Regardless of what kind of art you create, some level of self-awareness is important. If you're a songwriter, you may marvel at the miracle of inspiration and how sometimes songs just fall into your lap. But at some point, you have to think about your process: you have to think about the parts that work, the parts that don't work, and why they do and don't. Successful songwriters have that level of self-awareness. It's hard to be productive if you're oblivious to your process. Jenn Wasner knows what works and what doesn't work, and this is one of the reasons why she is so prolific and so talented
"You can't have purple prose and expect people to get to the core on their own," Kristin Welchez told me as we discussed her songwriting process. Welchez is the leader of the Dum Dum Girls with a new project under the moniker Kristin Kontrol. Welchez told me that she's always been "indulgent" in her words (it's feedback she's gotten since grade school) but that she tries to be as direct as possible in her songwriting. Stripping an idea to its bare essentials is the easiest way to minimize distance between you and the audience; it doesn't matter whether they're readers or concertgoers. To reinforce this idea to a young Welchez, one of her English teachers gave her a copy of the book Writing Down the Bones, and she's tried to follow this precept ever since.
It's great paradox, right? Sadie Dupuis, songwriter and frontperson for Speedy Ortiz, has an MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts. She's been writing poetry for several years. Yet she insists on writing her song lyrics in prose form. They look like paragraphs. She even hates when anyone writing about her music transcribes her lyrics in verse form. "It really does drive me crazy when I see my lyrics reprinted in stanza form. I mean, I'm giving it to them right here. This is the way it should look!"
But it should come as little surprise that Dupuis treats song lyrics this way: her poetry writing and song writing have nothing in common. Her poems start with words and with an idea she'd like to write about, but her songs almost always start with a melody. Sitting down to write poetry and instead coming up with a song "would almost be as if someone sat down to create an oil painting and wound up choreographing a ballet instead," she told me.
In 2010, when I first interviewed Broemel, the guitarist for My Morning Jacket admitted that his "crazy lifestyle" unfortunately didn't leave him much time for reading. Sure, he had plans: he'd gaze longingly at that stack of books on his bedside table, wondering when he'd ever get to read them. But the stack mostly remained untouched.
It's a different story now, pun intended. Broemel devours books. He reads everything, and I mean everything. I always ask songwriters what they're reading, and I get some great responses. But Broemel and I could've talked forever about what he's been reading, and the enthusiasm in his voice was clear.
You don't win four Grammy Awards and receive eleven additional Grammy nominations by letting the muse come to you. You don't have eleven #1 country singles and twenty-one Top 40 country singles by waiting for inspiration to strike. And you certainly don't become a member of the Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame by writing only when you feel like it. When you're Rosanne Cash, you write. And when you're not writing, you're thinking about writing.
Hayes Carll is not a disciplined person. He’ll be the first one to tell you that. He told me this much when I first interviewed him in 2013 . He said, "To be honest, I'm always looking for something else to do other than write. I wish that wasn't the case." It’s now three years later, and it still hasn’t gotten better. With a short attention span, he gets distracted easily. “If I turn on the TV or find some distraction, I’m done. I won’t come back,” Carll told me.
So while the Austin based singer/songwriter loves to write, he also loves to not write, which is why it’s so difficult for him to write for long stretches: if anything even remotely interesting appears on TV, he’s hooked. According to Carll, it can be a cricket match or even “Martha Stewart boiling an egg.” He tries to keep himself as far away from the TV as possible when he writes. If he does get stuck, he returns to his tried and true method of pushing past that block: “a cleaning bender.” This is no metaphor. He cleans his apartment.