In the late 1970s, David Kilgour formed The Clean, one of the most popular bands in New Zealand and responsible for the development of the punk scene there. The Clean were pioneers of the Dunedin Sound and one of the original signees to Flying Nun Records. Kilgour has long been recognized as one of the biggest (and most respected) songwriters and guitarists to come from New Zealand. But did you know he's also a pretty good painter, a creative outlet that also serves him well as a songwriter?
Since you are also a painter, would you consider yourself a visual songwriter?
Absolutely. When I think about making music, I see it visually. Often when I work on a song, I'm thinking about pictures the whole time. Sometimes just one, other times a series of pictures. But I do have images in mind when I write songs. I don't necessarily start with an image, but one will arise from the music.
Do you ever come up with song ideas as you paint?
Sometimes a melody will pop into my head. Painting allows me to daydream, and that's a critical part of my process.
Take me through a somewhat typical songwriting process.
There really isn't a typical process. The songs come at any time.
Do you carve out a time every day to write?
I used to do that, but not anymore. I'm generally here at home and surrounded by music when I'm not touring. So I'm always ready to write and record if the inspiration strikes.
So does a melody just pop into your head?
Yeah, it might do that. Or I might hear something that starts the melody. Even someone talking will do it. One time I heard a bit of my music backwards, and I wrote a song about it. Really anything can trigger it.
How often do you sit down with the specific intention of writing a song?
I did that for years, where I'd get up in the morning and write. But not so much anymore. If I have to write, I can, but I'd rather wait until the inspiration strikes. Of course, it can strike from just good, solid work. When I was quite young and inspiration was running out, in my early 20s, I tried to do something every day just to keep in touch with the muse, even if was for a few minutes with a guitar. I don't do that much anymore. I've gone back to just waiting for inspiration.
I try not to think about the fact that I depend on musical inspiration for a living, but treating it as work is not such a bad thing. I have to work at inspiration. But really, there's no way to know where it comes from. I might write something fantastic that comes from just mundane work.
Does other people's artwork inspire you?
Maybe. It certainly inspires me to paint. I think inspiration has more to do with getting out of the house. That's what helps the most.
When you sit down, how quickly do the lyrics come?
It differs. They might come a year later, or they might come straightaway. Sometimes I start with the lyrics, other times with the music. But it might be two years before I finish a song. There is no particular pattern.
How important is environment to your creative process?
It's incredibly important. I need to be somewhere comfortable. I like to be in state of mind where it's as free as possible. I like to be at home. And I need natural light and to be surrounded by musical instruments. I do like working in the morning.
What do you do when you get writer's block?
I stop doing writing. I don't fight it. Sometimes if I'm working on a music, say, for a documentary, I have to fight it since I have an external deadline. But I usually walk away.
I'll tell you what does help: marijuana. I smoke a joint, and boy, marijuana has given me a lot of great music. I don't do it as much anymore, but I have used it as a boost to creativity or to get me more excited to work on something that I've been working on for a long time. It allows me to work on a piece of music over and over again, and it makes that music still sound fresh. It lets the mind fly a little bit.
What part of the process do you use it?
The inspiration process mostly. It's also wonderful for listening to music. I'll use it in the studio or when I'm stuck. Just one puff if I need a little spark. It frees the mind. The problem with the creative process is that sometimes you can be too focused, too intense, and the moment of creativity can be ruined. Marijuana helps lessen that intensity. But I would never ever use it to play live. That would scare the hell out of me.
So how many songwriters have told you that they use marijuana as part of their process?
You're the first.
Then they're holding back. Laughs.
And sometimes I've been really drunk and have written a great song in five minutes. I'll be drunk out of my mind after going to a bar or a party, and I can sit down to write a bunch of verses.
And it still looks good the next day?
Oh yeah. And hangovers can be quite good for the creative process as well. I swear Shane MacGowan must have written his best ballads hungover. That's one of my theories.
What's the longest amount of time you've set aside a song to work on it later?
I've set aside a few songs for ten years and waited that long to polish them off. It doesn't happen too often, though.
Do you paint when you have trouble writing?
Sometimes. And I think listening to music can put me back on track. What's important is getting to another creative outlet.
How important is it to start and finish a song in one sitting?
I try to keep as much to the original attitude or feeling as possible. I don't try to mess with the first idea too much.
How do you know when a song is done?
I think most of the time I just abandon it. I've learned to walk away from it, because you have to have some stopping point, or else you'll work on it forever.
Chris Difford of Squeeze recently told me how important motion is to his songwriting process. Does it play a role in yours?
Traveling generally sparks some kind of creative energy. I find travelling kind of melancholy, and that can be good.
Who are your favorite authors?
Jack Kerouac. I read a lot of his books as a teenager, learning about the counterculture. But I don't read stuff like that anymore. Now, I generally read any books related to music.
You speak like a true artist in wanting to treat the process very tenderly.
Some people speak of it like luring a dragon out of the cave. You want a glimpse but you don't want too get too close or to even know what it is. You just want to know if it's there.