Wanna be a writer? Easy: read and write. All the time. You can't be a good writer if you don't read. Most songwriters I interview are voracious readers, but I don't know anyone I've interviewed who fits that idea more than Blitzen Trapper's Eric Earley.
When I asked Earley if he was a disciplined writer, if he was able to sit down and make himself write for a stretch, he told me no. That's a common response to this question, and it's mostly framed as a wistful But I really wish I had that discipline. Earley's reason is different: he doesn't have discipline because he doesn't need it. He writes all the time. He never sees writing as someone that he should do. Instead, it's something he loves to do. In fact, his problem now is that his love for writing may occupy too much of his time. "It's more about scaling back and finding times to do other things," he told me. To wit: Earley has written five novels that he has no plans to publish. And he's always reading. When we talked, he was reading three books at the same time. The result? A songwriter who loves to tell stories, and whose process seems, from an outsider's perspective, to come pretty easily. But that's my point: when Earley isn't writing songs, words consume his life in some other fashion.
Blitzen Trapper's new album Wild and Reckless was released in November 2017 and contains some of Eric Earley's fantastic storytelling. As you'll read, these are often the easiest songs for him to write: they often quickly emerge in one sitting, fully formed. Read my interview with Earley after the video.
How much writing do you do outside of songwriting?
I've written about five novels over the years. They aren't published, only because the music is so time consuming. I've just done it for fun. Laughs.
What genre do you like to write in?
It's changed over the years. In my mid to late 20s, I was writing weird meta stuff, in the vein of Terry Pratchett. But in my 30s I started writing about where I grew up, so I've got a series of three novels that are a fictionalized account of the town I grew up in with some ghost stories in the middle.
How old were you when you started writing novels?
I first started writing seriously when I was around 25. I had always written stories before that, but they were songs. I started by writing short stories mainly in the magical realist vein. After that, I started writing longer pieces, but still in that same vein. Then I figured out I could write longer things, and that's when it became fun.
Did you write a lot as a kid?
Yeah. Some poetry but still mainly songs because I was learning instruments at a really young age.
I would imagine that writing a novel takes much more discipline than writing a song, just as far as getting your butt in the seat.
Yes. But I've always written songs obsessively. I've never struggled with discipline. For me, it's not about finding time to write songs. It's more about scaling back and finding time to do other things. I have a kid now, so I can't sit down and write for two hours like I used to. This discipline was built into me at a young age. I just love to write.
When you sit down to write a novel, are you sitting down for hours? I've never written a novel, but it doesn't seem like the kind of writing that lends itself to 20 minute bursts.
I do a lot of writing on the road. I take my computer with me, and I can sit the van for three or four hours and write. I don't drink or party anymore, so I'm working all the time.
Do you try to address themes or topics in your novels that you aren't able to address as easily in your songs?
It's more a question of expansion. There's a song on the new album called "Rebel." It's a very concise story: three verses and a chorus. There are a lot of details, but in the end it's just a three minute song. You can't experiment as much there. But in novels you can do whatever you want. Songs are more like puzzles to me when it comes to storytelling because there are barriers and limitations you have to overcome to convey your idea.
What writers have influenced you as a novelist?
That answer has changed over the years. I've always been into the spare Flannery O'Connor style. I've read a lot of Southern Gothic stuff starting with Faulkner, although of course he's anything but spare even though he did have a certain economy at times. Laughs. But O'Connor was my favorite for a while. I'm also a huge fan of Don Carpenter, a novelist from the 60s and 70s. Breece D'J Pancake has also had a huge influence on my writing. To be honest, he's probably had a huge influence on my songwriting more than on the other writing I do. He was so strange and otherworldly even though he was basically writing Southern Gothic. Then I also like the expansive writing of people like Pynchon, who writes psychedelia type stuff and who really plays around with words.
A few other songwriters I've interviewed have mentioned Pancake as an influence.
He's only got one book of short stories, and that's it. But the stories are absolutely mind blowing.
How does his writing influence you as a songwriter?
I think his ability to create pictures in a very strange way. It's all about creating scenes, especially in songs, where images with words coincide with the music.
Do you have a favorite Faulkner book?
Light in August. I like how the book is approachable, and that's not something you can say about a lot of his books. Light in August is the perfect blend of accessible writing and his art of creating the most bizarre sentences. Plus the story is so good. If you want to read stories on race from someone deep in the southern culture, he's your guy.
And I know you're a Raymond Carver fan.
Oh yeah, of course. I only wish he wrote novels!
Among the songwriters I've interviewed, some authors are perennial favorites. Many of them seem to come from the South.
In a lot of ways it's because that writing is so sad. And they are dealing with the deepest kinds of human emotions. Take Faulkner. He's dealing with murder, race, and other hard subject matter. When you're writing songs, that's a lot of what's going on because you only have three or four minutes. You're either singing about happy stuff like we see in pop music or about darker and deeper emotions. That's why everyone likes Raymond Carver. He's one of the saddest around. Laughs. Same with McCarthy. His writing is so spare, yet every word means something.
What about poetry?
I don't write or read a lot of poetry. I did when I was a teenager, but it always ended up turning into a song. For me, poetry is song. When I'm writing lyrics, it looks like poetry in my notebooks. So I probably write more poetry than anything. I used to read a lot more poetry. Mostly the classics, people like Dylan Thomas in e.e. cummings, the stuff you stumble upon in high school.
