Writing with Dylan Cox

Before the line is alive. A conversation about introspection.

Dylan Cox affirms that he’s a morning bird and that peculiar statement made us think over that almost three years have gone by since we started this project. We have tried to find a new way to present the creative minds and their different processes, always avoiding (in a way) the persistent technique of current occupation-name-area-age, which has cracked over and over in front of the combination of sensations, thoughts and the aim of delivering another perspective of someone’s kind of art –for you to absorb whenever you feel open to digest it–.  

Sometimes it demonstrates the randomness and wholeness of writing, but also the free indulgence of shaping dialogues in this century. Cox, who has released “Read”, recorded at La Villa Magnan, in Biarritz where he spent four months before returning to Los Angeles; said to CHEVET that “maybe this doesn’t count as [dialogue], but I’d say it has to do with breakfast. Whether it’s had in silence or had laughing and dream-recounting with others, it’s this really important moment of collection before the work of the day begins. It’s like a meditation for me about what happened yesterday, what could happen today, what will happen tomorrow, a conversation with breakfast at breakfast, if that makes sense!”

So, referring to the glory above, in the strange alternative of introducing yourself to a new day or even talking to yourself at some point, have you ever paid enough attention to the first dialogue of the day? Certainly not if you danced Truman Capote’s rhythm or fed yourself with Joan Didion. Dylan reminded us that when you come across words you have the power to let it go, but keep together the feeling that you want to share with the world, basically. For example, do the exercise using the interpretation of this stanza [in a Sample from—“A Gargantuan Half-Step” by Dylan Cox]:

Spoken in fair families embraces a

Circle, reveals a

Carouse l that sigh-ed a great heroic

Need for some instability again.

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Dylan Cox by Melvin Israel

Having a conversation or creating a new form of dialogue is liberating. After 23 emails of correspondence, Dylan Cox, the poet, singer and surfer, sat down to answer our questions and condensed his [and ours] thoughts in the form of an interview.

Let’s start with the simple one, when and where did you answer these questions?

I’m in my friend’s living room in Echo Park, in Los Angeles. I arrived from Paris yesterday evening on a 12 hour sunset flight. With the time change, the sun was perpetually setting the whole flight, a surreal trip. Kind of how I feel at the beginning of 2020. Anyways, I’ve been up early from jetlag, listening to the city sounds and watching the smoggy palmy sunrise. I haven’t been in California since September (2019); I’m trying to savor these precious moments when a super familiar place feels foreign, feels special.

What are you currently working on?

For the past four months I’ve been in residence at La Villa Magnan (France), writing and rehearsing the songs I’ve written for a first album. The music I’ve arranged, singing these songs, having all this work created and existing and in the world, this feels really good. The songs feel ready and I feel ready to perform them. I’m at the point where after independently playing and producing music for years in between a scattering of different things, usually among friends and for friends in a tight community, I’m ready to branch out, to touch bigger audiences, to commit to being a performer full time. So now, with the immense load of creative labor on this album done, I have the logistical work of trying to find the people who will support what i’m doing. And doing that as solo. That’s on the plate for 2020. Besides that, I’m also working on a series of poems titled “On Whom Nothing is Lost,” a second chapbook (after the first one I self published with PE Press in 2018 called “A Gargantuan Half-Step”). This work is more specifically focused on interpreting forms of correspondence, but like my other work touches on migration and movement, witnessing and the documentary form in language. However, I think all this work talks to each other, the music to the poems and the poems to the music.

Can we discuss the concept of music and poetry as movement? Can you please explain how you see their relationship?

