Posts in Singer/Songwriter
David Bazan

David Bazan had me at "Galway Kinnell." You see, Kinnell is one of my favorite poets, one of the best around.  Before my interview with Bazan, I interviewed Jeremy Messersmith and had mentioned that songwriters should read more poetry and that they should start with Kinnell.  After talking to Messersmith, I had some time to kill, so I opened one of my Galway Kinnell books and read.  So when Bazan told me later that day, unprompted, that he was a Kinnell fan, I swooned all the way out of my chair.

There's so much to Bazan's songwriting process.  He's one of those songwriters who sees himself as a writer, not just a songwriter.  Had he seen me on the other end of the phone when he told me about his creative process, I would have been nodding my head vigorously, because so much of what he said is what I tell other writers:

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Laura Stevenson, Laura Stevenson and the Cans

After close to 100 interviews for this site, artists have given me a variety of answers as to why they write songs.  Some just enjoy playing music, a pleasurable experience as an end in itself.  For others, it was probably rooted in those Suzuki method piano lessons that their parents made them take.  And, of course, for still others music is an emotional outlet, as it is for Laura Stevenson, of Laura Stevenson and the Cans.  Music has helped Stevenson through some dark times, times so dark that she did nothing: her phone went unanswered, her bills went unpaid. But songwriting is a cathartic process for her; she expresses topics that she hasn't even told her therapist. I don't think writer's block will ever be an issue for Stevenson, since, in her words, she has "decades" of material from which to draw.

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Taylor Goldsmith, Dawes

In at least one high school English class this year, Taylor Goldsmith's writing has been taught alongside the classics. It's a tribute to Goldsmith's songwriting and storytelling that one English teacher discovered that the themes of Dawes' debut North Hills mirror the themes in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. After talking to Goldsmith, none of this really surprises me.  He's ridiculously well-read, devouring the classics (I have a PhD in English, and I admit that I haven't touched some of the authors he's read). His method of songwriting is unorthodox, at least among the 90+ songwriters I've interviewed: he often starts the songwriting process with the title, he doesn't like to use nonsense syllables as placeholders when he starts crafting the lyrics, and he writes each song with a fixed topic in mind. All of this is what makes him a great storyteller and what draws comparisons to the Laurel Canyon scene.

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James Vincent McMorrow

James Vincent McMorrow is nothing if not patient and methodical.  A lesser songwriter might be driven crazy by the snail's pace of his writing process: it took McMorrow nearly six months to write his debut Early in the Morning (Vagrant Records).  Some days he wrote only a few sentences; on others, just a few words.  It would be easy to call this writer's block; after all, if you sit for a whole day and only write five or six sentences, surely your creative spigot is closed.

But this is all part of McMorrow's process, and here's the difference.  Any good writer will tell you that their writing process never stops.  It's happening when they eat, sleep, talk, stare, read, whatever.  The actual pen-to-paper part, the end product, is only a small part of that process. Sure, it's the most gratifying, but it's only one part of many. So it's not that McMorrow writes slowly. (Well, he might, since I've haven't seen the speed of his penmanship.)  Instead, he writes deliberately. And he's fine with that. 

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Joe Michelini, River City Extension

Joe Michelini of River City Extension isn't the first songwriter to tell me that he uses cooking as part of his songwriting process.  But he might be the first one to tell me that he uses it almost as a source of self-flagellation: when he gets writer's block, he eats and eats. Just gorges himself.  Then, when he feels sufficiently terrible about doing nothing but staying inside and eating all day, he ventures out. And when he does, he sees the world in an entirely new way. Everything looks fresh, like seeing the world for the first time.

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Dave Hause

It's not often that I get to exchange bedtime routines with a songwriter.  But that's what Dave Hause and I did at the end of our interview.  We had been talking for about 50 minutes and established that we had a great deal in common, so it's probably little surprise that it came to this point.  We both read a lot of magazines.  Too many, really, to keep up with.  So they just pile up next to our beds, waiting to be read. The second we finish one, two more arrive.

Hause's songwriting process and reading material reflect his high level of engagement with his environment. And this level of engagement makes for one thing: Hause is a smart and introspective man.  He doesn't just give me answers, he tells me why he does what he does.  And he's able to do this because he's constantly thinking about his place in the world.  He reads Rolling Stone for the political articles and GQ for the non-fiction.  He's constantly picking up auditory and visual cues for song ideas, and he has an endless supply of notebooks and Blackberry files to show for it.

