Posts in Post Punk
Robyn Hitchcock

Robyn Hitchcock, for the good of all your fans, please delete your account.

Not because your tweets are inflammatory or idiotic. Quite the contrary: I love your witty and insightful posts.  But when you told me that your constant attention to social media distracts you from your songwriting, that you are "finishing up fewer songs because of it," well that's where I draw the line. So please put down that phone. No tweet is worth stifling your creative process, my good sir.

Hitchcock, 64, has been writing songs since the 1970s, both solo and with acts like the Soft Boys and Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians. He's earned praise and adulation from critics and songwriters the entire time. Like most songwriters with long careers, he writes constantly. Some of his writings become songs, some don't, although he hates journal writing. Hitchcock likes to write in the morning when his mind is fresh, but he admits that a hangover can be a good tonic for songwriting (something many other songwriters have mentioned to me). This would appear to be counterintuitive; after all, how can you write when you're in pain? But it's precisely that discomfort that Hitchcock finds so stimulating, telling me, "If you're very comfortable in your mind, why write anything in the first place? Why even act on what's there? There can't be that much burning inside of you that you want to write about if you're comfortable. Agitation is necessary." And when Hitchcock writes, it's in pencil, never pen, because he wants to be able to erase, not cross out. 

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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.

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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."

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Hamilton Leithauser, The Walkmen

It wasn't easy to talk at first with Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen about his creative process. There was something else on our minds: we spoke on the phone the same day that RGIII, the quarterback of the Washington Redskins, had his reconstructive knee surgery.  And since Leithauser and I are both Washington DC natives (I still live here while he now lives in New York), we are Redskins fans.  So what you won't read here are the first ten minutes of our interview, which reads like an ESPN amateur hour.

Much has been made of the growing maturity of the the members of The Walkmen, friends since childhood who now have families and who are settling into a bit of domesticity. Leithauser has a 21 month old daughter, whom he had just put down for a nap before we talked.  He gets his best writing done early in the morning. Early, as in after he gets up at 6am, not early as in 1am or 2am before many songwriters go to bed.

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Adam Thompson, We Were Promised Jetpacks

We Were Promised Jetpacks' second album In the Pit of the Stomachrepresented a bit of a departure for the band's songwriter, Adam Thompson.  He wrote their first album These Four Walls in a rather spontaneous fashion: not paying too much attention to the lyrics, just playing the music and, in his words, sometimes "mumbling anything to get the song done." The lyrics were almost an afterthought.

But that changed with Pit, because with this second album came expectations from the music world that were absent from their debutAfter all, you don't get that "it's time to make another album" feeling before you've ever done anything. So Thompson's lyrical process, and in turn its content, became more deliberate: though he still never sits down with the express idea of writing a song, on Pit Thompson tried to string together themes across the songs while spending more time on his laptop crafting the words (and drinking some good rum, I might add).

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Craig Finn, The Hold Steady

The Hold Steady will begin writing material for their sixth album over the next few months. But Craig Finn, the band's lyricist, has probably been writing that material for a long time.  As any good writer knows, the key to become a good writer is daily practice, just like the key to being good at anything is practice.  So Finn makes a point to write every day in his journals.  Though he tries to write a song each day, a lot of what he writes is reflection: what he did that day, his thoughts on the movie he saw, or what he thinks about the book he just read. When he does write a song, he does what good writers do: he lets it sit for a while, untouched, then comes back to it later when he has a new perspective.

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Andy McCluskey, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD)

It's a tribute to Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark that the sound they helped create, the shimmering synth pop that was so innovative when the band started three decades ago, is now de rigueur in music. OMD is out with a new album called History of Modern; it's their first in fourteen years and their first in over twenty with the 1980s "If You Leave" lineup.  It comes at an appropriate time, given the popularity of synth pop and the band's influence on groups like The xx and LCD Soundsytem. And the public has responded: OMD were conservative when booking venues on this tour, but now they are having to book second shows in some cities and move shows to bigger venues in others.

When it came to making History of Modern, Andy McCluskey, the band's singer and co-songwriter with Paul Humphreys, told me, "We analyzed our history and realized that we had created our own musical voice with the first four albums, and we wanted to go back to expressing ourselves in the language we invented ourselves.   We had to strike that balance between something that was OMD but also not some nostalgia trip."

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Chris Difford, Squeeze

When Chris Difford of Squeeze sits down to write a song, there's actually two Chris Diffords in the room: the one at the desk penning the lyrics, and the one on the couch in the corner telling the one at the desk how he feels.  It's those feelings that form the basis for Difford's songs; for him, the songwriting process is "cathartic. . .like keeping a diary."

There's not much I can say in this introduction about the songwriting duo of Difford and Glenn Tilbrook that hasn't been said somewhere else.  For over 35 years, they've adhered to the same routine: Difford writes the lyrics and Tilbrook writes the music.  The result has been some of the most well-crafted and memorable pop songs: "Tempted," "Cool for Cats," "Black Coffee in Bed," "Pulling Mussels from a Shell," "Is That Love," "Hourglass,". . . the list goes on.  They are certainly one of the most legendary (and I will also say strongest) songwriting duos in rock history. If you know music, there is no need for me to extol their excellence.  But if you need proof, there's this: Difford wrote the lyrics to "Tempted" in about two and a half minutes in the back of a cab.  And that first draft was the only draft: he didn't change a word from what he wrote in that back seat.

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Jesper Anderberg, The Sounds

How can I not promote a songwriter who reads Shakespeare to prepare to write for his band's latest album? That's what Jesper Anderberg, keyboardist and songwriter for The Sounds, did.  The band hails from Sweden, so English is not their native language. Anderberg read some Shakespeare, a man whose writing he admired for its lyrical quality; Midsummer Night's Dream was his favorite.  According to Anderberg, you can almost sing the lines from that play.

The Sounds' newest effort, Something to Die For, will be out the end of March on SideOneDummy Records.  It's the band's debut release for the label.  (photo credit: Markku Anttila)

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Steve Bays, Hot Hot Heat

Steve Bays, the singer and songwriter for Hot Hot Heat, grew up on the water, and he lives only feet from it now in Vancouver.  But don’t expect him to take his guitar down to the water’s edge on a whim and start strumming, like some free-spirited songwriter with his toes in the sand and the wind in his hair (even though Bays and I did discover that we both share a love of the great guitar strummin’ songwriter Jim Croce).  Like most professional writers, Bays needs structure to his writing process, and in that aspect he is unique among the songwriters I have talked to, who rely more on the inspiration of their muse.  In fact, if you didn’t know better, you might think Bays dutifully goes to his office every day to write.

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