Jim Lauderdale has been called a "songwriter's songwriter," and for good reason: he's written songs for artists like George Strait, The Dixie Chicks, Elvis Costello, Blake Shelton, Patty Loveless, Vince Gill, and Gary Allan. He's released 28 studio albums since 1986, with a new one out this spring called London Southern. He's won two Grammy Awards. He's also the host of the fantastic "Buddy and Jim" show on Sirius/XM Radio. In short, Lauderdale is enormously respected in the country, bluegrass, and Americana music genres.
Yet by his own admission, the process of songwriting often causes Lauderdale enormous stress. Fortunately, he seems to thrive on this stress, because, well, there's nothing like a deadline to give you a kick in the pants if the process isn't moving as quickly as you want. And as you'll read, a little tai-chi doesn't hurt either.
Read my interview with Jim Lauderdale after the video. When you're done, read my interview with his frequent collaborator John Oates.
Do you have other creative outlets besides songwriting?
I do tai-chi and some other Chinese internal martial arts. The movements and feelings I get from those are like creating because I'm discovering things within movements that unlock new things.
Does that make for a state of mind that’s conducive to songwriting?
I think so, though indirectly. It helps because it gets my brain flowing. I can sometimes get very stressed with writing, and the general well-being that these movements give me can help. I don’t want to give you the idea that it gives me a natural high all the time, of course, because someone might get the same experience from running or yoga or weightlifting. It just makes me feel better.
Can you ever go right from there to songwriting?
Well, my songwriting begins often with a melody or a phrase or a title. Sometimes during my physical movements, an idea will come to me, but that idea can also come when I'm driving, or when I'm in conversation, or when I'm about to fall asleep. It comes at odd times. I have many many more unfinished than finished ideas.
Songwriters tell me that they are notoriously undisciplined when it comes to writing. Does that kind of physical movement make you disciplined as a writer?
I join the ranks of the undisciplined. For me, it’s a matter of pressure. The best way for me to finish a song is to co-write, but when I'm writing alone, the pressure of making a record forces me to finish because the studio clock is ticking.
Writing makes you stressed? I can’t imagine that’s a good place to be when writing. Can you explain that?
I get in situations where I get studio time booked, and those deadlines put pressure on me. This happened on my most recent album Soul Searching. On the Memphis part of the album, I had a few tracks that I had started in Mississippi. Some of them had lyrics, some just had a melody. I had great musicians waiting for me, but I wasn’t ready to record. I was getting more and more uptight as the deadline approached, and as a result the creative process was becoming more and more difficult because the studio clock was ticking—literally. I had flown to Memphis on a red eye to start recording. Slowly throughout the day, some different ideas came out, but sometimes I was really grasping for ideas. And that pressure made me really question myself: What am I doing? Who am I trying to fool? I can’t write. I'm never doing this again.
You mention starting your process with a melody. It sounds like they come to you throughout the day.
That’s right. I don’t have to be sitting down with a guitar. It happens anywhere, but then I grab the guitar. I do find that many come right before I fall asleep or right after I wake up.
You also mentioned that songs can start with titles or phrases. Do you hear these from conversations around you?
Sometimes, but then I'll change the title or phrase a little bit. But I can’t listen too hard because it’s a catch-22 for me: if I try to listen, it doesn’t happen. It seems like it turns out the best when I hear those things coincidentally. I might be sitting at a bar, listening to music, and someone says something that sounds like a good line. Then I just grab a coaster or a napkin to write it down.
What about your environment? Is there a time or place when you get your best writing done?
As long as I'm able to completely focus, I can write anywhere. But I do enjoy writing late at night, especially after a gig. I might stay at the venue after a gig for an hour or two, even longer, and write. That’s one of my favorite times to write.
One of my favorite songs I've written was when I worked with Nick Lowe’s producer Neil Brockbank and his band in the studio. I was trying to come up with song ideas for several weeks. I had four gigs before that studio time, and the first gig was in Glasgow. After that gig, I wrote in a room off the venue. It had no door, so the noise from the bar area was quite loud. But even through all that noise, there was some comforting quality about that room. I wrote the song “I Love You More” in that room. All of that noise outside had nothing to do with the content of the song.
How much do you revise your lyrics?
Not much, really. Usually they come out pretty well formed. I make some tweaks when I'm making the record, but that doesn’t happen too often. There’s always a danger in overthinking a song.
If songs aren’t working, do you set them aside to work on them later?
I have tons of unfinished songs. If I ever run out of melodies, I can dig through stacks of cassettes of melodies from voice recorders that I used to have. I do go back and listen to those, and I also dig through notebooks.
What’s been your favorite song to write?
I have two. “I Love You More,” which comes out this spring on my new record London Southern. The other one is a tribute to Graham Parsons and George Jones called “The King of Broken Hearts.” I was a huge fan of both, and their influence on me was enormous. I was living in Hollywood at a hotel called The Magic Hotel, reading a biography of Graham Parsons by Sid Griffith. There’s a story about how Graham had a party where he was playing George Jones records, and he started crying. He told the people there that Jones was “The King of Broken Hearts.” I read that story and got the chills, and from there the melody for the song just came out. A few days later I went out to the Joshua Tree to this place called Cap Rock where they tried to cremate Graham. And the rest of the song just came to me there. I wrote it by the light of the moon. That was around 1986, and I still love doing that song.
What was the hardest song you ever wrote?
I was working on a record that became Persimmons in the mid 90s. I had recorded a melody and was going to call the song “Life by Numbers.” I was determined that it should be the first song on the album. It was getting to be about 4am and we had to finish the song. I had labored over the lyrics on several different occasions. I was in a bind because I had to finish the song; if I didn’t, I felt like the rest of the record wasn’t going to work for me because it had to be the first song on the album and I couldn’t do any other songs until I finished this one. But fortunately it all came out, and that process was very cathartic.
You mentioned all these cities where you’ve written. Does the city affect the songwriting?
It certainly can. I like to walks the streets of the cities I'm in. It may sound overly dramatic, but I like to walk those streets and think Merle Haggard walked these streets or Buck Owens walked these streets. There’s a real electricity there when I can walk those same streets.