Catherine Pierce, The Pierces
The sisters Catherine and Allison Pierce make up The Pierces. With a musician for a father and a painter for a mother, they've been around some form of art all their lives, so it's no surprise that Catherine has always been creative. She writes songs, she loves to paint, she's an accomplished ballerina, and she's even a creative writer. When it comes to inspiration, she takes the active route; in her words, she's "always looking for the muse." As a result, the initial inspiration for a song doesn't come from a melody; instead, it usually comes from a random line that pops into her head. The inspiration for their song "Secrets," for example, came from a Ben Franklin quote that she saw on a t-shirt in a restaurant.
The Pierces are on tour now, supporting Coldplay. Their latest album is called You & I. Read my interview with Catherine Pierce after the video for "You'll Be Mine."
Do you have any other creative outlets besides songwriting?
I love to paint, but I haven't had a lot of time to do that recently. I also started writing a novel. Laughs. I started it a couple of years ago and have about 120 pages, but now I'm stuck. Since I was little, I've always loved to do a lot of creative things.
Do songs ever start as visual images for you?
Not for me. A song for me usually starts as one line. It will just pop into my head. When you go through life, there are tiny moments of realization where you have a thought that's a little more profound than your normal everyday random thought. I usually take that and make it the base of my song. Sometimes, though, it comes with a melody, and that's really bizarre. Just one line with a melody, then I sit down and build around that line.
Where do those lines come from?
I can be inspired by all sorts of things. Like our song "Secrets" from our last record. I was sitting at a restaurant and saw a guy with a t-shirt with a Ben Franklin quote that said, "Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead." And I thought that was so interesting. I changed it for our song, which says, "Two may keep a secret if one of them is dead" to make it more personal. But there was also something happening in my life that went along with that quote. A group of my friends was having trouble keeping secrets; everyone was revealing everyone else's secrets at the same time. And I thought about how no one really keeps secrets anymore.
It's hard to break down, though. Sometimes a line or a thought comes to me and I know that it might be good enough to record, so I'll listen back later. If it still sounds good, I build it into a song.
When it comes to inspiration, do you wait for the muse or would you call yourself active in the inspiration process?
It's funny, because Allison and I are opposite in that way. She waits for the muse. She never forces the songwriting process and never pushes it. I, on the other hand, am always looking for the muse. Not in a desperate way, but I find it exciting. I end up writing a lot because of that. But when she writes, it comes in waves. I think it's important to be active in the inspiration process, because it means you're living life in a very full way if you're out there looking.
You say you start with a line, but when that line comes, how disciplined are you as a songwriter? I would think that writing a novel takes a lot more discipline than writing a song because you have to sit for longer periods of time.
I work well under pressure. If it's not there, I'm just collecting those thoughts. I have around 300 of those one liners on my iPhone. When it's time get down to writing, I go through them and pick those that stand out, then build on them. I can be disciplined when I need to be.
Can you sit and write for long periods of time?
It's exciting when it does come time to sit down and fully form the song, and it comes pretty quickly if it feels inspiring and feels good.
How does the music get incorporated with that first line?
I write with an omnichord, actually. It's like an electronic auto harp. You press a key with your left hand and strum with your right hand. It creates a variety of sounds, like a piano sound, a harp sound, a guitar sound, or a vocal sound, so it evokes a lot of different moods. It's a great way to write because if you are limited in an instrument, you still end up writing in the same chords and melody patterns.
I start with the one line and a melody idea, then follow where it takes me. For me, it's emotional. I follow where I feel the melody will go and what feels moving to me. Then at some point when it gets to a certain level of readiness, I'll play it for Allison, who will give me feedback, like telling me that a chord needs to go somewhere. In that case, I'll reevaluate, though sometimes I'll feel strongly about something and Allison won't agree, and that's when you have to decide who you trust more, yourself or your first listener.
Is there any Ideal emotion when you get your best writing done?
My best writing usually comes from some sort of longing. That's what drives people to create art: the act of wanting or desiring something. You create when you have those emotions.
I like that answer. But a lot of songwriters have told me that they get their best writing done when they are hungover.
That's true! You do write really good songs when you are hungover. It's bizarre. Laughs.
