Craig Finn, The Hold Steady

The Hold Steady will begin writing material for their sixth album over the next few months. But Craig Finn, the band's lyricist, has probably been writing that material for a long time.  As any good writer knows, the key to become a good writer is daily practice, just like the key to being good at anything is practice.  So Finn makes a point to write every day in his journals.  Though he tries to write a song each day, a lot of what he writes is reflection: what he did that day, his thoughts on the movie he saw, or what he thinks about the book he just read. When he does write a song, he does what good writers do: he lets it sit for a while, untouched, then comes back to it later when he has a new perspective.

The Hold Steady just began a short tour, so check them out.  And read my interview with Craig Finn after the video to learn all about his songwriting process.

I'm most interested in talking to you because I've read that you write every day, and I tell writers all the time that if they want to get better, they should engage in daily practice like this.

I've always written in notebooks, even stuff as simple as what I did today or what I have to do today.  Or I might write about what I thought of the movie I saw the night before. It's important for me just to put pen to paper.  For the songs, of course, I'll scribble down lyric ideas, just as long as I fill a couple of pages a day. Tad writes the music by and large, so he shows me what he has, and I then look through my notebook to see what works with what he's given me. And we make it fit. 

A few years back I had an epiphany.  A friend of mine, Tom Ruprecht, was a writer om Letterman.  He told me how he hates movies that depict a writer with writer's block, just sitting there with a blank cursor or a blank page.  He says, "That would be nice, but my show is going on the air at 11:30, so I need to write a show, and then I need to make it good."  That really stuck with me, so I try to write a song every day, and I try to make it good after that, though most of it is terrible when it first comes out. 

But I try to write one song a day, Monday through Friday, then put it aside and let it rest for a few weeks.  Then I look at it again.  Some are still bad, and I'll throw them out.  But some are good, and those are the ones I work with.  It leads to much better results than just sitting around and waiting for it to hit you.  I've become a big believer in just putting stuff down, editing it, and coming to it with a new perspective, seeing it in a new way.

It sounds like when you are writing every day, you're journaling and not necessarily writing something with the goal of it becoming a song. You just believe that any type of writing will make you a better writer.

I have my notebook right here, and there are to do lists, errands, and lyrics scrawled on the next page.  And when Tad comes in, I'll look for some cool stuff and start moving things around.  But more recently, within the past 18 months, I've started to become more disciplined when it comes to writing entire songs, or at least four stanzas of lyrics every day.

Do you try to carve out time every day, or do write when you have the time?

I tend to write when I have the time.  Ideally, there is one time I like to do it, which is late morning.  I just try to make sure to do it.

It's important to understand that, if you write every day, most of what you write is crap, but that even writing bad stuff will make you a better writer eventually.

Yeah, you're never going to bat one thousand.  It's like anything else you do.  I've come to a conclusion that it's really arrogant to think otherwise. 

Some poets and novelists think that writer's block is a myth.  I interviewed the short story writer Anthony Doerr, who calls it "a failure of courage."  He says that you cannot be afraid to write badly. And others think it's arrogant to assume that what you have to say is really that important.

And it's arrogant to say, "When it's good, it will come to me, and I don't need to work at it."

When you are struggling, what do you do? A lot of writers walk away, but others, and this includes songwriters, tend to put other writers' voices in their heads, which frees them.

That's exactly what I do.  I read.  Read and pay attention to other artists, which might include listening to music.  What does Bob Dylan do?  What does Philip Roth say?  Having another voice in my head gives me a spark.  The great moment of taking in any art form is when you as the audience can say, "Yeah, I've felt that way too." So I try to find those moments in some other art form as I take it in.  It can even be a painting for me. 

How active are you in the inspiration process when it comes to seeking out song ideas? Would you say you're pretty active?

Yeah, that's why when I list when I want to get get done every day, I always list reading and writing.  Reading 25 pages of a novel can be as helpful as putting in an hour or two of writing.