I'm always surprised that songwriters don't read more poetry.
There is one book that I use a lot: Frank Stanford's The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. It's huge. It's like a tome. And it's in prose format, so it's like reading Finnegan's Wake. If I'm struggling to find the right word in my songs, I'll just turn to a page and all those words are there.
Now to your process. Do you have a writing ritual?
I never write on the road. I always write at home and by myself. It has to be a solitary environment. Time of day doesn't matter. I write whenever I get the urge, which can be pretty random. But I just cannot write with other people around.
How much revising do you do to your lyrics? Or do you feel like the first thought is usually the best thought, not one to be messed with?
With songs, I would agree with that. I rarely change lyrics. I might change a word here or there, but usually it's because that word or phrase was thought through too much. At that point, I'll just try to pull something out of my ass, and that's usually better than the overthinking I was doing at first. Laughs.
Do you ever struggle with writer's block?
I've never had issues with not having something to say. And it's never been about waiting for the muse or waiting for the right time. There's always something there. I always have three or four ideas floating around in my head, so it's more about finding time to get those ideas down.
It sounds like you're writing every day.
Oh yeah. Or reading. There are times when I'm not writing, but I'm doing nothing but reading. I'll read three books at a time.
I'm always amazed when songwriters tell me that they can read three or four books at a time. I just can't do it.
I can do it when they are different genres. Like right now I'm reading Stephen King's On Writing, Pascal's Pensees, and Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives. Those are all three totally different worlds of writing. I could never read, say, two Cormac McCarthy books at the same time, or even Faulkner and McCarthy at the same time.
It's obvious that you like to write, given how much you do it. But is your drive to write also because of a deeper need to create?
Yeah, I guess it is. To answer that question, you have to imagine not doing it. And I can't imagine not writing.
How often does what you see or read anywhere make it into one of your songs?
Pretty often. I think I draw ideas from memories, books, and events in my own life. A lot of stuff is a conglomeration of stories I've read, stuff I see in newsfeeds, phrases that someone says to me. It comes from all over the place.
Is it a passive acceptance of those ideas, or are you consciously seeking them?
I don't know if it's conscious, but it happens a lot. Something will jump out at me. I've written entire songs based on just one or two lines a girl will say to me. Laughs.
When you write lyrics, do you like to use pen and paper, or are you a computer guy?
Pen and paper. I used to be a lot pickier with what I use. I would only use needlepoint pens with an ink tip. Now I usually grab whatever is around.
But my favorite, and I keep a bunch of these, are the old Bic click pens with four different inks: red, black, green, and blue. I started using those when I was editing my novels. I read a bunch of books on editing and got the idea about using different colors for different things. Notes in the margin might be one color and the cross outs may be another. Now I use those for everything, even songwriting. For that, lyrics might be black and cross outs might be red. Green might be for an idea that could work but I'm not entirely confident about it, so it's temporary.
I wonder if this goes back to the idea of ritual and what gives us comfort when we write.
It's just more of a utilitarian thing. But I think it actually gives me a sense of nostalgia now that I think about it. Those pens were used by my teachers all through the 80s when I was in grade school. So I think using those pens does give me a sense of continuity with the past.
And I generally don't like to use white paper. I like yellow paper that's blue ruled. There's something about white paper that I just don't like. I don't know why. When you're writing lyrics, you write everywhere and on all kinds of things because those short bursts of ideas can come at any time. But I always bring it together on yellow, blue lined paper. I get a lot of ideas in hotel rooms, so I've written a lot of those first bursts on hotel room stationary. I stuff them in my bag, then when I get home I pull them all out and see what I have.
The one place I cannot write is on my phone. I can write ideas on a notes app, but there's something about looking at my phone and touching it with my finger to write lyrics that breaks the magic of whatever the world is that I'm spinning. That's also why I just can't read on the Kindle. I have to have the paper in my hand. When I read, I'm using at least three senses. I need to be able to see it, smell it, and touch it. That's the best way for me to enter the world of that book.
This sounds like a therapy session.
Laughs. There are all kinds of things like that in my life. I have an '89 pickup truck that I own because that's what was being driven by everyone when I was in junior high. I love it and it's a great truck but it's probably there just for nostalgic reasons.
Have you thought about where your biggest bursts of creativity come from?
You probably hear this a lot, but most of my ideas come after I've just come off tour. If you don't write on road, you're constantly moving, constantly seeing new things. There are many new experiences. Then when you come home, you're stationary. You suddenly realize you've got all this stuff that needs to come out.
When you're writing a song that's proving difficult to finish, do you try to push through or do you discard it because it's not meant to be?
If a song is too hard, I don't pursue it. It's probably not good. Any song I pursued for a long time and finally finished, I probably don't put on the record. Sometimes I'll keep it and tear it apart later to use pieces of it, but it's extremely rare that I'll use a song that labored over for a long time.
Most of my songs are pretty easy to write. My most popular songs like "Black River Killer" I don't even remember writing because they were so quick. They just came out; I barely edited them. On the new record, "Joanna" and "Rebel" are both stories that I wrote in a manner of minutes and barely edited.
Do you have a lot of discarded ideas laying around?
I have a lot of discarded ideas that I never use. I'm always wanting to push forward. I don't like to look back.