James McMurtry

James McMurtry wants his old iPhone back. The singer-songwriter hasn't been the same writer without it.  And it's all because Apple changed its Notes app.

In the days before computers were the default method for composition, McMurtry wrote lyrics on legal pads. He has boxes filled with legal pads filled with lyrics. He became intensely familiar and comfortable with those yellow pages; there was something about that yellow and those lines that made the words pour forth from his felt-tip pen. McMurtry eventually turned to computers, but with them he sacrificed portability. Cell phones solved that problem. And when McMurtry found that the Notes app on his iPhone 3 looked like that old yellow legal pad paper, well, the words flowed. It was creative nirvana. 

Then, the unthinkable: McMurtry's iPhone broke after he dropped it one too many times. Even worse: the Notes app on his new phone was nothing but a blank white slate. No lines, no yellow. And that affected his creative output. He explains, "I haven’t written as much since then because I have an iPhone 4 and the Notes app is white.  I look at it, and it doesn’t trigger anything like the old phone did. I’ve tried to duplicate that yellow background on my iPad, but for some reason I can’t find the same font I had before.  So it’s just not the same."

But if he can't have that old Notes app, a yellow legal pad, a black felt pen, and a good old 75 watt incandescent bulb will do the track. Has to be one of those old school bulbs, he says: "I wrote for so many years under a 75-watt incandescent bulb that it became habit. I don’t like the new bulbs so much.  The light just isn’t as warm."

McMurtry's new album is called "Complicated Game," and he's touring now in support of it. Read my interview with McMurtry about his songwriting process after the video for "How'm I Gonna Find You Now." 

Do you do other any other writing besides songwriting?

I don't do anything else.  I used to blog but I got tired of it. 

Tell me about your process.  Is there a typical process for you?

I usually get lyrics and music simultaneously.  Just a couple of lines and a melody. And I think, “Who said that?” If I'm lucky, I come up with a character who said it, and then get a story from the character.

How often do you sit down with the idea of writing about a certain topic or character?

Never. I never do that.  Sometimes an experience will set me down a path of exploration, but with the possible exception of "We Can't Make it Here," I generally don't set out to make a point.  I follow the words and then the character in the story and see where that goes.

Do you ever think about how these ideas come to you?  I guess that’s more the idea of where inspiration comes from. Are you hypersensitive to you environment, always looking and listening for things?

I hear stuff in my head, and if it’s cool enough to keep me up at night then I keep at it and make it into a song.   Otherwise I throw it on the scrap pile and might use it later. Computers have helped a lot.  I can scroll through my whole scrap pile, and sometimes I might find a verse from a couple years before another verse I wrote.  I’ll realize that they might go together because they have a similar rhyme and meter scheme.

So you never throw ideas out.

I never throw anything away, because I always hope that I’ll find a place to use it later, even years later.  Some songs I’ve finished twenty years after I started them. The second song on this record called “You Got to Me” I started a good 20 years ago.

Did you set that song aside deliberately for many years, or were you working on it here and there?

I’d come across it every now and then, and it seems like every time that happened I'd get another piece.  I never really give up on songs.  If it’s not working, I’ll still keep it and hope to get to it someday.  Now, sometimes I’ll write an entire song that’s less than the sum of its parts and I need something to give it life.

That scrapheap you mention: are melodies in there, or just lyrics?

I usually remember the melodies just by looking at the lyrics. I rarely record them. I just type ‘em out and the melody usually comes back to me.  I sometimes mx and match lyrics, but it depends a great deal on the meter and rhyme scheme.

Do you have to work at inspiration, or is it more about waiting for the muse?

If I'm lucky, it comes to me.  A few lines will truly inspire me, and I’ll build a song around those lines.  And even those lines take skill and persistence.  I’m really not that disciplined of a writer: I only write when it’s time to make records.

When you do sit down to write, what’s your ideal writing environment?

