Dallas Green, City and Colour
Many people believe that words flow effortlessly from the pens of great writers. These writers, people think, can just sit down and churn out page after page of prose, poetry, or whatever it is they are writing. But this is fantasy. Good writing is hard. Heck, if it were easy, the world would be filled with great writers.
For most of us, writing can be a struggle. Dallas Green, who writes and records under the name City and Colour, told me that since his last album If I Should Go Before You in 2015, he's only written a handful of songs, an unusually low number for him. Green is, by his own admission, a slow writer anyway, due to partly to fear. "I've always had this fear that I'm so scared to write the wrong thing down, even though the only way to get to the right thing is to first write the wrong thing down. And it's a real problem because I keep everything up in my head until I feel like I've got it. It's almost like I'm afraid to force it, so I never force it. That really slows my process," he told me when we talked. But while he thinks often about why the words have been slow in coming, I didn't get the sense that he's too concerned. He recently took two months off from music, and while he imagined that he'd writing something during that time, he didn't. "I'm comfortable not feeling the need to get in the studio," he said.
Any writer will tell you, though, that the actual composing process is only a small part of the writing process, which actually starts the moment you get an idea. My writing process takes place when I'm running, eating, sleeping, talking, and walking. I'm always thinking about writing, and that's a part of my process. So fear not, City and Colour fans, because I do not mean to alarm you: even though Green may not actually be writing songs on paper, he's still involved in the writing process. His pages and pages of journals attest to that, as will his voracious reading habits. This small time off is merely Green filling the well of inspiration.
Green is a prolific songwriter. As City and Colour, he's put out five albums in twelve years, four of which have gone platinum in Canada. He's been nominated for seven Juno awards and has won three. And in 2014, he collaborated with his good friend Pink on a project called You+Me. Read my interview with Dallas Green after the video.
What other creative outlets do you have besides songwriting?
There's lyric writing and then there's the music. To me, they are separate creative pursuits that meet in the middle. I can get a different feeling from just playing my guitar loud, but that gives me a different feeling than putting a song together. For example, I play the drums all the time in my basement as a creative outlet, but I don't play them in front of many people because I'm not that good at it. But it's still a creative outlet for me.
What about other writing besides songwriting?
I don't do anything, and that's probably to my detriment. I've always had this fear that I'm so scared to write the wrong thing down, even though the only way to get to the right thing is to first write the wrong thing down. And it's a real problem because I keep everything up in my head until I feel like I've got it. It's almost like I'm afraid to force it, so I never force it. That really slows my process.
When you say you are afraid to write the wrong thing down, does that apply to writing that no one else will see, like journal writing? Where does that come from?
I don't know, and that's the problem. I don't even understand why I do this. When I made the record with Pink, it was insane to collaborate with her because she's pretty much just a lyricist and a singer. All she does is write words down. She just writes and writes and writes until she find the right thing to say, and I'm just the opposite. I don't understand why I don't just write more, even if it's gibberish, until I find the right words. I'd love to be able to do that.
I remember reading about how Dylan has pages upon pages of verses, and I cannot even imagine having even five verses. I'm not saying that if a phrase comes into my head or if I hear a word or read a phrase, I won't write it down to spark something. But as far as writing and writing until I find an idea? I don't do any of that. I think it comes down to a fear of waking up the next morning, reading it, and realizing that it's terrible. I don't want that feeling.
And this applies even to songwriting?
Absolutely. It has nothing to do with outside pressure and worrying that someone else might see it. I will see it, and that's all that matters. I barely like my music enough to put it out, so it's the pressure I put on myself. Words are important to me. For better or worse, I got stuck in this way of writing when I was younger: I write about how I feel, and I work through whatever I'm working through emotionally through my music. If I'm writing a song about my wife or my sister or my parents, or even myself, every word has to mean something. That's quite a weight on my shoulders. And I think that's where the fear comes from.
It sounds like you're almost afraid of what might come out.
Yeah, I think that's the case.
Can you write anywhere? Is the environment important to you?
