Mac McCaughan, Superchunk

Mac McCaughan, Superchunk

Mac McCaughan is a busy guy, but does that surprise you? He's married, has two kids, runs Merge Records (which he also co-founded), fronts Superchunk, and has the side project Portastatic. Now, on May 4, he'll release Non-Believershis first solo album.  As you can imagine, McCaughan has little free time, which is why his creative process is more disciplined than most artists'. His window for creative work on the new album was small: since he made the album at home, he did most of the work in the morning, when the kids were at school. Then he'd head to work at Merge in the afternoon. At night, when the kids were in bed, he'd work on it some more. 

Read More

Jim Kerr, Simple Minds

Jim Kerr, Simple Minds

I've been fortunate to interview songwriters who achieved considerable success in the 1980s and beyond: Chris Difford (Squeeze), Neil Finn (Crowded House), Cy Curnin (The Fixx), Andy McCluskey (OMD). I figure all are worth listening to when they discuss the work ethic of the songwriter.  That's the one common element of their songwriting process: they write all the time.  The idea of waiting for the muse is a foreign concept, because writing is something you have to work at.

Read More

Rhett Miller, Old 97's

Rhett Miller, Old 97's

started this site in 2010 as a way to give a voice to songwriters in the same way that interviewers give poets and prose writers. I wanted to treat songwriters as writers and to have an intelligent discussion about the writing process. A Paris Review of songwriting interviews. Rhett Miller of the Old 97's fulfilled that mission for me perhaps better than any other. But that's because he sees himself as a writer, not because I treated him as one. There are a few times during our conversation when Miller reveals himself as a songwriter when he discusses guitars and chord progressions, but for the most part Miller could just as well be a poet or a short story writer. Of course, Miller is both of those: he's written poems and essays and short stories.  

Read More

Richard On, O.A.R.

Richard On, O.A.R.

Richard On, guitarist and songwriter for O.A.R, is a working man. He's up before sunrise to work out.  He hears melodies all day that he's constantly recording to his phone. And he does most of his best writing at night, after he's put the kids to bed and is finally able to relax with his wife. Heck, even when he sleeps he's still working: he wrote the riff to one of their songs after getting up in the middle of the nigh. On recorded it, then went back to sleep.  It was only when he saw the timestamp on the recording later that he remembered what he'd done. Of course, all this hard work can be undone by the tiny fingers of his children, as you'll read.

Read More

Tom Keifer, Cinderella

Tom Keifer, Cinderella

For almost thirty years, Tom Keifer has had seeds rolling around in his head.  All day long. They never stop. But Keifer wants it no other way.

Keifer achieved tremendous success as the frontman for the 80s hard rock band Cinderella, selling over 20 million albums worldwide. Throughout his career, Keifer's creative process has involved the sifting of these "seeds," as he calls them. These seeds take the form of melodies and lines that he's always juggling in his mind. Those that he forgets are probably not meant to be anyway, he figures. But those seeds that stick around for weeks or even months are probably, in Keifer's view, meant to be songs. It's not surprising, then, that Keifer's songwriting process always starts with the lyrics. The guitar hooks, he says, are "the easy part." He can write those all day long. 

Read More

Mark Morton, Lamb of God

Mark Morton, Lamb of God

This site is woefully short of interviews with metal songwriters. I've been a Lamb of God fan for a while, but it was only recently that I watched the 2014 documentary about the band "As the Palaces Burn." No less a metal god than Slash calls them one of the biggest metal acts in the world in the trailer (below). I was impressed by the introspection and thoughtful responses in the band member interviews, so I figured that Mark Morton, guitarist and songwriter for the band, would make a fantastic interview.  And boy was I right. 

Read More

Jay Gonzalez, Drive-By Truckers

Jay Gonzalez, Drive-By Truckers

Jay Gonzalez: Drive-By Trucker, Bay City Roller. Sure, Gonzalez is guitarist and keyboard player for the Truckers.  But his solo stuff sounds nothing like his Truckers work.  Gonzalez is an unabashed fan of 70s power pop, bands like The Sweet and The Bay City Rollers. In his own words, "I possess the attention span of a goldfish. I’m a sucker for short pop songs filled with hooks and devoid of filler." The defining element of 70s power pop is the melody.  It reigns supreme. Lyrics exist merely to enhance the melody, not to tell a story. According to Gonzalez, "I think the ideal situation is to have a song that if it were an instrumental or if it were a Muzak song, you would recognize the melody. It’s strong enough to stand on its own without the lyrics."

