Theresa Wayman, Warpaint

Any artist will tell you that discipline is a necessary component of their creative process. If you sit around waiting for the muse, you're probably not long for the craft. You have to work at it. Theresa Wayman of Warpaint certainly adheres to this idea: she creates something every day. She told me, "Even if you're a creative person, it's important to go to work every day. . . . I have to exercise some aspect of myself, even if I create something that I never want to hear or see again. At least I've accomplished something if I do that. . . . You have get through the crap to create something beautiful."

Wayman wasn't always this disciplined, though. Another component of the creative process is the willingness to change your routine to stay energized creatively. To Wayman, that change meant becoming more disciplined. Using discipline as a way to disrupt the creative process would appear to be a paradox, although it really isn't. By her own admission, Wayman is a disorganized person. She said that while organization and discipline are new to her, "it's exciting. It's a backwards way of looking at it: maybe I want to be more orthodox and methodical, because that's exciting and new. I appreciate learning new things, like being disciplined and having a schedule. These are all the things I used to hate because I wanted to be freeform forever." To maintain that discipline, Wayman uses a rewards-based program: she won't allow herself a simple vice (like chocolate or another cup of coffee) until she's worked for a certain amount of time.

But what Wayman also discovered during our conversation was that she needs to write. It's a version of self-help that's central to her identify and understanding of self, especially in tough times. This writing also marks a departure from the Warpaint we're used to.  She told me, "I do feel a need for that more thrashy, aggressive and loud music more and more. I want to make an album like that. I need to. . . . There's an aggression inside of me that is not getting out that I need to get out.  I don't go there enough in the music that I make." Put another way, when Wayman writes, she's happy, to the extent that her happiness relies on creating as much as she can.

Read my interview with Warpaint's Theresa Wayman after watching their recent live performance of "New Song" on Later...with Jools Holland.

Do you have any other creative outlets besides songwriting?

I journal a lot, but that's more stream of consciousness writing as opposed to songwriting. I also use it as a place to keep track of what's going on in my life because I move around so much. If I don't jot down the interesting things that happen, they fly by and blur together. 
I also like to draw. I just recently got interested in mandalas. I use a compass to make drawings with repetitive patterns. It's very therapeutic. I grew up in a creative household; my mom taught me how to do things with my hands like sewing, knitting, and beading. Lots of arts and crafts stuff. 

Many songwriters tell me that they love to draw or do things with their hands. Do those activities ever lead to song ideas, even if it's because the solitude lets you concentrate?

I don't think there are direct links like that for me. It's more about being in a creative space. It's not like I draw something and it inspires a song, but it is a meditative and peaceful place. The calming effect lets me step out of the daily grind, and that's obviously good for creativity. 

Does journaling lead to song ideas?

Definitely. Sometimes an experience will make me write about it in way that's more than just recalling what happened. I'll express it poetically or maybe as lines that may become lyrics. But even when I do that, or when I take something I've written in narrative form and translate it into a song, it's never word for word. Instead, It's more about taking a few ideas here and there and writing about them, even jumping around within the experience I'm writing about. It's never verbatim off the page. That's why my lyrics often come after I've written the melody, because the first draft of the lyrics aren't fully formed. They jump around a lot.

Let's talk about your process, then. Is there one way that it usually happens?

The majority of the time, if we're all sitting in a room jamming and I'm on the mic singing, I'm coming up with a melody. Words pop out here and there, but they may not make much sense. They're more a general idea of the concept that the song is becoming about. Nothing is filled in at that point. We record ourselves whenever we jam, so I go back and listen to the words and sounds I'm making. It's when I'm listening after the fact that I turn those sounds into words. Sometimes there are actual words, other times it's not much more than mumbling. Either way, something is being said underneath it all. 
What's funny is that I can listen to whatever those sounds are in the recordings, and I can come up with lyrics pretty quickly. I've never had a problem with that. I rarely listen back and think What am I saying here? I don't know! I've never had an issue trying to decipher the meaning. It's weird, but I feel like I'm deciphering my subconscious. 

