Sara Watkins, Nickel Creek

Much of Sara Watkins' songwriting process involves not writing songs. Her routine is filled with creative exercises that don't produce lyrics but still make her a better songwriter. Some of these exercises are, in her words, "silly and pointless," like when she creates Christmas cards or arts and crafts projects.  Sometimes she sketches.  Other times, her song lyrics start as long journal entries, and it's not until the last line of the entry that she hits on a lyric or the focus of the song. 

All these activities make her a better songwriter because they strengthen the creative side of her brain.  This idea holds true for most of the songwriters I've interviewed for this site: the most prolific, by far, are those who engage in other creative outlets or who read voraciously. By contrast, the worldview of a one-dimensional artist is pretty limited.  I was intrigued by one exercise Watkins gives herself that has nothing to do with songwriting: she takes a few items lying around the house (maybe a piece of paper, a bobby pin, and a rubber band) and creates something with it. The fewer items she uses, the better the product. 

To Watkins, one of the founding members of Nickel Creek, the songwriting process is an end in itself, not a means to an end.  It's a way for her to learn about herself. She told me, "As I get older, I realize that writing is less about the short term outcome of the particular verse and chorus that I'm working on, and more about processing life through this medium and learning about the world." And this is what makes her such a good songwriter: it's her identity, and it colors how she sees the world. 

Watkins' second solo album is Sun Midnight Sun on Nonesuch RecordsI spoke to Watkins over the phone recently.  Read my interview with her after the video.

What other creative outlets do you have?

When I'm feeling most like myself, when I'm relaxed and have been at home for a while--when I don't feel like "Touring Sara" but like my mom's daughter--I mess around with silly arts and crafts.  It sounds corny, but I like working with paper.  I've never been a good sketch artist, but I like making cards out of whatever I can find.  I've noticed that the more limited my supplies, the more I enjoy it.  The limitations help me be creative.  If I have all the possible helpful ingredients for something, I'll never make something as good as if I had only four or five contributing pieces.  

Making cards and writing letters are ways for me to be sentimental.  I also like making Christmas gifts, but it takes me a while to feel relaxed enough and my brain to feel at ease enough to indulge in those kinds of silly, pointless, creative endeavors.  But when I do, I always say to myself, "Hey, I'm doing this again! I must be really happy!" So it's always a good sign when I can be creative without forcing it.

Let's jump right ahead, then, to the idea of inspiration when it comes to songwriting. Do you force it, or are you guided by the muse? 

I'm not comfortable relying on inspiration for my own writing because that's an unknown variable, and I don't want to sit around hoping that lightning strikes. So if I have writer's block, I give myself an assignment because it seems like I should be able to create something halfway decent that comes from my gut. It might be more abstract because I wasn't compelled to write it, but that doesn't mean that I won't get something from it later.   

The problem I have with writing is that sometimes I discard something too quickly as not being good enough. But as I get older, I realize that writing is less about the short term outcome of the particular lyric I'm working on, and more about processing life through this medium and learning about the world. There are all kinds of great outcomes from that process that many unprofessionally creative people enjoy all the time.  But when you make your living creating something, you can forget the genuine good that comes out of that and the way it can add to you as a person.  You don't always have to obsess about whether it's a song you can play in your set.

I'm intrigued by what you call "silly creativity."

That's the stuff that no one else will see. I don't draw very well, and I'll sketch things on a plane for only me. Laughs. It's just something fun that has nothing to do with giving it to someone as a gift, writing a song for a movie, or trying to find that last song for a record.  A friend of mine writes novels by hand, for himself, and he never reads them again. He does it just for himself because he loves continuing the story. I admire that so much. And when you are a songwriter for a living, it's easy to forget that a lot of joy can come from merely creating for yourself. 

I imagine that, in some way, those silly creative outlets make you a better songwriter.

