Three years ago, Philadelphia songwriter Kurt Vile was a tiny, debatably nonexistent, blip on the radar of pop culture influentials. But with his fourth album, Smoke Ring For My Halo—a beautifully melancholic Americana collection with undertones of Neil Young and Bob Dylan—Vile is fighting his way in front of increasingly large audiences, albeit with a little help. Smoke Ring is Vile’s second major-label release. With backing from Matador Records and from label-mate Thurston Moore (who Vile will tour with in mid-July), Vile is poised to transition from starving artist to indie staple. We caught up with him just before he embarked on his European tour to talk about about the music.
Childish Prodigy was your first release on Matador back in 2009. How does Smoke Ring For My Halo compare? Childish Prodigy was, in my mind, my ultimate studio record. That was like, all me, self-produced kind of thing. There’s kind of an urgency on those songs and stuff and it’s very punk rock, you know, and this record is the second record on Matador, the one where we knew what we were doing with it…It’s more concise and it also happens to be a little more acoustic-based which was always my sound anyway. It’s kind of like these fucking psychic undertones on Childish Prodigy, more [I was] just trying to take that a step up in some ways.
Has having the backing of a major label changed things for you? Sure, for obvious reasons, like much more guaranteed exposure that I couldn’t have gotten on the smaller labels. It also kept me in check to keep pushing myself to keep getting better because, they’re all super sweet [at Matador], we all have a mutual love for each other, but it’s also a business so you have to succeed. It was more pressure, but good pressure to push myself and be better.
Did that pressure factor into your songwriting? When you were creating this music, did you have a label in the back of your mind? A lot of the songs actually were written before [Matador]. For instance “On Tour,” “Ghost Town,” those songs, there’s an urgency to those songs. I actually wrote those before anyone was putting any of my stuff out except for maybe some small labels. It’s very, you know, on your couch, struggling with the 9 to 5 kind of thing. There are songs like “Puppet to the Man.” That was a later song that had to be written. I’d say there was some pressure in that song.
What is your songwriting process like? Do you have specific rituals or things you do to get in that mindset? It’s loosely the same thing every time, but I can’t say it’s exact because that’s just not how it works. It’s just kind of like, I’ll pick up my guitar at any time and just start strumming and sometimes you’re just jamming. Sometimes there’s something in the air and you lock into this chord progression or some random line or a few lines pop out in your head. For me, I always imagine them in the middle of the song, like a line from the third verse or something and I work around it. I take my time, especially now.
Compared to how much you write for a given album, how much actually makes it on the record? It depends sound-wise. Just because you’ve got this many songs, you can’t just throw them on the record. There might be songs that were recorded that don’t fit the vibe of the record. A lot of times, at first, you don’t realize that and you want to put them all on because they’re like your new babies, but as you continue to work, you realize the direction it’s going. So unless you want to put out a double album—I almost did put out a vinyl and a half with this record but it just didn’t seem like the right move at the time. It would have been too much to get it all. For this record in particular, we have an EP’s worth of quality tracks that didn’t get on the record, so we can put out an EP.
When? As soon as possible. Maybe in the fall? I can’t say for sure though.
How did your relationship with Thurston Moore start? I’ve been a huge fan of Sonic Youth and Thurston Moore since I was young. There was a kid I knew who, Thurston put out some of his music, and he was a fan of me so he would pass along a CD. So I knew [Thurston] was aware of me then. I met him a couple of times. I was lik,e “I’m Kurt Vile!” and he was like “Oh yeah, Kurt Vile, blah blah blah.”There’s elements of Sonic Youth in Childish Prodigy, and then I covered “Monkey” which was a song I loved by Dim Stars. It just conveniently turned out that [Thurston and I] became label-mates at Matador. Everything just kept going my way but then, I think I met Kim Gordon once when I was opening for Dinosaur Jr. and she said she was a fan which was amazing and I gave her all of my CDs. I just kept bumping into Thurston. I lucked out and got this Thurston Moore tour and here we are.
Any hope for a collaboration in the future? You know we did, it was a little rushed so I’m a little bummed by that, but we did do a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Urge For Going” at my in-store tour in New York. We only got to practice backstage. I was still happy to do it but I would totally collaborate with Thurston sometime for sure.
Your music has a very rare ability to feel intimate and also have a very mass appeal. Is that intentional? Do you think of an audience when you’re writing? Not so much. I do think of pop sensibility, my own version of it. For certain songs, not every song, I do think about that. Maybe that’s the mass appeal. It’s just a personal thing for me .If it comes across as personal or intimate, I can see that and maybe the more it gets mentioned, I think about it a little bit, but more so it just happens. I think it’s a cool thing though. I’m happy that people compare it to something like that.
Do you feel that your work is personally revealing? No. It’s never like straight literal, autobiographical. There’s always a little abstract in there. It’s always just like a feeling. A lot is just like a common feeling. It’s never so obvious. It’s open to interpretation. It’s just a general feeling, a human thing.