Dougie Poole and Ben Schwab (Sylvie, Drugdealer) on Songwriting as an Exercise in Empathy

The songwriters catch up.

Dougie Poole is a Brooklyn-based country musician and songwriter; Ben Schwab leads the LA-based folk rock band Sylvie, with Sam Burton and Marina Allen, and is a some time member of Drugdealer. Sylvie’s debut self-titled EP came out last month on Terrible Records, so to celebrate, the two sat down to catch up.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Dougie Poole: I don’t think I actually got to hear the whole record, but that one track sounds beautiful. It’s like you’re carrying the Drugdealer torch a little bit, you know, just the great ‘70s golden sounds.

Ben Schwab: Thank you. I mean, I was inspired by Mike [Collins] a lot as a songwriter, I think, his love for classic songwriting and films or whatever we would. I mean, I’ve always been into that type of songwriting, but I think there’s periods where I left it behind and was interested in other things, and then I sort of returned to it now.

Dougie: I have the same relationship with that kind of stuff, like every once in a while, just kind of needing to recenter and come back to something really basic, or from my childhood. Just things that you recognize… 

Ben: Yeah, yeah, it’s a good feeling. I feel like also the pandemic was part of it, or just these times, or something. There’s something so simple about it. It made a lot of sense artistically to do something like that.

Dougie: Yeah. It’s kind of less to a time frame, but more like it’s almost a genre thing — like the constraint I give myself with country is freeing, because it builds in some direction for you. You can kind of color between some lines, and focus on the coloring part instead of the lines part.

Ben: Yeah, totally. Because you’re influenced by a lot of that music too, in your writing.

Dougie: Oh, yeah. I mean, that’s what my parents had on — less of the California, Laurel Canyon stuff and more… I guess my parents played a lot of, like, Mamas and Papas. My mom really liked them. 

Ben: A lot of people forget that they were originally from the East Coast.

Dougie: Right. I guess I just think of them as part of that scene, but I know Mama Cass is from Baltimore or something. I mean, all that stuff is great. I don’t know, I love harmony, and that’s a huge part of all that music. And I think probably that also comes from my parents just being like folkies or whatever.

Ben: Yeah, of course. There’s something like deep rooted about it, I think in our generation too. Like you’re saying, you grew up with it. I grew up with all that stuff — Steely Dan, Keith Jarrett. My dad is a musician, so a lot of that music I would hear growing up, but he also would play it live for me. He’s a really good piano player and a songwriter, so he would play his music or play covers, Beatles covers or whatever, from an early age. So it’s, like, double ingrained in me, I think.

Dougie: That’s so cool. So that kind of has something to do with this project, right? It’s like a demo he recorded or something that you found. 

Ben: Well, basically, when I was younger, I found this cassette tape of his band from the 1970s. They recorded an album full of demos, basically in a barn in Santa Barbara in, like, 1976, and it was all on this little tape. It was just unreleased, he hadn’t really shown it to me. I mean, I think I maybe heard some of it growing up as a kid or something. But just the song writing is really good — like you’re saying, it’s got all the harmonies, and it’s, I guess, sort of classic, traditional songwriting, sort of country-influenced soul. It’s just very beautiful. 

So I had this tape, and I just would listen to it throughout the years. It’s just been something that I’ve held pretty close to me and been like, Woah, this music is amazing, and it’s my dad’s band that no one knows.

Dougie: Wow, what a gem!

Ben: So I have had this tape of music this whole time, and I’ve always returned to this thing. I’m just so inspired by that, music that’s sort of, in my mind, I guess, lost. So I just got really into that idea about my father’s music, and then I heard other shit like this, like Ian Matthews, the “Sylvie” song. And Robert Lester Folsom, when they reissued him. It just started blowing my mind like, Woah, there’s so much of this hidden music. I mean, obviously, I’m living in 2021, just making music in Silver Lake, California. I don’t think I’m part of that, per say, but I just was really touched by a lot of that stuff. So it kind of bled into the sound or the feeling of the way I was writing.

