Hayes Carll was a writer before he was ever a songwriter. In fact, before he even knew how to play the guitar, he loved to write. True story: his favorite part of junior high and high school was when his teacher told the students to freewrite for 20 minutes. Let that sink in for a minute. He loved to be told to write. And Carll's goal was not just to write a great story in those 20 minutes; instead, he wanted to write more pages than any of his classmates. He still has those junior high and high school writing journals, even mining them for ideas on occasion.
With that history, it's no wonder he's been called one of the best storytellers in the singer/songwriter and country western world today. If you're a fan of Carll, you'll obviously love this interview. But if you're not too familiar with his music and just happen to be a songwriter, you'll still love it. Just as Carll explains that he's a fan of this site because he wants to learn about the creative processes of other songwriters, you'll find this interview to be its own lesson in songwriting.
My favorite interviews reveal how the artist's creative process mirrors who they are as people. It's a testament to the depth and introspection of Carll's responses that this is true here: we see as much about Carll the person as we do about Carll the songwriter. At the risk of sounding too dramatic, an authentic window into the creative process is also a window into the soul.
We spent most of our time talking about words, not music, which illustrates his passion for reading and writing. Heck, he sounds like a short story writer. And I imagine he'd be OK with that. Read my interview after the video. It's long, but worth every word. And a big thanks to Carll for the thoughtfulness of his answers.
What other creative outlets do you have besides songwriting?
These days, not so much. I used to write all the time before I owned an instrument. I started out writing short stories and poems. That was always my favorite part of the day. When I was in school and the teacher gave us twenty minutes to write, it was my goal to get more pages down than any other kids and still have an interesting story. That was a thrill to me. Whether it was because I had too much energy or there was too much in my head, I have no idea. But that was the highlight of my day.
I realized at a certain point that I enjoyed the crafting of poetry and short stories but that I was going to have trouble being a novelist. Carrying a story for that long with that level of detail was a problem. Through the authors I was reading when I was around 14 or 15, I locked in on writing as something I really wanted to do. When I learned how to play guitar and heard Bob Dylan, I realized that songwriting was a much better format for me because I could say what I wanted to say in three minutes. Writing in couplets and short form was much more conducive to the way my brain works.
Who were you reading at 14 or 15?
I was reading anything I could get my hands on, but what set me on the creative path was Kerouac and through that, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti and those guys. What I really enjoyed about Kerouac was that stream-of-consciousness style. Not only did the writing appeal to me, but the idea of travel and adventure, or the lifestyle, did as well. All that writing seemed like a means to end: it was not just a way of expressing myself, but I was hoping it might also lead to a lifestyle that seemed like a lot of fun. Laughs.
I was drawn to Kerouac because he opened the creativity faucet of detailing your experiences by always keeping your antennas up. Then when inspiration hits, it will magically come out. It was the best way for me to write, or so I thought. Of course now I realize that's not always the best way to write, but when I first started it seemed great: go out, have some experiences, open your mind, and when inspiration hits, throw it all on the paper and something great will come out. That idea really appealed to me when I was young, the fact that there's this innate thing inside you just waiting to get out, so you always have to have your pen ready.
That's the question: how you treat your "job" as a songwriter. Do you work at it and actively seek inspiration, or do you wait for the muse? If you sit back and wait now, do you ever worry that the inspiration might not come? After all, it is a job, right?
It's an evolving process. Like I said, when I was 15, I looked at Dylan and thought he does the right drugs and stays busy, so stuff just comes out. That may have been true to a certain degree, but there's a lot more to it. When I first started, I grew up in the suburbs in a one-dimensional community. I never felt like I had anything to write about, certainly not like the guys I was reading. They had characters that seemed worthy of a song or story. My process at first was just to get some life experience to give myself something to write about. But as time went on, I realized that you didn't have to hang out in the prison to write about the prisoners.
But you do need to write. I've spent a lot of time sitting around waiting for inspiration to hit, and I feel like I've missed out on a lot of the songs that were inside of me because I relied too heavily on the "inspiration comes when it comes" idea. As time goes on and life responsibilities change, the songwriting process takes a back burner to the day-to-day duties. I struggle with that. i realize that I am a songwriter for a living and that it needs to be a priority. I can't just sit around waiting for some brilliant idea to come.
