James McMurtry wants his old iPhone back. The singer-songwriter hasn't been the same writer without it. And it's all because Apple changed its Notes app.
In the days before computers were the default method for composition, McMurtry wrote lyrics on legal pads. He has boxes filled with legal pads filled with lyrics. He became intensely familiar and comfortable with those yellow pages; there was something about that yellow and those lines that made the words pour forth from his felt-tip pen. McMurtry eventually turned to computers, but with them he sacrificed portability. Cell phones solved that problem. And when McMurtry found that the Notes app on his iPhone 3 looked like that old yellow legal pad paper, well, the words flowed. It was creative nirvana.
Mac McCaughan is a busy guy, but does that surprise you? He's married, has two kids, runs Merge Records (which he also co-founded), fronts Superchunk, and has the side project Portastatic. Now, on May 4, he'll release Non-Believers, his first solo album. As you can imagine, McCaughan has little free time, which is why his creative process is more disciplined than most artists'. His window for creative work on the new album was small: since he made the album at home, he did most of the work in the morning, when the kids were at school. Then he'd head to work at Merge in the afternoon. At night, when the kids were in bed, he'd work on it some more.
The story behind the creative process of Tennis' debut Cape Dory has been told ad nauseam elsewhere. Make that "everywhere else"; the internet seems incapable of mentioning the band without talking about The Trip. And in that narrative, you'll see words like beach and sunny to describe the music of this Denver-based couple (Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley are married).
But that's not what Moore and I wanted to talk about.
I remember an interview with an author who said that the term "beach read" is an insult because it implies that the writing has no depth and can be consumed with little effort. As you'll see, Moore's songwriting process--really, her life--reflects the anxiety behind that idea. When descriptors like that follow your music everywhere, I imagine it must be frustrating to Moore, whose songwriting has far more depth than that.
When I started this site in 2010, I had a goal: treat songwriters as writers, plain and simple. As someone with a Ph.D. in English Literature, I had read my share of interviews with poets, playwrights, novelists, and short story writers detailing their writing process. But what about songwriters? Aren't they writers too? Shouldn't they be included? So when John Oates started our interview by saying, "I've always looked at myself as a writer," I swooned. Because songwriters are writers. Period.
I'm going to borrow from Questlove's excellent induction speech when he introduced Hall and Oates at the 2014 Rock n Roll Hall of Fame ceremony. In the rock era, here's a list of the duos who are more successful than Hall and Oates, according to the RIAA:
Oh, to be a young and single songwriter. There are no limits to your creative process: without family commitments, you can write anywhere, anytime. And that's what Ben Bridwell, singer and songwriter for Band of Horses, did. He went to cabins and cabooses, from mountains to ocean shores. Bridwell craves that isolation to write, and he thought it was a necessary component to his process. And that isolation, he believed, couldn't be a quiet room in the house. It had to be far away. (Not all songwriters need solitude, though; many have told me that they prefer to be around at least a little bit of action. There's Cory Branan, who wrote his first two albums in a mall food court. And there's Rhett Miller, who likes venue stairwells, where it's quiet but he not too far from the hustle and bustle of load in.)
Three daughters and a wife later, Bridwell can no longer pack up his notebooks and head to the hills to write like he used to. He's got a family now. But he's found the perfect space: his garage-cum-studio. No one bothers him there, though admittedly they stay away for more practical reasons: according to Bridwell, "it's dark and there are lots of bugs." Having this space made Bridwell realize that it's solitude that matters, not where the solitude is.
At the beginning of our interview, Carl Newman of The New Pornographers said that he didn’t think he had a process. He insisted that he was “absolutely not a disciplined writer.” But as he discovered by the time we finished talking, he does have a process. In fact, it’s happening all the time, probably as you read this.
Newman may not sit down to write every day or may not have structured writing time, but according to him, “There’s an obsession in the back of my head that always makes me think about writing. I’m distracted by the idea of songwriting.” I get the sense that Newman is never not thinking about music. He’s always picking up words or turns of a phrase, and he’s always got melodies in his head. So it’s a nonstop process, even though it’s not a deliberate and conscious one. But the act of actually sitting down to write is “painful,” says Newman.
Read my interview with Carl Newman after the video. We get to the bottom of his creative process, but we also talk about Infinite Jest, his obsession with 10cc, and why lyrics are such a punishing part of his songwriting process. And course, we talk about the role that turn signals and windshield wipers play in his creative process.