Do you go places to get inspired?

With all the travel we do, it's always inspiring to walk around in a neighborhood I've never been in before.  That can really get my mind flowing.  I'm a big fan of walking, just putting on my headphones and walking.  Or walking in silence.  That meditative time is a huge influence.  Or even walking through my own neighborhood here in Brooklyn.  I love walking, not just in commercial districts, but in residential neighborhoods and thinking about what goes on in those houses.

I read that you're also a runner.

Yeah, for a long time I've just been the 3-4 miles a day type, but this summer I ran a half marathon. The training leading up to that was really cool.  Those long runs are also a very meditative time.  Your mind gets to a crazy, unique place once you get above ten miles.  It's a time for some very clear thinking.

I'm a runner too, and I find it a great time to think about my writing. There's a lot of research out there showing a definite link between aerobic exercise and creativity.

I'm not surprised in the least bit.  I'm sure you feel the same way when you run.

Definitely.  If I'm struggling in my creative process, a run frees me up. Do you use running as a conscious way to generate ideas?

Yeah. Making running a part of my day, and the discipline that entails, makes me much more disciplined in my writing.  I like to get up, run, have coffee, then write.  I don't know that it's conscious, but I always feel inspired to write after I run.

There's a great book about William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge called The Friendship, and it describes how Wordsworth composed and edited almost all of his poems in his head while walking before ever coming inside to commit them to paper.

When I was in Lifter Puller before The Hold Steady, I had this really weird habit of never writing anything down.  I'm sure I lost a lot of stuff then. Laughs.  I edited everything in my mind.  But as I got older, I realized that maybe I was just trying to be too cool and that I needed to write everything down.

How important is environment to your creative process?

It's not that important. Probably because of the touring, I've had to force myself to write in any space I can get.  I'd prefer to be sitting at my desk at home, but I can get a lot of writing done on tour in some weird environments, then take it home and sort through it.  I do like to edit at my desk. 

Are you able to sit for long periods of time and write, or do you need frequent breaks?

An hour is about my limit, then I have to walk away.  I might just need a five minute break,  but an hour is as long as I can sit.

I think the idea of distance is the most valuable part of the revision process. It's amazing that if you set something aside for a while and come back to it, you see it in a whole new perspective and notice things that you never saw before.

Now that I've become more disciplined with writing, I've noticed that the idea of distance affects me the most when moments of self doubt come in.  Instead of hitting delete or erasing the page, I just wait.  I may wait a week or two before looking at a song I've written, but sometimes things that I thought were really stupid at the time, with a little bit of distance, I've found worth keeping.

photo by Danny Clinch

photo by Danny Clinch

When you revise, do you revise many times in one sitting, or do you revise once then let it float around in your brain?

I'll write the song, but some of the actual singing dictates some revisions with the way it fits with the instruments and the pockets of the song.  I've revised literally up until the second before we put it on tape.

What's the easiest part of your songwriting process?

Getting the first line is always easy.  I always have a good starting point that I'm comfortable with.  Once you commit to something, you can go anywhere.  I've worked with people before who get really freaked out by the blank page.  Making a commitment to the first line gets you on your way.

I agree.  You can't be afraid of that first line.  Even if it's not great, just getting started makes the process easier.

It's like looking at a map. You can go anywhere, but if you start heading west, you know that you can't get to the places to your east.

Many songwriters tell me about the role that motion has on their creative process.  Does it have any affect on yours? Chris Difford of Squeeze told me that he wrote "Tempted" in two-and-a-half minutes in the back of a cab.

Not as much anymore, because we usually tour on a bus, and the windows aren't that great.  But when we were on a van, I was a big fan of the passenger's seat.  I'd sit there with my notebook; there was something about signs and billboards that made them a great source of inspiration with the actual words flying by.  But now on the bus, I tend to write when we are parked.  Writing in the van has been replaced by those long walks. 

Do your songs ever start as images?

