Oh, to be a young and single songwriter. There are no limits to your creative process: without family commitments, you can write anywhere, anytime. And that's what Ben Bridwell, singer and songwriter for Band of Horses, did. He went to cabins and cabooses, from mountains to ocean shores. Bridwell craves that isolation to write; back then, he thought it was a necessary component to his process. And that isolation, he believed, couldn't be a quiet room in the house. It had to be far away. (Not all songwriters need solitude, though; many have told me that they prefer to be around at least a little bit of action. There's Cory Branan, who wrote his first two albums in a mall food court. And there's Rhett Miller, who likes venue stairwells, where it's quiet but he not too far from the hustle and bustle of load in.)
Three daughters and a wife later, Bridwell can no longer pack up his notebooks and head to the hills to write. He's got a family now. But he's found the perfect space: his garage-cum-studio. No one bothers him there, though admittedly they stay away for more practical reasons: according to Bridwell, "it's dark and there are lots of bugs." Having this space made Bridwell realize that it's solitude that matters, not where the solitude is.
Fans of Band of Horses will be happy to know that the band is putting the finishing touches on a new album. I have to say that I really enjoyed this conversation. Bridwell's answers are thoughtful and introspective; the depth and honesty of his responses illustrate that his creative process does not exist in a vacuum. Instead, it reflects who he is as a person.
Be sure to watch the video of the band's 2014 performance on KEXP at the end of the interview. It's one of the best acoustic performances I've seen in a long time, maybe ever. Also, a huge hat tip to the incredible singer/songwriter Sera Cahoone for hooking me up with Bridwell for this interview. Cahoone played drums in an early version of Band of Horses and with Bridwell in Carissa's Wierd. (She also has one of my favorite voices in music today) I interviewed Cahoone for this site a few years ago, so I reached out to her and she was gracious enough to put me in touch with Bridwell.
Do you have any other creative outlets besides songwriting?
Because my time is so squished, when I have time to do anything, I focus on music. It’s not just for the purpose of songwriting, though. Right now I'm obsessed with hip-hop beatmaking. It’s a new thing for me after getting back into hip-hop over the last year or so. But it’s for pure pleasure. I don't see having a future as a beatmaker. Laughs. It’s stress free since it’s only for recreation.
Do you keep a journal?
Sometimes, but even when I do it’s just to stir the creative pot. I have a typewriter down in the garage, and there's an exercise I do where I write nothing but descriptive words or phrases. The first thing that comes to my mind, even if it’s just a list of words. It’s a way to keep ideas lying around in case something pops into my head.
Is this something you do every day?
Not really. You know that Brain Pickings website? I love their insight into other artists’ creative processes. That’s where I found that exercise. I’ll try exercises on the site to see if they stir up inspiration. I try different things all the time, but I always end up doing the same thing, which is staring at the wall. Laughs.
How often does something specific inspire you to write a song?
I don’t know if it’s become a bad habit, but over the years I mostly play some instrument, like the drums or the keyboards or anything I have lying around the studio. I want to find the melody, so I sing garbage words to search for a few words that go together. Eventually the story reveals itself. Rarely do I sit down to write a song about a specific topic. Usually it’s just about recording a crappy demo that I sing into my phone with some words.
It sounds like your songs start with music.
Usually, but sometimes a phrase will pop into my head that I write down, and I try to build a song around that. But most of the time I'm just messing around in my garage, then something takes hold.
And the words follow?
Yeah, but they start as garbage words. I'm a big fan of crossword puzzles, so often I look at the words there, or I might just read over Twitter feeds to see what people are posting. Anything else but my own thoughts, because I hate being faced with the question What am I gonna write about? If I have words already in front of me, it’s a lot easier to shape the melody. A string of words will intrigue me, then they start to apply to an actual story that I can build.
I want to ask you about something you said earlier. You use a typewriter? That puts you in small company.
Before I was ever in a band, my goal was always to spread music. So in junior high, I always made mixtapes for friends. I'd type the tracklist and slip it into the case. My handwriting is garbage, and I always felt like people would be more likely to hang onto it if they knew I put effort into it.
Do you use a computer for your lyrics?
