Marissa Nadler (2018)

Marissa Nadler (2018)

Marissa Nadler needs to write. It’s a therapeutic necessity: she uses it to process the events in her life. By her account, her best music happens when that need arises. But even if that need disappeared, Nadler would still be able to write because she’s so disciplined. Like most of the songwriters I’ve interviewed, she thinks the muse is a farce: you have to work your craft, she says. “I don’t believe in the idea of the muse because I’m a big proponent of the work ethic. I don’t want people to think that my ideas just arrived on the wings of the muse. I have to work hard,” she told me.

But that doesn’t men writing every day. In fact, Nadler may go months without writing, even though she may have enough material to write about. She likes to fill the well so that when it’s time to write, she doesn’t have to search for inspiration. And when Nadler does write, she is, in her own words, “like a bat”: she needs a cool, quiet, dark room.

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Shooter Jennings

Shooter Jennings

Shooter Jennings is not one for rest. While you’re reading this, he’s somewhere creating something. You may know Jennings for his career as a singer/songwriter, and that career alone should keep him busy. But this does not satisfy the man. He also creates video games just for fun: he’s on his third now and has written tens of thousands of lines of code for these science fiction role playing games. He has a great radio show on SiriusXM Outlaw Country. He’s a producer. And he’s dying to write a novel. On top of all this, Jennings still has time for some literary lightweights like Stephen Hawking, Philip K. Dick, Charles Bukowski, Arthur C. Clarke, and his favorite author Stephen King.

Jennings is always on the move. Because of this, he’s not able to sit for long periods and write. So he writes whenever and wherever he can, which is usually on his phone. He wrote one song on his new album at a Waffle House. He’ll often create songs almost entirely in his head before cutting a demo. But Jennings does not feel the need to write every day, as long as he’s thinking about writing

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Eleanor Friedberger

Eleanor Friedberger

Don't be concerned for Eleanor Friedberger if you see her mouthing words or even mumbling to herself when she's out for a walk. It's her storytime. And it's during these times that song ideas come to her.  "I tell very long and elaborate stories on those walks. True stories. As if I'm telling people a story of my relationship with so-and-so or the time that something happened to me." 

I spoke to Friedberger a couple of months ago as she strolled her childhood streets of Oak Park, Illinois, where she grew up on the same street as Ernest Hemingway's childhood home. Of course, talking to me meant that she couldn't tell herself stories, but Friedberger gave me some fantastic insight into her creative process. She writes all her songs in her upstate New York home at her grandmother's dining room table, which she inherited in 2007. She types her lyrics, because in her words, "typing is the only skill I have in my life" because she took two semesters of typing in high school.  Among her other little known skills: rearranging furniture and cleaning, because she's "good at making things look good." (Friedberger is also the only established musical artist I know who has a CV on their site.) She's also a fantastic songwriter. 

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Courtney Marie Andrews

Courtney Marie Andrews

Courtney Marie Andrews needs to be alone.

That is, she needs complete solitude when she writes. Where other songwriters thrive on a bit of commotion or even chaos around them, not Andrews. She needs solitude because it provides her the best chance for self-reflection and an "uncluttered headspace" in the songwriting process. And she has to know that she's alone too. But she doesn't necessarily need to be at home when she writes: in fact, she often prefers someplace new. "I think it's more that I like to travel and feel out of my element, and I think my best songs come from that space. I lean towards writing songs in unfamiliar places," Andrews told me. Her process also involves what she calls "chunk writing." She doesn't like to write on tour; that's where she collects all of her notes for the later songwriting process. But when she gets off tour, she blocks off a two-week chunk on her calendar and does nothing but write.

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Matt Lowell, Lo Moon

Matt Lowell, Lo Moon

Matt Lowell of Lo Moon grew up playing hockey. "I was obsessed with it," he told me. Lowell was at the rink every day, but part of this obsession can be traced to how much he watched the sport. It was a natural extension: the first thing Lowell wanted to do after watching hockey on television was play it. 

