You need only spend a few minutes talking to Tim Jones, one of the four songwriters in the band Truth and Salvage Co., to realize that he is a man without a generation. And I mean that in a good way. Read the book Hotel California: The True Life Adventures of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell, Taylor, Browne, Ronstadt, Geffen, the Eagles, and Their Many Friends by Barney Hoskyns, and you'll see what I mean. It's about the singer/songwriter scene in southern California from the mid 60s through the 70s. The artists in that scene valued the craft of the song, sat around and played a lot of guitar and piano, and spoke of the emotional connection between them and their instruments. This is where Jones belonged.
He lives a bungalow in LA--an obvious connection to the 70s singer/songwriter scene. There is a close bond, a spiritual connection, between him, his musical instrument, and his song. It's a genuine affection, to such an extent that he writes only when he needs his instrument or it needs him. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship.
It should come as little surprise, then, that Jones's writing process is neither methodical nor regimented. But over his twenty-year songwriting career (he's been writing since he was fourteen), he has relied, in the purest sense of the word, on the inspiration of his muse. Jones writes when he feels like it, not when he is supposed to. He waits for his muse. And when it strikes--when he is inspired--he heads right to the piano or guitar. His muse is in the form of a melody, not a lyric, so he'll just start humming. And from that melody come the lyrics. Oh, he's got pages and pages of lyrics that he has frantically written down throughout his life, when he thinks he has a great line. But nothing ever comes of it. It's the music that moves him first.
For Jones, it's all about emotion. Creativity is never meant to be defined. So if you ask him to explain why he likes a work of art--whether it's a song, a poem, a sculpture, whatever--don't expect him to tell you why he likes it. Art is meant to move you emotionally, not intellectually. And that's not something you are meant to explain.
I caught Truth and Salvage Co. at the DC9 in Washington, DC a few weeks ago. Truth and Salvage Co. is unique in that it boasts four songwriters. They were all part of other bands at some point in their careers, and they all ended up in LA in 2005, where they met at Hollywood’s Hotel Café. Jones was the Hotel Cafe's talent booker, and the six began performing together during some jam sessions. They've been called roots rock, Americana, rock, country, alt-country, rock n' roll, among others. But really, it's just rock.
Truth and Salvage's debut release (out May 2010) was produced by Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes. David Fricke of Rolling Stone had great things to say about it. Read the interview with Tim Jones. You'll learn his thoughts on pop songs, his plans after music, what it's like to work in a band with four songwriters, his favorite fiction and poetry writers--and what happens when he plays Hall and Oates on the piano.
How did you start out as a writer? From my experience, songwriters don't start out writing song lyrics as their first foray into writing.
I wrote my first song when I was 14 years old. I was listening to a lot of Neil Young at the time, and I figured if he could do it, I could do it. "Sugar Mountain" was one of the first songs I ever learned to play on guitar, trying to sing and play at the same time. I had an English teacher or two who said I was a pretty good writer, so I grew up writing songs. My mom kept a lot of journals and wrote a lot of notes to me as a kid, and I guess I thought it was a very natural thing to write about your feelings. When I fell in love with a girl for the first time, and I couldn't understand why she didn't love me like I loved her, I thought it was only natural to write a song about it. It was what felt like what I should do.
That's interesting, because I've talked to a lot of musicians who started out writing other mediums like poetry or short stories, but it sounds like you started out writing songs.
Yeah. When I got to college, I took every creative writing class I could get my hands on, and I thought I was going to be an English major. But I got really burnt out on the creative writing classes, because they kept making me read all this poetry and kept trying to get me to explain why I liked or didn't like a certain poem. I had a really hard time explaining things like cadence and rhythm, which really mattered to me. I remember one class where we had to read all this foreign language poetry that was translated into English, and none of it sounded good to me. Thematically, it all seemed important and relevant, but it didn't sound good to me. So I couldn't find any common ground to say why I liked it. And I ended up getting into a big argument with the professor. She said, "Tell me why you like poetry." And I told her I didn't know why, but that when I read certain things I just liked them. And I didn't want to go any further that that, because to me that seems like the exact opposite of what I believe creativity is. I know when I like something, but I don't want to have to explain myself.