Having said that, though, I still wait around the majority of the time. I take chunks of time where I can get them, then go sit down and make myself write. But I'm nowhere as consistent as I'd like to be. I have a feeling that it only gets you so far, and at the end of the day there is a whole lot of work involved with songwriting than just waiting for lightning in a bottle.
You mentioned how you were the kind of kid who loved to write, so I'm guessing you must be a pretty disciplined writer. Do you try to find time every day to write, regardless of whether you have much to say?
I don't, and if you ask me that question in a year, I hope that I do. But when I first started writing, I was living on the beach where I was the only full-time resident in a subdivision of about 100 houses. I had no TV, no phone, no computer, and no friends. Laughs. I'd work or gig, then come back to my house, where the only thing was the ocean, solitude, and time. Back in those days, even when I wasn't being assertive with my process, there was so much time that by default I wrote for an hour or two each day because that's all there was to do. Either that or read.
As life got busier, sitting around waiting for time to write is not a good idea, so having some sort of schedule or discipline would be beneficial. But I don't do that. It's something I struggle with, because on one hand I'm still attached to the idea that if I live my life and put in effort, the ideas will come. But that's not how it works all the time. I don't like the idea of treating it like a job, but at a certain point you have to.
So when do those eureka moments come to you? Some people say they come when we're bored.
To some degree. The last ten years or so, most of my ideas have come on the road when I'm out at a bar or watching a movie or running around doing things I shouldn't. I get the idea, then jot it down in some form I can decipher later. It's usually a fragment, and at most a verse or chorus. Then I come home and clear the decks so that I can take all the ideas and see what resonates. Left to my own devices, I usually have five or six ideas going at a time. I jump back and forth between songs.
I get the real work done when there's less distraction. But I get those a-ha moments when I'm living my life, not when I'm sitting around. I try to remember them later for the song.
How important is environment when you write?
I'm a night owl. I don't think I've ever written a lyric before noon in my life. My thing has always been the late night, half-buzzed delirium, close-to-falling-asleep, closing-time-at-the-bar state. That's when my mind seems most open to those ideas. I do a lot of writing in hotel rooms. That's one of my favorite places. At home, even when my family's away and I have the house to myself, there's something about a shitty hotel room where I can just hole up for three or four days that lends itself to finishing songs.
It's all about that golden time after everyone has gone to bed and there's nothing else to do, between 11pm and 4am. There's no distractions. Because to be honest, I'm always looking for something else to do other than write. Again, I wish that wasn't the case. Having said that, though, in the last five or six years I've started co-writing a lot more, and that process is the opposite from what I do on my own. I'm focused on one idea and there's much more craft going into it, as opposed to freestyling and hoping that something catches. I generally co-write during the day and finish a song in an afternoon. Left to my own devices, that process can stretch out over years.
Forcing myself to write with other people is enjoyable: I get another point of view and write things that I never would have come up with on my own as far as song structure or characters. I'm also far more productive: in six days of co-writing, I can end up with six songs, but by myself six songs can take me much longer.
When you say it stretches out, do you work on something and set it aside for a while, or is it continuous honing?
It usually takes a long time because I don't finish it. About two-thirds of the songs on my third record stemmed from ideas I had nine or ten years earlier. I just went though my old notebooks and picked out ideas, whether they were stories or characters or couplets or titles. These were ideas I had kicked around for years but could never bring home. I keep that stuff forever; heck, I go back and still read my junior high and high school journals for ideas. Most of it is crap, but sometimes I'll see something and think, "Wow, that wasn't bad, kid." So when it takes me ten years to write a song, it's because I had an idea that I had to put on the shelf because it didn't work at the time.
How much revision do you do?
To my detriment, I don't do a whole lot of fine tuning, probably because it's such a long process. When I get a song close to how I want it, it's exhausting. I'm just so relieved to have it done and to just play it. Some of my lyrics change after years of playing them live, and there are a lot songs that I wish I had put more time into. Some of them were so close to being great, but I got lazy in some spots or didn't listen to it enough to recognize, for example, that I use a word too much or that a perspective shift would have made the song resonate better.
