Melissa Etheridge has been nominated for fifteen Grammy Awards, won two, and won an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2007 for "I Need to Wake Up." With those accolades, she can probably offer a few pointers on what it takes to be a great songwriter. According to Etheridge, it's pretty simple: books and cannabis. Not together, of course.
First, the books. Etheridge is a voracious reader. As I've always maintained, there's a pretty clear through line between reading and writing: you cannot be a writer unless you read. Well, you can be a writer, but you won't be any good. The best songwriters of any generation are usually well read. If there's one consistent theme throughout all of the interviews on this site, it's that most of the songwriters here read a lot. Etheridge is no exception: from Lord Byron to Vonnegut to Adrienne Rich, she's read 'em all. She explains, "I have many many books of poetry that I'll just pull down and read. I'm always amazed at how a poet will use a word or a phrase to describe something in a way that I never would have thought about. I think that’s important for songwriters to understand. That’s what the art of a word is." So before you write, make sure you read.
Now, the cannabis. Etheridge was very open about the wonderful effect that cannabis has on her songwriting process. It's a specific kind, as you'll read below, that she describes as the "caffeine of cannabis." According to Etheridge, this cannabis opens up her creative floodgates and lowers her inhibitions in the lyric writing process, allowing her to write things that she might not normally write otherwise. She told me, "It makes your brain start thinking, yet it relaxes everything else. It relaxes your editor that tells you not to write something or that tells you that what you wrote is a piece of crap. It quiets that voice and makes everything sound good."
Read my interview with Melissa Etheridge after the video for the Academy Award winning "I Need to Wake Up."
What other creative outlets do you have besides songwriting?
In the beginning, I did enjoy painting. I wasn't very good at it—this was back when I was in high school—but I also enjoyed creative writing like fiction and poetry. Right now it’s pretty much songwriting. I love puzzles, though. I do a lot of jigsaw puzzles. Laughs.
Do you do any journaling now?
I really don't. Any of the notebooks or scraps of paper lying around the house are filled with lyrics.
How much reading do you get to do? I was having a conversation with another songwriter recently about how poetry can benefit songwriters because a poem is all about the economy of words, something that’s obviously important to songwriters.
Amen. I think it’s extremely important for the songwriter, if not for the artist in general, to be affected by other art. I have Pablo Neruda, Adrienne Rich, May Sarton, Lord Byron—all kids of writers on my bookshelf. And I have many many books of poetry that I'll just pull down and read. I'm always amazed at how a poet will use a word or a phrase to describe something in a way that I never would have thought about. I think that’s important for songwriters to understand. That’s what the art of a word is. Even looking at a Monet can help me as well; a painting like that just gets me inspired.
If you want to be a good writer, you have to read. There’s no other way around it.
When I was in high school, I had an aversion to reading because my mother was a voracious reader to the point that it took her away from me as a child. So I thought Well, I’m not gonna read. That’s all my mother does. She sits in the corner and reads. Then I got into my 20s and read people like Vonnegut and J.D. Salinger and thought Oh shit. Here it goes. And I dove into reading and have been a crazy reader ever since. I’ve read a lot esoteric works lately. If you look at some of my lyrics from albums like The Awakening or Fearless Love, they really get into philosophy. I just can't stop reading.
I’m also a big Adrienne Rich fan. What do you like about her poetry?
Her darkness. It’s like my writing. Finding your power in the darkness. It’s a topic I also return to in my writing.
Let’s talk about your songwriting process.
It’s different each time. I have to be inspired or be in spirit. That might come through a phrase, a rhythm, a word, or an idea. It can even come from a sentence that I overheard.
John Oates told me recently that he’s hypersensitive to his environment when it comes to song ideas. He’s always thinking about song ideas because he has what he calls his “songwriting antenna" up. Are you the same way?
I think I choose to life my life like that. It’s not just a choice of songwriting; it’s about how I choose to view the world. When we agree to be songwriters, we look at the world and constantly interpret it through that lens and through the the creative side of our brains. Many of those ideas never become songs, but I still view and hear everything during my day through a songwriter’s perspective. But sometimes I’ll see or hear something so strongly that my immediate reaction is Ok, that’s something I need to work through. I need to take that idea through the whole creative process.
How often does that happen?
Something happens that’s so powerful that I have to stop whatever I'm doing and write it down immediately, or at least enough so that I can remember the experience later. That probably happens once every couple of weeks.
Do you believe in the muse, or is inspiration something you have to work at? In other words, does a songwriter need to go out and look for song ideas?
