Owen Netzer (‘19) is the vocalist/guitarist for the band Pilot Lite. Owen has combined their English major with their passion for music in their thesis, a collection of original songs. Pilot Lite performs at shows on campus and around Salem.
When did you learn to play guitar?
Technically, when I was 10. I was kind of a brat though, and I wanted to be immediately good without having to practice. I took guitar lessons for several years, though. After sixth grade I sort of stopped playing until college. When I got into college, it felt like something was missing. I picked up a crappy guitar from a pawn shop and started taking lessons again through Willamette.
What academic aspects of Willamette encourage you creatively?
I’m an English major with a creative writing focus. The English [literature] and the creative writing [theses] are separate. What that means is, you have to give a proposal for your project, which is reviewed by the entire English faculty. I decided to write an album for my thesis. Apparently that doesn’t happen here very often. I’m really glad they accepted the proposal, because I’ve had all these ideas bouncing around my in head. You should see the notes on my phone. I never did anything with them, though. With this creative writing thesis, I have this opportunity to have a prolific writer and a bunch of other students who give me this environment where I have to get things done.
For the thesis, you write for a workshop every three weeks, so there’s a time incentive. It’s really easy to think that three weeks is a long time, but suddenly it’s the next workshop. That sort of last moment, stressed for time situation can end up working out in your favor, though. You start trying things that you wouldn’t have considered otherwise.
What does your songwriting process look like?
The way I write a song is I’ll hash out some chords, but the main focus is the lyrics. That is, of course, because it’s part of my thesis, but also because a lot of the music that resonates with me does so because of the lyrics.
I also pull a lot of inspiration from bands that I listen to a lot. Sometimes I’ll even be listening to a song that I don’t love, but I’ll really like, for example, the rhythm on it. So I’ll take the rhythm and write my own song based on that.
How does songwriting compare in other creative writing genres?
The easy pitfall with writing songs or poetry is that you’re physically writing less. If you’re writing in a fiction class, you have to crank out a lot of pages at once. Once you switch to poetry, it feels like it’s going to be easier because there aren’t as many words on the page. The problem with that is poetry needs every single word that you say has to be there for a reason. It’s deceptively simple. That’s the case with a lot of songwriting, too. The difference between writing prose and writing poetry is that with poetry, you have to know what you want to say before you start writing.
What is something you’ve learned while working on this thesis project?
That I’m writing from the perspective of myself as a character. Every time I bring songs into a writing workshop, I will have used the pronoun “I” a lot. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback where that perspective was called “the speaker” instead of readers hearing the “I” pronoun as me. It made me think about how, even though the songs are from my perspective, I am still writing a character. No matter how accurate the portrayal is, there will still be some element of falsehood. That was a really valuable thing to take away.
What are some creative goals you have for this project?
I want to invite people into my experience. It’s not a concept album, but it’s all centered around themes of being in a state of in-between. I’m graduating, which is a weird temporal place to be in. I’m non-binary, another in-between. I’ve also been writing about how my hometown, Portland, is gone. The town I remember is gone, has been replaced by something totally different. That’s its own kind of in-between. The point in writing about this isn’t to tell people “This is what I’m experiencing, you should feel sorry for me.” I think it’s always more interesting and impactful to write in a way that lets people use my perspective to provide context for their own experiences. In-betweens are something that everybody deals with.