So what you're saying is that if you like something, you don't need to explain why. It's the emotional response that counts, more than the intellectual.
I think that's the most important response--what you feel in your gut. I'll listen to country pop radio, and that new Miranda Lambert song almost makes me cry every time I hear it. I didn't know why. The vocal performance was really honest and beautiful, then I found out that Allen Shamblin was one of the writers. He also wrote the Bonnie Raitt song "I Can't Make You Love Me," which I think is one of the most beautiful and well-written songs in the last 40 years. And he probably has a ton of other songs that I would like that I don't even know about, but there's a gut reaction as to why I like him.
The same is true with a lot of other poets as well. When I was a kid, I thought Charles Bukowski was the greatest thing in the world, probably because I was rebelling against a lot of shit and was a little kid from Indiana who thought that drinking and fucking hookers made me different if I read about it. Now, when I read it, I'm like, "What kind of person my age would think this is some kind of genius?" But then you read another poem of his like "Rain," where there is some real talent and intellect.
You were a history major, right?
Yep. I have a B.A. in history from Indiana University. My freshman year I took a class from Professor McGerr that turned me on to history. Indiana became the first school to have a history of rock and roll class, taught by Professor Glenn Gass. Then I started taking all these history of rock n roll classes, which actually counted towards my major. So I got an education in rock n roll. I took a semester on the Beatles, a semester on Motown, a semester on the 50s, the 60s, the Vietnam War, every facet of American history post World War II.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Well, reading in the van has become a major problem. And all through college I really never opened a book. I went to class all the time and have a really good memory. I did really well without ever opening a book. I have a really bad attention span, to the point where I would read four or five pages and realize that I was just looking at the letters and thinking about something entirely different. I figured out a couple of years ago that I needed to read everything twice.
So as far as authors...I really love The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Traveling Mercies by Anne LaMott, Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. A lot of pseudo-Christian self empowerment books. I love Malcolm Gladwell, all of his books. If you read them, they will change your life. I also love Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. My brother works for a company called Half Price Books, so he is constantly sending me lots of books. His wife is an MFA student, and they keep me turned on to a lot of things.
Let's talk about your writing. How do you get inspired?
For a good portion of the last ten years, I wasn't doing a whole lot. So whenever I would sit down at the piano, I would write something. A lot of times I would be playing for other people. There's a piano in the back of this bar in LA called the Hotel Cafe. It was in the smoking lounge. Sometimes I would go back there and watch other bands, but most of the time I would just sit and play. I would just listen to what other people said, little phrases, and would start writing things off of that.
I am not the type of person who says, "I am going to sit down and write a song." Never have been. I pretty much write when I feel like writing, and other times something will just tell me to sit down and write. Sometimes it can be a lot like prayer, sometimes it can be a lot like a party. Other times it can be something you never expected, like when you sit down to play a Hall and Oates song and something else comes up.
Are there times when something will happen in your life, and you will say, "I've got to go write a song about that!"
That hardly ever happens. I've got notebooks and notebooks of things that I've written where I've said, "That would make a great song! I've got to write a song about that." But I never do. Other people are really good at that. I went to the Durango Songwriters Convention in 2004, and I met Hillary Lindsey, Jeffrey Steele, Kim Williams, all these huge Nashville hit songwriters. And what they do is amazing. Almost all of them have two writing appointments a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon with another songwriter. I spent a few years trying to tap into that, and I am either not talented enough or not dumb enough to do that yet. Not dumb in a bad way, but dumb in that you have to put away every other thought in your mind and write from such a pure place that you can tap into the psyche of every other American and write a hit song. I think that's genius. That's the place I'd love to write from.
