Shooter Jennings

Shooter Jennings is not one for rest. While you’re reading this, he’s somewhere creating something. You may know Jennings for his career as a singer/songwriter, and that career alone should keep him busy. But this does not satisfy the man. He also creates video games just for fun: he’s on his third now and has written tens of thousands of lines of code for these science fiction role playing games. He has a great radio show on SiriusXM Outlaw Country. He’s a producer. And he’s dying to write a novel. On top of all this, Jennings still has time for some literary lightweights like Stephen Hawking, Philip K. Dick, Charles Bukowski, Arthur C. Clarke, and his favorite author Stephen King.

Jennings is always on the move. Because of this, he’s not able to sit for long periods and write. So he writes whenever and wherever he can, which is usually on his phone. He even wrote one song on his new album at a Waffle House. He’ll often create songs almost entirely in his head before cutting a demo. But Jennings does not feel the need to write every day, as long as he’s thinking about writing. “Sometimes I'll go a long time without sitting down and writing a song. But I'm constantly thinking about writing. That never stops,” he told me. It’s clear from our conversation that Jennings is a voracious reader because he knows that if you don’t read, you can’t be a good writer. He draws great inspiration from his books, telling me that “whenever you digest someone else’s words, you learn something about language. . . . A good writer gets you to see a perspective you never imagined. I think a lot of people are drawn to the ugly truth instead of the pretty fantasy. And that’s never a bad thing.”

Jennings’ latest album is Shooter, a return to “rowdy country music” in Jennings’ words. Read my interview with Jennings after the video, in which we go deep talking about his endless creative endeavors. Watch the videos too; these homages to “Hee Haw” all feature songs off his new album, and there are some pretty fantastic cameos too. (Did you ever think you’d see Jerry Cantrell standing in a cornfield?)

Besides songwriting, what other writing are you doing?

I’ve written articles here and there. I also program games, which is a fun hobby that ends up being a lot of writing. I'm in the middle of working on my third game now. But once I get done with that, I want to write a book. Stephen King's On Writing is so fantastic and was really the inspiration. A novel is the perfect art form. It comes from one person, and that's the most perfect form of writing to me. The difference with songwriting is that even though one person might write the song, others are usually involved. I love the idea of one person writing a story from his own mind.

Of course, I read a lot too. It's funny, I went through a time where I didn't read a lot. But now I do. I just finished the whole Dark Tower series by Stephen King. As you can tell, I'm a huge fan of his. That took me about a year, an incredible journey.

Does writing a novel interest you because it allows you to express yourself differently from a song?

Yes, but I love storytelling. Going back to those games I make, the first one had an overarching theme, but the second one was much more like a straight narrative. There were twists and turns. But with the third one I’m working on now, I become addicted to the process of writing out the storyline and how the characters all interact. Then I fill in the plot details.

That's what I love: constructing the overarching storyline then the interplay among characters. Some of the most fascinating parts of storytelling are when authors construct an entire timeline, much like George RR Martin does with all of his families. Picking up in the middle of that story, the reader has to figure out the bigger picture as it goes on. That's what happens in my games. With records, there's always an overall picture that I'm going for. Even if it's not a concept record, there's still a big picture, and I'm chipping away at different angles.

A great example of that is Stephen King's It, which starts in the middle of the characters’ lives. Then it goes back to when they were kids. I love the way it jumps back and forth between times. My high school English class did a whole unit on Joseph Campbell, and I loved learning about Campbell and the hero's journey.

I still feel the same way about concept records. The first time I heard The Wall and Ziggy Stardust, the writing and the imagery blew me away. The way the story unfolds. But I also love that you’re not getting the whole story spelled out and that most everything is open to interpretation. You're getting different angles about character. You fill in the blanks between the statements. You find the parts that you can relate to because lines resonate with your own life regardless of the writer's intention.

Then let's get to it now: who else do you like to read?

Obviously Stephen King. Laughs. I also find myself gravitating towards Philip K Dick and his outlandish stories. I also like reading random books: I recently read a book called The Necromancer, or The Tale of the Black Forest, published in the late 1700s. It’s considered a Gothic horror book. The writing style was so different, and I found myself waiting for something sinister to happen. It never did, but I loved that effect.

I also love Arthur C. Clarke, especially 2001: A Space Odyssey. I'm also a huge Stanley Kubrick fan and a Stephen Hawking fan. When I was young I read A Brief history of Time. Oh, and I how can I forget Bukowski? I love his dismal take on things. I also love reading about the history of Los Angeles. I think that's another reason I'm so over the moon about Bukowski. I've been there a long time, and I feel a kinship to it and to a lot of the old spirits that wander the city. I like to drink in the bars where Bukowski used to drink.

