When anyone creates a list or starts a discussion of the best modern songwriters, there are a few names that are guaranteed to show up. One of those is John Darnielle. The man behind The Mountain Goats has the rare ability to cut right to the core of a subject—whether it be the fate of two young metalheads living in the Lone Star State, or the abuse he endured at the hands of his stepfather—using language that feels dense but is always surprisingly plainspoken. 

Like his contemporary Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields, having this incredible songwriting ability means Darnielle often forces himself to limit his scope and build albums around a particular theme. In the past, that has included his days in Portland hanging with a bunch of speed freaks or an LP built around particular Bible verses

For Transcendental Youth, the Goats' 2012 release, the focus is on people fighting or coming to terms with their internal demons. On it, Darnielle takes on the guise of the late Amy Winehouse, and ill-fated characters from the film Scarface. In the case of "White Cedar," the song we talked with Darnielle about recently, the spotlight returns to a character threaded through the album who is struggling with deep-seated mental issues. But before we got to all that, I had to embarrass myself a little bit. 


Like a star come down to walk the Earth in radiant array.

I saw the light of my spirit descend the other day.

I was standing the bus stop on North East 33rd,

When I got the word.

I will be made a new creature,

One bright day.

I don't have to be afraid.

Speed that day on it's way.

And you can't tell me what my spirit tells me isn't true, can you?

Woke up on lockdown one more time,

My visions won't ever learn.

But I see the light that much clearer,

Every time I return.

Forge my armor in the old fire.

My spirit sings loud and clear,

Even in here.

I'll be reborn someday, someday,

If I wait long enough.

I don't have to be afraid.

I don't wanna be afraid.

And you can't tell me what my spirit tells me isn't true, can you?


Willamette Week: I wanted to talk about the last song on the album, "White Cedar" and...

John Darnielle: No! That's not the last song on the record. It comes at the end of side one. 

Oh...shoot...that's embarrassing. You know what? I blame iTunes for this, because it put the tracks in there in alphabetical order. 

That makes sense. We're always so careful about the sequencing of the records. So what song comes first? 


That's right. And what comes next? 

"Counterfeit Florida Plates."

Oh wow! You're hearing a completely different record! It just reminds me of the age of the cassette, when labels would re-sequence the album without the artists' permission. I'm a big Steely Dan fan and had cassettes of their albums, and was totally oblivious to the actual sequence because I was only learning those albums on tape. The album I knew was sort of a construct, a random thing. Because the only thing they were thinking about was what was able to fit on side one at the time. 

In that sense then, why put that song in the middle of the album? 

The narrator of that song is involuntarily hospitalized. He's not quite sure how he got there. The album is about a journey, about learning to be okay with yourself. The middle is the dark, hard times. The middle trough of uncertainty. 

When you write a song like this, are you thinking of people from your life or thinking of an archetype? 

Any character that you come up with is equal parts yourself or people you know, for the most part. Characters are in a large part yourself as you imagine yourself in lived situations. I can't imagine any writer coming up with something that's pure character. I think that's the most interesting thing about writers of science fiction. They're dreaming up people that are not human at all. But I think when you write, you end up talking about yourself and other people you know no matter how hard you try not to. 

To that end, when you're talking about the bus stop on NE 33rd in the song, is there a particular town you're thinking of? 

That was Portland, Oregon. My dad used to live there and that's where I would catch the bus. Back then, there was precious little going on in the middle of town, so if you wanted to do anything, you'd have to ride the bus downtown. And everybody rides the bus. There are some people that have no other means of transport. I remember seeing a guy who was clearly psychotic and flipping everybody off, with a huge grin on his face. It was not a hostile thing but it was meaningful to him. We couldn't understand what it was about since we're not in his brain. The people on the bus were getting really angry because in any other context, that means "Fuck you." But that's not what it means to him. So really I was just fearful that he was going to get hurt for something that he didn't understand. 

How did you end up working with Matthew White on this song and the album? 

I saw him do a presentation called Sounds Of The South with his old band in Durham. I remember having this idea for multiple presentations of the songs, presenting them in different ways each time. When you're a child, and you hear a song, it's the platonic presentation of it, whereas someone like Dylan or The Dead are recasting the songs live over time. A song like "Truckin'" is a three minute radio song, but you hear New York '72, and it is this half hour exploration of this pop tune. But for us it's just different arrangements because we don't jam. So, Owen Pallett did a vocal arrangement of the song when we did it New York and London. And I picked it as one of the songs to be sent to Matthew to see how it played out. Matthew hadn't heard Owen's arrangement, but he did land on a number of similar intervals and strategies.

The drum part is interesting in this song, too. It only has the one big slap in the middle and then a little bit of expression at the end. Was that all Jon Wurster's idea? 

I have to say, the one big crack in the second chorus...I don't like to take credit for anything that Jon does, but I did ask him to play a crack there. There was some '80s song I had in mind, a power ballad that had a big crack like that that works. The roll at the end, that beautiful expressive moment—that was all Jon. 

The title of the song doesn't appear in the lyrics at all. Were you thinking of trees that were around that bus stop? 

I'm always reluctant to spell out the titles because I feel like that's really nailing something to the floor. But I'm always happy to say when something isn't correct and that is one thing that it isn't. 

I imagine that this song was informed in part by your days as a psychiatric nurse. In that sense, were you able to leave your work there at the office or did you carry it around with you? 

They teach you at school that you can't do that. You try but it's nearly impossible. At the same time, that's the one thing about patient/doctor confidentiality: you're trained to understand that you can't go home and talk about your work. You learn how to segment. But you're dealing with human beings so you can't really leave all of that at the door. 

Do you feel like enough is being done for people with mental illnesses here in the U.S.? 

No, no, obviously not. There's so many people on the ground and in hospitals working so hard. Most of us can't even imagine it. There was a brief window in the U.S. of increasing funds for mental illness treatment from the '70s through the '80s, but that's not happening anymore. Most people just don't understand mental illness because with behavior, we think of it as people's choices. They can't understand that what people say and do when they are sick is out of their control. So when people start working on funding issues, most of it goes to public education. I hate put it as simply as this, but in a capitalist society, it's always hard to get funding for work like that. 

SEE IT: The Mountain Goats play Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., with Matthew E. White, on Sunday, Dec. 16. 8 pm. Under 21 permitted with legal guardian. Sold out.