Posts in Interviews with Songwriters
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.  

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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.

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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. 

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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."

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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.  

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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.

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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.  

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.)

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