Would you call yourself a disciplined songwriter?

I try to have discipline. It's important, even though by nature I am a disorganized person. But I also find a lot of value and joy in learning how to be organized. Organization is new to me, so it's exciting. Laughs. It's a backwards way of looking at it: maybe I want to be more orthodox and methodical, because that's exciting and new. It's like Warpaint writing a pop song. It's weird and experimental, but for everyone else it's the most boring thing you can do.  I appreciate learning new things, like saving money, being disciplined, having a schedule. These are all the things I used to hate because I wanted to be freeform forever.
photo by Jonathan McNonathan

photo by Jonathan McNonathan

Now, I feel like there is so much I want to do and express, and the only way to do that is to have discipline in my process. I was really unhappy for a while because I wasn't doing as much of the things that I knew I should be doing.  I'm still grappling with that. It's not easy to all of the sudden to instill discipline; I'm home for a week now and I made a list of things I really want to get done. I want to add more songs to our set, I want to work on a few more projects, but I also have to relax. 
Even if you're a creative person, it's important to go to work every day. I learned that from Nick Cave. That's how he approaches the creative process and honors the muse. Every day, even if he feels nothing and feel like what he writes is shit, he creates something. And that's how I see it: I have to exercise some aspect of myself, even if I create something that I never want to hear or see again. At least I've accomplished something if I do that. That's just as valuable as the thing you create that's a diamond. You have get through the crap to create something beautiful.  

How do you do do that? Do you try to carve out time every day to write?

I try, especially if I feel like I don't want to do it. If that happens, I try to write something. I'll tell myself, You cannot have a piece of chocolate or coffee until you sit down and play guitar for an hour or write something even though you really don't want to. There has to be some reward that I cannot give myself until I do something. That usually does the trick.
Sometimes there's resistance, of course, which I find strange because it's such a beautiful thing to write music or play a song. Some really dark stuff comes up when I write against that resistance. It can be hard to confront that dark stuff, and sometimes I don't want to go there and see something come out of me that I might not like. And when that stuff comes out that I don't like, it's easy to self judge and see it as reflecting the bigger idea that I don't like myself. 

That's an interesting idea: if you force yourself to create, what comes out is going to be darker than if you are more willing to sit down.

It could be that if you force yourself to sit down and write, and that makes you feel angry or irritated, what comes out could be more aggressive or dark. Or it could be almost a fuck you to yourself where you rebel and go out of your way to create something that isn't normal. I can see creating something that's harsh and dissonant.  
photo by Mia Kirby

photo by Mia Kirby

Are there specific Warpaint songs where that's happened, where you've written from that dark space?

"Shadows" is one of those songs. It came from feeling pretty hopeless and from needing to express myself. It's a dark song. The vocals kind of flail, which makes it a difficult song to sing but it's also very relieving to sing, if that makes sense. I don't know that a lot of those moments have made it to the surface with anything that Warpaint has put out, but I definitely have some dark and moody songs that I've been creating on my own.
I go more moody than aggressive, though. Interestingly, I do feel a need for that more thrashy, aggressive and loud music more and more. I want to make an album like that. I need to. I went to see the Oh Sees last night, and that's the kind of music I want to make. This sounds weird, but when I listen to that music, it feels soft to me. I know it's not soft and it's not easy to play, but when I hear that music, I feel like I'm floating. There's an aggression inside of me that is not getting out that I need to get out.  I don't go there enough in the music that I make.

Do you ever find yourself in that dark headspace first and think to yourself I need to write a song?

For sure. Hands down, I usually write really good stuff when I'm in a dark space. But sometimes I'm in such a dark space that it makes me not want to do anything. I'm afraid of what will come out and that I'll hate it. 
Through this conversation, I'm realizing that when I do sit down and force myself to write--when I'm going through the pain of creating things that don't seem to hit the spot to me but I'm doing it anyway because I have to go through that--it is a really angsty space to be in. And I'm realizing as I'm talking to you that it really needs expression even more than I've been letting happen. 

