Posts in Alt Country
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.

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Eric Earley, Blitzen Trapper

Wanna be a writer? Easy: read and write. All the time. You can't be a good writer if you don't read. Most songwriters I interview are voracious readers, but I don't know anyone I've interviewed who fits that idea more than Blitzen Trapper's Eric Earley. 

When I asked Earley if he was a disciplined writer, if he was able to sit down and make himself write for a stretch, he told me no. That's a common response to this question, and it's mostly framed as a wistful But I really wish I had that discipline. Earley's reason is different: he doesn't have discipline because he doesn't need it. He writes all the time. He never sees writing as someone that he should do. Instead, it's something he loves to do. In fact, his problem now is that his love for writing may occupy too much of his time. "It's more about scaling back and finding times to do other things," he told me. To wit: Earley has written five novels that he has no plans to publish. And he's always reading. When we talked, he was reading three books at the same time. The result? A songwriter who loves to tell stories, and whose process seems, from an outsider's perspective, to come pretty easily. But that's my point: when Earley isn't writing songs, words consume his life in some other fashion.

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Tift Merritt

"Adjectives and adverbs are not what we need to be singin'," Tift Merritt told me during our interview. Like any good songwriter, the Grammy-nominated artist favors economy of words and simple language in her lyrics, just as two of her biggest literary influences are Cormac McCarthy and Raymond Carver. "A lyric needs to feel as if somebody could've spoken those words while standing in line at the post office," she said.

Merritt studied creative writing in college and has been writing across genres for a while. Songwriting is just one of her many creative outputs. But while Merritt might favor economy of language in song, her description of her writing process is filled with metaphors. She talks of "rolling around" in her creativity during the early stages of the process and of discarded song ideas as "pebbles on the trail to the next idea." She typically spends her mornings on words and her afternoons on music, because the lyrics require the sharpness of the morning. After lunch, Merritt says, that's when "you invite an instrument to come sit down with you." 

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Lydia Loveless

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 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. 

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M.C. Taylor, Hiss Golden Messenger

M.C. Taylor will tell you that he's not a narrative songwriter. There may be a story behind the songs, but they don't really tell a story. And even if they did, he wouldn't tell you what those songs are about because that's not his duty as a writer. Taylor would never dare tell you what meaning you're supposed to glean from his lyrics. "Part of my mission with Hiss has been to make emotionally complex music, where you play it for someone and they can't quite tell whether it's happy or sad. That's the core of my music: using it as a mirror for what my life feels like, because my life is both happy and sad, usually at the same time. My songs are about whatever you want them to be about. You have your idea and I have mine, and I would never disabuse anyone of their notion." he told me.

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Allison Moorer

Everyone offering career advice seems to want to steer people away from the humanities. Don't be an English major, they say. You won't make any money.  Singer/songwriter Allison Moorer has fortunately dispensed with this silly bit of advice: she's finishing her first semester at The New School in Chelsea, where she's getting her MFA in creative non-fiction. As someone with a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature, I fully support her new career path.

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Cory Branan

Next time you pass through a food court at your local mall, look around for the guy in the video below.  He's probably got his head down, scrawling on a piece of paper or maybe even a sketch pad.  He likes the energy of the people there, as long as it doesn't distract him.  Don't be surprised if it's Cory Branan; after all, the food court at the Oak Court Mall in Memphis is where he wrote his first two albums.

Rolling Stone named Branan one of the "10 New Artists You Need to Know in 2014" for his terrific new release The No Hit Wonder on Bloodshot Records.  Branan's music has been described by critics as a mixture of country, punk, and rock n roll.  But he's also a fantastic storyteller who takes great care to craft his lyrics.  He's one of the few songwriters I've interviewed who starts with the lyrics rather than the music, and by his own admission his process involves "tons of overwriting coupled with merciless editing." What's important to Branan more than the content of the words is the cadence and the rhythm of the lyrics.  It's something he's always thinking about: in fact, the voice memo on his phone is so filled with lines and lyrics that he can no longer use it to play music at parties.  If he does, and it's on shuffle, you're liable to hear a voice memo of Cory reciting song ideas in between songs.

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Kevn Kinney, Drivin' N Cryin'

It is a testament to Kevn Kinney's stature among songwriters that other artists like Matt Nathanson and David Bazan tweeted their enthusiasm when I announced that Kinney would be featured here.  Kinney has fronted Drivin' N Cryin' for close to 30 years now, and I've been a fan for most of those years.  Kinney is a native of Milwaukee but the band started in Atlanta, so naturally they've been pegged as a Southern rock band, whatever THAT designation is.  I prefer to see them as a rock band, plain and simple, with early staples like "Fly Me Courageous," "Honeysuckle Blue,"  and "Can't Promise You the World." The band is still active in both recording and touring, releasing one LP and four EPs since 2009. 

 

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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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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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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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