Dougie: Totally. You can hear it a lot. Is your dad still around?

Ben: Yeah, he’s still around, and he sings a song on the EP.

Dougie: That’s so cool!

Ben: That’s another thing. I was like, Well, my dad’s a great musician, and we write and play together — why not be on an album together? Why not have a band together? These are just things I didn’t think I could do when I was a younger musician. I thought I should just do what I thought I should do, if you know what I mean. As opposed to now, I feel like I’m getting older and I’m just very grateful that my dad is a songwriter. Why shouldn’t we play in a band together, or why shouldn’t he sing on a song, you know? It’s nice for me to just say yes to all these things and not put any limitations. But, yeah, he’s great, we still play. we write. He’s on a track on the EP called “Rosaline” — I wrote it for him to sing.

Dougie: That’s awesome. Yeah, I find the same thing as I get older. My thing with country also arose out of just getting older and looking inward, and just trying to find the music that’s, like, in — I don’t really know how else to say it, but just kind of in your bones. Not like looking around for things, but trying to find the truest expression of what’s in you. Music, whether or not it’s what we identify as traditional music, is part of traditions — it’s things that people passed down from generation to generation.

Ben: Exactly. It’s so funny when you’re so in it, in the times, you forget that it’s like that. A lot of it’s about lineage and being passed down from generations and communities. In a lot of cultures, music is strictly communal.

Dougie: The concept of performing is even relatively new — it’s kind of a capitalist thing, the idea that there’s one person playing and other people listening, and that there’s value attached to it. 

Lately, like during the pandemic, it can get really — especially living in New York, and I imagine it’s similar living in LA, just trying to hustle and get your work done, it can be easy to feel far away from that, the social or even devotional side of what music can be. Everything feels like a project or a show, like this is something we gotta do so we can use it for something. It’s really nice hanging out with my friends who aren’t professional musicians and just, like, singing songs and not recording, not rehearsing saying, just singing for fun. I don’t do it nearly as much as I would like to.

Ben: It’s so funny, I was doing the same thing with my friends and I was like, Oh, wait — it can be so cheesy to sit around a fire and sing with your friends, I guess. But I think some of the most fun nights I’ve ever had performing or playing music was in those scenarios. So I agree. During the pandemic, we started doing that more, and I talked to a lot of people who, like, secretly, that’s all they want to do, you know? It’s healthy for musicians to exist in that way and not have everything be like so planned and capitalist

Dougie: Yeah, it’s capitalism. I think that’s what drives it. It’s a complicated thing, because a lot of great music — like all those great studios, the recording technology — all that stuff comes from that.

Ben: You seem like you have a good group of musicians and friends.

Dougie: Yeah, a lot of my closest friends are people I used to be in bands with who aren’t really doing it that much anymore. We watch movies and basketball and stuff, and don’t really do [music]. But as I’ve been growing my band, I have more of an opportunity to do that kind of stuff, but still not nearly as much as I would like do.

Ben: Yeah. Are you working on new music now?

Dougie: Yeah, I’m very slowly chipping away at a new record. I basically got a full time job at the beginning of the pandemic.

Ben: Do you feel like that helps with your writing sometimes? I know people say different things, but sometimes when you have nothing to do or you’re bored, it can be very hard to write. But it’s like, once you’re in the car on the way to somewhere, you get an idea. 

Dougie: I do think that that can help. Most of the work I’ve been doing during the pandemic, it’s just me at home on my computer. I used to be an art handler for a long time, and as much as I was horrible at it and really didn’t like it while I was doing it, just being with people all day, meeting new people all the time, going around the city [was helpful] — especially with the type of songwriting that I do, a lot of it’s about stories, whether or not it’s very direct. Stories of emotions that I don’t necessarily have, that are not necessarily mine.

Ben: How do you mean? They’re like characters in your songs?

Dougie: Yeah, as a character. Or just like, especially art handling, you spend all day driving around with someone and you talk to them about what’s going on in their life. Not that I’m picking apart their lives for deep details in my stories — or maybe that it is that in a way, but also talking to people you don’t know is always an exercise in empathy, and trying to understand where they’re coming from. I feel like songwriting is a lot about that too,

Ben: That’s true. 