Is there an ideal emotion, then, when you are at your most prolific as a writer?

I'd say that I can write well on both extremes of the emotional spectrum. Sometimes I'm elated and things just fly out, but other times I can be upset and still write a song. It's easy for me to make songs about love and intimacy. That idea can always evoke a lyric. That's why this album I'm working on now is about love in all aspects: love fantasy, love loss, long distance relationships, and the absence of relationships too. That emotional state tends to bring out a lot of lyrics.

How often do you sit down to write a song about a certain topic? Or how often do you feel the immediate urge to write a song?

It happens a lot on tour. I get inspired to write lyrics a lot there. Even though every day can seem like a repeat of the day before, when new things do happen, they stand out. Certain moments become highlighted because everything around them is so monotonous in our routine.

In those days when you're on the road, do words or phrases you see or hear make their way into song lyrics?

I think I'm a pretty observant person, and I like to make up scenarios about other people's lives, just people I see, all the time. I try to peer into their life even though I don't know them. That's becoming more and more of an inspiration for me because I want to start writing outside of the perspective of my experience. I want to figure out how to write from the perspective of other people.
Taking soundbites from conversations I hear is the best launching point of a story for me, even if it becomes a story about me. That actually happened last night at a bar. I was playing the writing version of the Exquisite Corpse game with a friend, and there was a saying on one of the coasters that put all of these scenarios in my head that I could write about. 

I'm sure you have the iPhone at the ready for those moments, but I also imagine you have piles of journals in your house with those lines. Do you mine those journals for song ideas or lines if you have a melody to go along with them?

Oh yeah. A few are just loaded with content; I use those because I wrote in them when I was at a certain point when I could just write for days. I used to have a bunch of journals from when I was from about 19 to about 27, and I got so sick of reading them that I burned them all. It was crazy. I watched them all burn, and there were a couple specific moments where I read the lines on the pages just as they were being burned away. I did it because I no longer wanted to be in the same mindset that I was when I wrote them. 

I've interviewed people who have been writing songs for 40 years, and those are the people who say that you cannot wait for inspiration or for the muse to appear. How do you feel about that?

I do believe that there are moments of inspiration where there is no resistance, where everything just flows without effort. But then there is the question of what to do with that moment of inspiration. You might not finish the song in that moment, but you have every element there. That's when discipline gives you the tools to take that inspiration to its completion.

What made you decide to become more disciplined in your writing process?

I started realizing that my happiness and my contentment with myself relied heavily upon expressing myself and creating all that I can. I need to express those ideas, and if I don't, I start spiraling into all kinds of negative thought patterns. I feel stale, like I'm not moving forward. The only way to move forward is to work on them. I'm pretty versed in the spiritual world and am a pretty mystical person. I understand self-help and I realized that my number one self-help aid is to create and to do the things that make me feel satisfied.

Do you have rituals in your writing process, or a time and place when you get your best writing done?

I have a son, so I get up early. That also means going to be early, which I like. I love getting a good night's sleep. That's a hard schedule to adjust to, because when we tour, I start exerting the most energy of my day starting at 10pm; when I'm home, that's when I'm falling asleep.
I love taking my son to school, coming home,  then doing something totally unrelated to music like watching John Oliver or something like that. Then I go upstairs to my room where I have a mini studio.  There's a computer, an Apogee Duet, an amp, guitar, and mic. It's a simple setup, but I can create entire songs there. I love just sitting there for hours. Something always comes out of that. Even if I have a day where I'm just sitting there and nothing good seems to be coming out, I can look back a week later and there's usually something good I can use. 
But it also really helps to move on if things aren't happening with one song, so I'm usually working on multiple songs at a time. If I'm not finding anything in one song, I'll move on to something else before I beat it to death. That ensures that the inspiration keeps going. 

