If you happen to be eating in a restaurant and see Juliette Commagere suddenly get up from her table, notebook or iPhone in hand, and rush to the bathroom, don't be alarmed. She's in the middle of her writing process. And if you are a fan of Commagere's music, you'd be wise not to follow her in. Because she writes best when she's alone.
According to Commagere, a major shift in the inspiration phase of her writing process took place a few years ago, when she became more open to observing everything around her, not just certain things. In short, she became hypersensitive to her surroundings. That means, then, that if she hears or sees something in a restaurant that might serve as a catalyst to a song, she's going to get up and go to the bathroom to either scribble down some lyrics or sing into her iPhone.
Commagere's new album The Procession drops October 26. In her old band Hello Stranger, Commagere sang and played the keytar; the band opened for acts like the Foo Fighters, Kings of Leon, and Against Me!
How did you get your start as a writer?
As a kid, I wrote songs and poetry, but my first experience feeling like a writer was in middle school and high school. I took a lot of film classes and went to an incredible arts high school, the Crossroads School in Santa Monica, where I wrote a lot of film criticism.
When did the songwriting begin?
Writing has always been a natural part of my life. I do have books full of poetry, but I never really thought of myself as a writer because I was more into performing. In high shcool, when I started singing in a band, that's when I started thinking about songwriting. But I never liked anything I wrote. It wasn't until my band Hello Stranger that I started feeling comfortable singing songs that I wrote.
Who are some of your favorite authors? Would you say they influence your songwriting?
Pete Dexter is one of my favorites. Right now I am reading Spooner. I love biographies, and my favorite is probably Nancy Milford's biography Savage Beauty of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and her other biography of Zelda Fitzgerald. It's not that they provide literal inspiration. It's just a feeling that when I read books, it's such a solitary experience that I don't get anywhere else. I cry a lot. Laughs. In movies when I cry, it's because they try to get me to cry. But in books, there something about that last sentence, closing the book, and I'm alone having just read this beautiful biography, that I'll just cry. It's a beautiful intimate experience, and that's what I want to create in my music.
How do you sit down and write a song?
I'm writing all the time. Once you decide that you are going to be open to ideas all the time, everything suddenly changes. You hear things people say, you see things that you didn't see before, you get inspiration everywhere. You have to decide that you are looking for that. So any time I am inspired, I write it down or type it into my phone. I'll type lyrics or even record melodies, even in the bathroom at a restaurant--
Wait, I want to get this straight. You'll be at a restaurant, get inspired, then go into a bathroom stall and start singing a melody or lyrics?
Yeah, I try to wait until people leave, or maybe I'll just write down the lyrics. I tend to forget things easily, so I have to make sure I am either writing things down or recording. It's also a good thing to have if I get stuck. I have a bunch of lyrics I've compiled, so if I get stuck I can just look through them for ideas.
Aside from that, I play the play the piano and sometimes lyrics will just come. Once I am done with the piano, I'll move to the computer, where I'll really try to create the song.
So do you look for things to inspire you, or are you open to anything?
Pretty much anything. For me, it's a state of mind. I used to be closed off to ideas, and then I stopped fighting it. Like I said, everything changed. My whole process.
What made it open up?
I realized that creativity doesn't have to start with me just opening my notepad and writing. It's all around me. People are always saying funny things, and I'll say something poignant or funny to a friend and realize it's a good line for a song.
How disciplined are you as a writer? Do you call it "work"?
Towards the end of the process it feels like work. At the beginning it's all fun and creativity, but then I realize I have to finish. It's easy for me to write a verse and a chorus, then the second verse is always the hard one.
I don't know. Maybe it's because I need to dig a little deeper, and I'm too lazy to do that. I'll have one good idea, then realize I have no more ideas. Then the clock is ticking and it's time to go to the studio. I realize I have to sit down and finish it.
Is there anxiety at the end of that process?
Sometimes, but I tend to work better under pressure. My band calls me "Last Minute Commagere." I'll write lyrics on the way to the studio. But I realize I have to just write. There are a couple of lines on the last records that I improvised, and I just cringe every time I hear them.
Is there a certain time of day when you like to write?
I am a late night person. But it's hard because my husband likes to go to bed at a normal hour, and I don't like the feeling of knowing someone is asleep in the house when I am working. So I tend to write during the day when I am home. I do like to go away and write. For the last record I went to Pioneertown. But when I am alone, I like to stay up all night and write.
So even if he is asleep, that still bothers you?
It feels uncomfortable to me, like the space isn't really mine.
Is there anything you must have with you to have a good writing session?
Aside from whiskey and beer, I think what's important is being somewhere else, that I am away, preferably in nature. I feel like I am becoming more ADD by the day, probably because of the computer, but I need quiet and to be able to look out and see emptiness.
So what is your ideal writing environment?
When I wrote part of my first solo album, I stayed in this cabin in Big Sur with a window looking out over the ocean. I sat at a desk and wrote probably four songs in a couple of days.
What do you do when you have writer's block?
Like I said, I have my list of lyrics to see if anything works or to see if they inspire other lyrics. I try to not obsess, because if I do that, you feed it. I try to move on, and that's the good thing about being a songwriter. If the lyrics aren't going well, you can just move to the music part.
What's your preferred method of composition?
I always write on a piece of paper. I'll write all over it, almost like scribbling. I fill up every white spot. It's almost like a drawing. I'll write one verse here, then draw a line and have another verse somewhere else. Then more circling and lines, like a big abstract drawing. Generally, the music asks for a certain kind of lyric, so I usually start with the music first. But since I started this big archive of lyrics, they are always floating in my head. I don't know how people write all the lyrics first, then the music.
Once I write the music, the whole song is there, I just have to find it. The subject matter, the syllables, the feeling, the melody: they are already there, waiting to be discovered.