Making their way from Cape Town, South Africa to Nashville, Tennessee, Civil Twilight has stimulated the world of music with their soul-clenching vocals and compelling lyrics. With the release of their third studio album, Story of an Immigrant, this past summer, the band enlightened us with the melodies we have all been craving. In the midst of chaotic lives, relocation, and dealing with an industry that moves at the speed of lightening, Civil Twilight have proven that although they may have roots in South Africa, they have also established a place for themselves in the new city. In light of the album being named Story of an Immigrant, the harmonies showcase a world in which ordinarily extraordinary individuals are doing exactly what the rest of us are: trying to find a place to call home. In the midst of it all, they found themselves.
Cliché: With originating the band in Cape Town, South Africa and adding another member, Kevin, to your group after relocating to Nashville, how has the change in culture impacted the music you create?
Steven McKellar: I think it has impacted it in a lot of ways. When you absorb yourself in a new culture, you realize how much of your environment affects the way you feel. I think that changes my writing quite a lot. Plus, just growing older changes a lot of stuff, too! My writing, lyrically for instance, has moved towards the subject of people rather than landscape. I think that’s definitely a big change.
Is the title Story of an Immigrant referencing the relocation of your band and the transition process? Would you consider that to be the overall theme of your album?
Yes! When we put all of our songs together and tried to come up with a title, there was a recurring theme within all the songs—not about the physical relocation or being immigrants physically, but more about the spiritual journey. We’re all kind of just trying to find a home, and a home can be anywhere. We all have stories, and therefore, you kind of have this story of an immigrant. That’s definitely a theme in there.
What has it been like touring with such big names in music?
We’ve played a lot of shows, but playing with guys that we grew up listening to like Smashing Pumpkins, for instance, or Foo Fighters [was amazing]. It really makes you appreciate the journey that you’ve gone on, like going from being a little boy in Cape Town listening to songs on the radio to here, where we’re meeting these people and playing with them. It’s kind of strange. You feel like you’ve just been transported. It’s like if I close my eyes and imagine my 13-year-old chubby self sitting in my bed dreaming of that, and then, here I am, it’s pretty crazy!
You do most of the songwriting in the band. Do you find that your writing technique has changed over the years?
Very much so! I think it changed dramatically over the period of the last record, actually, just because we’ve been touring so hard for the first record, and then suddenly we got an email and a call from the label saying, “Can you guys put out a record soon?” So we kind of had to write on the road and we didn’t really have time to sit in a gauge for six months and jam. So that’s when I learned to write on a computer, which, you have to realize for me, I never had a computer before, until that point. So I was kind of like, “Okay, how do I do this?” But that changed a lot of things because I could basically arrange things myself and come up with a more precise structure. Lyrically, as I was saying earlier, the older you get, the more your interests change, and I think I’ve just become more intrigued with the landscape of the person rather than the person in the landscape.
Did you write a lot growing up, prior to forming the band in high school?
No, not as much as I should have. I wanted to be a jazz musician for the longest time and I didn’t really focus on songwriting. Even when I started doing it more, I wasn’t very lyrical. Now, lyrics intrigue me more than ever and I think that’s been a slow but growing passion. That’s certainly something that has changed as well. Sometimes I listen to my earlier songs and I’m like, “Eeee! My god, my lord! You’re not even thinking about what you’re writing about! You’re just putting a whole bunch of jibberish down.” But that sometimes works, you know.
Definitely! So, what were some of the challenges you faced when writing this album? Do you ever have trouble comparing the success of your past songs when you are writing new ones, or do you approach each album with a new frame of thought?
Yeah, we try to do that. It can be hard, but it’s exciting! What I find is that no matter how hard you try to throw yourself genre-wise, you’re always going to come back to what your heart is trying to say, even if your brain wants to say something else. You can’t really avoid what your heart wants to say, so I think that was always a recurring thing. I’m just attracted to certain feelings and certain colors and sounds and ideas, and that’s just who I am, but some of the times on this record, just actually having so much time to write was a real challenge. We decided to take a good chunk of time off and said, “Let’s just focus on writing.” We went through so many different stages during that writing period and it was quite challenging because usually you just have a deadline, which I work really well with. With a deadline, you just write the songs, put them down, and then move on. This was more like: write them, put them down, and then move on to writing and more putting down, and so we just had a mountain of songs. It was quite hard to actually to deck it all down, but it came together, eventually.
Was it difficult to narrow it down with that many songs? What was the process of that like? Did some stand out more than others?
Yeah, some did. It was quite a challenge though, because we had written about 50 demos and we twiddled it down to about 20 to record. Out of that 20, there were only two or three songs that all four of us agreed on! I don’t even know how we made the decision. It was quite painful, actually, but eventually, we just ran with it. It kind of came together when we recorded with Ben Allen and he was helping us hone the songs.
You’ve mentioned in past interviews that your song “Letters from the Sky” was a turning point in your career. Is there a song on Story of an Immigrant that you are most proud of or think could impact your career as much as “Letters from the Sky” did
Gosh, I hope so! I don’t know which one that would be because “Letters from the Sky” sort of came from left field. I didn’t see that coming at all! It wasn’t a contender by any means, and for some reason, people just latched onto it. If we have something like that on this record and have that kind of success, it would be amazing. Also, the industry has changed and doesn’t quite work the same way, so for me, I’m proud of the whole record in general. But there are a few songs that are a little more personal and there’s some that come off really good live.
Do you have a favorite song you like to perform live?
Whenever we perform “Oh Daniel,” it always just feels right. I don’t know why, but it just feels nice.
Is there any part of you that misses the smaller demographic that you used to have? Were you able to be more personal in a different kind of way then, compared to now?
I enjoy it all, really! I mean, getting into music is about being open and vulnerable to it. I’m down for that and I’m just really proud. I don’t think our fan base has necessarily grown very much over the last few years, but I think the age demographic has definitely broadened. That’s the strangest thing, but I think it’s pretty exciting and I’m proud of that.
What would you guys hope to achieve next?
The goal for now is just to tour this record, like we’re doing right now, and to do as much and as well as we can, and that’s kind of how we made our name over the last few years. We were just playing live and putting on good shows and that’s what we came to America to do. It’s like, if we keep going, I think there’s something special that happens over a long period of time when you keep delivering the same level of passion and love. Over time, people tend to just gravitate towards it. People always want to gravitate towards things that are a little more solid in the world, things that aren’t just fleeting. Deep down, I think people really desire a long-term connection with an artist and with a piece of work. So I think if we keep pushing and keep doing just that, we can achieve more. We’re all getting older and things are changing, but we all still enjoy it. One of the biggest plans right now is to just maintain the joy.
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Civil Twilight Discuss Their Album ‘Story of an Immigrant’: Photographed by Mason Poole