You’ve mentioned Stephen King a few times. How does the advice he gives in On Writing translate for songwriters?

That book was so inspiring. I love his tips on editing and his advice about spending an hour of closed-door time every day and not to force the process. He talks a lot about discipline and how there really is no wrong way to write. He’s so humble and self-deprecating about it too.

I haven't had a writer’s block moment in many years. Those moments happen when my environment isn't right. There were periods where I couldn’t write any songs. I thought something was wrong with me, but it turns out that it was because the people around me weren’t right. Now I never have that problem. That’s something the book discusses. Some days it'll come and some days it won't. And that's fine.

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Let's talk about that environment.

Sometimes I'll go a long time without sitting down and writing a song. But I'm constantly thinking about writing. That never stops. I might think about a line or a type of song or a situation I want to write about. Something might strike me, so I'll write it in my phone. Sometimes I'm so busy that the songs get practically written in my head in pieces. I think about it and think about it and then finally record the demo.

Nine times out of ten, the songs come at the same time as the music. Before the new record, I had a conversation with Dave Cobb about producing my record. I hung up the phone and sat down at the piano and wrote “Rhinestone Eyes” and Shades & Hues.”

As far as composing, I think I do best at the piano. It's where I feel the most comfortable. With Shooter, we made the music in the studio, and I wrote the lyrics later. I normally don't do it like that, but it was cool because I got to make up stuff to go with cool sounding music.

One of the fascinating records to me is “Graceland” by Paul Simon. He wrote all the music first and then wrote the lyrics and the melody. That allowed him to do some really weird stuff. A lot of stuff goes over people's heads because it's subliminally so smooth. Take the song “Graceland” for example. He sings the first verse one way because it begins on a certain note and he starts singing immediately with the music. But in the second verse he doesn't come in until the second note. So it changes where he starts singing in the melody. You can tell that he did that because the music was already done and he was singing on top of that music. It's really cool.

Do you have a favorite time and place to write?

It's pretty rare that I wake up in the morning and write a song. A lot of the ideas that rattle around in my brain get written down at night before I go to bed so that I don’t forget them, but I write the song the next day. I have sometimes woken up in the middle of the night to write down a line, though.

Mid afternoon to early evening is when I get the most done. But that's mostly because that's when I have the most time to write, not necessarily because I write the best at that time. Sometimes I'll be at a restaurant when the idea hits. I'll write down the whole verse. Like in the song “Denim and Diamonds” off the new record: I was at the Waffle House when the lyrics to that song hit me.

Is there a favorite room in the house where you like to write?

A few years ago my wife got me an electric baby grand piano for Christmas. It's in my living room, and that's my favorite place. Of course that's mostly because it's too big to move. Laughs. I'm a very private person. Even when I'm doing an interview, I don't like other people to be around. When I'm writing a song, I'm very self-conscious about tinkering with ideas around other people. Except for my wife. That's why I'm not very good at co-writing. I'm too self-conscious of the other person to get comfortable. It’s hard for me to let my guard down.

I'm really into old technology, so I have a lot of old computers and typewriters. Also a lot of old video games. That’s also a room where I try out ideas.

Where do you write your lyrics: computer or paper?

My phone.

Really? Given your love of old technology, that surprises me. Many of the songwriters I've interviewed are very specific about the type of writing utensil and paper they use. Hayes Carll told me that he has to buy his paper from Office Depot, for example. And James McMurtry was very partial towards the iPhone Notes app before it was redesigned.

Hayes Carll is one of my favorite songwriters. He’s fucking amazing.

I have a typewriter and some letterhead, just in case. I love the typewriter, but it would take me too long to get the ideas down. And I have such sloppy handwriting that would make my lyrics almost impossible to understand.

Since most of my ideas come on the road, I have to be close to some way to get lyrics down. I keep all those lyrics organized on my phone until the last minute, then I print them out when I'm ready. Computers have always been huge part of my life so it's just the most natural place for me to keep stuff.

Do you think it’s important to write every day, or at least create something every day?

I'm not hard on myself to write songs every day. I know people who do that, and they have a regimen to write a certain amount or for a certain time every day. I don't do that because usually my songs are coming from an experience that I'm regurgitating. It's not until I get an idea for the overall album that I'll even start writing for it. Then I blaze through it and write the whole thing.

