By his own admission, Johnathan Rice has a "mysterious" writing process. He doesn't think he's ever written the same way twice. Yet his best songs have always come fully formed; that is, they don't even appear until he sits down to play, when they pour out of him all at once. Of course, this doesn't happen very often: he's been working on a song about the race horse Barbaro for a few years now, and despite all of his tinkering, Rice still hasn't released it because he's not happy with it yet.
Rice is a "voracious" reader, and I love his answer below about how all that reading has made him a better songwriter. Rice has also learned a great deal about himself through his many collaborations, including with Elvis Costello and of course Jenny Lewis with Jenny and Johnny.
Johnathan Rice's new album Good Graces came out in October. It's a great album. Read my review with Rice after the video for "Nowhere at the Speed of Light" off the new album.
What other creative outlets do you have besides songwriting?
Not many, though I’ve always been a pretty voracious reader of almost anything. I prefer non-fiction, especially history.
These are going to be fiction, but I love John Fante, Charles Bukowski, and Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy.
McCarthy is a favorite of the songwriters I interview. How do you think being such a voracious reader has made you a better songwriter?
Simply put, you’re being exposed to other artists’ linguistic rhythms as a writer, and you are exposed to words that don't normally run through your head and to stories that aren’t occurring in your own life. Seeing someone else’s beautiful work inspires me to create. I admire it and soak it all in. I don't know how much of that is transferable, but some of it is. However, I don't think that you can read your way into being a good songwriter. Still, to be always swimming in an ocean of words is never a bad thing.
But to be honest, for the past three years I've gone through long periods where I haven’t done any reading at all outside of being a news junkie. And those periods have been fruitful for me as well. As a writer, overall, songwriting is still a mysterious thing. One of the things I've always liked about it is that I don't think I've ever written the same way twice. I don't have a distinct process. I never approach a song the same way. Instead, I walk circles around it.
How often do you draw inspiration from something you've read as a self-professed “news junkie”?
Often. I've been working on a song for a few years now that I’ve never released because I’m not satisfied with it yet. It’s about the racehorse Barbaro. I read so much about it and I saw so much about it. The basis of the song was that all of the humans were speaking on the animal’s behalf and were investing their interests in this animal. I found it fascinating that they said they could see it in Barbaro’s eyes that he just wanted to do one more race. That seems so tragically ridiculous, that anyone could say that and presumed to know what the horse was thinking. Besides, his eyes are black. You can’t see anything in them at all. You can only see your own reflection, which means you can put anything you want in there. Whatever outcome you desire, you’ll get.
So it sounds like a song can start in many different ways for you.
Yes, but I will say that what I consider to be my best songs have all had a similar origins. They arrive quickly and almost completely formed. They just occur, and I don’t need to tinker with them that much. That’s what I mean when I say that my process is mysterious to me. These songs that come to me almost fully formed are ideas that never occurred to me when I woke up that morning. And they come out of nowhere. I wasn’t even thinking about it when I sat down to play my guitar or bass.
There may be some refining, but not too much. And all those times I spent working on songs I'm less satisfied with makes me think that maybe I should become lazier. Laughs.
Some people say that our best ideas arrive when we are at our most bored. We’re at our most creative when we are doing nothing.
I can identify with that for sure. And certainly with what Virginia Woolf says in A Room Of One’s Own: when your mind goes quiet, that’s when your subconscious starts talking to you. There’s so much to be revealed in that context.
Would you call yourself a disciplined writer?
Songwriting is something that I’m constantly preoccupied with. But I’ve constructed my life, even though I live in a remote place in Los Angeles, in such a way that I'm never more than 10 feet from a guitar or an instrument when I'm at home. And I spend most of my time at home.
When I'm not writing, I'm usually listening to music. It’s a writer’s life. I’m immersed in it. I’ve never had a straight job since I was just out of high school, though I’ve only been learning how to live as a songwriter for the past couple of years. It’s only recently sunk in that this is what I do for a living and that I’m probably catastrophically unemployable in every other job.
Does looking at songwriting as a job inhibit your creative process, though? Is there more pressure to write?
There is, but I like pressure. Pressure is my friend. I like deadlines and I like the idea that the work has to continue. I hate downtime. I also like writing for other songwriters, which is something I've been doing now more than ever these days.
Let’s talk about inspiration. Is it something that you should work at, or do you wait for the muse?
I don't know that I can answer that question the way you asked it, but one thing I have learned is that I treat inspiration as a gift from another force. And you have to treat that force with the respect it deserves. And by that I mean that if you find yourself getting an idea, and it feels remotely promising, you have to drop what you’re doing and pursue it in that moment. In the past, I’d tell myself, “Oh, I’ll just work on that later.” But so much comes from that initial spark that you'd be crazy to wait when it hits.
But in terms of actively seeking it, living an expressive life is a way in itself of seeking inspiration. You're bound to cross paths with something inspirational.
How important is your environment when you write?
Because my childhood and adulthood have been pretty itinerant, I feel comfortable in transit and in all sorts of different places. There’s been magic in hotel lobbies, trains, and transatlantic flights that were as fruitful as any walk in the woods. As they say in the adult film industry, you have to be able to get it up anytime.
You wrote from a pretty emotional place for your last album. A lot of people close to you had been going through some tough times, which made things difficult for you as well. Is it difficult to write from such a raw, emotional state, or is distance better?
This album was borne out of distance, and it was only then was I really able to write about [those tough times]. It’s like any traumatic experience. You go into a fight or flight response as your adrenaline kicks in. It’s only afterwards that you consider what’s happened. That’s what the writing process was like for this album.
Is it harder to revise lyrics that come from a more emotional perspective?
Sometimes, but not too much with this batch. I was also writing multiple things when I wrote this record. I was writing these songs for myself, but I was also writing songs for a movie. Those songs for the movie were specifically referential to characters in the film, and it was a great experience to write outside of myself. It was different to write about someone other than myself, because songwriters can be a self-obsessed bunch, as you know.
What have you learned about yourself as a songwriter through all of your collaborations?
This is going to sound corny, but you must be true to yourself and you must satisfy yourself. If you have any twinges of dissatisfaction with your own work, everyone will be able to see it.
When you write, do you prefer a keyboard or pen and paper?
Both, but I really like pencils and legal pads. It reminds me of my weird Catholic schoolboy days. Laughs. It reminds me that I’m at work.
Is there an ideal emotion when you get your best writing done?
I don’t know that it’s an emotion, but I enjoy the quietude of the mind. I like being between bored and wistful. I’m also a big runner. I love to run trails. And I’ve noticed the tempo of my material accelerating the more years I spend as a runner. I also have much more clarity of mind during and after I long trail run.