I'm more of a word person than a visual person.  I've gotten a lot of material over the years by eavesdropping on the subway. I like hearing people's conversations out of context, not know who they are or what kind of person they are.  That can be really thought provoking.

That's still part of your creative process.

Absolutely.  And I'd add reading to that list too.  But when I'm out  and I hear, for example, some guy walking the wrong way while talking on his cell phone, I listen to him and think, "Wow, that's gonna be in a song."

What literary figures inspire you as a songwriter?

Kerouac, for one.  I love reading him aloud; his words pop when you read them in the way a good set of lyrics should. If someone doesn't get Kerouac, I would tell them to just read him aloud. And I love the way he's out there, but he's a traditional guy.  He played football, he loves his mom, and he's got that Catholic thing going.  Being in a rock band, I love sports and read the business section every morning.  I feel like a very traditional person as well. 

The other one is Raymond Carver, the way he can tell a story in such a minimalist style. For a songwriter, that's a huge thing.  He can tell short stories without over explaining, and he leaves enough space for you to put your own life into it. You can infer some things that aren't quite there. That's very similar to a good song. 

Do you have an ideal emotional state in which you get the best writing done?

Laughs.  I used to find that I got a lot of stuff when I was hungover.  And that troubled me, because eventually I cleaned up my act and started running a bunch and lived healthier.  Once I did that, I had a hard time being creative, but I broke through that.  Now it can really be anything.  I just can't be too tired, which is why I like the late morning.  

How important is it for you to start and finish a song in the same sitting?

It sticks with me and bugs me until I'm finished.  The initial draft won't go over 24 hours start to finish.  Even if I set it aside, it's always in the back of my mind until it's wrapped up. The first draft is always pretty quick. It's unreasonable to think that you are going to get much right on the first draft, so I just get something down and work on polishing it later.

Can you tell me about one revision technique you use? For example, Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket told me that he'll write a word, then put a couple of alternates above it to see what works best.

I do something really similar.  I use parentheses.  I'll have a word, then a couple of alternate words in parentheses after it.  Or I'll do the same thing with a whole line. Later, I'll go back and decide what word or phrase to choose. 

Are you willing to sacrifice a word for the sake of the melody?

Yeah, especially because meter is so important in my songs. When I sing, I don't hold a lot of notes.  It's all very percussive.  It has to fit in the perfect meter.  So sometimes I'll have a great word but I can't use it with the music.

How do you know when a song is done?

It's hard to put into words, but there's a moment when it feels whole, rather than just a string of things.  Especially if I'm able to connect it back to itself in the end.  I write lyrics that get paired later with music, and when the two are together, things always change. 

Do you work well under deadline?

I work pretty well.  At some point, there's an infinite amount of revision, almost too much, that you can do.  I think it's usually better to have some financial or time constraints because it forces you to make some decisions. 

And do you worry that with excessive revising, the meaning can change too much?

That's the struggle with any art, to know when to let go.  It's like being over rehearsed.  You don't want to take away the original emotion that you put on the page, but it's ok to make it more palatable or more organized.  So it's a balance of writing clearly with that original emotion. 

 Do you ever feel the need to write a song about a certain topic?

Not really.  When those things are too big or too important, they aren't going to be suble enough for a song. 

What have you learned from your bandmates about your own writing?

That's a good question.  There's a lot of support that comes from them.  They tell me not to throw out or replace things that I otherwise would have discarded.  They help me as editors.  I'll often come to them with two ideas for lines and ask them which one we should use. 

What's the one part of the writing process that you know you need to improve?

I used to plow through the songwriting process and just go verse-chorus verse-chorus, and sometimes the first part wouldn't resemble the second part.  It would just be a bunch of ideas.  I needed to slow down and make it easier for people to digest, to give them something to hold on to by using things like repetition, instead of just giving them a steady stream of thoughts. I needed to think more about the audience.  I've gotten better at it, but I still need to work that it.

*thumbnail image by Rich Tarbell