Yukimi Nagano of Little Dragon is a book hoarder at her local library in Sweden. She browses the stacks across all subjects, from photography to poetry to flowers. Then she walks out with as many books as she can carry. When she gets home, she peruses those books for both words and images. Sometimes the words make their way into her songs, and other times the images give her ideas to spin off of. "It could be a book about flowers, for example, and I might find a beautiful name for a flower that could be a song title," Nagano told me. And when she gets home, she does most of her writing in the kitchen. There's something about the "nice, soothing hum" of her refrigerator that's conducive to her creativity.
For today's interview, I have a companion. Last November I interviewed Theresa Wayman from Warpaint. It remains one of my favorite interviews. I recently read that Wayman was a big fan of Little Dragon, so I asked her if she wanted to interview Nagano with me. She gave me an enthusiastic yes, and somehow we made this happen: I was in New York, Wayman was in Rhode Island, and Nagano was in Sweden. We had a fantastic discussion about the creative process.
"Adjectives and adverbs are not what we need to be singin'," Tift Merritt told me during our interview. Like any good songwriter, the Grammy-nominated artist favors economy of words and simple language in her lyrics, just as two of her biggest literary influences are Cormac McCarthy and Raymond Carver. "A lyric needs to feel as if somebody could've spoken those words while standing in line at the post office," she said.
Merritt studied creative writing in college and has been writing across genres for a while. Songwriting is just one of her many creative outputs. But while Merritt might favor economy of language in song, her description of her writing process is filled with metaphors. She talks of "rolling around" in her creativity during the early stages of the process and of discarded song ideas as "pebbles on the trail to the next idea." She typically spends her mornings on words and her afternoons on music, because the lyrics require the sharpness of the morning. After lunch, Merritt says, that's when "you invite an instrument to come sit down with you."
John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats was nervous when he saw the word "process" in the title of this site. Process implies routine, and Darnielle doesn't really have a routine when it comes to songwriting. In fact, he eschews the idea. If he writes every day, it's a descriptor of his routine rather than a mandate. Keep a journal? Heck no, because Darnielle feels pretentious writing about himself. Darnielle wants to demystify the songwriting process; he doesn't want to see it as something that only happens when certain factors align. He considers songwriting, or any creative. (As you'll read, Darnielle isn't too keen on the idea of writer's block.)
That's not to say, of course, that when things are going well he won't stick to what works. For example, he wrote almost all of All Eternals Deck at his dining room table "because it just seemed to be coming out good there." He likes a certain kind of writing instrument and a certain kind of notebook. And he's stick with one guitar, even if it's not the best one, "if it seems to be giving up the goods."
By my count, Sylvan Esso's Amelia Meath is in the middle of reading seven books now. She's reading poetry, fiction, non-fiction, plays, a biography, and I'm sure some others she didn't mention in our interview. I was not surprised when she told me this. Follow Meath and her bandmate Nick Sandborn on any form of social media, and you'll see creativity everywhere. Meath is of course known for her work now in Sylvan Esso, but there's much more. She loves acting and even went to college to study it. (This is not a surprise if you've seen her lithe and theatrical stage moves). She loves to make collages. And she wants to start writing a tv pilot. Oh, and she once did a ton of freewriting about LeBron James.
Meath's songwriting process involves some routines, even though she does most of her writing "in the air." She eschews computers and prefers pen and paper for her lyrics. But not just any pen and not just any paper: for now it's a Poppin pen and college ruled composition notebooks. Part of her lyrical process involves writing the same verse over and over; in fact, some of her notebooks are filled with just one song.
Want to be in a Lydia Loveless song? It's easy: sit next to her at dinner. Well, don't sit at her table, because she might not listening to you. Instead, she's listening to the tables next to her for a line or two that she can put in a song. "It's a bad habit. I'm always eavesdropping on people. If I'm out to dinner, I'm always listening to the other tables and not paying attention to mine. I'm not even doing it consciously. But I get some great song ideas from those conversations," Loveless told me.
Loveless's songwriting process involves a few rituals. She journals every day, and she's been doing it ever since she was a young child, even though her first journal was nothing but lower case e's because that was the only letter she could write. Now that Loveless is an adult, there's one part of her process that cannot waver: she must use a Pilot Precise Extra Fine Pen with black ink. Any other pen "ruins the process," she said.
Many people believe that words flow effortlessly from the pens of great writers. These writers, people think, can just sit down and churn out page after page of prose, poetry, or whatever it is they are writing. But this is fantasy. Good writing is hard. Heck, if it were easy, the world would be filled with great writers.
For most of us, writing can be a struggle. Dallas Green, who writes and records under the name City and Colour, told me that since his last album If I Should Go Before You in 2015, he's only written a handful of songs, an unusually low number for him. Green is, by his own admission, a slow writer anyway, due to partly to fear. "I've always had this fear that I'm so scared to write the wrong thing down, even though the only way to get to the right thing is to first write the wrong thing down. And it's a real problem because I keep everything up in my head until I feel like I've got it. It's almost like I'm afraid to force it, so I never force it. That really slows my process," he told me when we talked. But while he thinks often about why the words have been slow in coming, I didn't get the sense that he's too concerned. He recently took two months off from music, and while he imagined that he'd writing something during that time, he didn't. "I'm comfortable not feeling the need to get in the studio," he said.