Posts in Singer/Songwriter
Courtney Barnett

I was surprised when Courtney Barnett told me that she doesn’t like solitude when she writes. Almost all of the songwriters I’ve interviewed have told me that they need to be alone, for the simple reason that they can’t have any distractions. But when Barnett told me why she needs to be around the action, it made sense: how can you be a narrative storyteller if you write while facing a wall?

Read More
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.

Read More
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. 

Read More
Hayes Carll (2016)

Hayes Carll is not a disciplined person. He’ll be the first one to tell you that. He told me this much when I first interviewed him in 2013 . He said, "To be honest, I'm always looking for something else to do other than write. I wish that wasn't the case." It’s now three years later, and it still hasn’t gotten better. With a short attention span, he gets distracted easily. “If I turn on the TV or find some distraction, I’m done. I won’t come back,” Carll told me.

So while the Austin based singer/songwriter loves to write, he also loves to not write, which is why it’s so difficult for him to write for long stretches: if anything even remotely interesting appears on TV, he’s hooked. According to Carll, it can be a cricket match or even “Martha Stewart boiling an egg.” He tries to keep himself as far away from the TV as possible when he writes. If he does get stuck, he returns to his tried and true method of pushing past that block: “a cleaning bender.” This is no metaphor. He cleans his apartment.

 

Read More
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. 

Read More
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.

Read More
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. 

Read More
Hayes Carll (2013)

Hayes Carll was a writer before he was ever a songwriter. In fact, before he even knew how to play the guitar, he loved to write.  True story: his favorite part of junior high and high school was when his teacher told the students to freewrite for 20 minutes.  Let that sink in for a minute.  He loved to be told to write. And Carll's goal was not just to write a great story in those 20 minutes; instead, he wanted to write more pages than any of his classmates. He still has those junior high and high school writing journals, even mining them for ideas on occasion. 

With that history, it's no wonder he's been called one of the best storytellers in the singer/songwriter and country western world today. If you're a fan of Carll, you'll obviously love this interview.  But if you're not too familiar with his music and just happen to be a songwriter, you'll still love it.  Just as Carll explains that he's a fan of this site because he wants to learn about the creative processes of other songwriters, you'll find this interview to be its own lesson in songwriting.

Read More
Richard Buckner (Part One)

There's something wrong when Ke$ha is filthy rich and Richard Buckner had to drive a forklift to make ends meet.  It's proof that talent isn't a great equalizer.  But herein lies my ethical dilemma: I think I want Buckner to have those crazy jobs (besides driving a forklift, he's held road signs and worked for the U.S. Census), because it's those experiences and the characters he encounters there that make him a storyteller.  You can't be a writer if you don't have authentic experiences. It's why megastars like Ke$ha and Katy Perry are no longer individuals: they've become corporations who are so insulated from people like you and me that all they can do is sing about overwrought and cliched topics.

Buckner lives in Kingston, New York, not far from Woodstock in the Hudson Valley. Our conversation went far longer than I had expected, so I'm posting the first part today and the second part next week. Buckner is a joy to talk to; he's got a wonderful, hearty laugh and an intensity that reflects the dedication to his craft.  It's a cheerful intensity, though; he talks with a smile on his face at a pace that suggests that he has so much to say but only a limited time to get it out.

Read More