse. But trying it with anyone, famous or not, would be a big departure–maybe an improvement.

When was the last time you thought ‘I just wrote a hit!’?

Not sure, but it’s a fantastic feeling when it happens! Occasionally, a great song will just pour out in nearly finished form over a few hours or a day. It’s a very satisfying contrast to the more common experience where I have to labor over a song for weeks or months. It would be interesting to gather some data on whether people actually like the “instant” songs better than the ones that I’ve struggled to write. Honestly, I’m not sure whether listeners could really tell a difference.

Is recording a record easier than getting it heard nowadays?

In general, I’d say yes. Technology makes it easier than ever before to record, but it feels like getting your music heard is harder than ever. I’ve developed a good process for recording over the years, so it’s been very easy and fun. However, things have changed dramatically because of COVID. I’m ready to start recording the next batch of songs that I’ll release next year, but the pandemic makes it very difficult. It feels like I’ll have to completely start over with a brand new process to keep myself and others safe, which is frustrating and intimidating. It’s tempting to just wait until life becomes sane again, but I think I just have to forge ahead.

You can’t control the way people ‘hear’ your music. But if you could make them aware of certain aspects, you think, set your songs apart. What would they be?

Given how much I agonize over the lyrics, I hope people are listening to them and find them interesting. We do have certain songs I privately think of as “big dumb rock” songs, where the lyrics are throwaways (“Pretty Boy” comes to mind). But in general, I try to write lyrics that are interesting and surprising. I will never claim that it’s poetry, but I’m very thoughtful and intentional about wording. Content and phrasing are more important than rhyming, so many of our songs don’t rhyme. In one of our early songs, “Exponentially Devoted,” I deliberately avoided completing a rhyme with “soon,” using “July” instead of “June.” It’s a bit of willful misdirection since the months start out with the same sound. It’s not genius, but I got a kick out of playing with people’s expectations.

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