What is your physical writing process like?
I pretty much wrote on guitar until I got a piano. In Old Pike, I wrote a song called "Ten Thousand Nights" on a piano at my parents' house after this girl had said something about ten thousand nights. It was only three chords, because they were the only three I knew how to play. Then I got another piano for my 30th birthday and kept it at my bungalow in Hollywood. I wrote on that pretty exclusively for three or four years. I would start with some form of melody, whether it's the chorus or a verse, and I would start singing along to whatever I was playing on the piano. Then usually a word or phrase would pop out, and I would continue according to that.
So you write the melody first.
Yeah, in an odd way when I listen to music I can tell when people write the lyrics separately from the melody and the verse. Like Elton John. Bernie Taupin handed him pages of lyrics, and he would form songs based upon those pages of lyrics, which is kind of the way they used to do it in the old days, with duos like Leiber and Stoller. It's a very common way to do things. I think it's amazing if you can do that.
In our band, if you talk to Scottie and Walker and Smitty, we're all kind of the same way. If you start humming something and you get a melody, hopefully the lyrics will come easy and you'll start singing, because there is something in the melody that inspires you to start writing.
Do you like to write during a certain time of day?
Not really. I can't really force myself to do something. Diane Warren, one of the top songwriters in the world, apparently writres from 8am to 8pm, six days a week, and locks herself in a room and writes. She's sold hundreds of millions of records. She's never performed, she just writes. She's written everything from Aerosmith's "Don't Wanna Miss a Thing" to DeBarge's "Rhythm of the Night." And that works for her. But I've never been one of those people who says, "I need to write a song." When I feel like the instrument needs me, or I need the instrument, then I'll go and play it. Sometimes I'll have a beer or two and sit at the piano, and it's a really enjoyable moment. And when it doesn't get enjoyable, that's when I stop.
Isn't that really how the best art is created, anyway? From emotion?
Exactly. I think you should be in love with it. I am a huge believer in the spiritual world, and I do believe that when you are in that moment of pure love--I don't believe in unrequited love, I believe that the only way to love something is when it gives love back--there is communication with that spiritual world and with your soul. And that's the best place to operate from.
Ever had writer's block?
It's never really happened. There have been times where I haven't written for months at a time, but I always enjoyed that time when my instrument isn't talking to me out of my hatred for what I wanted out of it. I had hip surgery once, and I was on crutches for a really long time. Everything I wrote was so full of hate and spite. It was nothing that even I wanted to listen to. I set it aside and was fortunate enough that I had already written a bunch of songs, so I recorded some country songs with a band called Chevy Down.
How do you know when a song is done, when you are ready to let it go?
When it's on the shelf at Walmart. A song is never done. I've written around 300 published songs, and there's probably ten that I would consider really good songs. I am huge believer in feedback, where someone says, "If you just twisted that" or "If you just tweaked that," it would be so much better. That's why Chris Robinson (of the Black Crowes, who signed the band to his label and produced their debut release on Silver Arrow records) was so good. He's sold 20 million records, and he knows how to twist that little thing to make a song great.
How involved was Chris when it came time to giving you feedback on what you had written?
We went through every single line, every single word. We were as precise as precise can be. He was the most involved producer I've ever worked with. He gave us amazing feedback, better than anyone I've ever worked with in my 20 year career. He was the most hands on and the most unforgiving and forgiving producer I've ever been with.
So when you revised those lyrics, what are some of the things you tweaked?
You always want to look at cadence, how you are going to sing. The lyrics are hugely important, but once you settle on the lyrics, it all depends on how you phrase it and sing it. Look at Otis Redding or Sam Cooke. Some of the things they say may not be the most important knock-out things in the world, but the way they sing makes it the most important thing in the world. I mean, you can deconstruct key, you can deconstruct arrangement and all that stuff, but what it comes down to is beat and voice and delivery.
