David Bazan had me at "Galway Kinnell." You see, Kinnell is one of my favorite poets, one of the best around. Before my interview with Bazan, I interviewed Jeremy Messersmith and had mentioned that songwriters should read more poetry and that they should start with Kinnell. After talking to Messersmith, I had some time to kill, so I opened one of my Galway Kinnell books and read. So when Bazan told me later that day, unprompted, that he was a Kinnell fan, I swooned all the way out of my chair.
There's so much to Bazan's songwriting process. He's one of those songwriters who sees himself as a writer, not just a songwriter. Had he seen me on the other end of the phone when he told me about his creative process, I would have been nodding my head vigorously, because so much of what he said is what I tell other writers:
Reading poetry will make you a better writer.
Every writer's unique voice is the result of cumulative experience.
When you're blocked, put other narrative voices in your head by reading or listening to someone else.
For your first drafts, don't worry about form or correctness. Don't edit as you write. Just get everything all out on paper in one giant mess, then revise later.
Remember, you're always in the middle of your creative process, even when you're not writing.
Experiment with different points of view in your writing.
The songwriting thing is going pretty well for David Bazan now, but he'd also make one heck of a creative writing professor. Read my interview with Bazan after the video.
When did you first realize that songwriting was the appropriate means of expression for you?
I was a drummer for a long time before I picked up the guitar. That was my first instrument. Up until recently, it was still the instrument I was most comfortable with. In about 10th grade, my dad showed me some chords: D-E7M-D7 then Em-G-A. He told me I could use those to write a song, and I did. That was the beginning. It wasn't until 5 or 6 years ago that I realized was a part of this tradition.
Do you have a typical songwriting process?
It's changed over the years and expanded, but most of the time I need to get one line of a song, usually like the first four bars all at once. Or it can be just two bars of the chords, the melody, and the lyric. And if I like that, then usually in the DNA of those two or four bars is the map for the rest of the tune. Maybe it inspires a conceit of some kind that I want to flesh out, or in some cases it's just a hunch and I don't know where it's going, but I just have that feeling.
Most of the songs on Achilles Heel in 2003 started with first lines. I had a page of first lines, and most were bullshit. So I went back with a highlighter and singled out the ones I liked. When I had those lines, I'd sit with my guitar and try to graft a melody that made sense onto those. But really I can do any method: lyrics beginning to end, then music; music first, even drums first. Everything yields something interesting.
Are you active in the inspiration process, or do you see yourself more as a vessel?
The vessel discussion is interesting. In songwriting, you're dealing with components where few if any combinations are new. So in that sense I'm just a part of a tradition. I don't have a claim to deep originality like a visual artist does, because I've chosen a market-ready medium. Even wacky songwriters are not doing completely original stuff. But what makes songs happen are a unique combination of experiences and influences that each person has. And that's where the inspiration comes from. That's what makes even similar expressions from different songwriters so fascinating. For example, maybe we both like Radiohead, but you think the Beatles are bullshit. That's a major difference in where we are coming from and it's going to cause us to look at Radiohead differently. So for me the inspiration comes from the fact that we are all different people in the ways that we grew up, the way our parents treated us, our current relationships.
Are you a disciplined songwriter?
I don't write every day. The album cycle plays a pretty big role. I get inspired just by listening to other people's tunes and being blown away by how songwriters approach music in a unique way, like if there's a strategy applied in a song that I had never considered. But I don't do it every day.
Do you respond well to the pressure of the record cycle when you write?
Yeah. I don't know if I like it, but I respond well to it. It helps me to focus my idea. It's similar to the form of a song. When I've tried to write prose, I don't know what details to include and what to leave out. But because of the syllable limitation of a song, I just know that I have X number of syllables to write what I want to achieve. And that limitation focuses my energy and helps me edit. The album cycle is similar, where I think a song is going to be amazing before I finish it. I'll think it's beyond anything I've ever done, but once it's finished its unlimited potential is now gone because of those limitations. That's a scary thing, but the album cycle just forces me to do that. If I do good work, the album cycle has helped me to get there.
What's your editing process like?
There's a poet named Richard Hugo who wrote a book called The Triggering Town, and he talks a lot about transition words like but and so; he says that if their meaning is obvious, you don't need them. Don't be lazy with words like that, he says. Only use those words if it complicates what you are talking about or if it turns what you are saying on its head by being counterintuitive. But if it's the standard use of the word, you don't need it. Don't use it unless it's ironic.
I like to apply that idea. In the songwriting process, I mess around with pronouns. Do I say he or I, for example? Which voice would make the song more interesting or provocative? Sometimes I leave that until the end because I don't even know. There's a song on Achilles Heel "Keep Swinging." Originally it was a song about me. But it sounded like a frat boy bragging about a night of drinking when I said I got drunk. But when I say you got drunk, there's a finger-pointing quality that creates a different dynamic with characters. Another thing Hugo says in that book is to forget reality or autobiography: if the truck was brown but it needs to be red, it's the song that matters. Don't worry if it's true. That book had a big impact on the mechanics of songwriting for me.
Do read you poetry?
I try. I subscribe to Poetry magazine, and unfortunately many remain unwrapped. For me, a little bit of inspiration goes a long way, so I'll crack one and just have my mind blown. Just three or four poems will do it for me, and my tank is full for a while. As I get less busy, I hope to read more.
