"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.
Ashley Monroe has been writing songs since she was a young kid, which means she's been carrying around that bucket for a loooong time. This bucket is her "idea bucket." By her own admission, Monroe is never not a songwriter. She's always thinking about songs, so whenever she goes out (much to the chagrin of her husband), she's always attuned to her environment, its sights and sounds, for song ideas. And that's why she has her "idea bucket." She carries it everywhere she goes, and in that bucket go the song ideas that she gets by being hypersensitive to everything around her.
In February 2011 I interviewed a new group called The Civil Wars, ten days after the release of their debut Barton Hollow. The rest was, of course, history, as Joy Williams and John Paul White went on to huge success, including four Grammys and worldwide critical adulation. The group broke up in 2014.
Williams released her solo debut Venus this year. In the 160 or so interviews I've done for this site, one pattern has emerged among the truly creative souls here: they are always songwriters, and they are always thinking about creating. John Oates, for example, told me about his songwriting antennae that are always up. Melissa Etheridge, whom I just interviewed yesterday and as you'll read soon, told me that she's always carrying her "idea bucket" around. And so it is with Williams: the creative process is always at the forefront in some form. She writes every day, she's reading five books at any given time, she loves cooking and the creativity inherent in that process.