Man would I love to take a look inside Chuck Ragan's piano bench. Songwriting for Ragan is an intensely personal act, a type of therapy. It's something he has to do, and he really doesn't care whether anyone sees or hears what he writes. The last thing he's thinking of is turning a piece of writing into a song. That's why, according to his estimate, probably three quarters of the stuff he's written you'll never see.
And this is where the piano bench comes into play. Ragan is always writing down ideas and thoughts everywhere he goes, usually on a notepad he stuffs in his back pocket. Then when he gets home, he opens up the bench and adds those scraps of paper to the growing pile already there. Some of those scraps have been there for over five years. And that's where a lot of his song ideas originate.
Chuck Ragan's new album Covering Ground is out now on SideOneDummy Records, and he's touring behind it. To read more about Ragan's songwriting process, read my interview after the video for "Nomad By Fate," a track off the new album.
Do you have other creative outlets besides songwriting?
I used to keep a lot of journals years ago, and those journals turned into poetry or lyrics. Now I write words, and often when I write, the last thing I'm thinking of is a song. I write for the sake of writing. It's always been a type of therapy to me. Probably three-quarters of the stuff I write doesn't even make it anywhere near a song.
I've talked to a lot of songwriters who've said that working with their hands increases their creativity. Does that happen with you?
Absolutely. I've always been fired up about woodworking, and I've always equated it with creativity. Really anything with my hands makes me feel creative. When you called, I was tying flies to go fly fishing. I've always enjoyed creating something useful from an idea, like taking wood or design build projects and seeing them as a canvas, a blank slate to create. It's about knowing what you want before you begin, sketching an idea, and finalizing the plan.
I read recently something about how we are at our most creative when we're bored. The idea is that when you're bored, your mind wanders. Do you think this is true?
It's essential. I always harness the right energy or the right ideas when I'm driving, even more so when I'm driving without music. It drives my guys nuts, but when I get into the driver's seat, I don't listen to music. I like it when everyone is asleep and I can listen to the tires and just stay between the lines. There's something about being locked into that repetitive silence that makes for a very creative time. It slows the train of thought that a lot of us miss now with all the technology and distractions around us. Thoughts just come and go in a matter of seconds now, and you need to slow them down, because the window of opportunity to be creative also comes and goes quickly. Times like that, when I'm fishing or walking in the woods or just sitting: it's all about slowing the mind. It's tough for me to write or even focus when I'm moving as fast as I do.
Living in Northern California the past four years, I've become addicted to fly fishing. It's a completely different energy than I've ever experienced, like the thought process of fooling the fish. There's sayings like "matching the hatch," where you get into the river, put a screen down, kick some rocks around, and look at the bugs hatching. You have to pay attention to what's flying around and landing on your skin and on the water. That's what the fish are feeding on, so you go tie the flies that mimic the bugs flying around at the moment. Then you present them as naturally as possible on the water. It becomes really therapeutic. Fly fishing is called the quiet sport for a reason, and that's why I love it.
I've heard you discuss your need to write, and I'm curious as to your discipline as a writer. Does that need to write make you disciplined?
I would say it's 50-50. I used to be a lot more disciplined. In the past four or five years where I've been overloaded with work and family life, I'm constantly writing, just grabbing whatever is around me. I keep a notepad in my back pocket and hang onto it for a good week. And then sometimes it's not around for a couple of weeks. But when I talk about my need to write, usually that has to do with the sheer fact that I have to write to get something off my chest.
I definitely write when the moment comes to me. I have the muse around me: my wife, my family, my friends, and the will to be a better husband, a better man, a better friend. With that, there's always something that comes to me, like a phrase or an idea. And I document it as best I can. Those little notes end up in my backpack or my piano bench or in my truck or guitar case. It's something I have to do. If something comes to me, I'm doing myself a disservice if I don't write it down.
Sounds like a lot of things you write never make it into as song, so how do you decide what does?