Music and poetry as forms of movement? I think they could be that! Or must be. In a real general way, I think both music and poetry, at least the music and poetry I like, they have inertia, are dynamic, take resisting static positions as their formal prerogative. Movement is in their form when they allow difference, whether that difference be the unique interpretation of the listener or the built-in will to always change, to always be other, in every reading and every listen, every line and every word. Maybe that’s quite abstract, but more specifically in the work I do, I’m interested in movement as a form of place (I’m always traveling between my two homes, my two languages, in California and France), which would sound oxymoronic given what I’ve just said. But I want my music –as much as I want my poems– to give people the opportunity to travel and embrace something beyond where we are while being where we are, with one another and with those who can’t be present. I want my songs to be kinds of wish voyages, forms of hoping as forms of imagining. Perhaps like that they can permit people to return to or uncover places both in themselves and beyond. It’s a kind of moving and a being moved in one place I’m thinking of. Possibly this seems vague –I’m still jetlagged–, but I think in a contemporary context worldwide, where movement of people is often so political and precarious, at once so easy and difficult experiencing this dynamic kind of passportless feeling of movement through art seems really important.

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Dylan at Villa Magnan, Biarritz by Melvin Israel

When did you discover you that you wanted to make music and write poems?

As a teenager I started doing both. They happened at the same time, I think… and ever since, I have sort of toggled and flickered between doing either. As a kid, I grew up in a really small surf community in Southern California, having surfed myself since I was very young. Being in the sea on waves, as dorky as this sounds, this kind of moving on movement (as Gilles Deleuze says about surfing, lol) was like a precocious way of expression for me, of learning a new language and inventing with it. At least, I think of it like that now, years later. In surfing, both the culture and the actual surfing of a wave, I was really lucky to discover a nuts form of radical individualism, of pure choice if that could exist, pure encounter, an activity and a community filled with loads of feeling and a way to deal with it.

The kind of surfing that me and my friends did was all about recreating this nostalgic surf style from the 60s, about flow, reading the sea and making corresponding movements with the end of performing something beautiful. Maybe this is a hot take, but I really don’t think music and poetry are so far off.

Really getting into language, as a sung and discovered created thing, this was a natural next step for me from this weird surf world, as strange as that sounds. It was a way for me to investigate the kind of creation, the kind of expressing I discovered in the sea. Then life kind of smacked me. I had deep family problems, left home and lived in my car at 16, finished high school on the couch of a new kind of adopted family, working two jobs to help with rent. My best-friend and her mom, who I lived with at the time, she was a trained singer, and this was when I really started discovering my voice, singing with her in this little apartment late at night, learning how to play Americana folk on guitar.

Poetry came on strong a bit later, when I was at Berkeley. To continue with the life-smacking shit, I became really committed to working with a community of volunteers in northern France that cook food for refugees who are stuck at the border. With another context of sensory overload, poetry became a model for me to try to communicate to others what was happening there. My first chapbook took this organisational work along with my soup kitchen work in California as its subject. But both music and poetry, for me, have their origins in this choice I think I’ve always known to make since a young age, and which maybe I’ve only realised recently as a beautiful and courageous thing for any artist to do, and that was to sing, to always sing, to make language expressive, abnormal, beautiful, weirdly tonal not because I have too but because I choose too.

This choice, made in the constraints of whatever environment I find myself in, is a way of radical escaping. One of my favorite French poets is the surrealist enchanting Gherasim Luca, a Romanian refugee and performer. He recites his poetry (which i think is a way of singing) with this kind of beautiful stutter in this film called “Comment S’en Sortir Sans Sortir”  (How to get out without getting out). That’s what my work tries to do, in all Luca’s consonance. That this kind of choice to sing is courageous and important and necessary and beautiful work to do is what I hope to communicate but also realise. Definitely a thing I try to remember in these fucked up times. 

 While listening to your songs or even reading the lyrics, one can tell the work of introspection. They are like songs that were made between the 30’s up until the mid 90s: full of words, descriptions and feelings. What differences can you see between dreams, feelings and thoughts when sitting down to write?

Writing songs is hard! The fact that a word is going to be sung I think really intimidates a word before it is actually written, then kind of energises the language as it is written. I feel like this adds a really impressive force to both the whole process and the result. But getting there is hard.

