Want to be in a Lydia Loveless song? It's easy: sit next to her at dinner. Well, don't sit at her table, because she might not be listening to you. Instead, she's listening to the tables next to her for a line or two that she can put in a song. "It's a bad habit. I'm always eavesdropping on people. If I'm out to dinner, I'm always listening to the other tables and not paying attention to mine. I'm not even doing it consciously. But I get some great song ideas from those conversations," Loveless told me.
Loveless's songwriting process involves a few rituals. She journals every day, and she's been doing it ever since she was a young child, even though her first journal was nothing but lower case e's because that was the only letter she could write. Now that Loveless is an adult, there's one part of her process that cannot waver: she must use a Pilot Precise Extra Fine Pen with black ink. Any other pen "ruins the process," she said.
Loveless last album was 2016's fantastic Real on Bloodshot Records, which received near universal acclaim. I don't remember where I was the first time I heard Loveless, but it was a song off her first album, 2011's Indestructible Machine. I was hooked from the first verse. Loveless told me that she's been going through many "personal and lifestyle changes" now, as you'll read, and she's been through some pretty dark times. Some artists can write through these dark times; they can even be incredibly prolific in them. Not Loveless. She can't write anything when she's in the "depths of sadness." It's only later that she can look back and write about those dark times. It's how she processes her emotions. But when she's in those depths, she tries to avoid those emotions as much as possible. Read my interview with Loveless about her songwriting process after the video as we also discuss how those dark times eventually serve as a springboard for creativity.
What other creative outlets do you have?
All of them involve writing. I journal every day, and I'm really into comedy and making people laugh. Unfortunately, with the advent of social media I've been able to do that in a very uncreative way by just firing off a few tweets here and there. I've actually been trying to not use social media as much. I'd really rather write in a more constructive fashion; I like to write poems and I like to start and not finish fiction. I've been working on a screenplay for about eight years now but have no idea if I'll ever finish it. Laughs.
Songwriting is the only thing that sustains me. I don't write songs because it's my job; I write songs because it's what I'm good at, or at least it's the creative outlet I'm most hardheaded about.
Are journaling and songwriting linked for you?
I've kept a journal before I could even write, because I've always been a narcissist, apparently. When I was really little, I kept a journal that was nothing but lower case e's because I didn't know how to write yet. That was my way of pretending that I could write. Laughs.
The two are connected, although I'm not being a super creative person now. I'm going through some personal and lifestyle changes, so most of my writing is strictly journaling now. But often I'll write poetry that turns into a song, or I'll write something in my journal, some prose, that may become a song. But right now the two are separate, and the journaling is personal. Of course, most of my songs are pretty personal, so we'll see.
It would seem difficult to write that personal stuff in a journal and not have it in some way creep into your songwriting.
Songwriting isn't really that conscious for me. I really don't remember writing many of my songs. It's not like I'm in a trance or anything like that, but it just happens. I'm not a "worker" songwriter; I'm more of a "fall out of the sky" type. I don't sit down and think This is something I've really wanted to write about.
For me, the work comes way before the song happens because journaling is how I get to what I'm feeling. My natural tendency is to want to ignore my feelings, and I go through very dark periods of not wanting to get in touch with my emotions. So I'll write about them later, and that's a way of looking back to see what I was going through. It's how I process things. I'm kind of a slow burner. Laughs.
What do you mean?
My art doesn't seem that current to me. For instance, my last record (2016's Real) is almost entirely about a divorce that I didn't start going through until about a couple of months ago. In my music, I also have to be the business leader, so I can't focus on both at the same time. And since my personal life is so intertwined with my creative life, it's hard for me to make art and be living it, if that makes sense.
Is there an ideal emotional when you tend to get your best writing done?
I want to credit my guitar player for saying this, but I could be wrong. He said that I've never stopped having fun long enough to write a song about it. But I also can't write when I'm sad. It drives me crazy when people say, "At least you'll get a good song out of it. You must be writing so much now because you're life is so shitty." Really? No, I can't write anything when I'm in the depth of sadness. I've gone through some dark, dark times over the past couple of years and those have been probably my least creative period ever.
I'm glad my last record was one that I can be really proud of, because I've been pretty lazy about writing and more interested in tying up the loose ends of my life. For example, I'm trying to finally get my high school diploma. Because I've been a musician for so long, I didn't think I needed school and I certainly didn't care. And now I'm like Wow, I don't know basic math. Honestly, I think it will help me creatively to work on something that's really hard for me. I'm not an academic person, and I get really lazy when I'm not doing anything that I don't want to do. But going back to school motivates me to use my brain again, or else I'd just sit around and watch television all day.
Would you call yourself a disciplined songwriter, or do you like to wait for the muse?