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Pete Yorn

It's not that often that a songwriter says that majoring in the humanities was the perfect preparation for being a singer/songwriter.  But that's what happened for Pete Yorn.  He was a speech communications major at Syracuse University  (it's now called "communication and rhetorical studies" there).  He had planned on going to law school and figured that a major emphasizing public speaking was good preparation.  Yorn was "petrified" of getting in front of a group, so the major helped him work through that fear and become comfortable with public performances. 

Yorn's college experience honed his songwriting skills in another way.  If you've ever spent any time near Syracuse, one image comes to mind: snow.  The area is closing in on 200 inches of snow this winter. I spent four years living in the Syracuse area. The cold and snowy winters there are soul-crushing.  But ask Yorn about his time as an undergrad at SU, and he'll tell you that if it weren't for all that snow, he might never have become a songwriter.  What others might see as limiting--the fact that you can't really go outside--Yorn saw as the perfect opportunity to stay inside and do some writing.  "I credit those winters," he says, "as a catalyst to my songwriting."

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Nicole Atkins

After high school, Nicole Atkins moved to North Carolina to study illustration in college.  This means, of course, that she has the mind not just of a songwriter but of a visual artist. This puts her at an advantage when it comes to songwriting.  As she explained to me, her creative process is a visual one.  For instance, she sees songs in colors: there's a lot of green songs on her new release Mondo Amore. And when she's in the middle of writing a song, she visualizes its landscape.  Actually, she doesn't just visualize it: she inhabits it, from gauging the temperature to feeling the ground. As you'll read in this interview, Atkins discussion of songwriting is at times interchangeable with her discussion of visual art.

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Ben Ottewell, Gomez

Ben Ottewell, vocalist and guitarist for Gomez, released his solo album Shapes and Shadows this month. It obviously offered Ottewell much more freedom in his creative process: as you'll read, everything went "a lot faster" since the buck stopped with him.  Read my interview with Ottewell about his songwriting process after the video.

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Haroula Rose

It takes only about five minutes of talking to Haroula Rose to realize the extent of her creativity. Sure, she is a fantastic singer and songwriter.  But she's also involved in film making, is an active photographer, and voraciously consumes poetry.  All of these creative endeavors can't help but strengthen her already considerable talents as a songwriter.

Rose graduated from the University of Chicago, where she majored in English and received her Master of Arts in Teaching. After graduation, she worked in a Chicago music house producing jingles for radio and television. She spent almost two years there before driving out to Los Angeles to work at a production company, where she spent time on film sets.   After seven months in Los Angeles, she accepted a Fulbright scholarship to teach English and drama in Madrid.

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Joy Williams and John Paul White, The Civil Wars

One of the reasons why The Civil Wars work so well is the effortless collaboration between its two members, Joy Williams and John Paul White.  And it had better work well: they travel without a band, playing their music with just guitar and piano.  Plus two beautiful voices.

What I found most unique about their creative process is its genesis.  Most artists start with the music, and the words flow from that.  A few, but not many, start with the words.  The Civil Wars begin with both: when Williams and White get together (both are veteran songwriters and are not married to each other),  White "noodles" on the guitar as they talk about what's going on in each of their lives. It's that combination of noodling and conversation that leads to the ideas for their songs.  (Of course, I'd also argue that prolific output like this is due to their love of William Faulkner and Flannery OConnor, but that's another story.)

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Brian Fallon (2011)

The next time you come across a song by The Gaslight Anthem, see it.  And I don't mean watch it on YouTube.  When it hits your ears, don't just listen to it.  See it.   Because I have a feeling that's what Brian Fallon wants. He may be a songwriter, but he talks like a poet.  He says that "imagery is more important than content" in his songs.  Most all of his songs start with scenery, and his job as the songwriter is to describe what it looks like, to get you the listener to see the imagery that Fallon conveys with his words.  It's no surprise he writes this way, once you know his favorite poet: Dylan Thomas.  As you'll read, Fallon used lines from a Dylan Thomas short story to describe his new side project Horrible Crowes.

I'm assuming that the whole Gaslight Anthem thing will work out for Brian Fallon.  He writes great songs and they put on a great live show. But there's a part of me that thinks he'd make one hell of a poet. Sure, this inteview is long.  I even trimmed some.  But every introspective answer is a window into a fascinating creative process. 

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