I think of inspiration not as something that’s outside of myself that has to come to me, but as something that's constantly inside me. If I tune to that channel, it’s there.
How does a song usually begin for you?
Mostly with a guitar. I'd say 70% guitar and about 30% piano.
How does that instrument affect the kind of song you end up writing?
It affects it a great deal. Most of the songs I write on guitar are generally in the key of E, A, G, D, or C. Yet I'll write a song in F on the piano, which is a whole different way of singing. It’s a totally different song on piano.
Is there a time or place when you get your best writing done?
It’s funny. My writing life has changed as my life has changed. Back in my 20s, I could just stay in my apartment and write, all day long and all night long. Whenever I wanted. Then when I was successful and on the road, I'd always write on the bus or in the hotel rooms. Hotel rooms are perfect for writing because you can just order food and never have to see anybody. Laughs.
Then when I had a family [Note: Etheridge has an 18 year old, a 16 year old, and two 8 year olds], I realized that I had to carve out time to write because that was the only way to ensure that I could make it happen. I make it like office time so everyone knows that Mom is writing from, say, 10 to 2. After everyone’s had breakfast and is settled, it’s my time to work. I’ll come out occasionally and stretch, but they know that it’s my writing time.
It sounds like having a family has made you more disciplined.
Yes, and it’s taught me that in those times when I'm not writing and inspiration strikes, I have to gather my thoughts quickly wherever I am, write those ideas down, and bring those ideas to my writing time. I'm much more efficient now.
Do you revise your lyrics a lot?
Constantly. It’s more about editing and trying to find out how to say the same thing in fewer words. I believe strongly in getting it all out the first time and not worrying about length, even if it means writing too much. Then you go back and find the gold in those words.
Does the role of motion affect your writing process?
On the last album there’s a song called “A Little Bit of Me” that I wrote on airplane from LA to New York City. I was surrounded by people but wrote the song staring out the window the whole time. I was struck by the “oneness” of us all. I wrote the entire song from start to finish on that flight.
When it comes to lyrics: pen and paper, or computer?
Pen and paper first. I have stacks and stacks of paper everywhere. I have to feel the words come out of my hands. I also have to be able to follow the trail, to see where the lines and words originated. On a computer, you don't see the drafting part of the process. I keep it on pen and paper as long as I can. I've met a lot of songwriters who write on their iPads. I just can't do it.
You mentioned something earlier about saving your ideas for later when you can write about them during your writing time. Do you ever worry that the initial emotion will be lost in that time frame?
I hold those ideas by telling myself that if I can't get to it right now, I’ll get to it later. And if it’s not the same thing, it will be something just as great or better and I have to trust my creative self. I have to let it go.
Do you have old ideas from years ago that you keep around for inspiration?
Usually when I start a new project, I don't dip into old stuff. I used to, but in the last ten years I always start completely fresh. I have all those old notebooks like all songwriters have, but there’s a statute of limitations for me. It’s not going to ring as true if I wait too long.
Is there an ideal emotion when you get your best writing done?
For the actual writing, I need to be relaxed. But the inspiration can come from desire or fear or confusion. I don't do well in the writing phase, though, if I'm still in those conditions.
I once remarked in one of my interviews that very few songwriters have ever told me that they write their best songs while smoking marijuana. And this songwriter said, "Well, all the other ones are lying to you."
Oh yeah! I didn't know that you were looking for that kind of answer, but definitely. It’s wonderful because if I can find a place in the house where it’s quiet, I love to light up a good sativa, which is a cannabis that I can best describe as the caffeine of cannabis. It makes your brain start thinking, yet it relaxes everything else. It relaxes your editor that tells you not to write something or that tells you that what you wrote is a piece of crap. It quiets that voice and makes everything sound good. I can create a whole lot of stuff but it will never sound as good as it did when I created it on cannabis. Laughs.
What song was hardest for you to write that you are most proud to have finished because you wanted to give up on it during the writing process?
Maybe “Come to My Window.” I almost didn't put it on the album. I kept on editing it because I thought people wouldn't understand what I was trying to say. I thought I was being too vague, but it turns out that in my vagueness I allowed people to interpret it in so many different ways. I remember writing the chorus (Come to my window/Crawl inside, wait by the light of the moon/Come to my window/I’ll be home soon) and thinking yes, that's exactly the emotion I'm feeling now. I was alone in a hotel room, fighting with my girlfriend and thinking Aaaaaah. That whole empty feeling is in those lines “Just to reach you/Just to reach you.” People really related to that emotion.