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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Lydia Loveless

Lydia Loveless

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. 

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Dallas Green, City and Colour

Dallas Green, City and Colour

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 2015he'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. 

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M.C. Taylor, Hiss Golden Messenger

M.C. Taylor, Hiss Golden Messenger

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.

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Theresa Wayman, Warpaint

Theresa Wayman, Warpaint

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.

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Robert Ellis

Robert Ellis

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 EllisEllis 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."

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Jenn Wasner, Wye Oak and Flock of Dimes

Jenn Wasner, Wye Oak and Flock of Dimes

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

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Kristin Welchez (Kristin Kontrol, Dum Dum Girls)

Kristin Welchez (Kristin Kontrol, Dum Dum Girls)

"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.

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Sadie Dupuis, Speedy Ortiz

Sadie Dupuis, Speedy Ortiz

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. 

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Carl Broemel, My Morning Jacket (2016)

Carl Broemel, My Morning Jacket (2016)

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.

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Rosanne Cash

Rosanne Cash

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.

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