After close to 100 interviews for this site, artists have given me a variety of answers as to why they write songs. Some just enjoy playing music, a pleasurable experience as an end in itself. For others, it was probably rooted in those Suzuki method piano lessons that their parents made them take. And, of course, for still others music is an emotional outlet, as it is for Laura Stevenson, of Laura Stevenson and the Cans. Music has helped Stevenson through some dark times, times so dark that she did nothing: her phone went unanswered, her bills went unpaid. But songwriting is a cathartic process for her; she expresses topics that she hasn't even told her therapist. I don't think writer's block will ever be an issue for Stevenson, since, in her words, she has "decades" of material from which to draw.
Laura Stevenson and the Cans' new album is Sit Resist on Don Giovanni records. Read my interview with Stevenson after the video for "Master of Art," a song off that album.
How does your songwriting process start?
Before I started writing songs, I was always writing in a journal or writing words I thought were beautiful on little scraps of paper and then incorporating those words into music. So it's usually always been words first and music second when I write songs. But I've recently been messing around with a lot of different approaches.
What happens next?
Of all the words I've written that are lying around, I take what means the most to me, or take the most sonically interesting little bunches of words, then wrap them around some chords. I don't really write on the piano because I'm better at the piano than I am at the guitar. I have just a rudimentary knowledge of the guitar. I'll just play four chords, and that restricts me enough to be able to focus more and develop the melody on top of that with the words I pick out. That's just one way of writing a song for me, probably my most typical. But I do a lot of recording little ideas that I leave for a long time and return to later.
What do you mean by "sonically interesting"? That's a very poetic way of looking at words.
I guess they are syntactically interesting in the way the sentences and the sounds flow together. The hard shapes and the circular shapes and where they would fit into the melody. How the tones sound, where the sounds arc, things like that.
Is recording something and letting it go a typical part of your process, or do you just do that when you don't feel like you have enough to go with at that point?
It's hard for me to stay focused in really anything I do. Even if I'm in the throes of some passionate songwriting project, if I feel myself getting even a little bit distracted, I put it away for a bit. It's usually good for me, but sometimes it does ruin the momentum. Other times it helps me go back and decide if something is worth working on further.
Does that make the songwriting process slow for you?
It's not slow because I'm never really toiling over one idea and reworking it or trying to make something work that's not working. It's not slow, but it's spread out. I have moments of good writing, then a couple of weeks where I do nothing. I don't ever sit with something for too long. If it's not good enough automatically, then I don't really worry about it. I'm not really prolific at all. Laughs. But I did write two songs yesterday. That was good . . . and weird.
I hear the pride in your voice when you say that. What made that day so successful?
I had a lot of pent up energy because I hadn't written anything in over seven weeks. I had left myself a voice memo of a melody that I thought was pretty. I made it in the bathroom before a show one night. And I had texted myself a couple of lines that I thought were interesting. But I had really done nothing else, and that was scary. It pushed me into a six hour stretch of working on one idea. Then when I stopped, I just sat with my notebook and felt like I still wanted to write, so I started writing this weird thing about an egg that ended up being a beautiful song. I don't think that two songs in a day has ever happened before.
As an artist, though, while it might be scary not to write for seven weeks, do you really want to force it?
Yeah, but it's also a nice release for me to have some alone time to just sing gibberish and stare into space. It's really cathartic for me, even if I'm not writing. It's personal time. Just making melodies is therapeutic for me. So it was more of a release, and somehow songs came.
When I was little, I'd do that weird cathartic melody thing in my room by myself and I would cry. My mom thought it was weird to walk into my room and see me staring out my window, humming, with tears streaming down my face. Up until about five years ago, I wasn't able to have a session of singing by myself without crying at least a little bit. I'm trying to put that away so that eventually I'll be able to write with someone else without them thinking they are intruding on some insanely personal moment for me. Laughs. Right now, I can't write with anyone else.
So what kind of environment do you need to be able to write?
I could be anywhere, as long as I'm alone and no one can hear me. It's good for me to have something I could record with, just to have some frame of reference. I tend to change the melody a lot and I if I have nothing to record it with I won't be able to get back to it the way I wanted it.
You talk about crying when you write, so what kind of need does songwriting fulfill for you?
There are very personal topics that I've dealt with about myself in my songs. I've been in therapy since I was in elementary school, and I've addressed things in songs that I've never brought up [with therapists]. It helps me work out a lot of stuff.
It sounds like you start writing songs with a topic in mind, then.
Sometimes, but often those topics transform themselves as I go along. I've never thought about having a goal when I write. A lot of times, the topics change. I'll start writing a song about how I feel alienated, and all of the sudden it becomes a love song about how I've alienated the person I love from me because I'm too depressed. That happened recently. I started writing a song that was going to be about my world, and it ended up being about the person I love. It became directed towards them like a love song letter.
Was there a song on Sit Resist that was effortless to write?
The last song on the album, "I See Dark." It came to me right away, all the words and the melody. That was the most deeply personal and "hard to show anyone" song I've ever written. When I brought it to the band, they wanted me to change one small part of the melody at the end. And I didn't want to change it. It had to be the way I brought it to them. But they insisted that we change it slightly, and when we tried their idea, I started crying. I'm not difficult to work with, but I was crying, telling them, "It can't be any different than what I wrote!" Laughs. I had never become that personally attached to something I made.
What song on Sit Resist did you really struggle with?
"The Wait." I brought that song to the band in four chunks, and I didn't know how to bridge the chunks together. The same thing happened with "Master of Art." I didn't know how to turn them into a rock n' roll formats. We don't play "The Wait" live. I like it, but the flow is strange for me because it was never resolved. It leaves me feeling uneasy without a resolution.
How do you know when a song is done, then?
The great thing about playing a song live is that you can constantly revisit it. After I record something, I pick it apart. I can't listen to anything we've recorded without wishing I had done something differently or ruining it for myself to such an extent that I have a hard time listening to it. But live, you can do whatever you want.
What is your ideal emotional state when you get your best writing done?
It's not ideal, because it's not personally great for me. I'm getting better, but I've struggled, as we all do, with pretty severe depression. I'd isolate myself, not answering the phone, not paying the bills. I was really bad. But that's when I got the most done. Laughs. I had nothing else other than writing. I was emotionally imploded. And that's when I do my best work. Laughs.
How do you ensure that what comes from that state isn't incredibly cliched?
It happens, but I weed through the sludge and find the poignant things. I look for approaches that I haven't seen anyone else take. Like I don't want to use the word "ache" or "dark," though I still do. Sometimes I'll approach the song with a melody that may not really fit the sad theme. We have a couple of songs like that. "The Landslide Song" on our first record was about a landslide in Wales in the 60s that killed a bunch of kids, and that sounds like a children's song.
I don't like to force anything, because then I feel a lot of pressure to make something, and then it feels like work. And that makes me even more distracted than I already am. That's probably why I don't write as often as I should. I don't really write about other people's lives. I have a lot of stuff in my life that I still need to work out, and there's plenty more garbage in my life that I still need to sift through. I've got decades of material that I can write about, so I don't need to seek out song topics. Laughs.
What have you learned about yourself as a songwriter from your bandmates?
They won't say it, but I think I might be a little bit of a control freak. But I'm learning because I trust them and they are great musicians and very bright. It's the ideal environment for me to relinquish some of that control.
Common Ground: also read my interview with