Posts in Pop
Chris Robinson, The Chris Robinson Brotherhood and The Black Crowes

Towards the end of my conversation with Chris Robinson, we started talking about his reading habits. In my almost 200 interviews for this site, I've learned that songwriters are voracious readers. But I was not at all prepared for the onslaught of titles that Robinson threw at me. He reads so much that I don't know where the man finds time to write. And while most songwriters stick to a genre or two, Robinson sticks to nothing. He wants to be exposed to everything. So he reads some Beat poets, then some Baudelaire. He'll move to Gene Wolfe then Knut Hamsun. Then it might be time for H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen, moving on after that to Israel Regardi's The Golden Dawn or The Dreaming Jewels by Theodore Sturgeon, then some non-fiction in the form or Mary Beard.  His current favorite is Brian Calling. 

Robinson is the frontman and leader of The Chris Robinson Brotherhood, a band he begin in 2011. They've put out six albums in that time, the latest being 2017's Barefoot in the Head. Of course, from 1989 to 2015, Robinson fronted the Black Crowes. Besides their great music - their debut Shake Your Money Maker has not one bad song - the Black Crowes were an incredible live band. I can attest to that: I first saw them in 1990 at a club in Grand Rapids, Michigan right after Shake Your Money Maker was released. The buzz around the band had just started, and that show still stands as one of the best I've ever seen.

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Dan Wilson

 

You know Dan Wilson. You may not think you know Dan Wilson, but you know Dan Wilson. How do I know that you know Dan Wilson? Because it's closing time somewhere in the world as I'm typing this and as you're reading this, and there is no way in hell that you haven't heard that song. Which, by the way, I still love.

You also know Dan Wilson because you know Adele and the Dixie Chicks. He co-wrote Adele's "Someone Like You" and the Dixie Chicks' "Not Ready to Make Nice." He won two Grammys in 2007: Song of the Year as co-writer on "Not Ready to Make Nice" and Album of the Year for the Dixie Chicks' album Taking the Long Way. He again won an Album of the Year Grammy in 2012 for Adele's album 21. The list of artists he's either written with or produced is dizzying:  Taylor Swift, Nas, Pink, Weezer, John Legend, Josh Groban, Chris Stapleton, Spoon, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, My Morning Jacket, to name a very small few. He's got indie street cred too: he worked extensively on Phantogram's 2016 album Three, including a co-writing credit on every song except one.

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Joy Williams

In February 2011 I interviewed a new group called The Civil Wars, ten days after the release of their debut Barton Hollow. The rest was, of course, history, as Joy Williams and John Paul White went on to huge success, including four Grammys and worldwide critical adulation. The group broke up in 2014. 

Williams released her solo debut Venus this year.  In the 160 or so interviews I've done for this site, one pattern has emerged among the truly creative souls here: they are always songwriters, and they are always thinking about creating. John Oates, for example, told me about his songwriting antennae that are always up. Melissa Etheridge, whom I just interviewed yesterday and as you'll read soon, told me that she's always carrying her "idea bucket" around. And so it is with Williams: the creative process is always at the forefront in some form. She writes every day, she's reading five books at any given time, she loves cooking and the creativity inherent in that process. 

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John Oates, Hall and Oates

When I started this site in 2010, I had a goal: treat songwriters as writers, plain and simple. As someone with a Ph.D. in English Literature, I had read my share of interviews with poets, playwrights, novelists, and short story writers detailing their writing process. But what about songwriters? Aren't they writers too? Shouldn't they be included? So when John Oates started our interview by saying, "I've always looked at myself as a writer," I swooned.  Because songwriters are writers. Period. 

I'm going to borrow from Questlove's excellent induction speech when he introduced Hall and Oates at the 2014 Rock n Roll Hall of Fame ceremony.  In the rock era, here's a list of the duos who are more successful than Hall and Oates, according to the RIAA:

Done. None.

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Ben Bridwell, Band of Horses

Oh, to be a young and single songwriter.  There are no limits to your creative process: without family commitments, you can write anywhere, anytime.  And that's what Ben Bridwell, singer and songwriter for Band of Horses, did.  He went to cabins and cabooses, from mountains to ocean shores.  Bridwell craves that isolation to write, and he thought it was a necessary component to his process. And that isolation, he believed, couldn't be a quiet room in the house. It had to be far away. (Not all songwriters need solitude, though; many have told me that they prefer to be around at least a little bit of action.  There's Cory Branan, who wrote his first two albums in a mall food court.  And there's Rhett Miller, who likes venue stairwells, where it's quiet but he not too far from the hustle and bustle of load in.)

Three daughters and a wife later, Bridwell can no longer pack up his notebooks and head to the hills to write like he used to.  He's got a family now.  But he's found the perfect space: his garage-cum-studio.  No one bothers him there, though admittedly they stay away for more practical reasons: according to Bridwell, "it's dark and there are lots of bugs."  Having this space made Bridwell realize that it's solitude that matters, not where the solitude is.

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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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Pop, RockBen OpiparioarComment
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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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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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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Catherine Pierce, The Pierces

The sisters Catherine and Allison Pierce make up The Pierces.  With a musician for a father and a painter for a mother, they've been around some form of art all their lives, so it's no surprise that Catherine has always been creative.  She writes songs, she loves to paint, she's an accomplished ballerina, and she's even a creative writer.  When it comes to inspiration, she takes the active route; in her words, she's "always looking for the muse." As a result, the initial inspiration for a song doesn't come from a melody; instead, it usually comes from a random line that pops into her head. The inspiration for their song "Secrets," for example, came from a Ben Franklin quote that she saw on a t-shirt in a restaurant.

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Chris Collingwood, Fountains of Wayne

My family and I lived in upstate New York for four years, from 2002 to 2006, before we beat a hasty retreat back to our hometown of Washington, DC.  We lived in the small town of Hamilton, New York, near Syracuse, where winters can start in October and end in May. The snow never ends and the cold is unrelenting (we had 190 inches of snow our last winter there).  Yes, the countryside is beautiful, and the other three seasons are sublime--but they are far too short to really enjoy.

For some writers, this situation is ideal.  The forced isolation (unless you have snowshoes) and creative output go hand in hand: armed with bottomless hot chocolate, a pen, and a not unreasonable desire to stay warm, you can really crank out the words.  Pete Yorn, for instance, told me that if it weren't for the brutally cold winters during his undergrad days at Syracuse University, he may not have become a songwriter.

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Neil Finn, Crowded House

With an empty house and some much deserved peace and quiet, what's an empty-nester to do after the kids are no longer running around the house? Some want to travel the world.  Others want to just enjoy the domestic tranquility.

This is not what Neil and Sharon Finn did. In fact, they did the opposite. 

Instead of globetrotting or listening to the sounds of silence, they made more noise.  To be sure: when it comes from the voice or the pen of Neil Finn, it's never noise.  You can dispute the talents of many people in music, but of this fact there is no arguing: Finn is one of the most talented songwriters ever (listen to any Crowded House album and you'll see what I mean). The Finns' new project, Pajama Club, is the result of red wine and lots of time.  With the kids gone, Neil and Sharon needed something to do.  Maybe the house was too quiet. So Neil picked up the drums and Sharon the bass--instruments out of their comfort zone--and began jamming.  Playing the rhythm section is an odd way to start an album, but if anyone can pull that off, it's Finn.

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