Read More

Amanda Shires

Amanda Shires

In the nearly 150 interviews I've done for this site, one thing stands out: songwriters are voracious readers, much more so that the general public. They read all the time. They read novels, they read short stories, they read non-fiction. But curiously, not nearly as many read poetry as I would expect. That surprises me, given the similarities between song lyrics and poetry.  

Amanda Shires is the exception. She reads poetry with a passion. But she's taken it one step further: Shires is pursuing her MFA in poetry from Sewanee, and she's almost finished. It's no surprise that her coursework has had a tremendous impact on her songwriting, since she's learning about the craft of poetry  But it hasn't been without its challenges.  While it's easy for Shires to share her songs with an audience, sharing her poetry is a different experience.  

Read More

Ray Benson, Asleep at the Wheel

Ray Benson, Asleep at the Wheel

Ray Benson is best known as the co-founder of the country music band Asleep at the Wheel. The band, founded in 1969, has won nine Grammy Awards. Asleep at the Wheel is a contemporary torchbearer for the subgenre of country music known as Western swing, a more danceable kind of country music that originated in the 1920s.

But the 63 year-old Benson has a solo release out now calledA Little Piece, only his second solo album. It represents a departure from his Asleep at the Wheel material; it's more personal and was written from a much darker place, according to Benson. I saw Benson play an in-store at Waterloo Records in Austin a couple of months ago, where he showcased his new material backed by the excellent band Milkdrive. I had never seen Benson before, and his performance was fantastic.  He's a great storyteller and performer whose baritone serves as the ideal complement to his new material.

Read More

Matt Nathanson

Matt Nathanson

You may not know that Matt Nathanson has a writing partner.  The problem, though, is that Nathanson doesn't want this guy around. In fact, Nathanson told me, he'd love to "tape his mouth shut and stuff him in a trunk."  And even worse: this guy is an assassin.

This assassin is in Nathanson's mind.  It's the part of him that tells him not to write certain words or ideas.  The assassin is there to kill Nathanson's words by telling him that what he's writing is "dumb." And Nathanson hates the assassin, because when he's around, creativity suffers.  Nathanson does his best to keep the assassin at bay so that he can write from the most honest and unselfconscious perspective he knows.

Read my interview with Matt Nathanson about his songwriting process.  We talk about the assassin, morning puking, and shitting songs. It's long, sure, but worth every word.  Of the 160 interviews I've done, this ranks as one of my favorites because Nathanson is so introspective. He doesn't just tell me about his process, he reflects on it and talks about what it says about him as a person.  

Read More

Johnathan Rice

Johnathan Rice

By his own admission, Johnathan Rice has a "mysterious" writing process.  He doesn't think he's ever written the same way twice.  Yet his best songs have always come fully formed; that is, they don't even appear until he sits down to play, when they pour out of him all at once. Of course, this doesn't happen very often: he's been working on a song about the race horse Barbaro for a few years now, and despite all of his tinkering, Rice still hasn't released it because he's not happy with it yet. 

Rice is a "voracious" reader, and I love his answer below about how all that reading has made him a better songwriter.  Rice has also learned a great deal about himself through his many collaborations, including with Elvis Costello and of course Jenny Lewis with Jenny and Johnny.

Read More

Cy Curnin, The Fixx

Cy Curnin, The Fixx

Sometimes when I transcribe these interviews, one of the artist’s songs constantly loops through my head.  That’s a testament, of course, to the powerful melody the songwriter has crafted. This happened as I transcribed my conversation with Cy Curnin of The Fixx, but it wasn’t just one song.  It was several:  songs like “Red Skies,” “Stand or Fall,” “Secret Separation,” Are We Ourselves,” and of course “One Thing Leads to Another,” with their infectious choruses and bass riffs, never stopped playing in my head. 