That's how I feel too.  They have to.  [Another friend of mine] is a wonderful musician and songwriter, and she's also a mom.  She embraces the fact that she is a musician no matter what.  Because she's a mom, she can't really tour as much as she wants, but she teaches the violin, sings, and writes.  She finally came to terms with the fact that just because she doesn't tour as much as other people and that other things come before music, being a musician is how she sees the world. It has nothing to do with how many songs she writes or how much time she spends on the road. She sees life as a musician, and that will never change.  

There's a lot of truth to that. In this age, people feel like they should be able to do whatever they want and make a living doing it. It's a luxury that few generations have had. Up until about the last 50 years, creative people had day jobs, then at night they played the fiddle or wrote poetry or created other art. Those people were artists just as much as anyone now who does it for a living.

So to answer your question: everything affects your writing. That's why I force myself to write when I have writer's block. It keeps things flowing when I tap into something that wouldn't naturally come out. I like to invent a topic or invent a conflict and see how I can fight my way out of it in the song form. And it's the same thing with my silly doodles and with creating art using limited means. How can I fight my way out of that?

I'm interested in the idea that you create assignments for yourself when you have writer's block.  Because when I can't write, I walk away.  And that break energizes me. But you force your way through it.

I'm sure you've heard about the songwriter games where one person emails everyone on the list a song title. The people have to write a song with that title and email it to everyone else by the end of the week.  The first time I did this game, I was on tour with my bandmates and a couple of other people. We invented a title every day, and by the end of that day we had to have a song. That was my first songwriting experience.

I had songwriter's block before I ever wrote a song.  I didn't know where to start. I was scared to death of putting lyrics to music and performing them in front of anybody because I was around people who were writing much better stuff than I was. I thought that there was no way I could ever write at that level. I felt overwhelmed by this expectation of quality. 

So Glen Phillips, when we were on tour together, decided we should play the songwriting game. One of the titles was the name of the server we had that night.  Her name was Greer Zoller, and everyone wrote a song about her.  All the songs were silly, because how can you write a serious song with a name like that? They were all pretty crappy, especially given that we only had a day to write them.

Once I wrote my song, I realized that I was off the hook.  I didn't have to write anything of quality; I just had to write something.I remember all those titles, like "Mr. Poppy," named after the popcorn machine backstage.  It was this wonderful belief that I didn't have to write anything good as long as I wrote something.  There was no judgment of the quality.  I was so relieved.  That was a big breakthrough because the pressure was off me. 

That reminds me of what Nils Lofgren told me.  He said that when he starts writing for an album, he writes a bunch of bad stuff before he gets to the good stuff.  It's a necessary part of the process, almost like a warm up.

Writing a song is like solving a puzzle. This goes back to the silly creativity that's only for me, that "pointless" creativity.  It's less about the outcome and more about the process.  It's like creating something when all you have is a piece of paper, a bobby pin, and some yarn.  The same goes for songs.  At some point, it's less about saying what's in your heart and more about solving the puzzle about how you make it a good journey for the people listening, how you develop it, how you withhold just enough that there's some payoff at the end. That's where the craft comes in.  

My friend David Garza says that when he writes a song that he thinks is good, sometimes he comes back the next day and sees that it's horrible.  Instead of throwing it away, he challenges himself to write the worst song ever.  And at the end of the day, he gets some cool stuff out of it because he had to solve the puzzle.  In that fight to solve the puzzle, your brain engages and put things together in a new way.  That's when things get exciting.

I want to move to the particulars of your process.  Do you start with lyrics or music?

I'm in the process of trying to change my process, actually. Laughs.  I typically start with lyrics first.  Sometimes the lyrics and the music happen at the same time, which makes me really happy. Several songs on my first record came out that way.  Not only does it make the whole process shorter, but it's a unique Polaroid of the moment where you have purged yourself of a melody and a lyric at the same time. But when I start with the lyrics, instead of worrying about the specifics I tend to just write a page or two of what I want to say.

Is this in lyric or prose form?

It's just free-form prose, like a journal entry.  If I don't do that and try to figure out what I'm trying to say, I get stuck on the rhymes and won't have any idea where I'm going or why it was important to me.  I can expand on it in prose form without worrying about the rhymes.  Then I boil it down to figure what should be the focus of this song.

