Matt Nathanson

You may not know that Matt Nathanson has a writing partner.  The problem, though, is that Nathanson doesn't want this guy around. In fact, Nathanson told me, he'd love to "tape his mouth shut and stuff him in a trunk."  And even worse: this guy is an assassin.

This assassin is in Nathanson's mind.  It's the part of him that tells him not to write certain words or ideas.  The assassin is there to kill Nathanson's words by telling him that what he's writing is "dumb." And Nathanson hates the assassin, because when he's around, creativity suffers.  Nathanson does his best to keep the assassin at bay so that he can write from the most honest and unselfconscious perspective he knows.

Read my interview with Matt Nathanson about his songwriting process after the video.  We talk about the assassin, morning puking, and shitting songs. It's long, sure, but worth every word.  Of the 160 interviews I've done, this ranks as one of my favorites because Nathanson is so introspective. He doesn't just tell me about his process, he reflects on it and talks about what it says about him as a person.  

What other creative outlets do you have besides songwriting?

I’m pretty much strictly a songwriter. All the other stuff fell away as I got more focused. It’s funny—and I don't know if everyone yearns for this—but I long for an artistic life. Not in the sense that I'm going to jet off to Portugal and spend time as an artist; I want to continue living the life I'm living, but I want to experience it as an artist. As I get older, I have a hard time letting go enough to be able to see the world with an artistic slant. Consequently, as I focus more on songwriting, I’ve let my other artistic endeavors like painting and photography go.

As I'm learning more about myself, the idea of songwriting as something that I do for a living is antithetical to what its supposed to be. It’s supposed to be a wide open lane for taking things in artistically, so as I get older I’m successfully chipping away at that idea. Lou Reed and David Byrne are two people I really admire because they immerse themselves in the creative process. They don't close themselves off to just songwriting. I want to be that person.  By the time I'm seventy,  I'll be fucking really dialed in.  Laughs.

When I'm firing on all cylinders, I'm creative on different levels. I draw, I paint, I take photographs. I write long, rambling blog posts. But those things still feel like indulgences sometimes, and since I come from a guilt-ridden Jewish/Catholic family, indulgence has never really been my thing. Laughs. But I'm trying more and more to crack myself open and become a more artistic person. I do things like journal every morning, even though that’s more like clearing out the brain. 

When you journal, do those ideas end up as song ideas?

They do. When I journal, I usually don't go back to what I wrote. But when I write something that is exciting, I put a star next to it.  So when I’m mining for song ideas, I flip through the journal and look for those stars. I have huge books of what I call my “morning puking.” But while sometimes those entries do crop up as song ideas, they mostly just dislodge what’s in my brain. About 90% of what I starred is not nearly inspiring as the feeling I had when I wrote it, so journaling is more of a cleaning out of experiences so I can get down to songwriting.

Many songwriters I interview don’t like to call what they do “work” or a “job” because it devalues their artistic side.  Calling it that seems to conflict with the artistic ideal you talk about.  But the bottom line is that it is what you do for a living, so does that make it harder to see yourself as an artist?

No, the job part is neither here nor there for me.  I'm fortunate that my job is also something I feel passionate about, but if I were equally passionate about being a physician, that would be ok too. The only way to live life is to focus on your passion. I am fortunate enough to be a position to have my job also be my passion, but I am also fortunate that I wasn't born into a survival situation. I was able to go to school and figure all that out. I see friends of mine squander that opportunity, where they don't do what they are passionate about.  I see people who abandon their careers at 35 or 40 because they are unhappy, or who get married just because they are supposed to get married.  That’s not the way I want to live my life. 

What do you mean when say that what you write isn’t as important as the feeling you have when you write?

It comes down to the feeling you have when you’re writing, not the topic you’re writing about. Creatively, that’s the key to getting on a tangent that leads you somewhere good. I read articles about Tom Petty, who seems like he just shits his songs. He’ll sit down with Jeff Lynne for ten minutes and write something incredible. How does that happen?  It never happens to me, and I find that it’s because I don’t ride that energy of the experience. 

So when I'm journaling and write something that feels great, I always mistakenly believe that what’s great is the thing I've written, when in fact it’s the feeling I get when I write it and the experience and energy I have when I'm doing it.  And if I'm able to unplug my brain, I can follow the path of the energy that's been created by writing this thing. If I follow the energy—and don't judge it and chop it off at the knees—I end up with something exquisite that I never would have imagined.