I've thought about it a lot because I used to drink more than I do now, and I realize that I write less now than I used to. That hungover state just brings out emotions. I think you are more emotional and you have fewer boundaries. And you're also reflective because you don't feel well. You start to look inside. That's funny. I thought I was the only one! Laughs.
Do you ever mix and match your lyrics and music?
Sometimes a couple of different song fragments will become the same song. Sometimes a melody will come and I'll try to find a lyric to fit it, but usually they come at the same time. The first line, the melody, and a thought appears in my head at the same time. But when I'm trying to finish a song, sometimes I'll sift through the melodies and lyrics, pick out the best ones, and paste them together.
How important is environment to you when you write?
I can be anywhere. That's why I love the iPhone. Ideas come at inconvenient times for me, like when I'm on an airplane next to a stranger. I'll get an idea and have to run to the bathroom with my phone to get it done where no one can hear me. But lots of times I get inspired when I hear other live music. If it's something good, it's almost like I get another song at the same moment I'm hearing their song. It won't even be similar, so it's bizarre that the idea I get is so completely different from what I'm hearing. It's almost like opening a channel as you interpret their art.
A lot of writers, not just songwriters, tell me that's a good way to rid themselves of writer's block. Putting other narrative voices in their head, whether it's fiction or songwriting, seems to nudge many artists back towards creating.
I never feel stuck when it comes to writing songs, but those voices that you talk about absolutely give me more ideas.
How much revising do you do to your lyrics?
I don't revise that much. I actually resist that part of the process. If Allison tells me that a lyric needs to be reworked, I'll listen, but if anyone else tells me, I'm pretty stubborn. Laughs. If she tells me I can do better, then I'll look at it. And she's often right. I trust her opinion.
When you start to write, do you like to start and finish in the same sitting, or is it OK to stretch the creation of a song over days, weeks, or months?
I'm OK with doing that, but once the melody and idea is there, I try to finish it as quickly as possible. Once I have the initial idea, it's a fast process.
You've lived in many different cities. Do you notice a change either in the content of your lyrics or in the process itself based on where you live?
Definitely. We lived a sheltered life when we were in Birmingham. I listen to our first two albums and they sound so naive. Not in a bad way, but I feel like I didn't know myself very well, so I was writing what I thought were "pretty" songs, or what I thought songs should be. After living in New York for a couple of years, I started writing totally differently. Not intentionally, but different things came out just from my life experiences and getting to know myself better. I think that comes from being in a tougher, less predictable environment.
I'd like to talk about your novel, because you can't get much different as far as genres. You're kind of confined to a time limitation in song, but a novel has few limitations. What made you decide to write a novel?
It came about in the way a song does. I had a thought, a theme pop into my mind. I couldn't get it out of my head, so I imagined this moment happening and I built the story around that one moment. I was so excited about it, because I didn't think I was capable of writing a novel. It flowed so easily for 120 pages; I was writing constantly and thinking, "Hey, writing a book is easy!" And then I got stuck and had no idea what was supposed to happen. I didn't know how it was supposed to turn out. I still don't know, so it's on pause.
I've interviewed a few novelists, and I think most will tell you that when they set out to write a book, they don't know how it's going to end. The characters and plot develop as they write. And many start with a single moment, just like you did. So I think you might be OK.
Oh, well that's good. I had no outline or anything. I thought I was doing it all wrong. Laughs. Because when you write a song, there's only so far you can take it before it goes to someone else who produces it. Like you said, there are not many limits with a novel; I could just keep going and keep going. I loved the way I could just do my own thing.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
I love Tom Robbins. His images just stick in my head when I read his words, and that's what songwriters aim to do. They aim to make you feel something and see something. I read his books and think about how he puts words together to create a unique language.
But I've also been reading a lot of psychology books, a lot of Eckhart Tolle. And that's probably why I'm on hold with my novel, because I'm not reading fiction. Now I'm reading books about how to become a better person. Laughs.
Self-help books, right?
I like to call them self-improvement. Laughs. Not self-help. I think you reach a point in your life where things like this become interesting to you. I wasn't interested at all in these things in my 20s. You look at your life and wonder why a relationship isn't working out or why you're still stuck in the same place. You get to a point of frustration with that and it makes you look inward.
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