When I started this site in 2010, I had a goal: treat songwriters as writers, plain and simple. As someone with a Ph.D. in English Literature, I had read my share of interviews with poets, playwrights, novelists, and short story writers detailing their writing process. But what about songwriters: aren't they writers too? Shouldn't they be included? So when John Oates started our interview by saying, "I've always looked at myself as a writer," I swooned. Because songwriters are writers. Period.
I'm going to borrow from Questlove's excellent induction speech when he introduced Hall and Oates at the 2014 Rock n Roll Hall of Fame ceremony: in the rock era, here's a list of the duos who are more successful than Hall and Oates, according to the RIAA:
With twelve straight songs in the top ten, six #1 hits, 34 songs in the Billboard top 100, seven Platinum albums, and six Gold albums, Hall and Oates have no equal. For this, you can partly thank John Oates' "songwriting antenna." Oates doesn't write every day, but he's thinking about songwriting "24/7. Every moment of my life is a potential for a song, whether it’s conscious or unconscious," he told me. His favorite part of the songwriting process is the "wordsmithing," the revision of the lyrics once the initial idea is down. "While I love when divine inspiration strikes, I prefer getting in the trenches. I love rewriting. I love crafting," Oates told me.
Although daily writing is not a part of his routine, Oates is acutely sensitive to his environment, even noticing the words of the news broadcast as he passes through his living room (something tells me Oates doesn't spend his day with his head buried in his smartphone). He sees and hears the potential for a song in every waking moment--even, as you'll read, in the conversation he recently overheard between two women in the Denver airport.
What kinds of writing do you do other than songwriting?
I’ve always looked at myself as a writer. I graduated with a degree in journalism from Temple University, so I'm a fan not only of songwriting, but prose and poetry as well. I don't make a lot of distinctions between the two. Of course, with songwriting you also have a music component.
I'm an avid reader. I read all the time, mostly non-fiction. And I'm in the process now of co-writing a book about my early childhood and my influences before meeting Daryl. It's a long-term project and won't see the light of day for a while, but still it’s exciting.
I've always told people that the only way to become a good writer is to read good writing. It's hard to imagine that any of the great writers throughout history weren’t voracious readers. Does the reading you do influence your songwriting?
Absolutely. So much of being a good songwriter is knowing how to wordsmith. The great thing about our language is that it can be very precise, and I don't think people pay as much attention to the potential for concision in the English language. I'm a fan of that kind of writing and I appreciate artful and concise writing. I'm a big fan, for example, of H.L. Mencken’s The American Language. I have the first edition of that series.
I'm also fascinated by the evolution of American English from [British] English and how it parallels the evolution of our country. To that end, I'm also a big American history buff; I was a history minor in college. Being the first generation in my family to be born in the U.S. really stoked that interest. That follows through to my music and why I'm a big advocate of regional American music and the development of the popular song. That’s a huge deal for me.
Speaking of poetry, I was telling someone recently that Seamus Heaney’s death in 2013 might be the last time a poet gets an A1 obituary in the New York Times. Does reading poetry make for a better songwriter?
Poetry can certainly be inspirational because it opens new ways of expression and a new way of looking at things outside of us. But the difference, of course, is that poetry is unbound by music. The songwriter has to account for the fact that the words have to be sung, of course, and that the words have to roll off the tongue. There are restrictions, then, in the sounds you can use as a songwriter.
Many songwriters tell me that melody reigns supreme in their process. They are willing to sacrifice a word, even changing the meaning of a line, to make the melody work.
To a certain extent, I do that to make the rhythm work. But I don't want to sacrifice the words and the lyrics if I can help it. If the melody is forcing me to go for something different, like a different vowel sound or a different line, before I make that change, I would rather play with the rhythm. Sometimes you can squeeze in what might seem to be an awkward lyrical phrase if you approach it from a different rhythmic perspective.
Can you explain that?
Let’s say you have the line She sat at the bar and looked away. There’s a rhythm that works perfectly with those lines and with the stress in certain syllables. But you could play with it by speeding up the rhythm of the line. If you do, you might be able to put something after it or before it. You have to play with the actual rhythms of the phraseology. So while the lines are tied to the melody, the melody can be adapted if you approach it from a different rhythmic perspective.
Taken to an extreme, that’s a characteristic of a lot of hip hop, where melody isn't as much of a factor. It’s all about the rhythm of the words. In fact, melody can be relegated to a separate part of the song on its own as a melodic refrain before you go back to total rhythm. All of that is very interesting to me.
Let’s talk about your creative process. Do you sit down every day to write?
Nope. I don’t sit down every day to write. However, I'm always thinking about songwriting, 24/7. Every moment of my life is a potential for a song, whether it’s conscious or unconscious. But when I do sit down to write, I'm doing it with a purpose, usually because something is lodged in my brain from something I've experienced or something I've overheard. Or there could be some emotion that I'm trying to get out there.
I love when a song just appears out of nowhere. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen too often. To tell you the truth, while I love when divine inspiration strikes, I prefer getting in the trenches. I love rewriting. I love crafting. A lot of times when I write a song, I put it aside deliberately so that I can listen later with fresh ears and a fresh approach. I always see something different. That's why I love stepping away to revisit things. Because often I'll see something so obvious that I missed before.
I'm a firm believer in the cliché writing is rewriting. I rewrite all of the time.