The same can be said for Lowell's love of reading. When he reads a lot, he writes a lot. And when he's not reading, writing is difficult. It's an easy connection. For the songwriters or writers reading this interview, you won't be a good writer unless you read. It's impossible. Just read the interviews on this site. The songwriters are voracious readers, and Lowell knows this. He knows that his talent as a songwriter depends on his exposure to other people's words. "I’m not really inspired by everyday life," Lowell told me. "I’m not that inspired by the things around me. But when I’m reading something, or if I see an amazing film, or if I’m jamming with my band mates, that’s when the sparks come." By his own admission, the band's schedule has kept him away from his books, and that bothers him. "I'm upset that I haven't been able to read that much," he said.

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Chris Robinson, The Chris Robinson Brotherhood and The Black Crowes

Chris Robinson, The Chris Robinson Brotherhood and The Black Crowes

Towards the end of my conversation with Chris Robinson, we started talking about his reading habits. In my almost 200 interviews for this site, I've learned that songwriters are voracious readers. But I was not at all prepared for the onslaught of titles that Robinson threw at me. He reads so much that I don't know where the man finds time to write. And while most songwriters stick to a genre or two, Robinson sticks to nothing. He wants to be exposed to everything. So he reads some Beat poets, then some Baudelaire. He'll move to Gene Wolfe then Knut Hamsun. Then it might be time for H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen, moving on after that to Israel Regardi's The Golden Dawn or The Dreaming Jewels by Theodore Sturgeon, then some non-fiction in the form or Mary Beard.  His current favorite is Brian Calling. 

Robinson is the frontman and leader of The Chris Robinson Brotherhood, a band he begin in 2011. They've put out six albums in that time, the latest being 2017's Barefoot in the Head. Of course, from 1989 to 2015, Robinson fronted the Black Crowes. Besides their great music - their debut Shake Your Money Maker has not one bad song - the Black Crowes were an incredible live band. I can attest to that: I first saw them in 1990 at a club in Grand Rapids, Michigan right after Shake Your Money Maker was released. The buzz around the band had just started, and that show still stands as one of the best I've ever seen.

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Brian Fallon, The Gaslight Anthem

Brian Fallon, The Gaslight Anthem

When Brian Fallon writes, he's constantly being watched. There's Paul, Tom, B.B. and George, among others, looking over his shoulder. And yes, that's McCartney, Waits, King, and Harrison. You see, there's a room in Fallon's house where he does most of his writing. (When's up there, he's always dressed as if he's going to work. No slippers or pajamas. But that's another story.) And in that room Fallon, also singer of The Gaslight Anthem, hung pictures of some of his songwriting idols. Fallon purposely put them high, close to the ceiling, so he always feels like he's being watched, even judged. He looks to them for inspiration and affirmation. He'll even carry on the occasional conversation, imagining how they might react to a line he's written.

For a guy who writes so much and who has such impressive chops, one thing stands out among the songwriters I've interviewed for this site. Most, if not all, have all their old lyrics and journals from previous albums stored somewhere. They might be in a closet or a box, but they keep them. Some might never look at these journals again, while others go through them for inspiration. Not Fallon. He has nothing, save for the notes from the Horrible Crowes project and the notes from Handwritten. He joked that the notes from the Gaslight classic The '59 Sound are probably on the I-95 shoulder somewhere. Fallon's reason is simple: "I purge a lot of stuff on records, so whatever that last record was about, whatever was weighing me down, I don't want to ever bring that stuff back. A record is like an exorcism to me." Of course, Fallon doesn't keep a steady journal, though he admits he'd probably benefit from it since it would help him remember things.

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Eric Earley, Blitzen Trapper

Eric Earley, Blitzen Trapper

Wanna be a writer? Easy: read and write. All the time. You can't be a good writer if you don't read. Most songwriters I interview are voracious readers, but I don't know anyone I've interviewed who fits that idea more than Blitzen Trapper's Eric Earley. 

When I asked Earley if he was a disciplined writer, if he was able to sit down and make himself write for a stretch, he told me no. That's a common response to this question, and it's mostly framed as a wistful But I really wish I had that discipline. Earley's reason is different: he doesn't have discipline because he doesn't need it. He writes all the time. He never sees writing as someone that he should do. Instead, it's something he loves to do. In fact, his problem now is that his love for writing may occupy too much of his time. "It's more about scaling back and finding times to do other things," he told me. To wit: Earley has written five novels that he has no plans to publish. And he's always reading. When we talked, he was reading three books at the same time. The result? A songwriter who loves to tell stories, and whose process seems, from an outsider's perspective, to come pretty easily. But that's my point: when Earley isn't writing songs, words consume his life in some other fashion.

