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.
Put Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast in a hotel bathroom, and she's one happy songwriter. If you're with her and she's in there for a looong time, don't worry. She's creating. Music.
The traveling ways of the songwriter dictate that they can't be too picky with their environment when it comes to writing. They have to adapt to their surroundings and write whenever they can, wherever they can. But according to Cosentino, environment plays a "huge" role in her songwriting process. When she's at home, she writes in her "music room," which contains nothing but music related stuff, from guitars to CDs to posters. She loves to write there because the room's solitude gives her privacy. "I try on tour to write, but the problem is that I don't want people to hear me when I'm trying to write. I like to be able to make mistakes and sing badly and play really bad chords that don't sound good together. It's a very private process for me that I enjoy doing entirely on my own. A place like that is hard to find on tour."
Ed Note: today I digress slightly to interview one of the best poets today, Li-Young Lee.
Reason number one why I am not introspective enough to be a poet:
When I get up in the morning and look at a messy bed, I see a bed that needs to be made. The poet Li-Young Lee, on the other hand, sees beauty in the absence of a body and the shape of a body simultaneously.
Poets have a different perspective on the world around us. They see beauty in things that I cannot possibly imagine. Heck, they just see things that I cannot imagine. Which is why, I suppose, they became poets. When Lee says, "I am aware of the fact that there are poems everywhere. My whole experience, both inside and outside, is one giant poem: my dreams, the things I am looking at. I am sitting here talking to you and looking at these books on my shelf, and there is a poem there somewhere," this is what I mean. And when he has trouble writing, it's not because he doesn't know what to write about. It's because he is so overwhelmed by everything around him that he doesn't know where to start.