Next time you pass through a food court at your local mall, look around for the guy in the video below. He's probably got his head down, scrawling on a piece of paper or maybe even a sketch pad. He likes the energy of the people there, as long as it doesn't distract him. Don't be surprised if it's Cory Branan; after all, the food court at the Oak Court Mall in Memphis is where he wrote his first two albums.
Rolling Stone named Branan one of the "10 New Artists You Need to Know in 2014" for his terrific new release The No Hit Wonder on Bloodshot Records. Branan's music has been described by critics as a mixture of country, punk, and rock n roll. But he's also a fantastic storyteller who takes great care to craft his lyrics. He's one of the few songwriters I've interviewed who starts with the lyrics rather than the music, and by his own admission his process involves "tons of overwriting coupled with merciless editing." To Branan, lyrical content is as equally important as the cadence and the rhythm of the words. It's something he's always thinking about: in fact, the voice memo on his phone is so filled with lines and lyrics that he can no longer use it to play music at parties. If he does, and it's on shuffle, you're liable to hear a voice memo of Cory reciting song ideas in between songs.
Do you have any other creative outlets besides songwriting?
I have all these little ideas that I think are going to become short stories, but they always end up being songs. I strip-mine those ideas for songs. I always thought I was going to be a painter, actually. I grew up drawing. But I've really let that fall by the wayside. Still, a lot of times instead of taking a walk or whatever, I’ll sketch.
So many of the songwriters I interview also love to draw.
I don't think it's a direct cognitive connection. I've never drawn something and thought, “Hey, there’s an idea for a song.” But it’s more of an associative connection. When I draw, I don’t really know where it’s going. There’s no planning involved. But it does get me in a creative frame of mind sometimes.
Do any of your songs start as images?
Maybe. Laughs. When I agreed to do this interview, I thought to myself that this could be the shortest interview ever because I don't know that I have a process. Especially now that I have a child in the house, routine goes out the window.
Most of my songs start with words; I write away from an instrument most of the time. The sound of certain words together gets me going. But I rarely sit down with the express intent of writing a song.
That’s a common theme among songwriters I interview: good-sounding phrases can often fuel inspiration. Hayes Carll told me that he gets a lot of his lines or even song ideas from listening to conversations in bars. Does that happen with you?
I'm not much of an eavesdropper. Laughs. But I think that actually works to my advantage—that I don't listen to people talk—because it’s not the words, but the cadence of the speech, that gets me. That’s been a very formative experience of my songwriting. I grew up in a fundamentalist church, and I didn't realize until years later what kind of an impact that had. There was a lot of reading from the King James Bible. That was the only poetry I was exposed to. I wasn’t read to that much, but I heard that Bible in church. So things like meter and parallelism, the symmetry of the words and the lines, really did a number on my ear.
The meter of the lines--the cadence and rhythm in speech--are just as important as content. I tend to write in meter; I put the rhythm in the words before I touch an instrument. It’s Poetry 101: the words need to sound like what you're saying. If you're saying something hard, you need consonants. It’s all tension and release: there’s a reason why the ear likes certain sounds. Many people attempt to be different just to be different, but you need to know how and why structures work, and how they sound to the ear, before you can subvert them.
Is it difficult to place that much emphasis on cadence and structure of the sounds while still telling a story?
Actually, it helps me. It lends focus to the narrative. You can establish tone and character easier if you’re playing on those ideas. I use a lot of girl meets boy tropes—the standard idea—but because that idea comes with expectations, I can play with cadence and structure. Since people know what to expect in the story, I don't have to waste two verses explaining it. You can do really interesting things with a song if people know what to expect.
There’s a reason why “the screen door slams” in “Thunder Road” is such a fantastic first line. You know exactly where you are. And it sounds like what it’s saying. That song starts in sprawling way, but Springsteen sets a miniature scene immediately with that first line. There’s no buildup. To work in miniature like that—in a song—you have to work fast. You can’t waste time with rhetorical flourish by doing something flashy with an image. You can’t waste the first verse or two on a buildup. So in that sense, poetry focuses the narrative. But getting there takes tons of overwriting coupled with merciless editing in my process. I write a lot of distracting shit, and even if I love it, I have to get rid of it.
You let out an audible sigh when you mentioned “merciless editing.” Is that a difficult part of the process?
It’s hard because I have to make choices. I have to get rid of some things that I really like. But I can always use those ideas or those lines later. I just have to make sure I don’t lose notebooks like I used to. Laughs.