But if you look at songwriting as a mechanical experience—thinking, “Oh, these words must be the thing”—it kills the process.  That’s why when we read over our journals and see words that seemed so inspired at the time, most of it is crap.  That’s because it’s not the words that are great, it’s about finding a way to archive when you are doing it. Following the path to that energy takes you to the transcendence shit. So what I try to do is get out of my own way until the assassin comes.

The assassin?

He’s that voice that will say to me, “That’s fucking dumb. Why are you being so dumb?  That’s the worst idea I've ever heard.  That’s not what your heroes would do.  You're terrible.” I try to tape that guy’s mouth shut and lock him in the trunk of the car. Creativity for me is about taping the assassin’s mouth shut as long as possible before he shits on what I've done.

All I can say is that what you just told me is a psychoanalyst’s dream, a Freudian field day.

Laughs.  It sure is.

When you told me that Tom Petty story, it reminded me of what Chris Difford of Squeeze told me.  He wrote “Tempted” in a couple of minutes in the back of a cab on the way to the airport.

That’s possibly one of the greatest songs.  Melodically and chord change-wise, it’s amazing. Of course he fucking shit it in a couple of minutes. Laughs.

How disciplined are you as a writer?

I’m a combination of discipline and lack of discipline.  I want to pull the car over when it happens, but I'm such a controlling person that when it comes knocking and I'm not ready for it, I say, “I’ll get you later.” And then, of course, it’s never there when I go back.

I try to write in the morning, but that’s tough with a three year-old.  I try to allow my family to take precedence over that creative time.  When it comes knocking, do I pull the car over and whip out the iPhone?  Because I get really self-conscious about it.  What I want to be is completely unselfconscious.  I think I'm moving in that direction, but as a kid I was very self-conscious, like, “Oh my God, I don't want to stop what I'm doing just to create.  I’m not special. This is not important. If it’s good, it will show up again. It’s not a magic.” 

But what I realized is that it is a magical thing, so I have to clear space for it when it does show up.  I have varying degrees of success with that.

What do you mean about being self-conscious?

Some artists I've been around, who are really good at what they do, have no top.  They walk around singing melodies like crazy people. They write lyrics everywhere and anywhere, even in a public place when they are with people.  A part of me grew up thinking, “You’re not important.  Cut that shit out. You have to be a social individual.  You can’t be so unevolved and self-absorbed.” But all the people I've been around that are creative are like that.  It's almost a madness.  It’s like they’re unhooked from society.

Are you active in the inspiration process, or is it better to wait for the muse?

You have to constantly be taking it in. You can’t wait. You have to devour raw material to be inspired.  And music is what inspires me the most. I put the new Beyonce record on and was floored. The first time I heard it made me immediately start writing melodies. 

Questioning what you hear gets in the way of the first blast of inspiration you get when you listen. Music is the chief thing I consume, but I try not to learn too much about what I'm listening to. Most of my favorite records are made by people where I have no idea who they are. I don't know shit about Kendrick Lamar.  I don't know what he looks like.  I don’t know anything about 1975.  All of my favorite records were made by people who, if they fell on me, I still wouldn't know who they were.  It's a much better way to go because then the assassin can’t show up and pick it apart. 

And we’re back to the assassin. How long has the assassin been around?

I think since I was probably three!  Laughs. He’s been the most constant person in my life.  He’s the one who tells me I'm fat and dumb, that everyone is better than me because I'm a failure.  He’s fuckin’ loud, man.  He’s got a bullhorn, and he drives me batshit. 

When you start writing, do you start with the music or the lyrics?

I do either. Lyrics are fun for me.  I love words and was an English major.  Words are the thing that my overthinking brain can get locked in on and really psyched about. They can be building blocks that I see as a measurement of success. I can look at what I wrote and think, “Hey, that’s a great turn of phrase.  Congratulations.”  

But the melodic stuff is where the magic is. That’s the gut of the process for me, and I’ve been deluded into thinking that words matter by spending so much time writing lyrics. Words are great, but the melody is what makes a song different from poetry, lyrics different from short stories.  You have more of those “boom” moments with melodies, where it just comes out of nowhere and you’d better hope you’re recording it. You can tinker with lyrics on the page and knock words out and feel like it’s great because you’re really working, but rarely do those lines show up exactly as they were first written on the page anyway because the melody dictates what can and can’t be in those lines.   

