It's not that often that a songwriter says that majoring in the humanities was the perfect preparation for being a singer/songwriter. But that's what happened for Pete Yorn. He was a speech communications major at Syracuse University (it's now called "communication and rhetorical studies" there). He had planned on going to law school and figured that a major emphasizing public speaking was good preparation. Yorn was "petrified" of getting in front of a group, so the major helped him work through that fear and become comfortable with public performances.
Yorn's college experience honed his songwriting skills in another way. If you've ever spent any time near Syracuse, one image comes to mind: snow. The area is closing in on 200 inches of snow this winter. I spent four years living in the Syracuse area. The cold and snowy winters there are soul-crushing. But ask Yorn about his time as an undergrad at SU, and he'll tell you that if it weren't for all that snow, he might never have become a songwriter. What others might see as limiting--the fact that you can't really go outside--Yorn saw as the perfect opportunity to stay inside and do some writing. "I credit those winters," he says, "as a catalyst to my songwriting."
Read more about Pete Yorn's creative process, including how tennis and songwriting are similar, after the video.
I'm always interested to hear about what other creative outlets songwriters have.
Tennis. I love tennis. I find it very creative.
That's great! Please explain the connection between tennis and songwriting.
Once you have the fundamentals down, it's best to get out of your own way. Tennis is similar to golf. You have to stay open and focused and present, and that same skill comes in handy as a songwriter. Because when the initial muse hits and you start to try to control it too much, you start writing crap. So I think it's best to let it flow through you as a nice fluid tennis shot might flow throw you.
I love the answer. Rich with metaphors. So how active are you when it comes to seeking the muse?
It depends. I've written two records where I was just journaling my thoughts on paper, very conscious-type writing. And those words ended up being song lyrics. Most of the songs on the black album came out of journaling. That's not the way I usually write. It was an experiment. But then there's the other type of writing that is completely unconscious, especially when the initial idea flows through you based on a feeling. Then you let that sit and see what you have. You edit just a little. Sometimes it might be gibberish, but it feels good. And you don't mess with it too much because usually there is something there that you can't put your finger on, but it feels right.
Are you a patient songwriter?
I used to put pressure on myself to write songs in a certain amount of time. But sometimes a song could take you years until it gets to a place where it is ready to go. I no longer put that pressure on myself. It's ready when it's ready.
Chris Difford from Squeeze told me recently that he wrote "Tempted" in two and a half minutes in the back of a taxi.
That's amazing. That's called being in the flow.
How often are you in the flow, when it feels effortless? Or do you ever think about where you are when that happens, so you can return to that place?
Yeah, but it never works. Laughs. The only thing that works is staying open and don't squeeze the process too hard or you'll break it. You have to let it come. But those moments will happen. I will say that sometimes a new instrument can bring new ideas out. A new guitar once will refresh my juices. Or just playing something different will inspire something.
I've experienced those moments of being in the flow many times, like on the song "For Nancy." I wrote that song in five minutes, and the only thing I changed was that I made it shorter. As far as the lyrics, they stayed the same from the moment I wrote it. It just flew out of me.
Are you a disciplined writer?
I am as undisciplined as they come. There have been times when I go on vacation and feel guilty, so I bring my guitar. And I sneak off into the bathroom every morning and write stuff. When I do it, it's great. I get that many more songs. But I don't do that as much as I should. I've been fortunate that inspiration always hits naturally for me, and I have a lot of material. But there is nothing wrong with discipline for a songwriter; it doesn't cheapen music or make it more forced. Since we can't predict when that flow will happen, discipline gives you one more shot at that flow.
It doesn't sound like you have any anxiety when you don't write. You know it's going to happen, you just don't know when.
Well, I work hard to have that attitude. I could easily be anxious. Thinking that way is not going to make me a better songwriter. If anything, it will make everything too forced and then get me thinking about writer's block. I tell people that If they hit a dry spell, see what happens if they write every day. I've found that most of the time, stuff will come out of that.
Some writers believe that writer's block is a myth, that it's more just a failure of courage.
Yeah, I think if you get writer's block, you're just caught up in a story of who you are. Your ego is probably in the way. There's no reason why you can't come up with something. It's people getting in their own way. But I also think it comes down to personalities. You hear about people like Diane Warren who write every day, like it's a job. And some personalities can do that.
Do favor a particular environment when you write?
I need to be alone, and I usually like to be at home. It's the best place for me to be in that flow. The inspiration sometimes comes after I've seen a movie and a character is stuck in my subconscious, or at least I think it's there. A week later, it'll come out in a song.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Tao Te Ching. I like spiritual books, but I don't know that they go into my songwriting. Maybe ultimately they do, when it comes to how I view the world. More than books, it's people around me and the news. A lot of times in my head I think of an image and that will evoke a melody or situation, and that's what comes out.
So are you a visual songwriter?
It could happen, but it's more like a feeling image. I get a feeling and then the feeling ties into the image.
Many songwriters have told me that they write their best songs when they are in motion. Does motions affect your creative process?
I see that a few ways. Motion in general makes me feel safe. I tend to have less anxiety when I'm traveling. There's a goal involved. I sleep best in my tour bus when we are moving. In life, we tend to have more anxiety when we are stagnant, when there is no forward motion. It's important to be in a constant state of momentum, hurling towards something. Sometimes that's difficult to do because you may not be physically moving forward; sometimes you have to fight for that, struggle for that, but you've gotta try . But that's the most inspiring place to be. for me.
So do you get a lot of writing done on tour?
I put so much emphasis on wrapping my head around being a performer that by the time I get a moment to chill, writing songs isn't really on my radar. I've been fortunate in that I haven't had to worry about that, because I go home, things die down, and I start writing again. I have two modes: home is writer time, and touring is performing time.
Some writers have told me that they do their best writing when they are struggling with their material. Does that matter to you?
I think you need to learn the struggle that comes with life, because that's what gives your life meaning. We are wired for struggle, and when you become an adult and realize that life is not a playground, you need to learn to love the struggle. So for those writers, that struggle defines them. It gives them meaning. For me, something I worked hard for certainly has meaning. But a lot of those things that just fell in my lap, that I wrote in a couple of minutes, I also love for how miraculously they came.
When you write, do you compose on pen and paper or computer?
Both. I've written so many journals on my iPhone. I used to have a Sidekick, and it had a giant keyboard that allowed me to type really fast. The Romantic notion of the writer with a quill pen by candlelight on some parchment paper is great, but sometimes stuff comes so fast that I can't afford to find paper.
For more of my interview with Yorn, see my Q&A with him in the Baltimore Sun.