Travis Clark (We The Kings) talks collabs with Avril Lavigne and MGK
Since the mid-2000s, We The Kings vocalist/lyricist Travis Clark has been rocking out onstage and engaging crowds around the world. When he’s not performing or writing for We The Kings, Clark spends his time collaborating with other artists such as Avril Lavigne, Machine Gun Kelly, Simple Plan and State Champs.
Frontman Travis chatted with AltPress about his collaborations, how they have changed his writing process for We The Kings and what we can expect from the band in the future.
You've dedicated so much of your music career to building and continuing to grow We The Kings. So when did you make the decision to start collaborating with other artists?
TRAVIS CLARK: Honestly, it came really naturally. I think when you spend so much time writing, you become a little more comfortable with your writing. I spent so many of my beginning years as a songwriter really self-conscious and anxious about what people would think about the music and if people would like it. It really took me a pretty long time to get over that barrier and that speed bump of worrying [about] what everybody else could think, because it would hinder what I was doing. So after I got through those blocking points and really became confident and true with what I was doing, I was able to imagine, "What if I did have the opportunity to write for other people?" And that kicked off that notion to see if any of my friends would want to sit down in a room with me and start working. And then really, obviously, what happens is you have one song that ignites as a collaboration with somebody else, and that gives you the snowball opportunity where you can start doing other things because you have had something that works.
Getting in the door was very hard to start off with. But then once you're in and you have the opportunity to prove yourself, and then once you do prove yourself, then the door is opened even wider for other artists to collaborate with.
You've had the chance to work with a lot of great artists, such as with Avril Lavigne on "Head Above Water." How did that come about, and what was that experience like?
My buddy, who I'm actually working with right now too, Ryan Cabrera, was having a Super Bowl Sunday party. And so he sent me this address and showed up. The address is this really nice condominium building. I didn’t really ask where we were going. So I get in, and they're watching football. We had some drinks and chips and guacamole— totally normal, typical gathering of friends watching football.
And then I went to the bathroom, and when I came out, I saw a 9-foot grand piano. And I grew up playing piano my entire life. The piano is my first love as far as music [goes]. And so I was like, "Yo Ry, you care if I play?” I just sat down and started playing, and about 15 minutes later, I see this figure coming through the hallway. And as she gets closer, I realize that it's Avril Lavigne, and I'm sitting there playing. I stopped. And she’s like, “No, please keep going. I haven't heard my piano sound this good in a long time.” I was like, “Oh, my God, this is your house. This is your piano. I'm so sorry. I didn't know, and I should've asked.” And I got really defensive, you know, trying to bail myself out, [but she said], “No, no, no, it sounds amazing. Please keep playing.”
So she sat down next to me at the piano. And I'm sitting there with probably one of the biggest artists that I've ever been in a room with, intimately. We ended up playing karaoke. And she would sing, and her voice is just absolutely stunning, and it's so reminiscent and nostalgic to the things I listen to. Her friend walks in, and she's listening to us sing together and play cover songs. And she's like, “Oh, my God, you guys should write together. You guys sound amazing together.” And Avril looked at me, and she asked, "Is that something you do? Do you write for other people?" And I was like, “Totally.”
At this point, I had written for other people, but it wasn't anything that I was super nervous about. It was all people really within my scale of where We The Kings were. And some artists who looked up to us and just wanted to be in a room [with us] and learn from my writing and things like that.
We stayed and we hung out a little bit more and got to know each other. I also didn't watch any football after meeting her. I was so enthralled with who she was. So we're sitting there talking. I learned a lot about her, and we ended up exchanging numbers. So I went back to my house in L.A., and I started working on multiple ideas. I was so inspired and motivated and influenced, it would come out so quick. I would sit down at my piano just playing and writing on these ideas. So I sent her like a five-scroll paragraph [of] these ideas that I had for her, and then I sent her a couple [of] MP3s of things that I had just recorded on my voice memo. She was like, “Oh, my God, I've never seen somebody so enthusiastic about this. Let's do this.” And so we ended up meeting the next day, and then the rest is history.
So it happened in such a sporadic, destined way, which I think is why the song did so well and why it really works. When you do get those truly genuine moments of songwriting, I think magic really is there to come out of it. So once we did that, we did three songs together. So her record came out, and the songs that we did together did really well. And then we had another one that just wasn't quite finished. She was like, “I want to put that on the next record. Would you want to write with me for the next record?” So we're now working together on her next album, which is another totally pinch-myself moment.
You mentioned that you've worked with other artists before Avril, and they wanted to be in the room and learn from you. Did you have any of those moments with her where you were in the room and just soaking it up and learning from her?
Totally. I have voice memos from when we’re just sitting together. We worked in L.A., and we worked at her house in Toronto. And when we went to her place in Toronto, she had this whole studio downstairs and had all these guitars on the wall and all these plaques...I read this [book] called You Are Not So Smart that has this whole section about priming. Where the things that you have around your life basically primed you for your future. So to make this giant section of the book [shorter], it's basically saying, “If you have guitars on your wall and plaques that show your accolades and accomplishments, it primes your mind to be in that realm of things that you can still accomplish and still do.” So I'm walking around her house and seeing all these achievements that she's been so blessed with. And it really is like sitting there inspiring me.
