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.
Matt Lowell of Lo Moon grew up playing hockey. "I was obsessed with it," he told me. Lowell was at the rink every day, but part of this obsession can be traced to how much he watched the sport. It was a natural extension: the first thing Lowell wanted to do after watching hockey on television was play it.
The same can be said for Lowell's love of reading. When he reads a lot, he writes a lot. And when he's not reading, writing is difficult. It's an easy connection. For the songwriters or writers reading this interview, you won't be a good writer unless you read. It's impossible. Just read the interviews on this site. The songwriters are voracious readers, and Lowell knows this. He knows that his talent as a songwriter depends on his exposure to other people's words. "I’m not really inspired by everyday life," Lowell told me. "I’m not that inspired by the things around me. But when I’m reading something, or if I see an amazing film, or if I’m jamming with my band mates, that’s when the sparks come." By his own admission, the band's schedule has kept him away from his books, and that bothers him. "I'm upset that I haven't been able to read that much," he said.
Towards the end of my conversation with Chris Robinson, we started talking about his reading habits. In my almost 200 interviews for this site, I've learned that songwriters are voracious readers. But I was not at all prepared for the onslaught of titles that Robinson threw at me. He reads so much that I don't know where the man finds time to write. And while most songwriters stick to a genre or two, Robinson sticks to nothing. He wants to be exposed to everything. So he reads some Beat poets, then some Baudelaire. He'll move to Gene Wolfe then Knut Hamsun. Then it might be time for H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen, moving on after that to Israel Regardi's The Golden Dawn or The Dreaming Jewels by Theodore Sturgeon, then some non-fiction in the form or Mary Beard. His current favorite is Brian Calling.
Robinson is the frontman and leader of The Chris Robinson Brotherhood, a band he begin in 2011. They've put out six albums in that time, the latest being 2017's Barefoot in the Head. Of course, from 1989 to 2015, Robinson fronted the Black Crowes. Besides their great music - their debut Shake Your Money Maker has not one bad song - the Black Crowes were an incredible live band. I can attest to that: I first saw them in 1990 at a club in Grand Rapids, Michigan right after Shake Your Money Maker was released. The buzz around the band had just started, and that show still stands as one of the best I've ever seen.
When Brian Fallon writes, he's constantly being watched. There's Paul, Tom, B.B. and George, among others, looking over his shoulder. And yes, that's McCartney, Waits, King, and Harrison. You see, there's a room in Fallon's house where he does most of his writing. (When's up there, he's always dressed as if he's going to work. No slippers or pajamas. But that's another story.) And in that room Fallon, also singer of The Gaslight Anthem, hung pictures of some of his songwriting idols. Fallon purposely put them high, close to the ceiling, so he always feels like he's being watched, even judged. He looks to them for inspiration and affirmation. He'll even carry on the occasional conversation, imagining how they might react to a line he's written.
For a guy who writes so much and who has such impressive chops, one thing stands out among the songwriters I've interviewed for this site. Most, if not all, have all their old lyrics and journals from previous albums stored somewhere. They might be in a closet or a box, but they keep them. Some might never look at these journals again, while others go through them for inspiration. Not Fallon. He has nothing, save for the notes from the Horrible Crowes project and the notes from Handwritten. He joked that the notes from the Gaslight classic The '59 Sound are probably on the I-95 shoulder somewhere. Fallon's reason is simple: "I purge a lot of stuff on records, so whatever that last record was about, whatever was weighing me down, I don't want to ever bring that stuff back. A record is like an exorcism to me." Of course, Fallon doesn't keep a steady journal, though he admits he'd probably benefit from it since it would help him remember things.
Wanna be a writer? Easy: read and write. All the time. You can't be a good writer if you don't read. Most songwriters I interview are voracious readers, but I don't know anyone I've interviewed who fits that idea more than Blitzen Trapper's Eric Earley.
When I asked Earley if he was a disciplined writer, if he was able to sit down and make himself write for a stretch, he told me no. That's a common response to this question, and it's mostly framed as a wistful But I really wish I had that discipline. Earley's reason is different: he doesn't have discipline because he doesn't need it. He writes all the time. He never sees writing as someone that he should do. Instead, it's something he loves to do. In fact, his problem now is that his love for writing may occupy too much of his time. "It's more about scaling back and finding times to do other things," he told me. To wit: Earley has written five novels that he has no plans to publish. And he's always reading. When we talked, he was reading three books at the same time. The result? A songwriter who loves to tell stories, and whose process seems, from an outsider's perspective, to come pretty easily. But that's my point: when Earley isn't writing songs, words consume his life in some other fashion.