Dougie: Writing a good song is something that, it’s not just about figuring out what you want to say and what you have to say and what you’re feeling, but it’s trying to figure out how to express that in a way that other people can hear and feel too.

Ben: Like in a way that is enough for them to imprint themselves.

Dougie: Right. I think being with people strengthens those muscles, and the kind of work I’ve been doing, which is basically just sitting at a computer alone, so you don’t get as much of that. So the short answer to your question is no, I don’t think that this particular work helps me, and I would rather not need to do it. [Laughs.]

Ben: Yeah, that makes sense.

Dougie: Do you mostly just play music now?

Ben: I guess right at the moment, I’m doing just music — although I will say, I’m always kind of thinking about what is going to be next, because things are, as you know, very unpredictable. I sort of have been able to be fine for now, but in the future, we’ll see. Everything is just kind of uncertain in terms of whether I should get another job. I did get a part time job as basically an assistant for a big art adviser in LA, but I hated it. I just did it for like a month and a half. Sometimes I’ll teach piano or guitar here and there. 

Dougie: Oh, that’s cool. 

Ben: I technically have a degree in music, I studied at CalArts, so I’m able to teach. So that’s nice to have a little extra income. But yeah, we’ll see.

Dougie: That’s cool. Yeah, I’ve never taught music lessons, but I’ve done tutoring and stuff, and I imagine that could be a similar sort of exercise, having to break things down in a way that another person understands. It lets you see theory or songs or whatever you’re teaching somebody in new ways, so you can share it with people.

Ben: Yeah. I don’t know if I want to teach forever, but I do have the ability to do that, to break it down for someone, or make it easy to understand. A lot of people want to learn songwriting or guitar and piano, but are so overwhelmed, like, “Oh, I could never really do this, I’m not good enough.” A lot of teaching is like, “I feel like that too, it’s not really like that, you know, you can do whatever.” You know, just encouraging people, because a lot of people get stuck with that feeling like. A lot if people play music, but they don’t tell anyone, they record songs, but they’ll never release them. So a lot of teaching’s about getting through that, I think.

Dougie: Yeah. I mean, I think that even comes back to the thing about capitalism too — it doesn’t seem possible because, in many ways, it’s not, really. For many people, it is not possible to make that time and do that work, you know?

Ben: Yeah. And I mean, even as an established musician, it’s still easy to feel like, nowadays, you’re just not good enough. There are many things trying to tell you that you’re not, in terms of numbers and Spotify. And seeing other people’s success so easily on Instagram and just always having a computer, it’s so easy to feel like you’re not doing as good.

Dougie: Yeah, totally.

Ben: So that’s also another reason why I started making this music, because like we were saying, I know there’s just certain things that are so deep rooted about this type of songwriting or this kind of feeling and music that are so undeniable — like, no one could tell me that it’s not, that I don’t like it or that I shouldn’t do. So for that reason, it’s very liberating. Like when we play live, I’m less nervous and less like, Oh, people are going to judge me. I’m just very into the music. 

Dougie: That’s so cool. It sounds like you found something that will last, or just a feeling to hang on to.

Ben: Yeah, it’s nice to feel so excited to play. I mean, it also it’s probably because it’s new and the band is so fun, but it’s such a great feeling.

Dougie: That’s awesome. And so do you have kind of a rotating cast, sort of the same way Drugdealer does, of guest singers and featured singers and stuff like that?

Ben: Not really, it’s just me, Marina Allen, and Sam Burton. And then my dad sings the song on the album, but my dad doesn’t come to the show — although maybe someday we’ll get him out. I try to bring up features by guest singers at the shows. We’ve had different people come up — you know Jess Williamson.

Dougie: Yeah, she’s great.

Ben: Yeah, she came up and sang with us at the first show. And then Cornelia Murr joined us some for another song at the second show. So I mean, it’s sort of set, but it’s open, you know. If people wanted to sing in Sylvie, or wanted to come do harmonies and stuff, I would say, yes,

Dougie: That’s so dreamy! What a joy.