When you write a song, do you usually start with the lyrics?
For the most part. I've always been fairly limited musically. I play acoustic guitar, and that's about it. Again, I started writing before I learned how to play an instrument, so at first I was trying to paint a picture with words without the benefit of music. I've gone through different processes over the years where what I write stems from a guitar lick or a musical bed. Lately, I've gotten my band together to jam in hopes that it might kick off some ideas. That's why one of my favorite times to write music is sound check.
These days, it's probably half-and-half as far as starting with lyrics or music. A line here or there might make me pull out the guitar and see how it makes sense musically. I've been doing a lot of that lately: I'll have just a couple of lines that I try to turn into a scene or short story. I'll write more than necessary, then go back and pull the good stuff out, pare it down, and put music to it. We had several songs on my last record where recorded entire tracks with dummy lyrics. I'd go back and listen, then pick sections to explore further with writing.
How do those stories originate?
I don't know if it's a strength of mine, but I've always been able to ask people their name or their story, then make up a song about them on the spot. It was always fun to be spur-of-the-moment creative like that. Those are ideas that never would have seen the light of day if I were just sitting and thinking. There's a subconscious part of me that I can only access when people just say, "Go" and tell me to perform.
You're obviously a storyteller. Does the time limit of a song feel confining when you try to tell these stories?
I actually like those confines. I was looking at my records the other day, and I think on my first one almost every song is over four minutes, and some are over five. They were much more like stories, with character development and a beginning and end. But I never felt restricted because I never thought anyone was going to play me on the radio. i never thought of time as a limit. I was just going to tell my story in however long it takes. Then I looked at my last record, and I don't think there's anything over 3:20. That's partly a function of the writing process: on the last record, I wrote almost everything to music, but on the first one, I wrote the lyrics before picking up the guitar.
When you write lyrics, are you a pen and paper guy or a computer guy?
Both. But I like notepads and bar napkins. The therapeutic thing for me is to go to Office Depot and buy journals, notebooks, and pens. It symbolizes a fresh start. I can be a disorganized guy, and I always wish I could have done more, so for me a new pen and a clean notebook is like New Year's Day: it's a fresh opportunity.
I do a lot on computers and my phone, though. I use something called Master Writer. It keeps both your melody and your lyrics in one file. That was always my problem: I'd come up with some great melody at a bar, write a song in the bathroom, but I could never remember the melody the next day or I couldn't read my writing. I was losing songs every day that way. Now I love the fact that I can record my stream-of-consciousness melodies, type out the ideas that stick with me, then come back months later to work on them.
That's a good thing to have, because anyone can get inspired to write about big ideas or big events. The challenge is being able to write about the mundane, those things you come across every day.
At the end of the day, I do think it's all about the big themes. But you have to use the small details and little moments to express the big themes. They're all symbolic of something larger, and it's cool when someone points that out.
We can all write about love, but that feeling is different for everyone. If someone's feeling of love is muddy shoes on the floor or a toothbrush on the sink and when it's done people realize the feeling you've transferred to them is not about muddy shoes or toothbrushes, but about having a companion and going through life with somebody, that's talent.
There's a great Bill Morrissey song called "Birches" about a husband and wife. She's about to go to bed, and he asks her if she wants to hang out and have a glass of wine. She says no and goes to bed, so he sits there alone thinking about his life while thinking about what kind of wood he's going to put on the fire. Should he use the stuff that lasts longer with a steady flame, or should he use the birches he can throw on that will give him an intense but short flame that will make him colder quicker?
Last question: who are you reading now?
My reading has changed a lot. I used to have a steady set of people I was reading. But these days I read a lot of history books and biographies. I've shied away from novels as I've become more interested in historical figures and music biographies. There's not a handbook on how to live life. That's why I like your website. I've been reading it the last couple of days, and it's something I wish I had when I was young. I used to read songwriting books when I was a kid, because there was no class to take, no school to attend, on how to be a songwriter. I like to see how people have handled their own life throughout history, or if they are musicians, how they approach their own craft. That's why I want to read every one of your interviews to see what I can learn. I certainly don't have it figured out. And I always want to learn how I can get better.