For many of the songwriters I interview, the digital revolution has always been a part of their lives. So it would be easy to think that they embrace technology in their songwriting process. Not so. All of them use journals, diaries, little black books, even typewriters. Heck, one even still owns a Sony Discman.
Enter Jack Tempchin, from the southern California singer/songwriter scene in the 1970s. When he started writing, people used yellow pads and pencils. So we might excuse Tempchin for sticking to his original method. But what does Tempchin use? An iPhone. This is the bizarro world of songwriting, where twenty-somethings use typewriters and diaries, and singer/songwriters from the 70s use iPhones.
If you don't follow songwriters, you might not know the name Jack Tempchin. But you know Jack Tempchin. He was the sole writer of the Eagles song "Peaceful Easy Feeling." He also co-wrote "Already Gone" and other Eagles songs. During Eagles singer/songwriter Glenn Frey's solo period, Tempchin co-wrote all of Frey's hits, including "Smuggler's Blues," You Belong to the City," "True Love," and "The One You Love." He also wrote the Johnny Rivers hit "Slow Dancin', (Swayin' to the Music)." See the complete list here.
Tempchin is primarily a songwriter and not a performer. Which means that when you listen to one of his songs, you get only the end product. You don't see the creative process that involved getting the song to your ears. Well, true to his tech savvy, Tempchin has now made it easy for you. His new project is called "The Song of the Day Journal" on YouTube. Each day, he sits in front of a camera and performs a new song. Sometimes he makes up the lyrics right there on camera. But what you see is a raw, unpolished look at the songwriting process, something that you never see when a song is at its end stage. To those of us who are not songwriters, this is like freewriting.
On a personal level, this interview with Tempchin represents the power of social networking. A few weeks ago I interviewed Tim Jones of Truth and Salvage Co. for the blog, and Tempchin read the post. Tim and I have continued to correspond over email since the interview. One day, Tim was reading the About page on my blog, where I wrote this:
I learned to read by asking my father to transcribe the lyrics to early Eagles, Chicago, and Traffic albums. I listened to these bands, the handwritten lyric sheet in front of me, with giant white headphones hanging from my ears while the albums spun on the turntable. Perhaps all of those metaphors instilled in me my love of literature, like when I read And they said you were gonna put me on the shelf, from "Already Gone" by the Eagles. It took me a while to figure that one out; for months I couldn't understand why anyone would put someone else in a kitchen cabinet.
After reading that, Tim emailed me this: "You mentioned the song 'Already Gone' on the blog. Well, I am good friends with the guy who wrote that." So I can thank Tim for setting this up, and I can thank Jack Tempchin for helping me learn to read.
So read my interview with Jack Tempchin. You'll learn about "red button" songs, where he gets inspired to write, his thoughts on typing class, and the power of El Blurto.
When did you become a writer? Did you start as a songwriter?
In elementary school, I wrote a few poems and got a few in the school magazine. But I really didn't write that much poetry, so when I started playing guitar I started as a songwriter.
When was that?
After high school. I think I was eighteen when I started playing the guitar, unlike most musicians, who by that age had already been in several bands. I was never very accomplished on the guitar, and when I tried to learn other people's songs and sing them, I realized I was not a very good singer either. People would say, "What did you do to that song?" So I started writing my own songs. I ran into a friend, and back in the 60s we'd just get high and make up songs for an hour. And they were fantastic. So one day I said, "You should write these down and record them," and he said that would ruin it. One day we got onstage at this coffee house in San Diego and made a bunch of stuff up. That gave me the idea to pursue it.
Talk about the physical act of your writing routine. How deliberate are you?
I am spontaneous. I tried to put myself on a schedule before and it never worked. I'd look at the end of the week and see that I wrote a bunch of garbage. Usually I'll get excited about an idea and write it down. During the years I spent writing with my songwriting partner Glenn Frey, whenever he had the time he'd come over, and we'd just grab some coffee and yellow pads.
The ultimate tool for a songwriter is a deadline, when somebody needs a song by a certain date, and they say, "Look, we will consider your song if you get it to us by tomorrow morning." Otherwise, being a lazy songwriter like myself, I may not write anything. But with the pressure on, I can write. Like when my friend Johnny Rivers said there's was a TV pilot called Seventh Heaven that needed a theme song, so I wrote that song with him.
But I really am writing all the time. Every day I am thinking of stuff. I have a new video project I am doing called "Song a Day Journal." It's about a new song every day, doing a video, then posting it to my YouTube channel. I also have some older songs or some partially unfinished songs; it's not like I'll be writing new songs every day. I try, though. It's a good look into the creative process.
Why did you decide to take on this new project?
That's the part I like. Normally, the process is long. You write the song, then take an hour or two to learn how to play it. Then you go in the studio and spend six weeks to eight months making the album. That's the part that a lot of musicians really like. But I am a songwriter and I have never liked that part that much.
With this project, I am paring it down to just what I like: songwriting directly to performing. It's all very exciting. Tomorrow I'll wake up and start another song. It's a way to pull a lot more out of myself. Plus, this is a completely new age. I can reach my audience just being me, and not being polished or produced. That might rule out a lot of people, but I'll communicate directly with the people who like what I am doing. The other night I had some people over to write with me, and I had the video rolling the whole time; I was writing the lyrics and mumbling to myself as I tested them, then playing with the chords. And people get to see that whole creative process.
How do you get inspired to write?
