Joe Michelini, River City Extension

Joe Michelini of River City Extension isn't the first songwriter to tell me that he uses cooking as part of his songwriting process.  But he might be the first one to tell me that he uses it almost as a source of self-flagellation: when he gets writer's block, he eats and eats. Just gorges himself.  Then, when he feels sufficiently terrible about doing nothing but staying inside and eating all day, he ventures out. And when he does, he sees the world in an entirely new way. Everything looks fresh, like seeing the world for the first time.

Michelini and the rest of River City Extension are taking a break from touring in support of their 2010 release The Unmistakable Man. Read my interview with Michelini after the video.

How would you characterize your approach to songwriting?

It's a natural human process for me.  It's not something I think about.  And if I do think about it, I can't write.  I try to be creative throughout my day and imagine the world differently as often as I can.  Music is very visual for me.  I see a lot of what I write.

Is songwriting a visual process for you as well? Do you start with an image?

Yeah, but I wouldn't say that starts the creative process for me.  When I hear music, I see scenes in my head.  I imagine different things.

And what are some of the things you do to be creative throughout the day?

I try to make things interesting. I spend the day trying to mix things up.  Not in a "I'm going to go to this restaurant instead of that restaurant" kind of way, but I spend a lot of time getting used to something, then doing the opposite.  Then when I get used to that, I do something different. That's how I make progress in my life.

Do you get a lot of song ideas from that?

I would imagine. I think that with songwriting, a lot of ideas just come at random times.  When it's happening, it's happening.  It's like jumping on a creative highway: everything happens at once, then you jump off.

How active are you in the inspiration process?

Normally, I let inspiration come to me.  Recently, though, I've been experimenting by exposing myself to new things, like listening to my favorite songwriters and deconstructing what I like about them, just putting more thought into it than usual.  But normally I just go with the tide and let things happen to me, not being too black and white with any decisions in my life.  Just opening myself up to almost everything.

How important is environment to your writing process?

It's not really important.  I write a lot in the car.  That's where I get my best ideas because my mind is free to wander.  There no guitar, no piano, no muscle memory, nothing.  I can just dream up whatever.

Take me through your songwriting process when you literally sit down to write.

It starts with a little idea, whether it's a small piece of music or a lyric or a theme.  When I get an idea like that, even a phrase, it opens the door.  I sit down and play first, just let myself sing and play and let every idea come out at the same time.  There's been times when I've done that and written a song, but that hardly ever happens.  

Recently I've been writing a lot, but not finishing my songs and putting them away deliberately.  A friend told me that a teacher told her that when she writes something really good, put it away and come back to it. So now I have a lot of unfinished songs, but I don't want to rush anything.  I want them to evolve naturally.  Sometimes when I'm writing, a line will just make sense and I can easily build a song around it.

Where do these lines come from?

I've never really thought about it.  I write from my own life, and that makes it easy.  I'm just transferring, just taking my other senses and putting them into words.  But as far as those good lines that people dig about a song, it's rarely a spontaneous moment. I have an idea, but I want to say it in a way that hasn't been already said a million times before.  I'm the only person on earth who feels that emotion in that exact way.  As a songwriter, it's my job to express that, but there are only so many words in the English language.  I get a lot of help by stydying songwriters and seeing how they said things and where they were in their lives when they wrote those songs.

I've often told writers that the worst time to revise or return to a piece is when you've finished revising or looking at it.  You need distance and a fresh set of eyes. Does it bother you that with so many looks at a piece, it might end up being a lot different than it was in its first incarnation?

If I'm writing a song about something and I feel strongly, I'll just write and write.  I may not revise.  The song might have eight verses when I'm done, but I'll only use three.  If I'm really upset about something, I'll come up with a melody or a pattern that I can work from, and I'll fill it.  Then I go back and craft the song.

Can you write about a feeling when you are in the moment, or do you need distance?

That's an interesting concept.  I probably need distance.  I like to write about longing, whether it's for a girl or a family member or happiness.  It's a familiar feeling for me and a good starting point.  But it's hard to write while I'm in the moment.

When do lyrics come in your creative process?

Sometimes I come up with the lyrics and find music to fit it, but that's awkward.  I'd rather take a piece of music with no lyrics, and write the lyrics to work with the music.

Are there times when you don't even know what a song is going to be about until the music comes?

Yeah.  There's been a few times when I've wanted to write a song about something specific, but that's rare.  Writing a song, for me, is like working with clay. You can knead it forever.  When it starts to take shape, there's a weird relationship when it starts to dictate to you what it's going to be, and it's your job to fulfill that shape.

Do you ever start songs with a title in mind?

Absolutely. And a record title opens up floodgates.  Even with sitting down and wondering what I'm going to call the next record, as soon as I figure it out, there will be a creative shift and all the songs will have more direction.

What's the easiest part and the hardest part of your writing process?

The easiest part is when I let myself go and don't worry, and the hardest part is when I start thinking about the instruments in a song, the people who are going to play them, and what kind of songs should go on a record.  That whole world just needs to be left out.  It's hard to block it out because it's a part of the reality when you're pursuing a career in music, but that's the hardest part.  I can't write anything when I start thinking about music as a career.

So you try not to think of it as a job.

I try not to, and when I do, odds are there will be less natural creativity.  Even on a subconscious level.

How disciplined are you as a songwriter?

In the last six months, very much more so than ever before.  I'm learning more about the creative process and listening to some surprising stuff.  I'm talking to other songwriters and immersing myself in this world that I was never a part of.  I didn't grow up in bands or really around music.  This is my first rodeo, and I'm just now start to think that the writing process might not be what I think it is.

When you write lyrics, are you a pen and paper guy or a computer guy?

Both. I used to be just pen and paper, but I'd lose the paper all the time.  Then I started using the computer, but it just wasn't the same.  I've convinced myself that it doesn't matter, because it would stress me out if it did.

What do you do when you get writer's block?

I literally stay home and eat six meals a day.  I just eat and eat and eat until I feel so terrible that I finally have to go outside, and that's usually the day when I find inspiration. I love to cook, so I stay home and cook for myself. I stay inside my house and think, "There is nothing more than this, there is nothing more than this." When I'm drained and have absorbed everything there is to absorb, I walk outside and get an overwhelming rush of difference.  Like seeing the world for the first time.