Good question. When writing a song, its hard to say I've ever written something that has to sound a certain way or say a certain thing. I write a song until it feels good to me, not even thinking about how others will perceive it. A lot of my songs aren't meant to be heard by others, and that's fine. If it feels true and honest, then for me it's in the right direction. Sometimes these songs happen really quickly, or sometimes something I wrote seven or eight years ago and stuck in my piano bench may just strike a chord with me now. When I wrote that song, I had no idea what I was thinking. So a lot of the time I'll look back on something I wrote a long time ago, and it will send me in a different direction.
Is it tough to recapture the emotion you had when you originally wrote down the idea?
It's different. Like I said before, sometimes I'll sit down with a melody and a phrase or an idea for a chorus, and from start to finish I can complete a song in an hour. I'll play it and have no idea how to make it any better than I just made it. It's special when that happens, which isn't that often. As far as the ones that originate from a sentence I wrote five years on a sheet of paper that's been sitting in the bench, most of the time the energy or the issue or topic is different than what it started from.
Do you notice a difference between the songs that take you an hour and the songs that come to you after five years of just being a scrap of paper?
After a while, no. But at first I do. Take the new record. The majority of the songs were written in the past year, except for "Valentine." It's been around for a while. But another time when we were doing pre-production for the new album and hit a lull, I found myself playing this upbeat strumming tune. I messed around with it for a few minutes when the guys went out, then played it for them when they came back. I had a melody in mind, and they liked it. So we ran through it and it locked together quickly. We put down a demo of just the music, then I went back to the hotel for the night and wrote lyrics. We recorded it the next day and it became "Nomad By Fate." When a song happens like that for me, it's my new favorite song. So at the time, I notice a difference because I'm more stimulated by that whole process of coming up with something so quickly.
When a song is taking a long time to materialize, do you get motivated to finish it or do you get frustrated?
It happens both ways. There's been times when I feel like we are beating a dead horse. So many of my songs have never seen the light of day, but I can't tell you the time and energy that went into them. They're just not meant to be.
How important is physical environment to you when you write?
When I'm off the road, my whole schedule switches. When I'm home, I'm an early riser, like 4:30am. Getting up that early and doing what I do during the day, I'm ready to go to bed by 9pm. But when I'm on the road, I'm not getting to bed until 3am. So the magic time for me, really for everything, is the early morning. I love getting up, having coffee, and letting everything wake up around me. I get a lot of writing done then, when the world is still asleep.
I write a couple of different ways. I'm constantly laying stuff down. When I'm on the road, I bring a mobile studio with a mic and headphones, or sometimes I just record straight into my phone or computer. But I'm constantly laying down ideas. It could be riffs or it could be just humming a melody. I have a huge catalog of stuff, just tons of bits and pieces. Then I have to set aside the time to just make music or write songs from that catalog. I'll just stay in my pajamas for a few days and dig into it. I'm usually the most productive when everyone is sleeping and the world is quiet.
What do you do when you get writer's block? Is walking a part of that routine?
Getting away and walking has always been a great way to shake off the block. Driving and fishing also help. I find a lot of peace being in the water. I've always believed that almost all songs have been written before in one way or another. We sing about love, anger, hate, politics, stuff like that. But we constantly put our own twist on those same issues. When writing songs, all that stuff is already there. To me, its about calming myself and paying attention to things around me to be able to write about something in a new way.
How has your experience growing up prepared you for being a writer?
Years ago, I was in a disciplinary program at a young age. We had to write MIs, or moral inventories, which were basically diaries of what happened that day. Then we had to write an RSA, a rational self analysis, three times a week, where you chose one problem you were facing at the time and wrote about it. Then you wrote down three goals on how to solve the problem. I did those for three years straight. That's how I began keeping journals.
What have you learned about yourself as a songwriter from other people?
I've learned that I need to make sure to slow down, look around me, and see what I've done. I don't do that enough. A buddy told me that last week when I was in England. He asked me how I was, and I told him I was busy as hell. I think I need to make sure I'm having fun with this. Sometimes I'm so intent on reflecting and figuring out the answer to a problem in songwriting, figuring out what's wrong with me. And I forget just to sit back, relax, and tell a story. And to make it fun.