Photo: Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images
Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard is best known for his lush and poppy songs, distinct voice, and endearing nerdiness. He’s also known for being married to, and now divorced from, Zooey Deschanel. With his first solo record, Former Lives, out this week (it’s also the first music he’s put out since the split), Gibbard spoke with Vulture about geography playing a role in his writing, singing into an iPhone, and avoiding gossip.
The title Former Lives reminds me of that Joan Didion line, “We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be.”
That’s a really eloquent statement. And I think it relates to the album’s title, because the songs represent such a breadth of my life, you know? [He wrote the music over the course of a decade.] The songs are orphans. They didn’t fit on Death Cab records, but I spent a lot of time with them over the years. And the hope is that when people put this record on, they’re thinking less about me and my life and more about themselves and how the songs fit into their lives. Because, you know, with my personal life in the last year or so, people are going to see what they want to see. And 99 out of 100 times, it’s incorrect.
Right. Your divorce was a big deal on the Internet. Do you ever get used to strangers speculating on your life?
Well, with all due respect, I’ve never read it. I don’t see any of the websites that covered it. I don’t read pop-culture sites, I don’t read gossip magazines, I don’t read this shit. And that’s exactly how you deal with it. You just don’t read them.
Geography threads its way through this record: There are songs involving London, Paris, California, Australia, and Seattle. Is that because you travel so much? You’re in Honolulu right now.
Um, I don’t know. I think placing songs in physical spaces that people see in their mind’s eye is a mechanism that I use often because it’s specific. When I sing, “Duncan, where have you gone?” [on the record’s opener “Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby”], that song is a musing about a friend of mine that I hadn’t seen in a long time, and he’s in London so, of course, I placed Duncan in London. With “Bigger Than Love” [a duet with Aimee Mann], that’s a back and forth between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda. It’s based on a book of letters between them [Dearest Scott, Dear Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald]. As I was reading it, I took notes about the things I liked. So, each verse is based on a different phase of their lives together. Like with the first one, the Roaring Twenties are in New York, then they move to Paris, and then to Hollywood. To me, that’s the saddest part of the arc of his career. At that point, he was woefully alcoholic and just really a mess. He was out galavanting and out dating these younger movie stars, and it was sad. It was a sad ending for such a talented person. So, in that sense, a geographical location helps tell the story. And I literally recorded “Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby” on my iPhone. People see me walking through Shepherd’s Bush, like a lunatic, singing into my phone.
On “Hard One to Know,” you’ve got these sad lyrics set against a super-upbeat melody. (“You call a truce and then you start a fight/ You change your signal like a traffic light.”) How do you psychologically reconcile the two when you’re playing live?
You know, at this point, we’re playing songs I literally wrote when I was 20. I’m 36 now. And they are about things I really cared about when I was 20 or people I really cared about when I was 20. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not as if I don’t care now. But these were situations I felt were so important, I had to write about them. When we’re playing live, it’s not that I’m thinking about how I felt about things. I think, more so, the performance of these songs is living in the moment of having written them and, also, being very aware of how much you’ve changed since you wrote that. It’s not difficult; it’s just something matter of fact. Like, “Wow, I know who I wrote that about and I haven’t thought about that person.” It’s a little bit like looking at old photographs. “I cut my hair like that? That’s how I looked?”
Your music has put you in a position to meet individuals you wouldn’t otherwise meet, like the Dalai Lama, which is nuts.
Um, every once in a while, you take a step back from it and recognize how fortunate you are to be doing exactly what you want to do with your life, you know? I mean, this is my reality. I’m as involved with the highs as the lows. As we were just mentioning, kind of the lowest lows you can possibly feel, having all this shit [about the divorce] swimming across everyone’s desktop. But I mean, I’m getting to do exactly what I want to do with my life. And this just comes with the territory, so, every once in a while, you have to stop and think, Holy shit, I wanted to be a musician when I was a teenager, and guess what? I’m doing it. And we make a good living doing it. I’m past that point in my life where I have to worry about going back to school to become a lawyer.