Jessica Lea Mayfield owns a blue tote bag. This in itself is not unusual: you probably have a tote bag too. But it’s not a stretch to say that Mayfield’s blue tote bag is her life. It contains almost everything she’s ever written, all the way back to when she was a child. There are scraps of notebook paper, receipts, utility bills, pieces of cardboard. And she’s written on them in pens, pencils, eyeliner, and crayons, among other things. Whenever Mayfield has a thought, she writes it down and puts it in the bag. And when it comes time to write a song, she will often dump the bag’s content all over the floor and search for an idea or a verse or phrase that fits the melody for the song she’s writing.
Every writer has a ritual, some consistent part of the writing process that brings them the comfort or confidence to be productive. Ted Leo has one: stacks. Stacks of things. When Leo is around the house, he carries with him from room to room a stack of pads, some pens, his phone, and his Roget's Thesaurus. And when he sets them down, they are each their own stack, not one giant stack. Almost like a fortress of words around him.
Leo's lyrics have been rightfully praised for years, and I have to think that much of this has to do with his voracious reading habit. It's not possible to be a writer unless you read. It's just not. Leo is a good example of that; he goes down rabbit holes of genres or authors or topics, especially while on tour. And these are some pretty dense topics. That's why, after one tour, Leo was able to riff about 70s urban planning in the UK and Russian constructivist architecture with ease. And while he may not have written any songs about these topics, he says that on some level all of that reading made him a better, and a more thoughtful, songwriter.
You know Dan Wilson. You may not think you know Dan Wilson, but you know Dan Wilson. How do I know that you know Dan Wilson? Because it's closing time somewhere in the world as I'm typing this and as you're reading this, and there is no way in hell that you haven't heard that song. Which, by the way, I still love.
You also know Dan Wilson because you know Adele and the Dixie Chicks. He co-wrote Adele's "Someone Like You" and the Dixie Chicks' "Not Ready to Make Nice." He won two Grammys in 2007: Song of the Year as co-writer on "Not Ready to Make Nice" and Album of the Year for the Dixie Chicks' album Taking the Long Way. He again won an Album of the Year Grammy in 2012 for Adele's album 21. The list of artists he's either written with or produced is dizzying: Taylor Swift, Nas, Pink, Weezer, John Legend, Josh Groban, Chris Stapleton, Spoon, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, My Morning Jacket, to name a very small few. He's got indie street cred too: he worked extensively on Phantogram's 2016 album Three, including a co-writing credit on every song except one.
If you ever email Broken Social Scene's Brendan Canning, a word of advice: don't ever greet him with "nice to e-meet you!" This is horrible, and Canning hates it. He's also not a fan of any reference to "hump day" in emails he gets on Wednesday. I agree with Canning's point, and I hate these phrases because they are lazy. Canning probably does too, but as a songwriter who creates original art, hackneyed phrases like these must especially make him cringe.
Of course, I might be reading too much into this. But Canning is always creating: he cooks, he gardens, he plays soccer, and he DJ's. "I live life with my curiosity piqued," he told me. In fact, you can often find him on the streets of Toronto on his bike, staring at people and wondering what their stories are. The important thing is that Canning is always keeping his brain going in some fashion. So if you're in downtown Toronto and notice Canning staring you down, there might be a Broken Social Scene song in there somewhere.
Back in June 2016, Alaina Moore of Tennis (whom I interviewed for this site) emailed me about a new band she discovered. She wrote, "I just found a band called Big Thief with a debut album, Masterpiece. It's unbelievably good, and the song "Real Love" has a guitar solo that literally made me cry."
That guitar solo is played by Adrianne Lenker, Big Thief's vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter. Since Masterpiece's release last year, the band put out Capacity, and on the strength of those two incredible albums (both on Saddle Creek Records), the band has leaped to the top of many critics' short list of best new bands, or just best bands period. And for good reason: the music is powerful and Lenker's lyrics are intensely personal. Much of this has to do, I think, with how Lenker travels through this world. She treats everything she sees and everything she hears as a work of art. The world is her palette. "My mind puts frames on everything," she told me.
Evan Felker, songwriter and guitarist for Turnpike Troubadours, has his own version of the nuclear football, the bag that never leaves his side when he's on the road. It contains everything he needs to write a song: his laptop, a composition notebook, and a legal pad. Each serves a specific purpose. The legal pad is for song ideas and random lines, and for this he uses a pen. The composition notebook is for the lyrics, and for this he uses a pencil. Then the computer is where the fully formed song takes shape so that he can copy and paste to see where the lines work best.
As you may have read in the last few days, Turnpike Troubadours have a new album out October 20 called A Long Way From Your Heart. Felker details some of his songwriting process behind the new material in our interview. He decided to write songs with a narrative bent filled with fictional characters inspired by the people he's known throughout his life. Many are from the area around southeastern Oklahoma where he grew up, from places like the factories and mills he worked after finishing tech school. Felker co-wrote one of the new songs on the album, "Come As You Are," with his good friend Rhett Miller of the Old 97s. (I interviewed Miller a couple of years ago, and I have to thank him for putting me in touch with Felker.) Here's what Miller recently told me about Felker...