I listen to my favorite contemporary singer songwriters like Conor Oberst, Adrianne Lenker, Jessica Pratt, and Robin Pecknold; I’m fascinated with how they deal with the problems I find in being a singer-songwriter today, and I study them. These [problems] which usually have to do with relevance, meaning-making, creating sonic spaces of dealing with reality by departing from it a bit, I want to think about and work through too. I cite these people because I think they share this wish for introspection to be a way music can deal with an unsincere reality emotively. I hope that my songs invite inwards with an awareness of what’s outside, and I think the work of introspection is always one that troubles the instinct to narrativise this dynamic.

Some songs come from events, from feelings about people I love or have lost, from living in places, like any cliche love song, but they are also things that I try to tie to realities both political and global. I’m really trying to nuance how a classic love song or a folk song can be a form of reflecting and also a form of testimony. For example, many of my songs center an imperative address, kinds of affective or imaginary acting upon their listeners. The new album has songs titled “Take,” “Address,” and “Read.” This kind of active corresponding resists any concrete aboutness, like for example being a narrative about my life or someone else’s. That’s the gist. And I feel like this kind of corresponding can be a way of collecting people, or at least inspiring collective feelings. They try to paint, to struggle with metaphor, to struggle with talking to and talking with who is in front of me and who is not, who cannot be there, all while avoiding a classical folk trope of telling and yearning for some lost lover or something. 

Your work, as a whole, depends on which: a philosophical thought or a poetic understanding?

Perhaps it depends on both concepts and then the poetic feeling that comes from transcending them! Maybe. That’s the beauty of any art. Capital T truth as concepts, in the form of our day jobs and our daily stresses and sometimes hard political realities, I feel like all of that can be upended for a moment in the course of a 3 minute song. That’s what’s always drawn me to music. And in those three minutes, if there is something wholly new and created and felt that happens, that’s where the poetry and communion comes in. 

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Cox by Melvin Israel

In a interview to Jeffrey Eugenides, he said that he rewrites a lot. “That’s why I don’t publish books very often. The fact that I’m working every day and publish so seldom shows that I’m reworking and rewriting a lot on the sentence level, and on the paragraph and structural levels, too.”  The question itself was and is…  Do you rewrite your sentences over and over again or do they come out fairly finished in a first draft?

If everything came out already finished, I’d be more machine than human! No, I am always writing as rewriting. I move things around, piece together phrases or thoughts from other poems, other songs, other notes I have written down. I mean… when writing this album, there are songs that come from chord progressions in songs I wrote when I was 17, only modified now, scrapping old lyrics for new ones. I want to always be willing to chuck things out, borrow, reinvent. Working with language (with music too) luckily gives us the opportunity to change, adapt, and alter, be generous with ourselves given the opportunity to change. We haven’t put any permanent paint onto a canvas, and we ought to always take advantage of that fact, I figure.

So, instead of just commenting about the progress in general or get carried away by your success, what creates [in you] the need to land again?

This is good timing, since I’ve just “landed” back in California amidst some people I love. Eek, that was horrible. But It’s always people! My friends. The people I love and live in the world with. They are the ones who let me create and the ones who make me want to.

What recent or past event in your life have made you reflect on how you do things on earth?

This past spell in the Basque country was quite a change for me. I’m only 23, but since the age of 15 I’ve always worked a million jobs, dug into my two degrees like a madman, volunteered, run around trying to do as much as possible. I think our generation has been forced to live with this kind of unavoidable pace to just survive, especially if you’re trying to be an artist. However, my time in France has been really nourishing. Especially only speaking in French but while working, reading, singing in English. I’ve been ridiculously lucky to be able to love and to be beyond my own language/continent, and je trouve que après ça, peut-être tout est possible !

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Portrait by Melvin Israel

What’s your most recurrent thought?

Whether or not i’m observing as much as I should be observing, listening as much as I should be listening.

What’s your metaphor for life?

I don’t have one! But I’m always looking for signs, if that counts. 

What’s your bite of happiness?

Besides surfing, I think it might be a long drive in my truck Penelope, listening to tunes and singing very loudly.

 

 

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