Kornhaber: How do you balance that desire to not speak out of turn with the knowledge that you have a special platform that could be used for something?
Meloy: I don’t know how much of a platform I have, to be honest. I’m often preaching to the choir. There’s a homogeneity to our fan base and to our community, certainly in Portland, which is a city that struggles with its homogeneity. The people who have real voices—you think of hip-hop people, people in the LGBT music community, country artists speaking out against the NRA. That’s a real platform. I’m just trying to be part of the chorus, really.
Kornhaber: Some of the songs on this album are a bit simpler and more straightforward than what you’re known for. How’d that come about?
Meloy: I’ve become a better editor as I’ve gotten older. I look back on some of the early records and sometimes wonder if that songwriter could have used an editor, getting rid of a verse here and there. This record was an effort to challenge myself and create something that felt fresher. I was being a little more critical of what I was writing, which is not something I’m necessarily comfortable doing.
Having worked on a handful of books [recently], editing became a new and terrifying thing. Which was a learning curve, but in the end you learn that being more economical in your language can only make things better.
Kornhaber: Was someone else playing the role of editor in your music before?
Meloy: No. That’s the thing about writing books that was so different. All of a sudden there was another voice in the process saying, “Actually, this doesn’t work here,” or, “Actually, this is inconsistent here.” Which is, as you know, an essential part of writing. But it’s not part of the songwriting process because songwriting is like this precious thing where the songwriter goes into his cave and creates “Blowin’ in the Wind”—it doesn’t matter how many verses it has.
Kornhaber: Was the opening song meant to be a statement of this new approach? It’s mostly variations on one line: For once in my life / Could just something go right?
Meloy: That song was an experiment in economy. It came out of this chord progression, which then suggested this melody and this line. If I had written that 10 years ago, I would have immediately gotten down to, “What’s the verse going to be?” and, “What’s the bridge going to be?” My headspace now is, “What happens if that’s the only thing in the song?” Then it became a question of making something that doesn’t bore the listener to tears—something compelling and dynamic with just a couple sentences.
What was exciting to me was the [lyrical] sentiment. I don’t know if I have a right to say, “Won’t something just go right in my life,” considering that I feel very fortunate. But it is a sentiment that everybody has felt one time or another. And when you feel that way, that’s all you feel. It’s straight from the id, a really raw plea. I want to call it “Sucker’s Prayer No. 2” because in some ways it is the sucker’s prayer that the other song [“Sucker’s Prayer,” also on I’ll Be Your Girl] talks about in a more disdainful way.