Ben: Yeah, I want to celebrate! I just want to spend my time enjoying it, so yeah, I would say yes if someone wanted to come do that.

Dougie: That’s awesome.

Ben: How about your band? How many people are in your group?

Dougie: We’ve got five, including me. It’s been sort of changing — you know, every once in a while, somebody moves away or something. But I’ve had this same crew for a few months. Some folks moved away during the pandemic — it’s pretty sad. I don’t know, it feels somehow in New York harder to get a bunch of different people in a room. Everybody’s schedule is so jammed, it’s much more set in place. The idea of having people come up on stage, it seems almost inconceivable, just because I don’t even know how we would get them to come rehearse with us or anything like that.

Ben: Yeah, and that’s because the city itself. You have less rehearsal spaces, right? 

Dougie: Yeah, everyone’s stacked on top of each other. Although I guess this is similar in LA, it’s just really expensive, so everyone’s got their hustle and shit that they’re doing, trying to get by. It’s not super easy to get around, nobody drives, so if I want to hang out with a drummer, we’ve gotta go to somebody’s practice space where there’s already a drum kit. Nobody’s going to, like, schlep a drum kit on the subway or whatever.

Ben: Yeah, all those factors weigh in into that.

Dougie: Yeah, big time. I’ve had pangs about living in California for a while. It just hasn’t worked out yet.

Ben: What was it about it that you didn’t…? 

Dougie: That made me not follow through? I mean, on a smaller scale, I’m a homebody — I have a small family, they’re all here. My closest friends live here. I don’t know. It just hasn’t…  Maybe I’m scared. Who knows? 

Ben: Yeah, totally. Well, I mean, if I was from New York, I probably wouldn’t leave either. I just wouldn’t know how to, like, enter New York at my age. It seems like that would be hard to move.

Dougie: Yeah, I guess that’s also sort of the feeling I have about Los Angeles. Like, I gotta save a bunch of money, put everything in the truck… 

Ben: Have you been playing shows?

Dougie: Yeah, we’ve done a couple of shows. We’re about to do a little like East Coast thing at the end of the month. Before the pandemic, I was taking whatever gigs popped up. But now we’ve got this album out, so I think [our booking agent]’s trying to space things out a little bit more.

Ben: Do you have a new album released?

Dougie: Something came out over the pandemic in 2020, but no. It’s over a year old now. I got a little tune coming out — I’m Jewish, but I was compelled to write a Christmas song for some reason last year, so I wrote a Christmas song and recorded it. Hopefully that’ll come out in the next few weeks.

Ben: That’s cool. I’ve never done that, but I like Christmas music!

Dougie: It’s funny, I like crooner music, and I like George Michael and Mariah Carey, but I’m not a huge Christmas music guy. I guess I really like the Charlie Brown stuff. Generally, it’s not really what I go for, but I don’t know. Something moved me.

Ben: I can’t wait to hear it. What’s it called?

Dougie: It’s called “Cancun Christmas Morning.” It’s like kind of a mash up of country novelty — you know, there’s like a standard country tequila song. That’s like a whole subgenre, every country star from the last, like, 50 years has a song about tequila in some way or another, and then a Christmas song. I just kind of smooshed them together. I can send it to you after we get off the phone.

Ben: I would love to hear it. Have you heard that song “Drinkin’ Problem” by Midland?

Dougie: Oh, yeah, that’s a great song! They’re great.

Ben: I just heard that the other day and I was blown away by it.

Dougie: Yeah, they’re great songwriters. There was a big neo-traditional movement in the ‘90s in country music, and they’re kind of back on it, doing it the old way, just good hooks.

Ben: Every time I hear a song like that, I’m like, Damn it. How did they do that again? Like, there’s another clever, perfect little line, it happens over and over again. I’m like, I can’t believe I didn’t think of that, you know? 

Dougie: Yeah, totally.

