You don't win four Grammy Awards and receive eleven additional Grammy nominations by letting the muse come to you. You don't have eleven #1 country singles and twenty-one Top 40 country singles by waiting for inspiration to strike. And you certainly don't become a member of the Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame by writing only when you feel like it. When you're Rosanne Cash, you write. And when you're not writing, you're thinking about writing.
Ask any writer or read any interview with a writer who discusses their creative process, and you'll hear the same answer: waiting for inspiration is a waste of time. Heck, read my interviews with songwriters who have been around for 30 plus years--people like John Oates, Chris Difford, Neil Finn, and Nils Lofgren--and they'll tell you that writers write. All the time.
Cash writes all the time, but even when she's not writing, her writing process never ceases. Good writers know that the writing process doesn't just take place when pen hits paper; it takes place when writers sleep, eat, walk. talk, and just live. Cash told me, "Even if I don’t try to write, it seems like I write every day. This morning I wrote for about a half an hour, but I've got a problem in a verse of a song. The way I've found that I work is that it keeps coming back to me all throughout the day. I’ll make notes about it during the day, so when I get back to it later on something will probably have occurred to me." And as you'll read, at some level her writing process happens when she's sewing.
Rosanne Cash is not just a songwriter, of course. She's written four books, including her best-selling memoir Composed (if you just arrived on this planet, her father was Johnny Cash). In 2012, she was awarded the SAG/AFTRA Lifetime Achievement award for Sound Recordings, and in 2014 she received the Smithsonian Ingenuity Award in the Performing Arts.
Cash's 2014 album The River and the Thread won the Grammy for Best Americana Album, one of three she picked up that year. It was a good year for Cash: that same year she was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame. Read my interview with Rosanne Cash about her songwriting process after the great video about the making of The River and the Thread. (Note: a huge thanks to Allison Moorer for helping to arrange this interview. Allison, you're awesome.)
I know that you write tons of prose outside of songwriting, but I'm curious as to what other creative outlets you have.
I sew. It’s calming, but it’s much deeper than that. It frees me up from thinking about language and melody and rhyme scheme. It’s pure: it’s a single thing that you're doing with your hands. And because everything is about what you're doing with your hands, space opens up. Your mind opens. It’s incredibly refreshing.
I like doing things that are non-verbal, that don’t require those tracks to be run over and over again and again in my head. It’s simple and pure. But not only is it meditative, it’s social. I sew with other women, and we talk about a lot of things when we are together. We talk about our lives, our kids, our jobs, men. Laughs. It’s great because it’s completely removed from what I do as a songwriter. It’s a whole different part of my life.
So you carve out that time separate from songwriting. No song ideas happen there?
Right, but it’s so mentally and emotionally refreshing that it then creates space for writing. It’s not like another body doing it. It’s more like cross-pollination.
In any of your forms of writing, how disciplined are you as a writer? Do you take time to write every day?
Even if I don’t try to write, it seems like I write every day. This morning I wrote for about a half an hour, but I've got a problem in a verse of a song. The way I've found that I work is that it keeps coming back to me all throughout the day. I’ll make notes about it during the day, so when I get back to it later on something will probably have occurred to me.
I work in spurts. I've never really been the type of person, except for maybe a couple of times in my life, who can sit there for eight hours and write. I just can't do it. A key part to my writing process is walking away from it.
Is that when your eureka moments occur, when you’ve walked away?
That’s right. I get many of my best ideas when I'm not thinking about them. Sometimes I have to remind myself not to stare at my phone and to instead stare into space. That’s when ideas start forming and when the spark of an idea comes to me, so that when I sit down to write later everything is clear.
Sometimes I'll think about what I'm going to write for a long time before I sit down to write it. Right now I'm writing this prose piece. I've only made a page of notes about it, but I think about it every day, and at some point it’s going to start forming so that I go back to the notes and actually start writing it.
When I taught on the college level, I told my students that the writing process takes place the second they get an assignment. It doesn’t happen only when the pen hits the paper. It’s happening when you're walking, eating, even sleeping. People who are aspiring to be writers don’t realize that.
That’s absolutely right. And I've never worked that way, just waiting for inspiration. Sometimes if I'm writing for someone else or for myself and I know I have to start writing because there’s a new album in the offing, pure inspiration strikes. I really value those times. They are thrilling. But I cannot depend on them. I've always said that amateurs write only when they are inspired. A couple of people have taken umbrage at that. But it’s equal parts inspiration and discipline, particularly as you get older.
When you're younger, everything is new and thrilling and you think you're the first person to experience everything that you experience. And just from that, inspiration comes. You get a real charge. You may not have that same charge when you’re older, but hopefully your skills are refined enough that you can jump start the writing process yourself without waiting for a bolt of lightning.
I’ve interviewed songwriters who have been writing for over 40 years, and they scoff at the idea that you should wait for the muse.