And while we're working, I'm just listening to the things that she does and trying to put together how her mind works and things that she does. So I do that a little with every artist I've ever worked with regardless of the success that they've had. Everybody has tidbits of knowledge and information and things that help you to become a better person, a better writer and a better musician. So I always go in as just a shell with tons of information that I learned from all these different writers, no matter if it's their first or last record. Everybody has a wealth of information and knowledge that I really like to borrow from and use in my own writer’s cookbook, as it were.
You’ve also worked with Machine Gun Kelly, who’s dropping a pop-punk album this year. Since you both are in such different genres, how did the collaboration with him come to be, and are there any more that we're going to see soon?
My relationship with MGK came about through Warped Tour. He was on Warped Tour, and we are a Warped Tour band. Our very first nationwide tour was Warped Tour. And that tour taught us so much, and it really introduced us to so many other artists. And you realize no matter what row of artistry you decide to take the path of, we're all so similar. We're all chasing our dreams. We're all thinking with our creative side of our minds, genre aside. So he and I really connected because we are both dads, both musicians [and] both redheads. We really have a lot of cool things that we connect with, and he was just a really cool guy, and I love spending time and hanging out with him and really liked his music.
So when it came to doing new music, even at a smaller level, like playing shows on Warped Tour, I would go up and play with him, and then he would come up and sing or play guitar with us. And it was just [a] really cool collaborative feel that started way before we ended up talking about writing together.
[With Avril], she was like, “Hey, I see that you post pictures with your buddy Machine Gun Kelly. Do you think you would want to write? And I was like, “Yeah!” So I texted him. I was like, “Yo, you want to work on a couple [of] songs with me and Avril for her record?” And he said, “Absolutely.” So that all parlayed and ended up snowballing into each other. I end up in really cool sessions that I just never thought I would ever really be a part of.
You’ve also worked with Simple Plan and State Champs on “Where I Belong” and went on a full-blown tour with them. How did this collaboration come to be?
So we knew that the tour was going to happen, and then Simple Plan had this idea. They were just like, “Hey, we're all friends with each other. It would be really cool to attach a song to this tour and have us all be a part of it.”
But the whole collaboration itself. How did that work with so many minds in one room trying to put together a song? Was it intense, or did it just flow naturally?
With “Where I Belong” specifically, I think Pierre [Bouvier, Simple Plan vocalist] and Chuck [Comeau, Simple Plan drummer] had an overall skeleton idea of the song. And they brought Derek [DiScanio, State Champs vocalist] in to write some of the production and some of his lyrics that he sang in the second verse. And then they basically had that song finished and completed other than the recording of it. They were like, “Trav, would you want to do the bridge?” And all of our voices sound relatively similar to each other, so you want to piece it together part by part. And so we all decided that it’d probably be best if I sang the bridge and did that together so that every person had their part in it. But as far as the rest, We The Kings didn't record any drums or guitars. We didn't do anything other than sing vocals. And I think it was probably similar for State Champs.
When you were talking about collaborating with Avril and bringing MGK into that, it seemed really organic. Do you have a specific way you take a direction when you're collaborating? What is your process when you collaborate with someone?
So that one specifically came about because when We The Kings played Los Angeles last, both Avril and Machine Gun Kelly were in town, and I invited them to the show, and they both came out. They had never met each other before, but obviously respected each other's music. And we're all sitting on our bus together, and then we play at the show and see the kids go crazy. And I feel like as an artist, that's what really starts turning the wheels in your mind. So, the three of us just being in that setting really kick-started and ignited Avril's idea for us to work with her and do something. When you're in a room with these people, the thing that really makes people want to work together is how they are when they're just chilling together. Like, not even talking about music. Literally just, “How do I enjoy this person's company?” With Avril, it was hearing her story about her battle with Lyme disease and hearing different things that she talked about that really inspired me to take one of the songs that we did down that route of the struggle and her coming out triumphantly.
And other times, it's different. When I was working with the Simple Plan dudes, it was myself, Pierre and Chuck. And Chuck would sit there, and he would just scroll through his phone and have all these one-word or two-word ideas that could eventually [become the] title of a song. It was funny because it really would kick-start the whole writing session. We did a couple [of] songs that could only exist because he said one word.
So each session is different. I will say with my songwriting specifically, I really like being the bridge that connects everybody else in the room. I think I'm a lyricist first and foremost. And then a very close second would be that I love melody. Being able to bridge that gap between lyrics and melody and then also being fluent as a piano and guitar player and understanding songwriting, I can take the best from everybody else in the room and mash it together.
And I think that's the allure for the artists who want to continue working together because I try to make it as easy as possible. You can't go into a writer's block mode where you're trying to jam something in. And we've done it with We The Kings [where] I've tried to chase a style or force something, and it just never works for the fans. I think the thing that has always rang true is if you're being genuine with the music itself, then the fans are going to see how transparent you are. They're always attracted to genuine music and genuine lyrics.