M.C. Taylor will tell you that he's not a narrative songwriter. There may be a story behind the songs, but they don't really tell a story. And even if they did, he wouldn't tell you what those songs are about because that's not his duty as a writer. Taylor would never dare tell you what meaning you're supposed to glean from his lyrics. "Part of my mission with Hiss has been to make emotionally complex music, where you play it for someone and they can't quite tell whether it's happy or sad. That's the core of my music: using it as a mirror for what my life feels like, because my life is both happy and sad, usually at the same time. My songs are about whatever you want them to be about. You have your idea and I have mine, and I would never disabuse anyone of their notion." he told me.Read More
Any artist will tell you that discipline is a necessary component of their creative process. Anyone who sits around waiting for the muse is probably not long for the craft. You have to work at it. Theresa Wayman of Warpaint certainly adheres to this idea: she creates something every day, even if it's nothing great. She told me, "Even if you're a creative person, it's important to go to work every day. . . . I have to exercise some aspect of myself, even if I create something that I never want to hear or see again. At least I've accomplished something if I do that. . . . You have get through the crap to create something beautiful."
Wayman wasn't always this disciplined, though. Another component of the creative process is the willingness to change your routine to stay energized creatively. To Wayman, that change meant becoming more disciplined. Using discipline as a way to disrupt the creative process would appear to be a paradox, although it really isn't.Read More
If you ever happen upon Robert Ellis in public, and he's intently staring at you in a way that probably makes you deeply uncomfortable while he's also jotting down words in a journal, don't worry. There's a good chance he's writing a song. You see, for the song "Perfect Strangers" off his new album Robert Ellis, Ellis rode the subway in New York City for a month one August. Every day, he'd hop on the train, sit down, and pull out his journal. Then he's stare ("creepily," in his words) at the other passengers, trying to imagine where they were going, what their job was, and what their family was like. Then he'd write down his impressions, and those impressions formed the basis for "Perfect Strangers."
Ironically, though, Ellis is driven much more by melody than by lyrics. He actually hates to see his lyrics alone on a page, telling me that they too often look like the musings of a "high school creative writing student . . . A lyrical alone is not enough to kick me in the gut to make me finish. When I look at lyrics naked on the page, they always seem shitty to me. It's rare that I look at just my lyrics and feel good about them."Read More
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 talentedRead More
"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.Read More
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.Read More
Carl Broemel is a changed man.
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.Read More
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.Read More
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.
"I can’t imagine being a songwriter and not reading. How is that possible?"
No truer words of wisdom have ever been uttered by a songwriter. It should come as no surprise that Neil Fallon, utterer of those words and the the singer/songwriter of the metal band Clutch, is a voracious reader. Fallon is a huge fan of Cormac McCarthy (a favorite among many songwriters I've interviewed) and William Faulkner, but he’s also devoured his share of science fiction over the years—which is why he wanted to branch out to other genres. So Fallon recently decided to tackle some light reading in the form of Russian literature.Read More
Jim Lauderdale has been called a "songwriter's songwriter," and for good reason: he's written songs for artists like George Strait, The Dixie Chicks, Elvis Costello, Blake Shelton, Patty Loveless, Vince Gill, and Gary Allan. He's released 28 studio albums since 1986, with a new one out this spring called London Southern. He's won two Grammy Awards. He's also the host of the fantastic "Buddy and Jim" show on Sirius/XM Radio. In short, Lauderdale is enormously respected in the country, bluegrass, and Americana music genres.Read More
"I was just telling my girlfriend the other day, 'People don't take the words of Yoda seriously enough." And with that, J.D. Cronise of The Sword just gave me one of my favorite lines in the six years I've had this site. Most songwriters I talk to usually can pinpoint an ideal emotion or state of mind under which they get their best writing done. To Cronise, though, it's an absence of emotion. He tries to get, in his words, into the most Zen state possible: a mind free of clutter, thoughts, distractions, anything. "It’s the non-emotional space that’s best for me. I like to be in a very Zen headspace. Peace and calm is the most important thing to me when I write." Cronise never forces the writing process, only writing when he feels ready. In itself, this puts him in a relaxed state: there's no pressure to write, so he never gets blocked.Read More
Everyone offering career advice seems to want to steer people away from the humanities. Don't be an English major, they say. You won't make any money. Singer/songwriter Allison Moorer has fortunately dispensed with this silly bit of advice: she's finishing her first semester at The New School in Chelsea, where she's getting her MFA in creative non-fiction. As someone with a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature, I fully support her new career path.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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."Read More
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.Read More
Dan Deacon is best known for his work as an electronic musician and, more recently, even as a classical composer. He's received tremendous (and well-deserved) critical acclaim for the novelty of the sounds in his electronic music, not to mention his live shows. His new album, Gliss Riffer is the first of his releases to feature vocal tracks, to see his voice as an instrument to ply just like all the myriad instruments we hear on his albums.
As you'll read, my interview with Deacon was not about the specifics of the writer's routine, as many of my interviews are. Deacon sees himself as an artist in the true sense of someone who creates art; he's much more than just a songwriter. So this conversation is more about the amorphous idea of creativity. More specifically, it's about Deacon's frustration with not having enough time to create. As his popularity increases, so do the demands of his career: the interviews, the meetings, the emails. Even the live shows. When he's touring for an album, he's not able create new art. And that means less time to create, which frustrates him.Read More