I want to read more poetry. I got this Galway Kinnell collection a couple of years ago, and there are some poems in there that I keep going back to. Just to have your breath taken away by words on a page is incredible. I feel like poets are so much more powerful than musicians, who need the accompaniment of music to wield that same power.
I'm amazed that more songwriters don't read poetry.
Poets and short story writers are so valuable. I just heard Matthew Dickman read a poem, and it felt like a punch in the stomach. Everything I consume, except for radio, I consume in bits. I'll read the first quarter of a non-fiction book, and just that part will do such a number on my brain that it's all I need. I'll mull it over for days. When I do read poetry, it goes such a long way.
I think poetry is daunting for people today because they expect immediacy gratification from a poem. They don't understand that you need to read it over and over and mull it over for a long time. You have to be patient.
Absolutely. And that's why I got Poetry magazine: I need somebody to show me where to look. I don't have a lot of time, and I want someone to curate for me, to tell me what poems to read. If I'm only going to be reading six poems, I want them all to count. I wish I had more time, but I don't.
How important is writing environment to you?
It's not very important. I haven't been in the same place long enough for that to matter. Because most of the things I write are non-verbal, that's the bigger factor. Like if I'm playing an electric guitar that's really loud and I'm writing, different sorts of things come out that would if I was in a quiet place with an acoustic guitar. Or if I'm on my computer with a MIDI controller composing with synthesizers or a virtual Wurlitzer.
But I like hearing about what works for other people and trying that out. One of my heroes is Mark Eitzel from American Music Club. I was on tour with him once, and I noticed he took a pad of paper and acoustic guitar everywhere he went. And any ten minutes he got, when something wasn't required of him, he was writing. That was so inspiring to me. I mean, I don't want to be a workaholic. I want my kids to have a happy life, but I also just want to take every chance I can to write when the inspiration is there.
How many kids do you have?
I have two kids, a six year old and a two year old.
We have four, and our oldest turns eight this year. And I've realized that once you have young kids, your time belongs to someone else and you often have to write around those times. How has having kids altered your schedule?
My arrangement with my wife even before we had kids was that I had to keep banker's hours. Before we came to that agreement, we'd be sitting down to dinner and I'd leave the table to go write if I suddenly got an idea. And she'd just be sitting there alone. So finally she said, "You're not going to do that to me. I'm not going to be with you if that's the case." And so I asked her how we could work it out, and I've kept banker's hours for years when I'm at home.
I write when I'm on tour. Especially when I'm struggling with something like the last line of a verse and I can't seem to get it, those lines tend to come to me when I'm driving. So having kids hasn't really changed that. When I'm home, I'm theirs and I work hard at not having any ideas for songs when I'm with my family. Laughs.
What does the role of motion play in your process? Chris Difford of Squeeze told me that he gets a lot of ideas on the train, that seeing the constantly changing landscape is very inspiring.
Absolutely. I wouldn't have articulated it like that, but what you said is totally right. Similarly, the motion of the clouds in Seattle gives me a lot of ideas. With the mountains in Seattle, the clouds can get moving pretty quickly, and there's something in their motion that's very inspiring, similar to watching scenery go by when you are driving. It stirs something in me, and it's one of the reasons why I love Seattle so much.
What do you do when you get writer's block?
When I get writer's block, I feel like it's a lack of vocabulary and that I need to recharge. So if I'm really stuck but I still want to stay actively engaged in songwriting, I'll learn four or five covers. I'll get inside of them and digest them. That will give me a renewed vocabulary and fodder for songwriting. Because if you think about how stuck you are, you'll just get more stuck. I don't want to just walk away and not participate in songwriting. I want to stay engaged, and learning covers really helps me. The next thing I know, I've got tons of song ideas.
What you say is similar to what a lot of novelists tell me, that when they are stuck, they put other narrative voices in their heads by reading other authors. Anthony Doerr told me that writer's block is a failure of courage and that you can't be afraid to write badly. That's why people get stuck.
I agree. There's an element of vanity to writer's block. It's usually because you don't like what you are writing, not because nothing is coming out. I feel like each song I've written that I've really liked is a coup, in a way. It's almost like I feel like I'm a shitty writer who has managed to make 25 songs that I really like, so I totally agree with that. It's me thinking that I'm a bigger deal than I really am when I get super discouraged.
I have a sanctuary notion in the early part of my writing process. I never know if I'm going to like something that I've written until way later anyway, so I prepare a sanctuary in my mind where my editor is just banished. He's not allowed in. It's like I'm just puking words onto the page. I'm actively trying to make stuff up, but I don't allow myself to judge my writing during that initial period. Then later when I come back, most of it might stink. Given distance, I can tell what lines really work. But when I first write, I can't tell the difference between what's good and what's bad.
What's your best emotion to write songs?
There's a couple, and one of them is empathy. It involves what a writer friend told me, the "lifting every voice" mode. Sometimes I'll be writing, and I'll put myself in someone else's place, someone totally different like an architect, and I'll write from that perspective. And the other mode is a punk rock indignation that fuels some of my songs. There's a couple on Fewer Moving Parts that came from that sense of indignation or injustice. And melancholy works as well.
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