You guys are unique in that there are four songwriters in the band. How do you collaborate?
For this record, a lot of the songs had already been written before. The other band members would say, "Ooh, I like that song." We all were doing solo projects before Truth and Salvage Co. came together; I was with Smitty and I would say, "I love how you harmonize on that part. Come up and sing on that song tonight." So in that sense we are all influenced by each other's opinions. Like the song "Pure Mountain Angel." Walker had a verse and a chorus, and Scotty had this completely different song that had this amazing bridge. Walker said that he loved the verse and chorus of his song, but he didn't have a bridge. So Scotty said, "Why don't I take the bridge from my song and make this one great song out of two songs?"
It was the same with "Rise Up." We were working on two songs and I said to Scotty, "These songs are in the same key. Why don't you take the chorus of that song and move it into my song because thematically they are similar?" At first he was hesitant, because he was like, "But these are two great songs." And I said, "If you combine two great songs, you have one magnificent song!"
It sounds like you guys really get along. That's important for the writing process.
Chris Robinson remarked on that when we were out on tour with him. He said, "I don't get you guys. You spend all day in the van, then you go to dinner and all sit together. If I were you, I'd be be clear on the other side of the restaurant by myself reading a book." But the whole reason this band even exists is that we are friends and love hanging out with each other. It wasn't ever forced upon us to be in this band together. It sucks to be in your mid 30s, spending your whole day in a van, away from your wives or girlfriends. But is that what you are going talk about, how much it sucks? It's also the most awesome thing in the world, because it's pretty much all I've lived for since I was a teenager. We are living this existence that's not on par with anything else. Most days it's the greatest thing in the world. I mean, as I am talking to you, I am staring at a mountain range that I never would have seen if I wasn't doing this.
You mentioned that you have been writing songs for twenty years. How would you say your writing has changed?
I was actually thinking about that the other day when I was listening to stuff I had written ten years ago. I can't really say it's changed that much. I still write from that same place we were talking about. I do hope that some day I'll be in a place where I can just sit down and say, "Ok, I am going to write this great song." Or maybe I'll have this great lyric I've been keeping in my pocket for ten years I'll write a song off of it. But for now I still write from the same place, where I want to be in love with my instrument, whether it's the guitar or the piano. Or maybe there's a melody in my head that needs to get out, or there's a feeling in my heart that I want to share. I think that's a good spirit to keep alive.
I'm intrigued by this whole idea of melody. So you'll be somewhere and it will just come to you?
Yeah, and a lot of times if there is nothing around to nail it down, I'll lose it. When I'm in love with my instrument and feel like playing the piano, I start playing--and whatever the first chord is, then the melody comes.
If you could create the perfect writing environment, what would it be?
At the piano, in the back of the Hotel Cafe in the smoking lounge, which doesn't exist anymore. Or at my house at the piano. I don't like to smoke anymore, but there is something about a cigarette and a cold beer that makes writing a lot more palatable for me.
I love hit songs, and in a lot of ways I don't want to even write a song unless there's a chorus that people would remember. I'm not really interested in songs other than that, in the same way that if i were a poet, I'd want people to know that the title of the poem had sincere relevance to the meaning of the poem. Or if I were a novelist, I'd want at least one great line on every page. That's the big thing to me about Cormac McCarthy. Chris Offutt, another great writer, has a book called Kentucky Straight and another book called The Good Brother, and on every page he has a line that is unforgettable. You gotta have one good line on every page, where the reader says, "That is unbelievable."
If someone were to say, Tim Jones writes about X, what would they say?
Laughs. We actually had that discussion the other day. Walker writes about trains and traveling, Scotty writes about time travel and boats, and Smitty writes about home and family. I pretty much write about girls: love, loss, heartbreak, women. I'm 34 and single. I'm not jaded at all, but I am about the least interested person in having a long term relationship.