Allison Moorer

Everyone offering career advice seems to want to steer people away from the humanities. Don't be an English major, they say. You won't make any money.  Singer/songwriter Allison Moorer has fortunately dispensed with this silly bit of advice: she's finishing her first semester at The New School in New York City, getting her MFA in creative non-fiction. As someone with a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature, I fully support her new career path. (Last year, I interviewed Amanda Shires, who was just finishing her MFA in poetry at Sewanee when we talked.)

After almost 20 years as a Nashville singer/songwriter, Moorer's decision to return to school is pragmatic: she wants to improve her skill set in another field. As she told me, "I didn’t pursue this degree to become a better songwriter. I’m pursuing it so I can become better at something else." She's a single mother raising a 5 year old son, John Henry (Moorer was married to Steve Earle until 2014).  Because raising him is itself a full time job, she can't tour as much. She was brutally honest in her reason for going back to school: "I’ve had to put that part of my life on the back burner. That leads to a very practical question: Ok Allison, what are you going to do now? I’ve certainly tried to hang on to my career as a singer and a songwriter, but at the end of the day I'm a rational and practical person, and I have to be able to take care of myself and my son. I just want to further my education so I’m able to take care of us in some way."

My interview with Moorer is as much about her process as a creative non-fiction writer as it is about her process as a songwriter. The former is a growing part of her identity. Regardless, Moorer is a writer, full stop. I have little doubt she'll succeed in her new endeavor. (Moorer is currently working on her memoir). When she's not with John Henry, she's reading or writing. And by reading, I mean READING: she often has four or five books going at a time, and her greatest fear is that she will die by "bookalanche."

Read my interview with Allison Moorer after the video for "Tear Me Apart," off her fantastic 2015 release Down to Believing, her eighth studio album.

You live in New York and are getting your MFA in creative non-fiction. Why does that genre appeal to you so much?

It started with songwriting. That’s creative non-fiction. And then I started working on a memoir on my childhood, which I'm just now gutting again and rewriting. I realized that I was a much better non-fiction writer than fiction writer. I hope to become a better fiction writer as I write more. I love fiction. I’m a Joan Didion freak and I read fiction all the time, but I think now I'm a better non-fiction writer.

Was that your own revelation?

It was. I think it’s where my strength is now because I’m so deep in writing about my own childhood. It’s not that I can’t make things up, but the rule for me is to write what you know. And I know myself better than I know anything else. Let’s face it: I’ve got a lot to write about. As someone said to me once,”You’re one of those people with one of those lives.” Laughs.

That’s true! Did you ever think about poetry for your MFA? I mean, you do write lyrics.

I did not. I have written poetry and I have taken some poetry workshops. I’m in an amazing seminar now called “Poetry as Fact,” about the blending of literary genres. It’s about what you do with the things that don’t fit anywhere. We write pieces in reaction to whatever we’re writing about that week. And the first week we watched two films, and my reaction was to write a poem. Poetry is a lot like songwriting in that they are both like catching lightning in a bottle. Both are slippery. Prose is not slippery to me.

What do you mean?

Songs and poetry have the ability get away from you. You can lose them. If you have a song idea, and you build your world in that song. I’ve become better at crafting songs that I used to be, but at the beginning of my songwriting career I might have a great idea, and it would slip away. It wouldn’t get written to its fullest potential because it would get away from me. It’s like smoke. That’s what I mean when I say it’s slippery. It goes away like smoke if you don’t know what you are doing. You have to know what to do with the lightning when you catch it.

That’s what poems are like to me now. They get away from me because they don’t know what they want to be. They have a life of their own, and if you don’t have the tools in your toolbox to wrangle them, they’ll disappear.

Granted, you're three weeks into your first semester, but how do you think your MFA can make you a better songwriter?

It can be something as simple as reading. I bought 20 books this semester and I’m probably not done. My apartment is a nightmare. I always tell people that I’ll probably die in a bookalanche. I love books, and I’m fascinated by the idea that each one holds its own unique universe. I’ve always got three or four books at a time that I'm reading. It’s frustrating, but I’ve always been this way. It’s probably my favorite activity, and it could by why I enrolled in graduate school in the first place. I needed an excuse to hole up and read.

But to tell you the truth, I didn’t pursue this degree to become a better songwriter. I’m pursuing it so I can become better at something else. My career has taken such a turn since I had John Henry. I can’t really travel so my touring opportunities are limited. I’ve had to put that part of my life on the back burner. That leads to a very practical question: Ok Allison, what are you going to do now? I’ve certainly tried to hang on to my career as a singer and a songwriter, but at the end of the day I'm a rational and practical person, and I have to be able to take care of myself and my son. I just want to further my education so I’m able to take care of us in some way.

