To Mark Kozelek of the Red House Painters, the creative urge is just that -- an urge. He feels the need to write songs as tangibly as he feels the need to eat and sleep.
The urge has hit Kozelek a lot in recent months, impelling him to pen the 11 songs on the San Francisco folk-rock band's sixth LP, Old Ramon. Unfortunately, his record company, one of many caught up in the PolyGram/Universal merger in December, can't act quite as quickly on Kozelek's urge. The album, originally scheduled for release in January, has been pushed back to March, and even that is tentative, a representative of Supreme Recordings said Monday (Jan. 11).
Speaking from a Minneapolis hotel room in the fall, while in the middle of a solo tour and battling the flu, Kozelek said, "Any time I write something, it's just like how when your body's telling you something. Like right now, my body's telling me to get horizontal, lay down.
"Whether you need to rest or go for a walk, it's the same thing with creativity," he continued. "It has to come out of me. It's this thing that happens, and then I just let it go through me, and it becomes a song."
Over the past six years, the Red House Painters -- bassist Jerry Vessel, guitarist Phil Carney and drummer Anthony Koutsos, in addition to Kozelek -- have won attention for their emotional intensity and soul-baring portrayals of pain and despair.
The Painters' latest album, Songs for a Blue Guitar (1996), featured long, brooding tracks, such as "Make Like Paper" (RealAudio excerpt) and a radical revision of Paul McCartney's "Silly Love Songs" (RealAudio excerpt).
The songs on Old Ramon were inspired largely by events in Kozelek's life. "Cruiser," for example, is about a trip Kozelek took to Los Angeles. "I've been down there a zillion times, and I never really had a good time there," he said. "It's hard to meet people I can communicate with down there, because it's just kind of a strange place. I met somebody that I could talk to and I hung out with for a couple days. That actually turned into an on-and-off thing for about six months."
"Wop-A-Din-Din" is about missing his cat. "Golden," an acoustic tribute to the late singer/songwriter John Denver, draws its inspiration from a Denver-tribute album Kozelek is compiling (with contributions from the folk-rock band Innocence Mission, experimental-pop ensemble His Name Is Alive, Bonnie Prince Billy -- formerly known as Will Oldham -- and many others).
Marcus S., a 19-year-old Swedish fan, has reveled in the Red House Painters' melancholy sound since first hearing them in 1993. He saw them perform at the Hultsfred music festival in Sweden in 1997.
"They played a lot of new songs that hadn't been recorded yet, songs planned to be on their forthcoming album," Marcus S. wrote in an e-mail. "I started collecting bootlegs after that show, because I wanted to hear more of their unreleased songs. ... The new song 'Cruiser' [is] based on like four chords that are repeated throughout the song. Genius."
Kozelek seemed more interested in coherence than in genius.
"To me, it's important that it all does make sense," he said. "There's probably a few songs I've written that haven't come to some conclusion, but for me, they really have to. I rarely use throwaway type of lyrics, because it's really important to me. I have a certain standard I have to live by."