I do feel like it's important for me to have a creative process every day, though. But again, the games I create take up a lot of my creative time when I'm home. If I have two or three hours I'll sit down and work on those. So I guess I do always have some project sucking up my creative energy. In the last three or four years I don't think there's been a day when I haven't had some project going. Because of that, I'm okay if I don't write songs every day.

Tell me more about these games. I assume you’re coding.

Yeah, it’s a programming language similar to Visual Basic. I've run a bulletin board service for years, and these games are for the bulletin board systems. It's a lot of coding. Probably hundreds of thousands of lines of code in the game I’m working on now.

The second game I made was a story that I was originally going to write into a book or script. I decide to make it into a game. It's called “Freedom Train.” It's about people who live in a quarantine zone in a city that's been blocked off from the rest of the world. There's a train that’s supposed to take lottery winners to an area built by rich people. But there is no train; all they do is put these people in slave labor. It's like a science fiction story.

When I was young I was very into computer games, specifically adventure games like “Space Quest.” So now I’m writing versions of those games. It's a lot of fun to keep on getting better with each game. I don't make any money off of them; I just love doing it. What I enjoy the most is designing the whole story first like a storyboard. And then I love filling it all in with code.

How does doing all of that make you a better songwriter?

On a very basic level, I'm having to grasp a lot of new words in this game I’m creating. There’s a lot of characters and a lot of dialogue. You can’t make them all sound the same, so you have to expand your vocabulary. It's allowing me to get better at writing dialogue, but I think what really benefits me is the planning process. Story planning with computer games helps me when I plan records. It makes me more disciplined.

You mentioned discipline a couple of times in our conversation. Would you call yourself a disciplined songwriter?

I think I'm disciplined. Over time I've gotten a lot better. But the first time I saw an idea all the way through was the Black Ribbons record that Stephen King was on. That’s a concept record with a story. When it was done, I felt like I had kept it pretty trim and didn’t overdo it. At that point, I got addicted to knowing that as long as you don’t overplan things, it’ll turn out ok. I never used to be like that before Black Ribbons. I’d do a lot of planning and be overly ambitious, then everything would fall apart. Once I understood restraint and still being able to see things through to the end, that gave me confidence.

I’m pretty laid back when it comes to the songwriting process because I know the songs will come. I’m no longer scared about going into a record unsure of what to do. Even when I’m working on other people’s records, I think my strength as a producer is focus: keeping arrangements succinct and keeping everyone on task. I don’t come to a project without a goal or without preparation, but I no longer overplan.

A good analogy would be someone who runs a marathon. At first, it seems like an impossible task. But as you run more of them and your times get better, you never wonder whether you’re going to be able to do it.

Do you do a lot editing to your lyrics?

Sometimes, but often the best songs are those that come out fully formed. Once I get them recorded, I don’t do too much tinkering. One of the many things I love about Bob Dylan’s songwriting is that there’s a central idea around the choruses, but the verses will touch on a totally different topic. On one of the songs on my new record, “Fast Horses and Good Hideouts,” I wrote the first verse and had no idea what to write for the second. So I wrote about something totally different than the first verse.

I love when writers do that: when songs transcend a topic and touch on many different emotions. Dylan does that on his new record in a song called “Narrow Way.” It’s got all these different verses with the same chorus that doesn’t really mean anything. The verses talk about everything from relationships to the British burning the White House down. It really gets you thinking. Paul Simon does that a lot too in “You Can Call Me Al.” The chorus contains these almost throwaway lines but the verses are incredible, talking about angels and architecture and mid life crises. The song has beautiful meaning between these almost choruses. That whole record is a complete masterpiece.

And having Chevy Chase in the video just adds another layer.

Yeah. On the surface it sounds like a fun song, then you dive in and realize how heavy it is.

We started this conversation talking about what you read, so let’s end by talking about how all that reading makes you a better songwriter.

It’s simple: you have to read to be able to write. There is no other way. You have to read how other people tell stories. I’m a huge Hunter S. Thompson fan, and I read how he would retype Hemingway novels. My record Countash was a tribute to Giorgio Moroder. Covering his songs with all these wild arrangements taught me lessons in arranging my own music.

It’s the same thing with writing. The Dark Tower was full of that. So many cool sentences and images. Any time you digest someone else’s words, you learn something about language. One of King’s methods is to build a horrific bad guy until the last minute, then he gets killed very easily. And I love how Stephen Hawking describes his ideas in layman’s terms. A good writer gets you to see a perspective you never imagined. I think a lot of people are drawn to the ugly truth instead of the pretty fantasy. And that’s never a bad thing.