Part of my technique that Glenn Frey and I developed has always involved writing with an inner voice called El Blurto. You pick up the guitar, start playing, and just start singing anything that comes out. This has been my way for years. I play, find some cool chord, play for a while, then just start singing. Whatever comes out, I record. Then when I go back and listen, I type out every word. I do no editing. as I type. Next, I'll look at the lyrics and cross things out, rearrange, then sing that new set of lyrics. I just keep doing that until the song gets close to being done. Then when it's almost done, I take the lines and really start to tweak them.
But now with a song a day, that process is too slow and have gone to doing the El Blurto part on paper. In other words, typing without singing. Then tweaking the lyrics and putting music to it later. This is very new for me, but it works just as well if not better.
You said that you type. Is typing your preferred method of composition?
When I started, we just had typewriters, no computers. But at one point when I was a kid, I thought, "Hey, this computer age is coming, and it's all going to be about typing." So I took a typing class in high school. It's faster than writing longhand for me. On the other hand, when Glenn Frey and I wrote all those years, it was yellow pads. Now I do everything on the computer. But really my main preferred method is the memo program on the iPhone, where I record myself singing. I'll just sing the songs right into iPhone as I make them up.
So if you are out somewhere and a great line strikes you, do you just whip out the iPhone and start singing?
Yep. I call it a "red button song." I just hit the "record" button and make up the song.
Talk about what it's like to collaborate on a song. I've always felt that might be difficult because as a writer you have to give something up.
I've always specialized in collaborating. I enjoy it. Lots of people aren't very good at it and don't want to collaborate. But as you say, you have to be willing to give up something in yourself. I have different modes. One way is to jam for a long time and make things up. Then the other person says, "I like that little line there," and we start with that. The other mode is where I am a facilitator. They'll say, "On the way over I was thinking of this," and they'll start writing. I'll try to understand what they are getting at and will just throw out lines to help them get there. With Glenn [Frey], we really respected the other person's ability, but we had to be honest with each other and tell the other person that we may not have liked a line they just wrote. Otherwise you'll have a whole song that you don't like. Both people have to like it. You can't worry about getting your feelings hurt.
Here's my one obligatory "Peaceful Easy Feeling" question, since you did write the song. Did you know someone else was going to use it?
That's a song I wrote myself. I was thinking about being a songwriter at the time, but I was mostly just writing songs and performing them at the coffee house. I didn't think it was a hit. I didn't think it was catchy with a good chorus.
You just wrote it on a random piece of paper, right?
It was on a poster about me that was filled quotes about me that friends made up. I had it with me and wrote on the other side, next to numbers that show how much I owe for rent. If you look at it, a couple of things I started writing weren't any good until finally I blurted out this chorus.
I imagine that when you write for someone else, you have two audiences: the performer and the audience, right?
It depends. Part of the time I am writing with the artist, like I did with Johnny Rivers. We sat down together to write the album. By the time we got done, I knew he liked it. Then there are times like when I wrote a song with JD Souther and Trisha Yearwood did it. If I am co-writing it, we are pleasing each other. And there's a common denominator. If we both like it, we assume other people will like it. With a lot of songs I have written, I did not set out to write for a certain person. George Jones cut a song I wrote with Bobby Whitlock, but we didn't know he was going to sing it. We just wrote it to please ourselves. Usually I finish a song and realize after that it would be great for a certain artist. I really haven't written anything with a certain person in mind. If I was doing that, I would aim it at the artist, because that's the person I am pitching it to. If they like it, they will sing it.
Talk about your revision process
I'll be singing a song, and suddenly I won't feel right about it. I'll do little gigs, play the songs for people, and I feel the reaction of the audience. I'll feel their attention drift away as I am playing the bridge. Or maybe lyrics won't feel right when I am singing them. What Glenn and I would do is write a song, then draw a circle around the lyrics that could be improved.
When you revise, what do you typically change?
A lot times you keep rephrasing the same idea until it falls into the rhythm of the music and feels natural. It's the flow of ideas that is taking place in the listener's mind. As the story is being revealed, you don't want to jar them out of that. You just want to keep expanding on the idea of the song. You keep going over and over until you can't make it any better.
Do you believe in writers block?
Writer's block is about being too afraid of making something stupid. But that's the point. You are always going to make up bad, stupid lyrics for the first ten minutes, then once the flow gets going, you'll get one good line and go from there.
What is your perfect writing environment?
All different places. I'll go to a nightclub like the Hotel Cafe, get there late at night when they are closing and hang out with the staff. I'll go up on the stage where there is a piano, the place is almost empty, and that's where I like to write. There are still people milling around, but I can concentrate. It's very inspiring. I can soak up the atmosphere and turn it into music. It gets me in the mood. The mood is important to me. If I am at the beach, and its a nice night at the sun is setting, I'll whip out my harmonica or my iPhone and just start playing or singing. I'll get something different than if I were in a room with no windows.
Do you have any literary inspirations?
On the Road by Jack Kerouac.
Speaking of literature, what can songwriters learn from reading good poetry?
Like a song, a poem is short and wallops you with an impact. You get a feeling but also an idea.
What has been the biggest surprising challenge with your new song-a-day project?
I am changing my technique to get to the heart of the matter much quicker. But I am enjoying it. It's easy to get so caught up in the peripherals of the music business that I don't have any time to write songs. This is a way to get back to what I want to do. I love it, cranking out a song a day. For years I wrote many songs that no one ever heard, but with my new project anyone in the world who wants to hear the the songs can hear them. I can directly perform for people without dealing all of the ancillary stuff. With my usual method, I may get a check in the mail for something I've written, but I don't get the responses of the people. My gratification is extremely delayed with the usual way, because the process is so long, from the time I think of an idea to the time someone performs it live. Now, it's immediate.