A couple of times I've written a few pages, just venting, going around in circles with analogies and metaphors. Then I get to the last line or two, and it's that last line that becomes the starting point of the song.  It's like your Nils Lofgren interview: you gotta get through the crap before you can find what's worth writing about. It's all about finding that nugget. It's often in that seemingly pointless creativity where you arrive at the revelation.  

And about that change in the process that you mentioned…

The next batch of songs I write, I want to have some musical foundation before I write the lyrics, only because I rarely do that.  I feel like the melodies and musical arrangements are my weakness. I'm lucky I play with a lot of people who contribute to the musical side of things.  I have not felt musically compelled in the songwriting process as much as I feel lyrically compelled. I want to start with the music to see what happens.  

How important is your environment when you write?

I love writing in my living room, with peace and quiet.  I hate time constraints. I love to have a free day.  When I know I have to go somewhere in a couple of hours, it's difficult to dig in.  A free day lets me wander into a song.  I can get to know a song a lot better that way.  

 How about time of day?

I like the afternoon. But that's often difficult, because my husband has a 9-5 job.  So since he's home in the evening, I like to get started earlier. The morning is good because it forces me to action so that I have the evenings free.  I like waking up and playing the guitar.  There's something about the way my brain works before I start the day, when I just wake up and can wander to new places.   

Are you a pen and paper person or a keyboard person?

Pen and paper.  I hate writing on my computer and on my phone. I hate it. You can't write arrows, you can't cross things out, and you can't write alternate phrases in the margins.  Pen and paper all the way.

What do you do with the songwriting ideas that you don't use?  Do you keep them around to use later?

Absolutely. If nothing else, they are reminders of where I was when wrote them.  Those lines don't always reappear, but I do think about the broader ideas that they represent. Sometimes those little artifacts can be helpful to round out a song idea. I don't like to discard ideas because sometimes I'm afraid that I won't be able to write another song! Laughs. There are lyrics from three years ago on my phone that aren't going anywhere anytime soon.  I don't want to get rid of them because I'm afraid that I won't have any other ideas!

Do you revise a lot of your lyrics?

I edit a lot.  Sometimes I rewrite verses many, many times.  Maybe it's because I still consider myself a relatively new songwriter.  Once I record it, I don't really edit it.  But until then, it's up for grabs.

Is there an ideal emotion when you get your best writing done?

There are a lot of different emotions to write from, but I like to write songs when there's a little bit of fight, a little bit of struggle.  You can be brokenhearted, but there has to be a struggle.  You can't just be sad. You have to be grappling with something.  The same goes with happy songs.  You can write a song about how great your life is, but there still needs to be a conflict.  

My ideal emotion is sadness, though.  Laughs. Not because I'm a sad person, but because when I'm sad, it makes an impression on me where I feel like writing things down. I often write when I'm sad.  Still, the songs I'm most pleased with are those where I articulate the conflict that's making me feel sad and there's more than just a surface emotion.  

A lot of times, when I'm just throwing words down on the page in journal form, I'm trying to figure out why something is affecting me.  Like when someone hurts me, and through the writing I discover it's because I thought we were friends and all of the sudden I realize that we never were.  I wrote one song about falling out of favor with a colleague called "Lock and Key." Writing about that relationship really helped me understand what happened between us. 

Last question: who are you reading now?

I'm a really bad reader.  I'm very slow.  I just finished Lonesome Dove.  Loved it.  That book The Devil in a White City by Erik Larson is also one of my favorites.  I love historical fiction.

I like reading on my Kindle because I'm self-conscious that I turn pages at a much slower rate than everyone else when I read with a hard copy.  So when I used to read on a plane before I had my Kindle, I'd do fake page turns so that the person next to me wouldn't be thinking, "Wait, she's STILL on that same page?  I've had some crackers and peanuts and  a drink and she's hasn't turned her page?" The Kindle lets me stay on the same page forever! Laughs.

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