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Whitney Rose

Whitney Rose

By her own admission, Whitney Rose is an "unapologetic romantic." This isn't surprising if you know her music: it's about as authentic and throwback as you can get in the country music world. There's a little bit of Patsy Cline, some Loretta Lynn, and even some Dolly Parton too. 

But Rose is old school in other ways too. As you'll hear in almost any song she sings, she's a storyteller. Rose laments the art of storytelling in song as a dying art (something Evan Felker of Turnpike Troubadours told me in our recent interview). And don't even get her started on the state of penmanship instruction in schools. She told me that she was "appalled" to learn her two younger siblings aren't even being taught cursive in schools. Just typing. Unsurprisingly, Rose has never used a computer to write her lyrics. And she can only write under one condition: there can be no one around, not even anyone in the house, when she writes. Rose's writing happens spontaneously. She's been known to walk out of restaurants and parties, no matter who she's with, when she feels a song coming on. She goes home and goes into, in her words, "musical labor."

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Robyn Hitchcock

Robyn Hitchcock

Robyn Hitchcock, for the good of all your fans, please delete your account.

Not because your tweets are inflammatory or idiotic. Quite the contrary: I love your witty and insightful posts.  But when you told me that your constant attention to social media distracts you from your songwriting, that you are "finishing up fewer songs because of it," well that's where I draw the line. So please put down that phone. No tweet is worth stifling your creative process, my good sir.

Hitchcock, 64, has been writing songs since the 1970s, both solo and with acts like the Soft Boys and Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians. He's earned praise and adulation from critics and songwriters the entire time. Like most songwriters with long careers, he writes constantly. Some of his writings become songs, some don't, although he hates journal writing. Hitchcock likes to write in the morning when his mind is fresh, but he admits that a hangover can be a good tonic for songwriting (something many other songwriters have mentioned to me). This would appear to be counterintuitive; after all, how can you write when you're in pain? But it's precisely that discomfort that Hitchcock finds so stimulating, telling me, "If you're very comfortable in your mind, why write anything in the first place? Why even act on what's there? There can't be that much burning inside of you that you want to write about if you're comfortable. Agitation is necessary." And when Hitchcock writes, it's in pencil, never pen, because he wants to be able to erase, not cross out. 

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Jessica Lea Mayfield

Jessica Lea Mayfield

Jessica Lea Mayfield owns a blue tote bag. This in itself is not unusual: you probably have a tote bag too. But it’s not a stretch to say that Mayfield’s blue tote bag is her life. It contains almost everything she’s ever written, all the way back to when she was a child. There are scraps of  notebook paper, receipts, utility bills, pieces of cardboard. And she’s written on them in pens, pencils, eyeliner, and crayons, among other things. Whenever Mayfield has a thought, she writes it down and puts it in the bag. And when it comes time to write a song, she will often dump the bag’s content all over the floor and search for an idea or a verse or phrase that fits the melody for the song she’s writing. 

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Ted Leo

Ted Leo

Every writer has a ritual, some consistent part of the writing process that brings them the comfort or confidence to be productive. Ted Leo has one: stacks. Stacks of things. When Leo is around the house, he carries with him from room to room a stack of pads, some pens, his phone, and his Roget's Thesaurus. And when he sets them down, they are each their own stack, not one giant stack. Almost like a fortress of words around him. 

Leo's lyrics have been rightfully praised for years, and I have to think that much of this has to do with his voracious reading habit. It's not possible to be a writer unless you read. It's just not. Leo is a good example of that; he goes down rabbit holes of genres or authors or topics, especially while on tour. And these are some pretty dense topics. That's why, after one tour, Leo was able to riff about 70s urban planning in the UK and Russian constructivist architecture with ease. And while he may not have written any songs about these topics, he says that on some level all of that reading made him a better, and a more thoughtful, songwriter.