I’ve been writing for 40 years, and it took me a while to learn that. My friend Steven Pressfield wrote a phenomenal book called The War of Art, and in it he talks about “turning pro.” It doesn’t necessarily mean that writing is your full time job. It just means that you respect the muse and that you are constantly refining your discipline.
Is there a certain environment you need in order to have a productive writing session?
Not as important as it is to other people. I have to get used to writing in different places, so I write on planes and in hotel rooms. I write a lot at my kitchen table when I'm home. And the morning is when I'm most fresh, as long as I don’t get caught up in emails. But there really isn’t a pattern. If there was, it wouldn’t be writing. It would be something else. Laughs. I keep a lot of notes on my phone, so when things occur to me during the day I jot them down. I keep lists of ideas and partial lyrics. I've got a list on my phone called “Stealing from Shakespeare.” I've gone through his writing and just pulled out lines that spark ideas. Right now I'm writing a song called “The Undiscovered Country,” and I pulled that one from him. He was referring to death, but I'm using it as a metaphor for the gap between men and women and how thrilling that can be. Laughs.
Do you consciously mine song ideas from literature?
It happens a lot. I get inspired often by other writers and their ideas, and arrows pointing in strange directions from poets. I used Shakespeare on my last album, although it was really subtle. There’s a song called “World of Strange Design” with a line “I’m a jewel in the shade/Of his weeping willow tree.” And “jewel in the shade” is from one of his sonnets. I'm not shy about stealing from Shakespeare because everyone since the 17th century has stolen from him. Laughs.
What about Shakespeare makes him so ripe for borrowing?
It’s everything. The sound of the words, sometimes the odd way he’ll put words together. It’s just the language itself. It’s so phenomenally moving and beautiful. I went to the New York Public Library and they showed me a first folio. They let me touch it and I had tears. I mean, my DNA will forever be in the first folio! Laughs.
Are you also consciously aware of your external environment when it comes to song ideas?
Definitely. If you start closing off, you stop writing songs. Or you stop painting or you stop dancing. The art form doesn’t matter. Songwriting cannot happen in a vacuum. If it does happen in a vacuum, it becomes so self-referential that it becomes dead and hollow. There are plenty of artists and writers who have success and then try to repeat that success until it becomes a hall of mirrors. Their art becomes empty. It doesn’t mean anything anymore.
There are a lot of performers and artists who examine the marketplace, see what’s successful, then try to copy that. Even if that works, it’s still hollow. The spark that comes with interacting with the world, from listening to and reading language, from conversations, from observing the color of the light and listening to great music. I like getting my competitive spirit aroused. I may never write a song as good as Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” but it still inspires me to try.
You live in New York City, and it seems like that’s a fertile place for song ideas.
Absolutely, and that’s one of the reasons why I live here. One of the first songs I wrote after moving to New York was “Seventh Avenue” because I lived in an apartment overlooking Seventh Avenue. There was traffic, but there was also loneliness. Those two elements were in such sharp contrast that it was inspiring. That still happens now. And there are still so many writers at the top of their game, and that gets me inspired by arousing my competitive spirit. Laughs.
When it comes to lyrics, are you a pen and paper person or a keyboard person?
Both. Sometimes I’ll print out a draft of my lyrics and work by pencil from there. Things tend to look better than they really are when you type them, so you have to be careful. Laughs. At least for me, they look more important when they are typed. I'm also afraid of losing edits on the keyboard when I delete something and then want it back later. Often I’ll have three drafts going at once. And I always write first, edit later. You can't get dismantled by your inner critic.
How often do you set aside ideas and work on them later?
All the time. Sometime I'll go back through files and notebooks of really old stuff to find things to work on again. Sometimes there's a language or a line that almost bizarrely fits into the thing I'm working on. It's like a wake up that's so different that it adds context. I did with "World of Strange Design." The chorus of Jesus came from Mississippi was old. I had written the entire song except the chorus and was looking around thinking What is the chorus of this song? And I already had it in an old notebook or something. It provided such a nice contrast. It takes the song to another place.
So you do some mixing and matching?
Yeah. There's nothing wrong with mining your own ideas. I do that when I get stuck. Not all the time, but sometimes. We all learn certain ways to prime our own pump or spark us. Listening to music will often do it. It's gotta be something that really makes me yearn. Like that song by the Decembrists "Down by the Water." I've listened to that song a million times. I love that song, and sometimes it will spark something. As will "Spiegel im Spiegel" by Arvo Part. It's soooo sad, and that will sometimes get something going.
Besides Shakespeare, what other authors have influenced your songwriting? Do any artists other than writers influence your creative process?
I'm very inspired by visual artists like de Kooning, Cy Twombly, Chagall, Picasso, Diane Arbus, Maira Kalman, just to name a few. Great paintings or photographs fill me with a bursting need to create, and my medium happens to be words and moving notes through air. I'm also influenced by writers like Joan Didion, Alice Munro, George Eliot, and Galway Kinnell.