"I can’t imagine being a songwriter and not reading. How is that possible?"
No truer words of wisdom have ever been uttered by a songwriter. It should come as no surprise that Neil Fallon, utterer of those words and the the singer/songwriter of the metal band Clutch, is a voracious reader. Fallon is a huge fan of Cormac McCarthy (a favorite among many songwriters I've interviewed) and William Faulkner, but he’s also devoured his share of science fiction over the years—which is why he wanted to branch out to other genres. So Fallon recently decided to tackle some light reading in the form of Russian literature.
Jim Lauderdale has been called a "songwriter's songwriter," and for good reason: he's written songs for artists like George Strait, The Dixie Chicks, Elvis Costello, Blake Shelton, Patty Loveless, Vince Gill, and Gary Allan. He's released 28 studio albums since 1986, with a new one out this spring called London Southern. He's won two Grammy Awards. He's also the hostof the fantastic "Buddy and Jim" show on Sirius/XM Radio. In short, Lauderdale is enormously respected in the country, bluegrass, and Americana music genres.
"I was just telling my girlfriend the other day, 'People don't take the words of Yoda seriously enough." And with that, J.D. Cronise of The Sword just gave me one of my favorite lines in the six years I've had this site. Most songwriters I talk to usually can pinpoint an ideal emotion or state of mind under which they get their best writing done. To Cronise, though, it's an absence of emotion. He tries to get, in his words, into the most Zen state possible: a mind free of clutter, thoughts, distractions, anything. "It’s the non-emotional space that’s best for me. I like to be in a very Zen headspace. Peace and calm is the most important thing to me when I write." Cronise never forces the writing process, only writing when he feels ready. In itself, this puts him in a relaxed state: there's no pressure to write, so he never gets blocked.
Everyone offering career advice seems to want to steer people away from the humanities. Don't be an English major, they say. You won't make any money. Singer/songwriter Allison Moorer has fortunately dispensed with this silly bit of advice: she's finishing her first semester at The New School in Chelsea, where she's getting her MFA in creative non-fiction. As someone with a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature, I fully support her new career path.
I know no better demonstration of the link between reading and songwriting than the advice Ray Wylie Hubbard gives songwriters: "Don't just listen to 'The Ghost of Tom Joad.' Read The Grapes of Wrath. That’s a classic song, but Springsteen wouldn't have written it if he hadn’t read Steinbeck." Of course, Steinbeck is probably a beach read for Hubbard. His staples are writers like Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Rimbaud. And before he goes to bed each night, he'll often pull down Dante's Divine Comedy from the bookshelf to see how that text might inspire his songwriting.
Melissa Etheridge has been nominated for fifteen Grammy Awards, won two, and won an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2007 for "I Need to Wake Up." With those accolades, she can probably offer a few pointers on what it takes to be a great songwriter. And according to Etheridge, it's pretty simple: books and cannabis. Not together, of course.