Is there anything you need to have with you to write effectively, other than the tools you obviously need in order to create?

I grew up in Eugene, so there's a good amount of hippie in me. I have crystals and things that like that help create that environment, but they aren't necessary. And I also need my journal. Sometimes when I feel uncomfortable in the creative process and things aren't flowing, I feel like I need to take a shower and get dressed, rather than just sit around in my pajamas or house clothes. It's easy to take my son to school and then get to work in my studio wearing sweatpants. Taking a shower and getting dressed for the day can be like a creative reset for me. It's amazing what cleaning up can do! Laughs.

You mentioned something earlier about abandoning songs that aren't working. But I assume you go back to them at some point, right?

Yeah, and I find that finishing a song is pretty much the hardest part of the process. That's where I find that the experience of just writing frequently really helps. I can come up with the core of a song, like a great riff, bass line, or melody, pretty quickly. But to know how to take it all the way is difficult. For instance, Jen just did an album where it was all about doing things in the moment and not second guessing herself. She didn't overthink things. I thought that was an amazing concept.
I'm working on my solo album now, and the process with my album could not be more different. I've been working on it for years, even though it's been a bunch of different pieces over the years. Last year, I started taking those pieces and turning them into songs. They still aren't done, but now I can tell when something is done. It's hard to define, but something just clicks. I'm happy with it all the way through. That's scary because I don't want to string a song along and beat it to death. I know people who search for perfection, but I'm scared of doing that because it's going to sound lifeless if I try to make it sound perfect. To me, a raw sound is the better sound. 

How often do you get writer's block, and what do you do when that happens?

I do, and I try to walk away and relax my mind. One thing that helps is to play games like the Exquisite Corpse game, where you find ways to put yourself into writing from a new angle. Games really help me that way. 
Writer's block to me is about tension and about fear. Often it's because your expectations are too great; you expect something to be a certain way and it's not. I don't want to give the advice that someone should go out and get really drunk if they have writer's block, but it's kind of like that feeling when you've been working a lot and you finally have a break. You then get drunk, and the next day you feel hungover but really relaxed. You need to get to that place where your mind isn't working. Laughs.

I'm still amazed at the number of songwriters who tell me that they get their best writing done when they are hungover. Can you do that?

Yeah. Sometimes it happens because you can't do anything else when you're hungover. I also think that your brain is in more of a fluid or accepting place. If you can muster up the ability to get out of bed, good things can happen. It's a loose grip on reality; your mind just lets go. That's why we have some of our best rehearsals when we're hungover, because we're giggly and delirious.

Do you revise a lot of your lyrics?

Not too much. I find that when I second guess lyrics and want to change them, it's hard to do. If I change anything, it feels wrong.

Does one song stand out as being the easiest song to write?

Probably "Shadows." I was walking down the street, singing while I was walking on the trail near my house in L.A. I was frustrated about a few things and in a certain mood, so that song came together quickly on my walk. I put it on guitar when I got home, and the whole thing happened in one sitting. There's another song I haven't released. I have no idea how it happened. I sat down with a guitar, I had a melody, and all the lyrics just came together at the same time. I might release it soon. It's called "So to be Forgot."

What was the hardest song to write?

There's a song on Warpaint Warpaint called "Teese." Jen and I started it a long time ago, and it's been through many incarnations. It used to be a certain way for me. It started off really easy, super simple to write. Then somehow, figuring out the second half of the song became really difficult. I just listened to it last week, and I figured that with distance I'd probably love it. Instead, I was like What, what? No, that shouldn't have happened in the second half! It doesn't seem right to me, and if we play it live I will want to change it. Laughs. 

How much reading do you get to do?

The recent Patti Smith book really inspired me as a songwriter, but I don't get to read nearly as much as I want to. And that's a shame, because I love reading. My favorite authors are probably Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins. I grew up around a lot of science fiction because my parents loved to read it, so I like to read that sometimes too with authors like Isaac Asimov.