The right page and right font really help. I wrote most of the last record on an iPhone 3.  It had that really cool looking legal pad looking note feature.  But I dropped the phone one too many times and had to get a new one.  I didn’t lose any lyrics because they were on my computer, but I haven’t written as much since then because I have an iPhone 4 and the Notes app is white.  I look at it, and it doesn’t trigger anything like the old phone did.
I’ve tried to duplicate that yellow background on my iPad, but for some reason I can’t find the same font I had before.  So it’s just not the same.
photo by Shane McCauley

photo by Shane McCauley

I find that fascinating that the color and the font affect your creative process.

For years before computers I wrote everything on legal pads. And I really got used to that yellow page.  But of course after a while it got pretty cumbersome to go through boxes of legal pads to look for lyrical scraps, so when the computer came around, that was ok but it still wasn’t the same.  That’s why I loved my old iPhone. I cold write anywhere, in a bar, a car, wherever.

Do you do much writing on a legal pad anymore?

I still do.  If I really need to bear down on something, I’ll get out a legal pad, black felt pen, and a 75-watt incandescent light bulb if I can find one.

So that certain type of bulb matters?

Yeah, I wrote for so many years under a 75-watt incandescent bulb that it became habit. I don’t like the new bulbs so much.  The light just isn’t as warm.

Since you’re in a car as we’re talking, does the role of motion ever inspire you to write? Many songwriters tell me that inspires them.

At times it has.  One song “Choctaw Bingo” started out as a writing exercise because I wanted to see if I could get all of that weird stuff into a song. For a while were always going up and down US69 in Oklahoma and there were always weird things all along the road.  There was a bingo parlor called Choctaw Bingo, a gun shop called Pop, Knife, and Gun. Further up in Kansas there was a lingerie shop with a bunch of pink neon Rolling Stone lips. I wrote that song, and within a year all those stores had changed.

Is there a time or place when you get your best writing done?

It’s pretty random as far as time. White noise is better as far as place. Airplanes are great for that: the words move around in a sonic haze.

How much do you revise your lyrics?

Not too much anymore. Back when I wrote on legal pads, I could spend a whole pad revising.  But now they come out in a pretty complete form when it comes to verses. I might change a word here or there to make then sound better. One rule is that an N is your friend, but an S is not.  An N just rolls off your tongue when you sing.

Do you attribute that to your experience as a songwriter?

I don’t know.  Songs don't have to make perfect sense, so as I get older I'm less inclined to worry about it.

How often do you get writer’s block?

All the time.

Does that make you anxious, or do you see it as part of the process?

What gets it going is that I realize that I have to make a record. I used to be able to write much better under pressure, but not as much anymore.  I have to keep the wheels turning as much as possible.  Maybe it’s an age thing: it’s harder to get unstuck. I’m still not crazy disciplined like other writers.

Is there anything you must have with you in order to get a good writing session in?

I don’t really sit down for long periods, so no.  My writing is more like fits and starts. The most important thing is not to let anything get away.  If I hear something, I have to make sure to write it down so I don’t forget it and it falls back into the ether.

Does anything you read ever inspire you?

I might read one book a year.  And sometimes I skip a year. My dad is a novelist and also a collector. We had books lining the walls like wallpaper, so I never paid any attention to them. He also had a bookstore that I wanted nothing to do with because the book business never interested me. (Ed note: McMurtry's father is Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Larry McMurtry, author of Terms of Endearment and Lonesome Dove, among many others.)

What’s the easiest part of the creative process for you?

There really isn’t. I've probably only ever gotten two songs written in 15 or 20 minutes. Most of it is painstaking.  It’s like carving.

Why is it so painstaking?

It’s about trying to find the phrase. It’s not so much reworking, but finding the right phrase to go in front of the last phrase. Usually I’ll sit there with a guitar and play over and over, and a phrase will just fall into it.

It sounds like a laborious process.

A lot of it is about reordering the verses and finding verses to lose. Many times a song gets too long, and you have to prioritize verses or combine them.

What’s the easiest song you’ve ever written?

“Ain't Got a Place.” I just started playing with opposites and it all fell together. I was upstairs in the R Bar in New Orleans, just worn out from the recording process. And that song just came to me in about 15 minutes.

Is there a song that you are most proud of because it was so hard to write?

That would be “You Got to Me,” the one that took 20 years. I finally got to the point where I could sing it without cringing.  If you can do that, it means there’s no bullshit, no filler.