Next time you pass through a food court at your local mall, look around for the guy in the video below. He's probably got his head down, scrawling on a piece of paper or maybe even a sketch pad. He likes the energy of the people there, as long as it doesn't distract him. Don't be surprised if it's Cory Branan; after all, the food court at the Oak Court Mall in Memphis is where he wrote his first two albums.
Rolling Stone named Branan one of the "10 New Artists You Need to Know in 2014" for his terrific new release The No Hit Wonder on Bloodshot Records. Branan's music has been described by critics as a mixture of country, punk, and rock n roll. But he's also a fantastic storyteller who takes great care to craft his lyrics. He's one of the few songwriters I've interviewed who starts with the lyrics rather than the music, and by his own admission his process involves "tons of overwriting coupled with merciless editing." What's important to Branan more than the content of the words is the cadence and the rhythm of the lyrics. It's something he's always thinking about: in fact, the voice memo on his phone is so filled with lines and lyrics that he can no longer use it to play music at parties. If he does, and it's on shuffle, you're liable to hear a voice memo of Cory reciting song ideas in between songs.
It is a testament to Kevn Kinney's stature among songwriters that other artists like Matt Nathanson and David Bazan tweeted their enthusiasm when I announced that Kinney would be featured here. Kinney has fronted Drivin' N Cryin' for close to 30 years now, and I've been a fan for most of those years. Kinney is a native of Milwaukee but the band started in Atlanta, so naturally they've been pegged as a Southern rock band, whatever THAT designation is. I prefer to see them as a rock band, plain and simple, with early staples like "Fly Me Courageous," "Honeysuckle Blue," and "Can't Promise You the World." The band is still active in both recording and touring, releasing one LP and four EPs since 2009.
I've been fortunate to interview songwriters who achieved considerable success in the 1980s and beyond: Chris Difford (Squeeze), Neil Finn (Crowded House), Cy Curnin (The Fixx), Andy McCluskey (OMD). I figure all are worth listening to when they discuss the work ethic of the songwriter. That's the one common element of their songwriting process: they write all the time. The idea of waiting for the muse is a foreign concept, because writing is something you have to work at.
I started this site in 2010 as a way to give a voice to songwriters in the same way that interviewers give poets and prose writers. I wanted to treat songwriters as writers and to have an intelligent discussion about the writing process. A Paris Review of songwriting interviews. Rhett Miller of the Old 97's fulfilled that mission for me perhaps better than any other. But that's because he sees himself as a writer, not because I treated him as one. There are a few times during our conversation when Miller reveals himself as a songwriter when he discusses guitars and chord progressions, but for the most part Miller could just as well be a poet or a short story writer. Of course, Miller is both of those: he's written poems and essays and short stories.
Richard On, guitarist and songwriter for O.A.R, is a working man. He's up before sunrise to work out. He hears melodies all day that he's constantly recording to his phone. And he does most of his best writing at night, after he's put the kids to bed and is finally able to relax with his wife. Heck, even when he sleeps he's still working: he wrote the riff to one of their songs after getting up in the middle of the nigh. On recorded it, then went back to sleep. It was only when he saw the timestamp on the recording later that he remembered what he'd done. Of course, all this hard work can be undone by the tiny fingers of his children, as you'll read.
For almost thirty years, Tom Keifer has had seeds rolling around in his head. All day long. They never stop. But Keifer wants it no other way.
Keifer achieved tremendous success as the frontman for the 80s hard rock band Cinderella, selling over 20 million albums worldwide. Throughout his career, Keifer's creative process has involved the sifting of these "seeds," as he calls them. These seeds take the form of melodies and lines that he's always juggling in his mind. Those that he forgets are probably not meant to be anyway, he figures. But those seeds that stick around for weeks or even months are probably, in Keifer's view, meant to be songs. It's not surprising, then, that Keifer's songwriting process always starts with the lyrics. The guitar hooks, he says, are "the easy part." He can write those all day long.