Ben: It’s such a simple sentiment, I guess, but the way it’s phrased… I don’t know, country music has that element to it that’s really fun. 

Dougie: Yeah, it’s a lot about wordplay, just figuring out new ways of saying the same exact same stuff.

Ben: Like you realize you can’t really say anything new or reinvent the wheel, but we can say it in a new way. 

Dougie: Yeah, it’s funny. I can’t remember where I read this — every once in a while when I get stuck, I’ll just buy a songwriting book by some old Nashville songwriter. In one of them, I can’t remember which one, but i apparently in the ‘70s, ‘80s, whatever, every time a new movie came out, everyone goes to the movie with a notepad and they just tried to rip the best lines from the movie and see what’s going to work for a song. 

Ben: Really? 

Dougie: Yeah. The example they gave in the book is when Jerry Maguire came out, there’s that line in the movie, “You had me at hello,” and the guy was like, “You could just hear people scribbling it in their notebooks.” People are always looking for those lines.

Ben: That’s so cool. I think that it’s true, it’s kind of like the old way. That’s even the way my dad talks about music — it’s very tangible. Something would happen in day to day life and he would be like, “That’s a song.” Or I was watching this interview with Graham Nash, and he was like, “Oh, yeah, one day me and [Joni Mitchell] were out coming home from breakfast, and we were walking by an antique shop, and we saw a vase. I was like, ‘Joan, why don’t you get the vase?’ And when we got home, I said, ‘Joan, I’ll  light the fire, you put the flowers in the vase.’” And he was like, “Oh, that’s the song.”

Dougie: Wow, that’s cool.

Ben: And it’s the first line in the song. And then the whole song, if you listen to it from that perspective, it’s very simple. It sounds easy to write, because it probably it actually came from an experience that was happening at the moment. And I just think like, Damn, I don’t do that a lot, and maybe I should. It’s such an old fashioned way of writing that I think is interesting.

Dougie: Yeah, I don’t really know how it comes to me. I think that’s what I miss about working with other people, just hearing people talk. Those are the things that come up when people are talking about their lives, you know?

Ben: Totally. It’s a nice thought, that songs don’t have to be something you labor over for hours, thinking of the greatest line, and all this shit that songwriters think.

(Photo Credit: right, Kathryn Vetter Miller)

Dougie Poole is a country musician and songwriter living in Brooklyn, New York. Coming of age in Providence, Rhode Island he dabbled in heavier and more experimental music before maturing into a country auteur. He writes earnestly about his experience (life in the big city, heartbreak in the digital age) and approaches country music with honesty and a deep respect for the genre’s traditions.

Poole has long had ties to several artists in the experimental music scene including Jerry Paper with whom he toured nationally while playing in Paper’s live band, and in 2019 he appeared on the Drugdealer album Raw Honey, drawing praise from Pitchfork for his “sad-eyed Elvis croon” on the track “Wild Motion.” Poole’s solo debut, 2017’s Wideass Highway, was his first public experiment with country music and was an immediate favorite of publications like The FADER, who praised his ability to bring classic country songwriting into a “contemporary space” with an album that “articulated a generational self-consciousness.”

On his sophomore album, The Freelancer’s Blueswhich is out June 2020 on beloved Brooklyn indie Wharf Cat Records (Palberta, Bambara, Public Practice), he graduates from drum machine and synthesizer bedroom country to a full band with honky-tonk harmonies, wailing pedal steel, and carefully constructed arrangements that whole-heartedly embrace the country sound he only hinted at on his debut. Produced by Jonathan Schenke (PC Worship, Gong Gong Gong, Public Practice) the album does the seemingly impossible by staying true to Poole’s heritage in the DIY scenes of New York and Providence, while simultaneously certifying him as a bonafide country songwriter, and captures the lived experience of Poole and his contemporaries in a way that resonates with both the current moment and his classic country forebears. On The Freelancer’s Blues Poole approaches the storytelling backbone of country music for an audience that is city-dwelling, romantically alienated and financially precarious, using the same threads spun by Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson before him to write anthems that will resonate with hardline country music fans and newcomers alike.