Bobby Long Takes His Simple Songwriting Cues From Hemingway and Camus
Photo by Jamie Strachan
"New York has always been, I think for a lot of English people, depicted in films as a real romantic place to visit," says England-bred, New York–based Bobby Long. The singer-songwriter, calling the Voice from holiday abroad, knows something about big-screen depictions and their real-life counterparts. Early successes in his career included song placements in movies like Twilight, and his affinity for open-mic nights as a young artist in London and then New York has yielded a strength on intimate stages and an intensity that transcends the screen.
As an artist whose work has been employed to complement visual narratives, it’s hardly surprising that his early material is rife with literary references, too: His ATO Records debut was an EP named after Albert Camus’s The Stranger, while his longstanding appreciation for Ernest Hemingway lends a minimalism to his writing.
“When you read a really good book, you kind of live within it for a little while,” he says. “You look at The Old Man and the Sea and The Stranger and they’re pretty short books, really. They’re not long-winded and they’re down to earth, which I think is an incredibly gifted skill set to have.”
There are parallels between Long’s lyrics and traditional poetry, whether the works are pulled overtly from literature or from Long’s own experiences. Metaphor and simile abound as wrens, rooks, and blackbirds populate a night that “rests like a hammer blow” in fan favorite “Being a Mockingbird,” a sonically unembellished track from 2011’s A Winter Tale.
“Looking at Hemingway’s poetry, it’s really simple. It’s poignant and he doesn’t let any kerfuffle get in the way of his writing,” says Long. “Camus has that skill set, too: He’s not going to spend hours describing a windowsill. He wants to get right to the meat of it.”
In his more recent work, Long relies less on literary characters to express his feelings. But the brevity and unembroidered ideals continue to reveal themselves, particularly in his most recent release, August's Ode to Thinking, out via Compass Records.
“In music, the more stripped-back stuff is much more intricate, in a sense, than things with a lot of noise,” he says. The complexities reveal themselves in a live setting regardless of how small the setup. “It’s so simple, and it’s so easy to mess up.”
Long recorded Ode to Thinking in Austin, Texas, working with producer and multi-instrumentalist Mark Hallman. Hallman’s versatility on instrumentals allowed for an immediacy in implementing ideas during the recording process, but limiting sessions to the two of them kept their focus on the end goal: writing songs Long could re-create alone in a live setting. Lyrically, Long says, he shifted his focus on Ode to Thinking to a more personal place.
“In the past I may have felt like I was too immature to be able to speak about things. I would be feeling a certain way and I would use that to write about something else, to write about a book,” he says. With Ode to Thinking Long embraces the potential of his own perspective. “Now when I’m writing songs, I’m writing directly from the source: my way of feeling.”
Ode to Thinking offers an ironic goodbye to logical thought in its title track, which bids “so long to thinking” with a stoic commentary on the odd ways we reassure ourselves. “It’s just a reminder to stay educated, I guess: to read, and to be open-minded,” he says of the track and the album’s general theme. “The greatest gift you can give yourself is to remain learning and keep thinking about things. Keep upgrading yourself a little bit.”
Long’s overall message may feel ambitious, but it never descends into preachy territory: Mostly, he says, writing music is a selfish endeavor. His songs are more a glimpse into his inner monologue — a melodious take on the accessible, open-to-interpretation minimalism that he admires in his favorite authors.
“I’m not writing a call to arms,” he says. “I’m not expecting to necessarily change people’s ways of thinking.... If they listen to it and it makes them feel a bit better, or provides a soundtrack to a run or a stint in the library or just a walk down the street, then that’s really cool. That’s all I want, really.”
Bobby Long plays the Mercury Lounge on January 9. For ticket information, click here.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.