I’ve really never stopped going to school. I got my degree when I was 20 in communications and journalism, but I’ve taken classes here and there since then. I love school. When I was a kid, it was my safe and happy place. Wherever this degree takes me, it’s going to make me better at what I’m doing, whether it’s songwriting, teaching, creative writing, or all of it.

I have to get back to what you said about reading three or four books at a time. How do you do that? I’ve never been able to do that. 

You may not appreciate this answer, but it may be because I'm a woman and we can do several things at once. Laughs. But it might be that I’m reading different kinds of books. Right now I’m reading a Philip Roth memoir. Susan Cheever is the professor for one of my non-fiction courses, and she recommended the Roth book. I’m also reading a Leonard Cohen book of poetry that Hayes (Carll) gave me. I’m rereading Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje for I think the third time. Then I’m reading a book called Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. Then there’s always one of these books in the stack: this one’s called Always Pack a Party Dress. I do have a light side and an addiction to books about style and clothes and designers. I always need a lighter book like that in my stack that gives me some relief.

Are there certain authors you always return to?

Absolutely. I read everything Ian McEwan writes. Also Wally Lamb, John Irving, and Joan Didion. Of course some of the southern authors like Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor. Hayes turned me on to Milan Kundera.

Finally, let’s talk about your writing. With a young boy, I assume you have to be a disciplined writer. What’s your routine like?

With my memoir, I tried to go for 500 words a day up until I finished the second draft. Now that I’m in school, that’s not happening. Between my school work and everything else I do, that makes me sad. Because truthfully I want it out of my life. Laughs. If we’re talking about songwriting and I’m in Nashville (Moorer still writes songs for Warner Chappell), I’m in those rooms writing with someone else and hammering out a song. If I’m writing for myself, it can happen in 30 minutes or 30 days.

When you’re writing for yourself, is there a favorite time and place?

Absolutely. I need to be in my space. I live in a pre-war building in Chelsea, and there’s a nook off my kitchen that I set up as my work area. It’s a tiny room with a tiny desk, and all my stuff is there. And I like to write there first thing in the morning because I’m a morning person. I’m much quicker and creative first thing in the morning. If not then, then it’s after I take my son to school. I’ll put on another pot of coffee and start around 9am. I’m usually done around 1pm.

Do you like to compose on your computer, or do you like to use pen and paper?

I’m more of a computer person, but I do like notebooks to jot ideas down. Hayes and I have this in common: we’re both geeks about notebooks. We like going to the office supply store as a date. I keep notebooks around, but I always compose lyrics on my laptop.

Does living in New York as opposed to Nashville make a difference to your writing process?

Living in Nashville is great if you’re a songwriter. There’s no place else like it. But I kind of get off on the idea that I’m writing a book in New York. I get inspired by the people when I walk around. I’ve lived here for a long time, but to be honest I’ve never fallen in love with it. I’ve lived here ten years but still don’t consider myself a New Yorker. But I get inspired by the people I see because the city is filled with characters. And when you live in New York, you live outside because there’s no space inside. People here live their lives outside on the street. That doesn’t really happen anywhere else in this country. I get inspired by imagining the stories of the people I see.

Hayes told me that he’s always sensitive to the conversations around him, listening for words or lines that might give him song ideas. Are you like that too?

Oh yeah, and we do it together. We were somewhere together recently and I said something good. I told him, “You can have that one.” He’s finishing up writing for a new album and I’m not, so why not give him that line? Laughs. I always have my songwriting antenna up. We were having breakfast recently at the Pancake Pantry and struck up a conversation with a woman sitting next to us. She said something great, and we both pulled out our phones at the same time to jot down what we said. It was great. Laughs.

How much revising do you do to your lyrics, especially when it comes to revising something that you wrote in a raw emotional state?

Those are usually the best songs. I don’t do a ton of revising. That’s a really good way to beat a song to death. I’ll improve a word or a phrase from the first draft, but I usually don’t gut songs.

How does the songwriting process start for you?

It depends. Sometimes there’s a melody I want to write around, but that was the case more when I was younger. Now it’s usually a lyric or even a title. I like to write around titles. I’d say seventy percent of my songs start with a title or at least a killer first line of the chorus. The chorus is the hardest part of the process for me. I come from the idea that you can do whatever you want in the verse, but you gotta drive home the chorus. That’s where the crafting takes place.

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