I'm a little of both. If I waited for the right moment, I'd never do anything. But I also don't write a song every day or give myself songwriting projects. But I do write something every day, even if it's not music. Lyric writing is challenging to me because it's also the most important. I don't want to write a song with crappy lyrics.
At what point in the process do the lyrics come?
I'm totally melody driven. I get a melody stuck in my head and wonder Whose song is this? Am I stealing it from someone? Sometimes words and lyrics happen at the same time, but I rarely have a lightning bolt of inspiration filled with words. My guitar parts are rarely more than a vehicle to carry a melody.
But obviously the lyrics are important to you.
The lyrics usually come after the melody. They're often based on a poem I've written or some idea I've wanted to get off my chest.
How often do you write a poem and think I could put a melody on this and make it a song?
It depends. Often I'll write something that I only want to be a poem because it expresses something so personal and so perfectly, and turning it into a song might mess it up too much. For example, I'm not really a protest songwriter even though everyone is pushing for that now. But if everyone makes a protest album, it's not going to be an interesting musical landscape. I just really love pop music and beautiful melodies; I don't feel like making a protest record because that type of music is not my wheelhouse. If I can figure out how to make a pop record that's also a protest record, I'll do it. But I'm not going to force myself to fit into the political landscape. I love fucking stupid love songs. I hate Paul McCartney, though, which is weird. Laughs.
That's ok. I'll just edit that part out.
There's no need. It's ok. I'm just more of a Lennon fan. Laughs. I know people might think I'm making selfish music that's not for the people, but I never promised to do that in the first place. I just want things to fall naturally rather than trying to be someone that I'm not.
Talk about your writing ritual. What's your ideal writing environment?
I definitely use the same tools all the time. I like the Pilot Precise Extra Fine pen with black ink. I've used it my entire life. I love the way the ink runs, and it doesn't smear a lot since I'm left handed. It just feels good. It's not a sticky pen. I hate writing with the wrong pen. It ruins my process. That's really the only thing I'm ritualistic about. I also like the black hardcover ruled Moleskines to write in. I get the best writing done in those. When I branch out, the writing's just not the same.
I like to write in the morning because it's when I have the most alone time. That can be tough because I'm definitely not a morning person. I like writing before everyone else is up, and that's also a time before all the weird shit starts popping up on my cellphone and stressing me out. I have a typewriter too, though I prefer to use pen and paper. I also like to write either outside or in the van. I can write in my apartment, but outside is my preferred place.
I don't hear that too often. Why outside?
It sounds like a cliche, but I like to be close to nature. I grew up spending a lot of time outside, so I think it's the one place that I feel most connected to actually being a person. When I try to write in a coffee shop, I feel like that's a place I should be studying for a PhD. Laughs.
How much revising do you do to your lyrics?
I do a fair amount. There's always a few solid lines in a song that I won't touch, but there are always lines I want to make better too. And I like to use a rhyming dictionary. I don't know why that embarrasses me to admit that, but I use one.
Don't worry. You're not the first songwriter to tell me that.
You get some really cool shit there. Laughs. I probably never would have written "piece of eight" into a song if I didn't have it. It would have been much lamer than that. I like words, what can I say?
Speaking of words, how much reading do you get to do?
On tour, I try to read a lot of poetry. I'm also the asshole on tour who buys ten books at once and reads them at the same time so they are all scattered everywhere. But like I said, I've been studying for my diploma, and that's taking up a lot of my time. But Joe Hill and Raymond Carver are two of my favorite authors. I also love Tobias Wolff and Mary Karr. And of course Murakami. Right now I'm reading a book by the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgard.
Raymond Carver is very popular among songwriters. Why do you think that is?
He wrote such strong human characters, and I think most songwriters relate to that. His writing is a lot like song lyrics because it's so pared down. His short stories seem to have been edited to pieces, and that's what we have to do as songwriters.
How often does what you read creep into your songwriting?
Obviously Verlaine, the French poet, is a huge influence. I wrote a song about him and Rimbaud. His tortured Catholic guilt was really inspiring to me at the time. Laughs.
How often do you get writer's block?
I think we all go through it, but we always do the same thing: we say we're miserable, we say we can't write, then we make another record. But when I'm going through it, it's hell. There's no worse feeling for me than not writing. I'd rather be alone for the rest of my life than never write a song again. I don't have much going for me otherwise. Laughs. Part of my process is that I'm a slow writer, and in today's world you don't have time to be a slow songwriter.
As part of that writing process, are you always listening and watching for good lines?
Oh yes. It's a bad habit. I'm always eavesdropping on people. If I'm out to dinner, I'm always listening to the other tables and not paying attention to mine. I'm not even doing it consciously. That's really annoying to me. But I get some great song ideas from those conversations. Laughs.