Nat Baldwin has two things going for him that are unique among the songwriters I've interviewed. The Dirty Projectors' bassist lives on the coast of Maine, an environment perfectly suited to the ideal writing environment he needs in order to be creative: total seclusion. And his background as a basketball player provides him with the inherent discipline needed to spend hours in such seclusion, immersed in the creative process.
Much has been made of that fact that you grew up playing basketball, which takes a tremendous amount of discipline if you want to get good. Do you think that work ethic helps your songwriting process?
I think so. It's a pretty natural transition. I do try to sit down and write every day, but I have better luck when the mood strikes. The more I sit down and play, the better chance I'll have that the mood will strike. I don't decide to write a song every day, but I do play every day. When I'm deep in the writing process, trying to create a bunch of things at once, most of it is bad and I have to accept that fact as part of the process. Part of the fun is weeding out the bad and developing the good.
I just saw an interview with the writer Larry Brown where he was talking about Harry Crews. And Crews was saying that you have to sit at the typewriter for three hours a day, even if you don't type a word. You have to be disciplined to sit for three hours and wait for it to happen.
Do you still play basketball? A solitary pursuit like going down to a court and shooting around might be a good time to get the creative juices flowing, thinking about lyrics and melody.
I still shoot around and play ball when I can. I don't intentionally use the time for songwriting purposes, but I suppose there's just as much of a chance for inspiration to come as there is in other solitary moments. I run a lot now, and I've found running to be a good time to think about lyrics. I finished some songs running around Prospect Park recently.
Is there a typical songwriting process for you?
I've definitely gone through a bunch of approaches, and most are not really conscious decisions before I start them. In the past, I've usually gone over bass parts and chord changes. Then the melody comes, then a verse and chorus. The words come after that. Recently I've been trying to vary that and shake things up by starting with the words and seeing how that informs the melody. After having done something a certain way for a long time, it made sense to do something else in hopes that it will produce something different.
What brought about the desire to switch things up?
Just to see if I could get a different result. It wasn't a conscious decision; one time the words just happened to come first, and I went with it. It worked out on enough occasions that I started writing the lyrics first consciously.
It seems like if you start with the words, you have to be more deliberate in your song topics.
Yeah, but then you take the feeling that the words give you and put it into the music. The music comes from the emotion I have when I write the words.
How do you get inspired to write?
I'm inspired by my experiences with all the travel I do. I'm constantly getting inspiration every day. That's not a problem. I have been getting more from different writers like Brown and Crews. I've been reading a lot, not only because it's enjoyable, but because it could inspire my songwriting.
Reading can also cure writers block.
That seems like such an obvious thing, but I've only discovered it recently.
Who are you reading now?
I love the classic American literature like Hemingway, but what's really been inspiring me lately have been Southern writers like Brown and Crews, and then Flannery O'Connor of course. I just started reading her recently, and I don't know why it's taken me so long to read her. I read her collection of short stories Everything that Rises Must Converge, and Wise Blood. I just read a book of short stories by Breece D'J Pancake, and I like him a lot.
Do you read poetry?
Not so much anymore. I enjoy it a lot and for whatever reason, as I've been getting into reading books, I've moved away from poetry.
Hemingway talks about the idea that if you want to write about a place, you can't be in that place. How important is that to you?
I've read that. You need distance because you need perspective. That's what time gives you. I've been in New York the past few years, and I'm not writing about my experiences when I'm there.
Is there a song that you've written that sticks out as being incredibly easy?
I probably could think of a bunch, since so many just flow out. With "Lifted" on the new record, I was living in Bar Harbor and left there under not the best circumstances and went home to Kittery. I hadn't written a song or even played my bass for a while, and when I got home in the first couple hours of playing, I had the whole song completely written. But I needed to leave that place to let the ideas settle.
Did a long time elapse between the time you left and the time you wrote the song?
Not at all. It was the day I got back. It was just something about leaving that place. It happened within an hour of being home.
When you struggle with a song, are you motivated to continue, or is it easy to give up because it's just not meant to be?
I've had both experiences. Most of the stuff I end up keeping just flows out in a natural way, but with the few that I struggle with, I wonder if it's worth pushing through. But it's usually worth it.
Do you set aside songs that you struggle with so that you can return later with another perspective?
That's one approach that gives me good results. If I set a song aside and work on something else, I can return to it. While it's sitting there, I work on other things in hopes of getting back to it. And those other things end up also being things I keep. Ideas start to flow quickly.
How important is physical environment to you?
I like to be totally alone. Total seclusion and no distractions.
You live off the coast of Maine, a beautiful natural environment. How does living there affect your songwriting?
I love the space, and it's also where I'm from. It's beautiful. When I get frustrated with my creative process, I can be at the beach in five minutes to clear my head.
When it comes to lyrics, are you a pen and paper guy or a computer guy?
Oh definitely pen and paper. I am not a computer guy in general. The less time I can spend on a computer, the better. And I like the process of handwriting. I've never even tried to write on a computer. I like to cross things out and look at all those old notebooks and see my process in action in retrospect.