Oh no. I handwrite everything. There are hundreds of half-filled journals lying around the house that contain not just the words, but information like the tuning I used in a song. So if I go back to that idea months later, I’ll also know what the hell I was doing when I wrote it. I might have to go through fifteen different notebooks because they aren’t organized because I grab whatever is in front of me when lightning strikes.
If you go back and look at those lyrics a year or five years from now, your writing will often tell you a lot about your state of mind. It brings you back to where you were when you wrote them.
There’s an element of finality when you type. If I had to type, I might never write another song because it seems so permanent. At least with handwriting, there are words and phrases I cross out that I can always go back to.
Sometimes it’s nothing but chicken scratch because it’s after a bottle of wine. I'm afraid that I’ll not hide these journals before I die, and my kids will find them and think, Damn! Dad had something going here. Look at the wine all over the page! It feels more freeing because you can cross things out, you can make notes to yourself.
Is there a certain time or place you get your best writing done?
I used to find that being secluded and having all day to write without distractions was the best. I needed a place to be unhinged. But now that I'm older and have a family, I can't just sneak away to a cabin for the week. I'm a bit habitual by nature, so I do the same thing every day. I get up with the kids, I get them dressed, I feed them, I get them to school, I go to breakfast, then head straight to my garage and work until it’s time to pick them up. During the day there are more distractions, like things I have to do around the house or emails I have to answer. But as soon as the kids go to bed, it’s back down to the garage to write. And I refuse to go to bed. It’s the only time of day where I can really be along with no tasks, no distractions.
The problem is that I have to be up at 6am with the kids. Sometimes I’ll look at the clock and it’s 2am. But if it’s really working for me creatively, I’ll see it through even if it means not going to bed. I can summarize it like this: I stir up the pot during the day, then seal the deal at night. I might stop at 4am and catch some sleep for an hour, but then I'm up writing again. If it’s heating up, I can't walk away. Because I know that if I stop and try to write again the next day, I'm going to lose it.
You’ve mentioned the garage a couple of times. Sounds like that’s a good place for you.
It’s a little studio I built. I’m not a big recording guy. I do collect garbage gear, so t’s a room full of instruments. Everyone’s afraid of the garage since it’s dark and there are bugs, so no one ever bothers me. Laughs. It’s the first time in my life where I've designated an area at home to work. Usually I've had some kind of warehouse where I keep my stuff because I felt like I had to get away from home to be productive because there were always the trappings of home to distract me. But out of necessity I've adapted to my adult lifestyle, and now I can work at home and be productive.
Place is an important part of the process. We all need that space where we feel the most comfortable. I don’t know that you’d be as productive in the bathroom or the kitchen.
Definitely, especially when it comes to singing. I don't want my wife to hear me. I have headphones on and there’s no musical accompaniment. I don't want people to hear me singing in the next room without instruments. That’s terrifying.
I can’t help but wonder if you’d be a different type of writer if you lived in the middle of New York City (Bridwell lives in a small town in South Carolina).
For years I felt like I had to go somewhere to write. I thought I had to go to a cabin or an off-season beach house or a house on a mountain. I thought I needed seclusion. But as I've gotten older, that idea of seclusion doesn’t bother me anymore. I no longer feel like I have to be somewhere beautiful or disgusting to be inspired. Being at home is just as inspiring. It’s not tethering me creatively to look at cement floors or the walls of the garage.
But if I've done too many home days—after all, I live with four girls—even in the writing sense, I start to lose perspective. I need to go to the bar and listen to my friends who work other jobs so that I can hear their stories.
Do those stories ever inspire you?
As much as I need to get out and do that, it ends up being the last thing on my mind, the idea of listening to people for the sake of mining for stories or phrases. I don't know if it’s just the idea of “dad on the loose,” but all I want to do is hang out with my buddies. It’s only when one of them says something brilliant that I think Bingo. That’s why I'm here. Then I can’t wait to get home to use that to my creative advantage.
Is inspiration is something that you have to work at?
I’ve always believed in working at it every day. I come to the studio, even if nothing happens or what comes out is garbage. Even if only one out of ten things I create is good, it still makes the other nine absolutely worth it. When I first started writing, I wrote and played every day until eventually something productive came of it. And that became the first Horses record, because I kept plugging away at it.
Do you ever wonder how those ideas come to you?
