For his latest album Phoenix, David Bazan made a lot of phone calls. To himself.
Each day, rather than journaling, he’d use the voice memo on his phone for ten or fifteen minutes to talk to himself. These calls were a “meet and greet with myself.” And through them, he got to know himself better. At the end of each day, Bazan listened to the voice memo, often mining them for song ideas. He did this in, of all places, his grandparents’ house.
The creative process behind Bazan’s latest album Phoenix is unique among the countless songwriters I’ve interviewed. He stayed at his grandparents’ house in Phoenix, each day driving the streets of his youth as memories came flooding back of all his experiences, from church to soccer games to pizza. It was on these drives that he’d often have those meet-and-greets. He’d start in the morning before sunrise, drive for a few hours, then come home, Bazan repeated the ritual after dusk. These experiences gave him an arsenal of song ideas that formed his latest album. It was such a fruitful process that Bazan will do the same thing for his next three albums, driving the streets of the other cities of his youth as the memories, and songs, overwhelm him.
I was surprised when Courtney Barnett told me that she doesn’t like solitude when she writes. Almost all of the songwriters I’ve interviewed have told me that they need to be alone, for the simple reason that they can’t have any distractions. But when Barnett told me why she needs to be around the action, it made sense: how can you be a narrative storyteller if you write while facing a wall? The story ideas have to come from somewhere, and for Barnett they come from observation. “The more distracted I am, the more productive I’ll be,” she told me. And if she’s on a bus or a train? Even better. Because then it’s a constant panorama of images flying by. Another reason why Barnett likes to be around people when she writes: “It feels a bit secretive. It’s like you don’t want to let the person next to you see what you're writing. You're in your own world, surrounded by strangers.”
Marissa Nadler needsto write. It’s a therapeutic necessity: she uses it to process the events in her life. By her account, her best music happens when that need arises. But even if that need disappeared, Nadler would still be able to write because she’s so disciplined. Like most of the songwriters I’ve interviewed, she thinks the muse is a farce: you have to work your craft, she says. “I don’t believe in the idea of the muse because I’m a big proponent of the work ethic. I don’t want people to think that my ideas just arrived on the wings of the muse. I have to work hard,” she told me.
But that doesn’t men writing every day. In fact, Nadler may go months without writing, even though she may have enough material to write about. She likes to fill the well so that when it’s time to write, she doesn’t have to search for inspiration. And when Nadler does write, she is, in her own words, “like a bat”: she needs a cool, quiet, dark room.
Shooter Jennings is not one for rest. While you’re reading this, he’s somewhere creating something. You may know Jennings for his career as a singer/songwriter, and that career alone should keep him busy. But this does not satisfy the man. He also creates video games just for fun: he’s on his third now and has written tens of thousands of lines of code for these science fiction role playing games. He has a great radio show on SiriusXM Outlaw Country. He’s a producer. And he’s dying to write a novel. On top of all this, Jennings still has time for some literary lightweights like Stephen Hawking, Philip K. Dick, Charles Bukowski, Arthur C. Clarke, and his favorite author Stephen King.
Jennings is always on the move. Because of this, he’s not able to sit for long periods and write. So he writes whenever and wherever he can, which is usually on his phone. He wrote one song on his new album at a Waffle House. He’ll often create songs almost entirely in his head before cutting a demo. But Jennings does not feel the need to write every day, as long as he’s thinking about writing
Don't be concerned for Eleanor Friedberger if you see her mouthing words or even mumbling to herself when she's out for a walk. It's her storytime. And it's during these times that song ideas come to her. "I tell very long and elaborate stories on those walks. True stories. As if I'm telling people a story of my relationship with so-and-so or the time that something happened to me."
I spoke to Friedberger a couple of months ago as she strolled her childhood streets of Oak Park, Illinois, where she grew up on the same street as Ernest Hemingway's childhood home. Of course, talking to me meant that she couldn't tell herself stories, but Friedberger gave me some fantastic insight into her creative process. She writes all her songs in her upstate New York home at her grandmother's dining room table, which she inherited in 2007. She types her lyrics, because in her words, "typing is the only skill I have in my life" because she took two semesters of typing in high school. Among her other little known skills: rearranging furniture and cleaning, because she's "good at making things look good." (Friedberger is also the only established musical artist I know who has a CV on their site.) She's also a fantastic songwriter.
That is, she needs complete solitude when she writes. Where other songwriters thrive on a bit of commotion or even chaos around them, not Andrews. She needs solitude because it provides her the best chance for self-reflection and an "uncluttered headspace" in the songwriting process. And she has to know that she's alone too. But she doesn't necessarily need to be at home when she writes: in fact, she often prefers someplace new. "I think it's more that I like to travel and feel out of my element, and I think my best songs come from that space. I lean towards writing songs in unfamiliar places," Andrews told me. Her process also involves what she calls "chunk writing." She doesn't like to write on tour; that's where she collects all of her notes for the later songwriting process. But when she gets off tour, she blocks off a two-week chunk on her calendar and does nothing but write.