Corin Tucker, Sleater Kinney
What is it with the connection between manual labor and songwriting? Corin Tucker becomes the third interviewee (Grace Potter and Lissie being the others) to tell me that working around the house inspires her to write, be it housework or yardwork. Tucker offers an explanation: the time when brain and hands are moving is "meditative time" that stimulates creativity.
We know Corin Tucker as the singer and guitarist for Sleater-Kinney. In October she released a solo album entitled 1,000 Years (KillRockStars) that she called "a middle aged mom record." In her late thirties, Tucker is a mother of two with a full-time job outside the record industry. And the routine of her writing process reflects that: her day job has given her a healthy respect for deadlines when it comes to writing, even though she often can't work on meeting those deadlines until after she puts the kids to bed.
Read more about Corin Tucker's writing process after the video.
Have you ever had any other type of creative expression besides songwriting?
When I was a kid in high school, I did write some pretty intense poetry, and by intense I mean emotional and overwrought. But I remember writing songs really early on as well as a teenager, when we started a band called This That and the Other.
Any other creative outlets?
I wish that there was something else I was good at. Laughs. My job now is doing web development, so I'm good at computer stuff, but I am very functionally oriented that way. I would not call myself a good graphic designer.
Who are some of your literary influences?
As a teenager I loved so many writers, people like ee cummings. I think that writing really opened me up to punk rock and independent publication, all of the underground writing that was associated with punk rock.
You aren't the first songwriter to mention ee cummings as an influence. Why do you think that is?
There is a total immediacy to his writing that I related to as well as a rebelliousness of passion. I haven't read it in years, but I remember his influence.
Any other writers?
I have always loved Steinbeck, Patti Smith in college, and Ursula LeGuin. She’s like a hometown hero for me. She wrote a great book called The Left Hand of Darkness. It pretty much blew my mind.
When you write a song, what do you start with?
It can really happen either way, with the lyrics or the melody. Generally I sit down with a guitar and write a melody, then try to come up with a vocal melody, then the rest of the lyrics. That’s pretty much my standard way.
So it’s usually the music that comes first for you.
Usually, but sometimes a song will pop into my head completely done.
What do you mean by that?
I’ll be out doing yard work, or taking a shower, or doing housework, and this whole idea will come to me as a song. Sometimes it comes as a whole idea, or just a melody and lyrical idea. It’s strange, and it hasn’t happened that many times, but when it happens I'll run to record it and try to articulate what’s in my brain.
Going back to the idea of inspiration, do you actively look for things to inspire you?
I do try to make a conscious effort to be inspired, and I look to other music and books to do that. Film, too. Any type of art. Giving yourself that meditative time, where you do have your hands and body moving, but your brain can ponder things: I think that’s a good creative stimulation. So yardwork or housework or something else while you are thinking about a song can be really useful.
You mentioned art. Any certain type that inspires you more than others?
Probably film. Watching films and seeing how music is used in film, but really any film can be inspiring.
I love classic arty films, like Last Year at Marienbad. I did go to a liberal arts college, Evergreen College, and that got me interested. Truffaut, all the arty and independent filmmakers.
Getting back to your process. How disciplined are you as a writer?
When I'm making an album, I try to be disciplined and write every day. I find writing at the same time every day really helps.
Are you big into routines? I find that to most songwriters, the idea of a routine is completely repulsive.
Yeah, well it’s not in my nature, but because I have two kids and a lot of responsibility, that’s how I make it happen. If I had a different lifestyle, I would not have a strict routine.
How has having kids affected your process?
Like I said, I try to set aside time every day. I put the kids to bed and say, “I’m writing! Time to go to sleep! Lights out!" Laughs. I have to be pretty intense about it, because they want to stay up a little longer. You know how it is. I have to say, “No. It’s my time!” That was the way I wrote the album. I mandated that time for my writing time. But I still have to force myself to do it. It’s like exercising. It’s not always something I want to do.
Don't you find that having kids makes you more productive, since you use your time more wisely? And it sounds like you are doing all of your writing when they are bed—when you are exhausted.
Exactly. That’s why I forced myself to tell people that I was making an album. But that is how I’ve always worked, by creating a project with deadlines that I had to finish. Otherwise, I don’t think I would finish unless I had someone saying to me, “Um, excuse me, but aren’t you supposed to be writing an album?”
But don't you think that having a day job also helps you with deadlines? You know the deadline mentality, right?
I think it does. It’s good for me, because it has taught me that I have to get things done at a certain time and also how to manage several things at the same time. I do lists with my songs when I go back and edit. Like this one needs help with the verse, this one with the chorus, things like that.
When you revise lyrics, what techniques do you use?
I am a very auditory person. I demo everything, so I’ll sing it and record it and then let my ears do the work. I also type everything out to see how it looks, but I still use my ears the most.
You mentioned poetry—don't you think that it's helped to appreciate the musicality of words even when there is no music?
Absolutely. Words and books were my first love, and reading as a child formed a basis for me as a writer.
Is there anything you must have with you when you write?
I don’t think there is anything concrete. I do have to have a spiral notebook, though. I’ve gone through hundreds of them. I have to write things down. I don’t like composing on the computer. I need to write in a notebook.
I feel like it’s more gentle. It seems more romantic to me.
What is your ideal writing environment?
I have a little office that I hide in. It’s my special place. Sometimes I’ve found that when I am traveling that I’ll get an idea, so I’ll tear out pages of a magazine and write in it.
When you are out and get an idea, how do you get it down? I have found that songwriters use the iPhone to record ideas when they are out.
That’s a good question. I haven’t gotten as far as recording into my iPhone, but it’s a good idea. I think over the years I have just written things down.
What did songwriters do before the iPhone?
I had the Sony Walkman! That was my 90s iPhone. I loved that thing. I'm depressed that they are not making it any more.
What do you do when you have writer's block?
Just keep going. I know that what I have is not great and that I am going to replace it or throw it out, but if I keep writing I try not to beat myself up because that can defeat creativity. I work through it and also listen to and imitate other people’s music.
Yeah, lots of people I've talked to make mention of getting another voice in their heads. How do you know when a song is done?
I actually do not feel that it's done until the record is delivered to the record company. There is always something I want to fix. I change lyrics up to the last minute. Often I’ll have the printed sheet, but when I am singing, something else will come to me. I would say that from the recorded version, sometimes a song evolves into a live version that is really different. The title track to 1000 Years has totally developed from the album version into this other thing that happens live.
How has your writing process changed over the years?
It’s gotten a little more efficient, and the editing process is more developed. I have more patience to go back and rewrite things if they need more work. To really develop it. That’s something that I wanted to work on as I went back to writing, to flesh a song out.
Were you rusty as a writer when you started writing again?
It took me a while to feel like I was hitting my stride again as a writer. Sometimes I feel like if you don’t write for a while, I'll have a lot of built up inspiration. Things will come easily, then I'll get stuck in the middle and then have to work hard to finish.