I think it is. Most of the time, I'm alone in the dark either in the middle of the night or in the wee hours of the morning. That's when I get my best writing done. I can't write on the road because I'm too focused on the show. I would love to be able to write on tour, but it rarely happens. I'd also like to be like Nick Cave, who just goes into his office and writes all day. I usually find myself in my basement at midnight or 2am, not able to sleep, and writing a song.
Is the basement your preferred place? I think there's always one place or one room where we are most comfortable writing.
The basement became my place because it's where most of my equipment is, but it's also the furthest spot from our bedroom, and I try not to wake up my wife. Laughs. So what started out as the most practical place became where I write the best. It's a comfortable spot, and there's a certain romance to writing in the middle of the night when everyone else is asleep and I'm at work.
Is there any ideal emotion when you get your best writing done? How important is state of mind to your writing process?
When I was younger, I never thought I would have a career writing songs, because I was writing songs about how I was feeling. It was a cathartic process for me. Even today, I've always found solace in that. But I write about what I was feeling when I was depressed; I don't really write while I'm depressed. People ask me why I don't write happy songs, but they're all happy to me because I'm getting myself through whatever was bumming me out. I enjoy minor chords, so there's always been this aura of depression and sadness around my music. But it's not that at all: to me, my songs are like the light at the end of the tunnel.
A lot of good songs are about having a good time on Friday night. I like those songs, but I don't want to write those songs. That's just not me. I use songwriting as a way to get out of things.
Do you try to write every day?
No. Laughs. I want to write every day. But if I wrote as much as I think about writing, I'd have books upon books. I worry all the time about writing, and I think about it all time. Here's a good example. I put out a record in 2015, and I've probably written four whole songs since then. I'm in a particularly down period now, but I think about it a lot. I think about writing songs and about why I haven't written many songs lately.
This is a complicated idea, because some songwriters tell me that they purposely take time off from writing so that they can fill the well of inspiration. Does this extended break from songwriting worry you, or is it a part of your process where you are gathering material for later?
Ever since I was about 21 years old, I've made a record, toured on it, then come off the road and made another record every other year. That's been the cycle. So I've never known a period like I'm in now. What's weird is that I haven't written a bunch of songs since the last record. I just took about two months off for the first time since starting my career, and I thought those two months would involve nothing but writing a bunch of songs for the next record. And it didn't happen. I just lived my life for those two months. It was very fulfilling, but it wasn't normal. So I'm just going through something like this for the first time.
Maybe subconsciously I'm storing ideas that will all come out at once, but I don't know what's going to happen.
If this is a period of writer's block, the last thing you want to do is think about the fact that you have writer's block. I liken it to insomnia: if you can't sleep, thinking about why you can't sleep will only make it worse.
Yeah, and I have that problem too with insomnia. That's why I get so much writing done in the middle of the night, because I have trouble sleeping. It's definitely been a weird couple of months. I don't sleep, and that's when I usually write, so now I'm not sleeping and not writing. But it hasn't bothered me that much because I'm in this reflective period where I've been looking back on what I've done. For the last fifteen years, all I've done is make records and tour. But strangely, I'm comfortable not feeling the need to get right back into the studio. I'm living my life now; this is probably the first two months straight I've had with my wife where I'm not on the road. Again, I'm hoping that I've been subconsciously storing a lot of song ideas.
I also feel weird about what's going on in the world, like everyone else I hope. I feel like if I were to write now, everything would be about that, and I don't know that I want that to happen. Every time I pick up a pen, all I want to do is write about how fucked up everything is, so I'm trying to to wait it out and not write an entire record about what's happening in our world now.
Aside from those obvious stimuli, are you sensitive to your environment, always paying attention to what you read or hear other people say?
Absolutely, and I think it's impossible not to. I'm sure you're like this too, but I get excited about language. I hear a new phrase or see a word that I've never seen, and it jumps out. I'll write it down.
That's a perfect segue to my next question: who do you like to read?
It all started with Vonnegut, who has always been one of my favorite authors. His writing got me excited about language. Then I moved into people like Charles Bukowski and Jim Harrison. And I've started rereading Steinbeck's East of Eden. He's amazing. I also like autobiographies, which is why I love Dylan's book Chronicles. That book also got me excited about writing.