So much of it is about noticing what’s around you. I look behind me, what’s there? A surfboard, a deflated ball. Even if I'm not going to write about those things, it’s still a good idea to get a good grasp on your surroundings.
How much do you revise your lyrics?
To the last second. Even when we’re mixing. I’ll listen to the vocal tracks and think Nope. That’s not it. There’s got to be a way to make this story better. I’m always second guessing myself until the last moment. I second guess words, lines, even syllables. I’m conscious about avoiding clichés, writing about things that are too personal, or maybe not personal enough. It’s a balance to be sincere in writing about my own experience in and in a universal way so that everyone can relate.
The best songs are obviously those that I spew out with minimal editing. Stories that I want to get out of my system. Then there are those that are gratifying because they took a lot of effort.
What one song comes to mind immediately that just poured out of you?
One song on our second album called “Ode to the LRC.” It’s about a little red caboose I was staying in. It was in a remote location, and I went there just to write. Of course, that rarely works, because you go to that place and are now self-conscious that you’re there to write songs. But that song came quicker than lightening. I was on the coast of Washington state, in a town called Ocean Shores. It was off-season, and it was creepy because there was no one around. I've tried to recreate that environment, but it never seems to work.
Is there a song that you are most proud of because it was so hard to finish, but you persevered?
Yes. We talked earlier about clichés, and as a songwriter I'm always mindful of saying something that’s already been said a million times before. One of our biggest songs is called “No One’s Gonna Love You.” I remember writing it and that was the line in the chorus that first came to me: “no one’s gonna love you more than I do.” And I remember thinking You can’t say that. What a cliché. I wrote it on the page and thought I was going to wretch. I wrote that song around the time I was writing the first record, and I remember being so scared to go through with it. Here’s a guy with the sappiest, most clichéd line in the world, I thought to myself as I showed it to the band. It takes courage to sing something that cheesy. But it was rewarding in the end.
When songs aren’t working for you creatively, do you shelf them and come back later?
Absolutely. That goes back to the same bad habits. I record something that I'm really fired up about, then I have to step away for one reason or another. I come back and I can’t find the vibe anymore. So it sits and sits. I revisit it and realize how much I love it. That happened just the other day with a song. The words came to me just last week, even though I started working on the song about six months ago.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
Yeah. With the new record that we’re almost finished with, 2014 was one of my worst years. I could write plenty of music, but writing words was enormously difficult. I didn’t like the pressure of having to finalize the narrative. That’s never happened before. It’s easy to know what people think of you each day now. That, plus the weight of expectations, really crept into my psyche in a bad way. I go through bad dips in confidence, where I don't want people to know how I think. I get terrified of putting thoughts on paper. I was writing, but I wasn’t happy with the results because I could tell that I wasn't at peace with myself as I was writing.
I got in a bad mental space during the writing. I've gotten over that now, though. I’ve accepted that part of being a songwriter is knowing that you’ll be criticized and that someone will always think that what you’ve done isn’t good enough.
How did you battle through that?
Talking to people that I respect, like Sam Beam from Iron and Wine. We did a record of covers last year. Working with him and hearing his insight was really good for me. I told him that I was really having trouble writing, and he told me, “Who gives a shit? You're creating something.”
I was also able understand that creativity comes in waves. I've never had one where it was so limiting over such a long period of time, but there’s been times where I've had a bad week or a bad couple of weeks, but I've come out the other end and it’s all good now.
Is there an ideal emotion when you get your best writing done?
It comes back to the idea of solitude. Whenever I was writing in seclusion, alone in one of those cabins or beach houses, I was always paranoid that people would wonder who was that weirdo in the house by himself. And that combination of solitude and paranoia always seems to kick up something productive in me. Of course, now that I'm a family man, I've realized that’s not as important. I'd be more concerned that some deep sadness or incredibly happiness would produce something not entirely authentic. I don't know that I would trust myself in either of those states.
Last question: who do you like to read?
I love to read. Naturally, I love to read artist biographies, but I'm a huge fan of Hemingway and Larry Brown. When I'm involved in the final stages of an album, I don't get to read as much, and that’s too bad. I’m looking forward to getting back to it soon.
Do you find that those authors influence your songwriting?
Without a doubt. I'm sure the Vonnegut estate could sue me for most of my royalties. Laughs. The way he strings together his words is incredible.