Posts in Rock
Jim James // My Morning Jacket

Jim James of My Morning Jacket wants to be a happy songwriter. And a healthy one too.

A fair amount of the songwriters I’ve interviewed extol the virtues of writing while hungover. Others talk about how marijuana helps their creativity. Still others credit sobriety with making them better thinkers. But few, like James, have openly advocated physical exercise as a means to boost creativity. He wants more songwriters to get out of the studio and into fresh air. He’s also sick of the idea that misery is an essential component to writing.

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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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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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Brian Fallon, The Gaslight Anthem

When Brian Fallon writes, he's constantly being watched. There's Paul, Tom, B.B. and George, among others, looking over his shoulder. And yes, that's McCartney, Waits, King, and Harrison. You see, there's a room in Fallon's house where he does most of his writing. (When's up there, he's always dressed as if he's going to work. No slippers or pajamas. But that's another story.) And in that room Fallon, also singer of The Gaslight Anthem, hung pictures of some of his songwriting idols. Fallon purposely put them high, close to the ceiling, so he always feels like he's being watched, even judged. He looks to them for inspiration and affirmation. He'll even carry on the occasional conversation, imagining how they might react to a line he's written.

For a guy who writes so much and who has such impressive chops, one thing stands out among the songwriters I've interviewed for this site. Most, if not all, have all their old lyrics and journals from previous albums stored somewhere. They might be in a closet or a box, but they keep them. Some might never look at these journals again, while others go through them for inspiration. Not Fallon. He has nothing, save for the notes from the Horrible Crowes project and the notes from Handwritten. He joked that the notes from the Gaslight classic The '59 Sound are probably on the I-95 shoulder somewhere. Fallon's reason is simple: "I purge a lot of stuff on records, so whatever that last record was about, whatever was weighing me down, I don't want to ever bring that stuff back. A record is like an exorcism to me." Of course, Fallon doesn't keep a steady journal, though he admits he'd probably benefit from it since it would help him remember things.

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Robert Ellis

If you ever happen upon Robert Ellis in public, and he's intently staring at you in a way that probably makes you deeply uncomfortable while he's also jotting down words in a journal, don't worry. There's a good chance he's writing a song. You see, for the song "Perfect Strangers" off his new album Robert EllisEllis rode the subway in New York City for a month one August. Every day, he'd hop on the train, sit down, and pull out his journal. Then he's stare ("creepily," in his words) at the other passengers, trying to imagine where they were going, what their job was, and what their family was like. Then he'd write down his impressions, and those impressions formed the basis for "Perfect Strangers."

Ironically, though, Ellis is driven much more by melody than by lyrics. He actually hates to see his lyrics alone on a page, telling me that they too often look like the musings of a "high school creative writing student . . . A lyrical alone is not enough to kick me in the gut to make me finish. When I look at lyrics naked on the page, they always seem shitty to me. It's rare that I look at just my lyrics and feel good about them."

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Jenn Wasner, Wye Oak and Flock of Dimes

Regardless of what kind of art you create, some level of self-awareness is important. If you're a songwriter, you may marvel at the miracle of inspiration and how sometimes songs just fall into your lap. But at some point, you have to think about your process: you have to think about the parts that work, the parts that don't work, and why they do and don't. Successful songwriters have that level of self-awareness. It's hard to be productive if you're oblivious to your process. Jenn Wasner knows what works and what doesn't work, and this is one of the reasons why she is so prolific and so talented

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Carl Broemel, My Morning Jacket (2016)

Carl Broemel is a changed man. 

In 2010, when I first interviewed Broemel, the guitarist for My Morning Jacket admitted that his "crazy lifestyle" unfortunately didn't leave him much time for reading.  Sure, he had plans: he'd gaze longingly at that stack of books on his bedside table, wondering when he'd ever get to read them. But the stack mostly remained untouched.

It's a different story now, pun intended. Broemel devours books. He reads everything, and I mean everything. I always ask songwriters what they're reading, and I get some great responses. But Broemel and I could've talked forever about what he's been reading, and the enthusiasm in his voice was clear.

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Neil Fallon, Clutch

"I can’t imagine being a songwriter and not reading. How is that possible?"  

No truer words of wisdom have ever been uttered by a songwriter. It should come as no surprise that Neil Fallon, utterer of those words and the the singer/songwriter of the metal band Clutch, is a voracious reader. Fallon is a huge fan of Cormac McCarthy (a favorite among many songwriters I've interviewed) and William Faulkner, but he’s also devoured his share of science fiction over the years—which is why he wanted to branch out to other genres. So Fallon recently decided to tackle some light reading in the form of Russian literature.

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J.D. Cronise, The Sword (2016)

"I was just telling my girlfriend the other day, 'People don't take the words of Yoda seriously enough." And with that, J.D. Cronise of The Sword just gave me one of my favorite lines in the six years I've had this site.  Most songwriters I talk to usually can pinpoint an ideal emotion or state of mind under which they get their best writing done. To Cronise, though, it's an absence of emotion. He tries to get, in his words, into the most Zen state possible: a mind free of clutter, thoughts, distractions, anything. "It’s the non-emotional space that’s best for me. I like to be in a very Zen headspace.  Peace and calm is the most important thing to me when I write." Cronise never forces the writing process, only writing when he feels ready. In itself, this puts him in a relaxed state: there's no pressure to write, so he never gets blocked. 

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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. 

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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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