Many people tell me that they step away out of frustration. But it sounds like you do it purposely.
I don't look at stepping away as a dead end. I look at it as opportunity. It's an opportunity to make the song better. I always know that something better is going to happen if I step away.
Is there a certain amount of time you like to wait?
There's no time limit. Once the seed is planted and the song is just sitting there waiting to sprout, it could be the next day or could be the next hour.
How hard is it to re-create the initial emotion of the moment when you step away?
Not at all, because you’ve captured the emotional intensity in the first iteration of the song that caused the initial idea to happen. That's the first hurdle. Once you get over that hurdle, it's all about work and craftsmanship. You've already got the hardest part taken care of. Now it's just a matter of whether you're willing to work.
Is there a certain routine to your revision process?
I'm constantly looking for the perfect word that rolls off the tongue when I sing it. Ideally it'll have that perfect vowel sound. Back in the day with Daryl and I were writing a lot together we would sit down and actually sing nothing but vowel sounds. We’d sing nonsense words that just sounded good. We would then go back and re-craft meaningful lyrics that went with those vowel sounds. Because if you can do that, you know it's going to sing well.
Then again if you have a real statement that you want to make lyrically, you may not have that freedom to plug in different words and vowel sounds. Especially if it's more of a story oriented song. In that case you're little bit more restricted.
Does that happen often when you sit down with the express idea of writing a song about a certain topic?
I'm not really a story songwriter. I don't write and tell narratives in a linear fashion. I like to take real emotions, real emotional experiences, and write about them in a slice of life fashion. I use that personal experience to talk about something greater. Making the personal idea something universal is a device that allows people to relate to it better. If the audience gets the greater meaning of the song, then that's just a plus. The point is that you can appeal to people on a lot of different levels.
I'll give you a perfect example: the song "Maneater." Everyone thinks that song is about a woman. But it's not about a woman. It was inspired by a woman, but the lyrics of that song are about New York City. It's about New York City the maneater. New York City will chew you up and spit you out. It's that fast-paced avarice beast that will devour you if you let it. But most people think it's about a woman, and that's fine because the average person can relate to it better especially if they've never been to New York.
I want to talk about something you mentioned earlier, the idea of being a songwriter 24/7. Does that mean that you are hypersensitive to your environment, that you're always noticing sights and the sounds around you?
Constantly. It never stops. It's not that I'm making an effort to notice all of those things, I just naturally do it. I call it my songwriter antenna. My songwriter antenna is always up. I can be walking through the living room noticing the news on television. I got a song idea last year at the Denver airport. I was sitting at the bar waiting for my flight, and two women next to me were having a very heavy conversation. I overheard one say to the other, "You let him come to you." She was giving advice. So I got together with my buddy Jim Lauderdale and we wrote a song called "Let Him Come to You." I remembered that turn of phrase.
What was unique about the song was how we crafted it. We turned the song into a guy saying it to a girl. He was saying, "Hey look, go ahead and see if you can make this work, but if it doesn't I'm going to be there for you." So we put a little twist on it. It wasn't just one woman giving another woman advice; it was a guy giving a woman advice with a hidden agenda.
How do you write all of these ideas down?
Sometimes I send a text myself, sometimes it's a piece of paper, but other times I use my laptop.
So you're not wedded to a certain way?
I'll use whatever is around. But because the music is so much a part of my process, I've found Garage Band to be a great tool. I'm never just writing lyrics or just writing music, so Garage Band lets me do both simultaneously. It allows me to work very quickly. I can jot something down musically in a matter of seconds. I put a blank Word document next to the game on the desktop, strum a few chords on Garage Band, then move over to the document and type some words. I do that all the time.
Is there an ideal environment when you get your best writing done?
Usually in a comfortable environment when I'm by myself. But I have to say that I write a lot with Jim Lauderdale. We write together all the time, and if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have all those great songs on my new project. We do our best work after midnight. Our sessions start with dinner, then he comes over and we start thinking about songwriting ideas. Some our sessions go until 3 or 4 in the morning, and that works really well for me.
Do you ever get writer's block?
I don't get writer's block over a period of time, because I write in spurts. When I'm in the writing mode, I'm usually not touring. I get in the groove and can write every day. Then when the writing's done, I go on the road.
Can you sit around and wait for the muse, or is inspiration something you have to work at?
Oh I'm not going to sit around and wait. It has to do with professionalism. You can always make things happen. But then again, when the divine inspiration happens, it's always on a higher level than anything that comes from work.
What song did you get the greatest satisfaction from completing because it was such a struggle to write?
There's been a lot of those. In a more recent context, I wrote a song called "Revenge." I wrote the lyrics first, which is kind of unusual for me. But it was an unusual topic for me to write about, so I wanted to explore it. Once I wrote the lyrics, it was difficult to put music to because the topic was so weighty. I wrote about three or four different versions of music to those lyrics, and I was never satisfied. I put it aside and came back to it several times. I even played it live a few times, and I knew it still wasn't 100%. But by playing it live, I eventually found the ideal music. It took about three years to make that song get to the point where I was really satisfied with it.
On the flip side, what song was the easiest to write?
“She’s Gone.” It took as long to write as it did to sing it. I wrote the chorus the night before when I got stood up on a date, and all I had was "She’s gone, oh why oh why" and I had some chords. Daryl came in, I played it for him, he sat at the piano, he played the chords and the first verse, and we started singing. That was it.