Vonnegut, Bukowski, and to a lesser extent Steinbeck all seem to be favorites of the songwriters I interview. I'll add Cormac McCarthy to that list. Why do you think that is?
I love McCarthy too. I think songwriters like Bukowski so much because of the whole "tortured soul" motif since we all, in our vanity and ego, love the idea of living the life of the tortured soul. Laughs. The whole "woe is me" vibe. I'd be lying to your face if I said that wasn't true. Heck, it's why I like to sing about my problems, which really aren't that bad.
I love Vonnegut's ability to construct sentences, but I love his beautiful imagery that's also cynical and funny. And McCarthy has such a tremendous ability to paint such a vivid picture with words. Who wouldn't want to be able to write like that?
It's also about the economy of language. There's not one wasted word in McCarthy's The Road.
Very true, and it's so hard to write like that. I'd love to go back and change some of my lyrics. Leon Russell has that line "I've sung a lot of songs/I've made some bad rhymes." It's almost impossible not to waste words in songwriting because you're searching for the word that sounds the best but that may not be the best. That goes back to the fear I talked about: I know, at some point, that the word I use isn't going to be exactly the word I want, because I have to use words that I feel comfortable singing. That's another thing with my voice: people like Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen have the ability to sing lines and use words that I could never sing. I wish I could, though.
When it comes to your process, then, do you have a somewhat regular routine?
Nine times out of ten, the music is first. That's probably because I started playing guitar long before I started writing songs. If a melody presents itself that is worth digging into, I go to my book or my notepad to see if any phrases or words excite me. I add those to the melody.
Very rarely do I do the whole mumbling or gibberish thing and try to write lyrics that come from those sounds. That's not how I write songs; I usually write with a specific idea in mind, so it doesn't make sense to start with gibberish.
You mentioned turning to your notebook, so it sounds like there's some mixing and matching of lyrics and music.
Yeah. I remember seeing Nick Cave's journal, where he had a long alphabetized list of words that he likes. That's what I do: if I see a word I like, maybe from a book, I write it down. I have pages and pages in my journal of just random words. When I come up with a melody, I turn to those words and try to build stories behind them.
You sit down often with the express idea of writing about a certain topic? I don't hear that often from songwriters.
Yeah, and here's an example. Over the last couple of records, at some point during the writing cycle, my wife will remind me to write a love song because she knows people like my love songs. On the last record, I wrote "If I Should Go Before You," a song about the idea that if you were to die before the person you love, the love is so strong that it would exist around them after you are gone. And she said, "That's the saddest thing I've ever heard!" And I was like, "No it's not, it's beautiful! It's not about death, it's about everlasting love!" So that was about a specific idea that I had, rather than just a silly love song.
I've interviewed a fair number of songwriters who are married, but not many mention bouncing song ideas off their wife. Do you do that often?
Well, the problem isn't that I do it all the time, it's that since I write at home she usually can't escape me. Laughs. But I do ask for her feedback; I'll ask her, "What does this sound like?" She's kind of like my therapist; whenever I tell her that I'm never writing another song, she's always there to stay on top of me and make sure I stay focused.
Do you revise a lot of your lyrics?
I do, and I'll often sing a line using a bunch of different words to see which ones work best. You want to give yourself every chance to write the best line. As I said earlier, sometimes the word you want to say isn't the right word for the song, so you have to try different options. I remember writing a song called "We Found Each Other in the Dark"; I was trying to find a way to say something, but it needed to rhyme. I went to the thesaurus and found the word convalesce. Heal was actually what I wanted to say, but it didn't work in the lyrics. Convalesce did. It was exciting because the meaning of that word was much more in line with what I was actually trying to say. It's moments like that where I get excited about language. To this day, every time I sing that song and get to that line, I smile.
Occasionally I'll write a song just to write a song, and I'll make an effort not to put too much of myself into it. That's how "Lover Come Back" started. It started out just as a poppy love song about lost love. It wasn't going to be about me. But then I got to the second verse, and the first two lines of that verse were about me because I needed to put something in there about myself. Laughs. So there's the line "I'll never be as good as I'd like to be," which works in the song but is also about me. It's moments like that where I struggle; the constant debate in my head about the writing process.