Do you revise your lyrics a great deal?

Oh my God, so fucking much.  You’d think I was writing the Constitution.  I beat up on words.  

What exactly do you revise so much?

Everything.  Did I say this well enough? Is that word working? Is that phrase powerful enough? This last record, though, was the first time that I tried to stop thinking and just keep writing.  And when I stop thinking, I don’t revise the lyrics nearly as much.  The words don’t matter; it’s the weight of what you’re feeling when you hear it. Often times, I’ll convolute my words by trying to overthink, but my first hit of what the words should be within the melody is usually the best hit. The first is always the best when it comes to songwriting.

I imagine that’s because the first hit is the purest expression of emotion, and the more revising you do, the further you get from it.

Right. And I feel like my best revisions usually take me back to that original expression.

How important is your environment when you write?

I’m being totally honest when I say that I don’t think I’ve done my best writing yet.  When I say that, I mean that the environment where I feel the most comfortable might not be the most conducive to the creative process.  I don’t write well on tour, but I love to write at my house in my music room. But I don’t know that that room is the best possible place for me to be writing. It just happens to be the most controlled and the most comfortable.  

There is a place at home where I write, and it’s got a piano, a guitar, a desk, and a recorder, but sometimes I write melodies driving.  Actually, now that I think about it, that’s where many of those melodies happen.  I used to drive a lot more, but when I do, and my brain is focused on the road and on where I’m going, I get a lot of ideas.  Long drives, like on the 5 when I used to drive to Los Angeles all the time when I was touring in my car.  There a great place between awake and not awake, when I’m kind of zoning out, when I get really inspired.

It sounds like the intensity and immediacy of experience is important when you write.  Is it difficult to write something good when you’re far removed from whatever you’re writing about?

Yeah.  The experiences I had when I was 25, and the songs I wrote about them, are completely foreign to me now.  It’s impossible for me to feel those things as intensely as I did.  Some of the songs on Some Mad Hope are desperately romantic, like unbelievably hungry.  When I go back and listen to those songs now, I can still remember what that felt like. But I can’t get back to those feelings to write about them. 

I assume you are a voracious reader, so who do you like to read?

Raymond Carver is someone I keep going back to. When I was in high school, my English teacher had us read Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, and Raymond Carver.  I still read Carver stories aloud to my wife.  They are fucking perfection.  Jhumpa Lahiri’s book Interpreter of Maladies is also one of my favorites.  Her short stories fucking blow my mind. I’m a big short story fan. I also love Karen Russell. Her book St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is fantastic. That book crushed my life.  

It’s impossible to be a good writer unless you read good writing. How does all that reading affect you as a songwriter?

Oh man, that’s a good question.  I take on the best and most inspiring parts of whatever art I’m digesting.  I remember when I took a poetry class in college, and I wrote differently than I ever had before.  I had an amazing professor, a poet named Bob Mezey. He was the fucking best. I wish he could live in my house and read to me every morning when I wake up. He would read poems and practically break into tears because he was so overwhelmed.

The writing I did in the class was different from anything I had done before.  It has this beautiful poetic element, of course.  But reading is crucial to my process. I get chameleon-y in that way; I soak up the things that are inspiring in whatever I’m reading.  

How do you think you've grown as a songwriter?

I’ve made nine records, and I still feel like I’m just beginning this process. I also feel like I’m just beginning to enjoy my life and embrace creativity.  Like I’m just getting a handle on the honesty it takes to be a writer.  I’m starting to realize it’s not about shading out the parts of yourself that are ugly or that people judge you on. Instead, it’s about exposing those parts.  And that’s what gets me excited about my next song or my next record. Because I think, “Fuck, this is going to get way less self-conscious and way easier on a certain level.”  Not easy like the way Tom Petty shits out songs, but it’s about being as brutally fucking honest as possible. 

The only way to do it is to be straight.  In his finest moments, that’s what Lou Reed was.  He was so fucking straight.  He might come off as a square or as an asshole, everything that is the opposite of cool.  But that’s what made him so fucking cool.