Do you have stacks of notebooks somewhere?
I used to, but now those ideas are all on my phone. I can’t put my phone on shuffle at a party anymore because my voice memos always pop up. Laughs.
But since I tend to free associate when I write, instead of buying notebooks or legal pads, I buy giant sketchpads. I can work on the verses in sections without having to write really tiny. Those sketchpads give me a lot of space to work with. Laughs. I can write big, I can cross things out, I can move things. Those big pages allow me to see the song forming as a whole. I still use those pads at home.
Do you take those pads on the road?
I don't really write well on the road. I might write snippets or short ideas. But when I get off the road I'm restless, and that’s when I write.
Does having a family make in harder to write at home?
Absolutely, because all I want to do when I get home is spend time with my family. Balancing those two ideas is a relatively new concept for me.
Does having a child make you a more disciplined writer because your free time is so limited?
Not yet. Laughs. But I was just talking about this with my wife the other day. I see the need for it. I do need to channel that discipline, because having a family adds reason and weight to the choice I've made to live this life. It lights a fire under me, sometimes to the tune of, “Oh God, I gotta get to work! I gotta get to work!” Laughs.
When it comes to editing, will you sacrifice the meaning of a word for the sake of melody? Is the sound of a word more important than its meaning?
The meaning of the word is tantamount to me. But writing in meter has already taken care of that problem, of making sure there’s melody. I’m very linear with my melodies. I’m not a beautiful Brian Wilson melody type guy. I love it and appreciate it, but it’s not my strength. Some people can tell stories with beautiful melodies, but for what I do too much pizazz derails the narrative.
Usually the cadence of natural speech suggests a melody to me. The melodies mirror natural speech. So for me, narrative is king. I’ve developed my singing style from a need to enunciate at my shows. Laughs. I’m naturally a marble mouth, a mumbler, so I hit the consonants pretty hard!
Do you read a lot of poetry?
Definitely. Over the years, I've always been big on poets like Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Federico Garcia Lorca. And novelists like Gabriela Garcia Marquez. There’s a straight line from Faulkner to Marquez, and I love Faulkner as well. I like poets who can be both pastoral and dark at the same time. And I love Wallace Stevens, that beautiful lush poetry.
I was telling someone the other day that Seamus Heaney’s death may give us the last A1 obituary of a poet in the New York Times. Poets used to have such bigger roles in society.
You’re probably right. Maybe Billy Collins. I think what that signifies is a loss of ceremony in our culture. Poetry used to be folded into every part of culture. It used to mark important events, like death, like graduations. It was always used. We need poetry to help us mark events, to mark progress, and to give us structure in this world of useless information.
We sound like two crotchety old men complaining about the way things used to be.
But it’s true. I think that loss of structure is what’s making television so popular because it’s the only narrative people can get in their lives. It’s a real shame that’s where so many people get their narrative.
Is there a particular environment when you get your best writing done?
It doesn't matter so much anymore. It used to. I wrote my first two records in the food court in the Oak Court Mall in Memphis. I used to like a buzz around me when I wrote, but not too much that I got distracted. It was busy, but it was the least interesting amount of hubbub. There was nothing I cared to look at, but there was still energy. It was a benign area where I knew no one was going to talk to me. Laughs.
Now, I try to write in the morning. It’s when my mind is the clearest. Like around 7am.
Is there an ideal emotion when you get your best writing done?
I need to be calm. I’m not one of those guys who writes the best when he’s slighted or angry. I do try to write with some distance from the event I'm writing about. When I'm in the whirlwind, I don’t have perspective. I don’t want my songs to sound like the lyrics came from a diary, like a naked and raw journal entry. When I hear songs like that, what I really think is how much it doesn't sound like a song.
My father died about four years ago, and it was only this year that I was able to write songs about his death that did him any justice. I wrote a couple of songs in the whirlwind right after he died, like “All I Got and Gone.” It had nothing to do with my father. The narrator’s woman is gone, and we don't know why. But I had to pour my grief into something. It had to go somewhere. I cast that grief differently by putting it in that song. But if I had tried to write a song right after my father died about the love and respect I had for him, it wouldn't have done justice to the man.
That’s diary writing, and I don’t like songs like that. A song about grief doesn't mean anything to anyone else unless I can show why it matters that the person is gone. And that takes perspective and time.
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