Before talking to Ryan Bingham, I watched some of his videos on his YouTube channel. Several of the commenters pointed out that his singing voice sounds nothing like his speaking voice. And it's true. I couldn't help but think about this when he talked about songwriting as a form of therapy for him, a way for him to get things off his chest. When he pointed out that the lyrics sometimes emerge from his subconscious, that singing/speaking voice dichotomy made sense: perhaps that singing voice is different because it represents something deep inside, a window unto his emotional state.
Bingham calls writing "a very personal act" for him. He's protective of the space he creates to write, both emotionally and physically. His best lyrics come out all at once, because a song that takes too long loses the original, raw emotion. And his writing is cyclical: he soaks in his environment on the road and almost never writes there. Once he's home, he writes about those experiences in a short, powerful burst, "venting and getting those feelings off [his] chest." Once those songs and feelings are out, he stops, and he feels not one once of guilt for not writing for the next few months while he gathers those experiences on the road again.
Bingham co-wrote the theme song "The Weary Kind" for the 2009 movie Crazy Heart. That song garnered him some nice awards: an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, a Critic's Choice Award, and the 2011 Grammy for "Best Song Written for Motion Picture, Television, or Other Visual Media." And in 2010, the Americana Music Association named him Artist of the Year. Read my interview with Ryan Bingham after the video for "The Weary Kind."
What other creative outlets do you have?
I've been getting more into painting and drawing over the past couple of years. With all my traveling, it took me a while to get into it. For the longest time, I never had my own space to call home. But now that I do, I've gotten more into visual art. I've also gotten into working with leather and rawhide, and I also enjoy working with horses.
So many songwriters I talk to are also visual artists. Do you think it makes you a better songwriter?
For me, it's a big connection. All the time when I write, I'm really describing the image in my mind. I write about my experiences on the road, the places I see, and the people I meet. I always come home from the road with my head filled with images of those people and places. And they're always so vivid. So when I get home, a lot of it is just sitting down and talking about all that. When I draw and paint, it's the same thing. Whether it's writing or drawing or painting, a lot of what I express is about some emotion connected with those experiences. I let my imagination take it from there, of course, but it all starts with some real experience.
Does a song ever emerge from a time when you've been drawing or painting?
Actually yes, and not just from me but from observing other artists as well. In Europe, there's a lot of street art. Some people call it graffiti, but it's really more street art. One artist who has really inspired me is a guy who goes by the name of Banksy in the UK. He's really influences me a lot. My song "Flower Bomb" is about a stencil he made of a guy who looks like he's throwing up a bouquet of flowers, but he's really throwing up a bomb. That image really stuck with me.
How often do you sit down with the express idea of writing a song about a particular topic?
I hardly ever do that. I hate to admit it (Laughs) but I'm really lazy at the craft. It has to be spontaneous and natural for me. I have a really short attention span, and if something doesn't grab me immediately or evoke an emotion quickly, I have to sit and wait for the moment to come. It always starts with the music, though. I sit with my guitar or piano and go with a note or a melody. That sound creates an emotion, though sometimes the note reflects my emotional state. And for me it either comes out all at once, or nothing at all.
When you say "all at once," does the song come out quickly?
The best stuff for me always comes out all at once, but as I've grown as a songwriter I've tried to work at the craft a lot more. I've really tried to take the time to go back and revisit stuff. For the longest time, I never even wrote down songs. I would come up with something and say it over and over in my head until I had it memorized. But I've really been trying to make more of an effort to write stuff down and pay more attention to the words. I go back to them a few weeks later to make sure I'm saying the things that I want to say. Not that I'm saying the wrong thing, but a lot of times what comes off the top of your head, the words that explain how you're feeling, can be taken out of context by people if you don't say them the right way. So I want to make sure that what I'm saying can't be twisted around in different ways. That's why it's always good to go back and look at my lyrics from a new perspective.
But if you're writing a song from an emotional place, don't you lose that emotion if you come back a couple of weeks later to clarify your words? Are you OK with that, or do you try to recreate that original emotional burst?
That's a good point, and that's why I really like it when everything comes out at once. But what you describe has happened to me. I've gone back a couple of weeks later to revisit my lyrics, and I just was not able to put myself in that same emotional space. A few of my songs that I've recorded definitely could have been worked on more, but that's where I was in that moment and I didn't want to mess with that original moment. That's where I was emotionally when I wrote those songs, and unfortunately they have to stay that way.
When you do revise, what are some of your techniques?
A lot of times I just record something without even writing it down first, then I go for a drive and listen to the demo. I'm not trying to analyze what I've written; instead, I listen to what I'm saying as if I'm having a conversation. I put myself in someone else's shoes as I listen and think about how they might interpret it. So I don't sit down with pen and paper and switch out or fill in words. It's more about answering simple questions: does it say something or not? Am I writing off the top of my head and connected to my subconscious? Does it even make any sense? If not, I just play the melody over and over with my guitar and listen to the words that flow off the top of my head until I get deeper into the moment.
Songwriting for me has always been a form of therapy, a way for me to get things off my chest. It's a way for me to express feelings that I may not feel comfortable expressing in conversation. It's very personal. And that's why I really like a song to work itself out right away. The longer it takes, the more distance I feel from that original idea. And it if takes too long, I move to something else.
It sounds like you aren't the type of songwriter who sets things aside to work on at a later date.
It depends on the music. If I really like the melody, but it's not coming together in the moment, I walk away for as long as a couple of months. I won't even try to write at all. I go through moods where I can go months without writing a single thing down. Then I get a bug to write. I get a feeling when I know it's that time to write, and I can sit in a room and write three or four songs in a row in a really short period of time. Then I need to travel around for three or four months to build up the experiences to write about, and then the cycle repeats itself and it all pours out again. So I'm definitely one to walk away from stuff.
Nils Lofgren told me that he goes out of his way not to write, and he sees that as refilling the well. That sounds like what you do.
I think it damages the integrity of the process if you force it. I've never been able to sit down with a pen and paper and say I want to write. I can't write until I've built up those experiences and have something to say about them. Like I said, writing is therapeutic for me. It's very personal, and I'm protective of my writing space. So I use whatever time I have at home, even if it's a couple of days, to vent or get things off my chest. I cherish that time and don't want to mess up the mojo.
How important is environment when you write? Do you need a certain place or a certain time of day?
I need to be on my own. I need to be away from people, especially when I'm working my way through a song and saying the lyrics out loud. I'm self-conscious about that, especially if it's really personal. And early in the morning is a good time for me. My mind is clear and the world is quiet. It's not just the best time to write, but it's also the best time to reflect for me.
Have you read any good books lately?
I've been trying to read a lot more over the past few years, catching up on the classics. I need to make up for lost time when I was younger and dumber. Laughs. i just finished To Kill A Mockingbird, and I've also been reading a lot of J.R.R. Tolkien. I'm also big into reading about biology and the sciences. My reading is all over the place.