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Dan Wilson

Dan Wilson

 

You know Dan Wilson. You may not think you know Dan Wilson, but you know Dan Wilson. How do I know that you know Dan Wilson? Because it's closing time somewhere in the world as I'm typing this and as you're reading this, and there is no way in hell that you haven't heard that song. Which, by the way, I still love.

You also know Dan Wilson because you know Adele and the Dixie Chicks. He co-wrote Adele's "Someone Like You" and the Dixie Chicks' "Not Ready to Make Nice." He won two Grammys in 2007: Song of the Year as co-writer on "Not Ready to Make Nice" and Album of the Year for the Dixie Chicks' album Taking the Long Way. He again won an Album of the Year Grammy in 2012 for Adele's album 21. The list of artists he's either written with or produced is dizzying:  Taylor Swift, Nas, Pink, Weezer, John Legend, Josh Groban, Chris Stapleton, Spoon, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, My Morning Jacket, to name a very small few. He's got indie street cred too: he worked extensively on Phantogram's 2016 album Three, including a co-writing credit on every song except one.

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Brendan Canning, Broken Social Scene

Brendan Canning, Broken Social Scene

If you ever email Broken Social Scene's Brendan Canning, a word of advice: don't ever greet him with "nice to e-meet you!" This is horrible, and Canning hates it. He's also not a fan of any reference to "hump day" in emails he gets on Wednesday. I agree with Canning's point, and I hate these phrases because they are lazy. Canning probably does too, but as a songwriter who creates original art, hackneyed phrases like these must especially make him cringe.

Of course, I might be reading too much into this. But Canning is always creating: he cooks, he gardens, he plays soccer, and he DJ's. "I live life with my curiosity piqued," he told me. In fact, you can often find him on the streets of Toronto on his bike, staring at people and wondering what their stories are. The important thing is that Canning is always keeping his brain going in some fashion. So if you're in downtown Toronto and notice Canning staring you down, there might be a Broken Social Scene song in there somewhere.

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Adrianne Lenker, Big Thief

Adrianne Lenker, Big Thief

Back in June 2016, Alaina Moore of Tennis (whom I interviewed for this site) emailed me about a new band she discovered. She wrote, "I just found a band called Big Thief with a debut album, Masterpiece. It's unbelievably good, and the song "Real Love" has a guitar solo that literally made me cry." 

That guitar solo is played by Adrianne Lenker, Big Thief's vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter. Since Masterpiece's release last year, the band put out Capacity, and on the strength of those two incredible albums (both on Saddle Creek Records), the band has leaped to the top of many critics' short list of best new bands, or just best bands period. And for good reason: the music is powerful and Lenker's lyrics are intensely personal. Much of this has to do, I think, with how Lenker travels through this world. She treats everything she sees and everything she hears as a work of art. The world is her palette. "My mind puts frames on everything," she told me.

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Evan Felker, Turnpike Troubadours

Evan Felker, Turnpike Troubadours

Evan Felker, songwriter and guitarist for Turnpike Troubadours, has his own version of the nuclear football, the bag that never leaves his side when he's on the road. It contains everything he needs to write a song: his laptop, a composition notebook, and a legal pad. Each serves a specific purpose. The legal pad is for song ideas and random lines, and for this he uses a pen. The composition notebook is for the lyrics, and for this he uses a pencil. Then the computer is where the fully formed song takes shape so that he can copy and paste to see where the lines work best. 

As you may have read in the last few days, Turnpike Troubadours have a new album out October 20 called A Long Way From Your Heart. Felker details some of his songwriting process behind the new material in our interview. He decided to write songs with a narrative bent filled with fictional characters inspired by the people he's known throughout his life. Many are from the area around southeastern Oklahoma where he grew up, from places like the factories and mills he worked after finishing tech school. Felker co-wrote one of the new songs on the album, "Come As You Are," with his good friend Rhett Miller of the Old 97s. (I interviewed Miller a couple of years ago, and I have to thank him for putting me in touch with Felker.) Here's what Miller recently told me about Felker...

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Yukimi Nagano, Little Dragon

Yukimi Nagano, Little Dragon

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.

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Tift Merritt

Tift Merritt

"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." 

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John Darnielle, The Mountain Goats

John Darnielle, The Mountain Goats

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."

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Amelia Meath, Sylvan Esso

Amelia Meath, Sylvan Esso

 

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. 

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