Curnin knows about writing a well-crafted song.  The band formed in 1979 and had four hits in the US top twenty.  I’ve interviewed other artists from that time period—people like Colin Newman (Wire), Chris Difford (Squeeze), Neil Finn (Crowded House), and Andy McCluskey (OMD)—and they all have one thing in common: discipline. Sure, they are artists, but they work at their craft.  There’s no waiting for the muse.  They write every day and they actively seek inspiration. There’s a reason these songwriters have been around so long: at some point, they accepted that what they do takes work.  With his methodical songwriting process, Curnin is no exception. While some songwriters tell me that the songs just happen, Curnin knows how, when, where, and why they happen. His words are decidedly self-assured, but with his catalog, it's no surprise.

Read More

Ryan Bingham

Ryan Bingham

Before talking to Ryan Bingham, I watched some of his videos on his YouTube channel. Several of the commenters pointed out that his singing voice sounds nothing like his speaking voice.  And it's true.  I couldn't help but think about this when he talked about songwriting as a form of therapy for him, a way for him to get things off his chest. When he pointed out that the lyrics sometimes emerge from his subconscious, that singing/speaking voice dichotomy made sense: perhaps that singing voice is different because it represents something deep inside, a window unto his emotional state. 

Bingham calls writing "a very personal act" for him.  He's protective of the space he creates to write, both emotionally and physically. His best lyrics come out all at once, because a song that takes too long loses the original, raw emotion.  And his writing is cyclical: he soaks in his environment on the road and almost never writes there.  Once he's home, he writes about those experiences in a short, powerful burst, "venting and getting those feelings off [his] chest." Once those songs and feelings are out, he stops, and he feels not one once of guilt for not writing for the next few months while he gathers those experiences on the road again. 

Read More

Chris Shiflett, Foo Fighters

Chris Shiflett, Foo Fighters

Chris Shiflett doesn't get to write as the guitarist in his other band, so his side project Chris Shiflett and the Dead Peasants allows him to showcase his songwriting and love of honky tonk. It's a good thing, because Shiflett knows what it takes to be a good writer: he writes every day, and he reads every day. He knows that you can't improve as a writer unless you practice, and you won't be a good writer unless you know what good writing looks like. "You write all the time so that even if you write shitty songs, you'll be in good shape when the good ones come along," he told me. 

Now that Shiflett has a family (three young sons), he doesn't have much free time, driving the kids to school and taking them to afternoon sports practices.  So to maintain his skill as a writer (not just a songwriter), he often gets up at 5am before the kids are awake and writes.  As for the reading, Shiflett has dedicated his remaining free time to immersing himself in the classics, having recently torn through F. Scott Fitzgerald's catalog. I came away from our conversation impressed with his dedication to the craft: Shiflett is a tireless student of the writing process.

Read More

Sara Watkins, Nickel Creek

Sara Watkins, Nickel Creek

Much of Sara Watkins' songwriting process involves not writing songs. Her routine is filled with creative exercises that don't produce lyrics but still make her a better songwriter. Some of these exercises are, in her words, "silly and pointless," like when she creates Christmas cards or arts and crafts projects.  Sometimes she sketches.  Other times, her song lyrics start as long journal entries, and it's not until the last line of the entry that she hits on a lyric or the focus of the song. 

All these activities make her a better songwriter because they strengthen the creative side of her brain.  This idea holds true for most of the songwriters I've interviewed for this site: the most prolific, by far, are those who engage in other creative outlets or who read voraciously. By contrast, the worldview of a one-dimensional artist is pretty limited.  I was intrigued by one exercise Watkins gives herself that has nothing to do with songwriting: she takes a few items lying around the house (maybe a piece of paper, a bobby pin, and a rubber band) and creates something with it. The fewer items she uses, the better the product. 

Read More

Heather McEntire, Mount Moriah

Heather McEntire, Mount Moriah

I've interviewed close to 150 songwriters for this site, but no one has a songwriting approach quite like Heather McEntire of Mount Moriah. Once McEntire has a song topic, she researches it. That's right.  She researches.  Whereas many songwriters rely on the inspiration of the muse, her approach is methodical and deliberative; in fact, she says that when she sits down to write, it's almost akin to a college professor's office hours.

McEntire was a creative writing major in college, something that informs her songwriting process. Once she has an idea for a song, she reads as much as she can about the topic, because, well, she likes to learn. But if you read her lyrics and recognize the depth of her imagery and even her attention to geographical detail, none of this is surprising.  And I haven't even mentioned her voice yet, one of my favorites in music today. (Full disclosure: I reviewed the latest Mount Moriah album Miracle Temple on Merge Records in the Washington Post a few months ago.)

Read More

Hayes Carll (2013)

Hayes Carll (2013)

Hayes Carll was a writer before he was ever a songwriter. In fact, before he even knew how to play the guitar, he loved to write.  True story: his favorite part of junior high and high school was when his teacher told the students to freewrite for 20 minutes.  Let that sink in for a minute.  He loved to be told to write. And Carll's goal was not just to write a great story in those 20 minutes; instead, he wanted to write more pages than any of his classmates. He still has those junior high and high school writing journals, even mining them for ideas on occasion. 

With that history, it's no wonder he's been called one of the best storytellers in the singer/songwriter and country western world today. If you're a fan of Carll, you'll obviously love this interview.  But if you're not too familiar with his music and just happen to be a songwriter, you'll still love it.  Just as Carll explains that he's a fan of this site because he wants to learn about the creative processes of other songwriters, you'll find this interview to be its own lesson in songwriting.

Read More

Sera Cahoone

Sera Cahoone

I normally use this space before my interview transcripts to tell you something I learned from my conversation with the featured songwriter.  But I'm going to forego that for a minute and drop all objectivity to tell you that Sera Cahoone has one of my favorite voices in music.  It's a voice that gives me goosebumps.  I'm a relative newcomer to her music; the first song I heard was "The Colder the Air" a couple of years ago off her second album Only as the Day is Long (Sub Pop Records).  Cahoone's voice had me after the first few notes.  Her 2012 album Deer Creek Canyon, also on Sub Pop, is one of my favorite albums in the past year. 

My conversation with Cahoone about her songwriting process revealed more than just how she writes her songs.  Cahoone started out as a drummer, not a songwriter, and for a long time she saw herself solely as a drummer. Only recently has she begun to see herself as a songwriter. And by her own admission, she's an introvert, so she finds writing to be the best way to express herself. She told me, "I think that's why it took me so long to be comfortable with people hearing what I'm saying, because my songs are pretty personal."

Read More

Ritzy Bryan, The Joy Formidable

Ritzy Bryan, The Joy Formidable

What struck me most about my conversation with Ritzy Bryan--the lead guitarist, singer, and songwriter for The Joy Formidable--was the dichotomy of her creative process.  On one hand, it's an abstract idea: she uses words like imagination, inspiration, and mind, all of which are channeled through her stream-of-consciousness writing process.  And yet she explains all of this so well.  It's not easy to talk about vague concepts like these so concretely, but it's a testament to her intelligence and metacognition that she has such a handle on her creative process. Of course, it also helps that she devours books: the back lounge of the band's tour bus is a mini-library.

The Joy Formidable is legendary for their incessant touring schedule.  This means that Bryan does a lot of writing on the road, and she can't worry about finding that right moment to write.  She describes her writing process--even her actual words on the page--as "chaotic." Bryan never, ever forces the writing process; setting aside time to write, she says, will ruin her creativity.  And like any good writer, she recognizes that a large part of her creative process involves soaking up every part of her environment and finding inspiration everywhere, because, in her words, "there's so much variety, even in the most mundane day-to-day schedule."  As a result, her songbook is a "mixture of more fully-realized poems and very chaotic words: just word combinations, wordplay, and imagery."

Read More

Paul Sprangers, Free Energy (redux)

Paul Sprangers, Free Energy (redux)

When I interviewed Paul Sprangers of Free Energy in 2010, he mentioned his affinity for psychologist Carl Jung.  It's the only time I've ever heard a songwriter namecheck the father of the collective unconscious. Knowing this, then, you can read some context into our discussion about his creative process when you see words like subconscious, urge, tension, and ego. According to Sprangers, lyrics come from a place unknown even to him; his body is just a conduit for the words and ideas.  "It's all my subconscious barfing lines onto the page," he told me.

Read More