Posts in Influencers
Ray Benson, Asleep at the Wheel

Ray Benson is best known as the co-founder of the country music band Asleep at the Wheel. The band, founded in 1969, has won nine Grammy Awards. Asleep at the Wheel is a contemporary torchbearer for the subgenre of country music known as Western swing, a more danceable kind of country music that originated in the 1920s.

But the 63 year-old Benson has a solo release out now calledA Little Piece, only his second solo album. It represents a departure from his Asleep at the Wheel material; it's more personal and was written from a much darker place, according to Benson. I saw Benson play an in-store at Waterloo Records in Austin a couple of months ago, where he showcased his new material backed by the excellent band Milkdrive. I had never seen Benson before, and his performance was fantastic.  He's a great storyteller and performer whose baritone serves as the ideal complement to his new material.

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Kurt Wagner, Lambchop

Salon magazine recently called Kurt Wagner of Lambchop the "greatest working American songwriter." But Wagner is not only a terrific songwriter, he's also one hell of a painter who has received considerable notice for his talents as a visual artist. In fact, Wagner was a painter before he was ever a songwriter (he has both an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree in sculpture). And these two creative endeavors constantly inform the other: not only do their processes overlap, but a visit to an art gallery might inspire Wagner to write a song. In that sense, then, this is not just an interview with songwriter. It's an interview with an artist. 

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Nils Lofgren, Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band

When talking about his songwriting process, Nils Lofgren, guitarist for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, espouses a view shared by successful long-form writers. To many of them, writer's block is merely a failure of courage: it happens when writers expect perfection whenever they put pen to paper.  They're afraid to write badly. But any good writer will tell you that you cannot be afraid to write badly, because writing badly makes you better.  Some writing is better than no writing, and with work you can turn bad writing into better writing.  If you wait for perfection, you won't get much accomplished.

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Meshell Ndegeocello

What do John Bonham and Meshell Ndegeocello have in common?  They've both used hotel rooms for creative expression through some unique rearranging of the furniture. Ok, so there is a bit of a difference. Bonham and the rest of Led Zeppelin trashed their rooms in the name of hedonism. But Ndegeocello tastefully moves the furniture in her hotel room to reclaim the space as her own.  By doing so, she's able to create her ideal writing environment, an environment that often gets its best use at 3am. To craft her song lyrics, Ndegeocello draws on what she calls the constantly moving "image factory" in her mind.

The ten-time Grammy nominee has a new album, released November 8, called Weather.  She's on tour now supporting it. Ndegeocello's creative output is staggering in its excellence, and the critical acclaim throughout her career is universal in its praise. Read my interview with Ndegeocello after the video.

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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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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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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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Colin Newman, Wire

And now for a lesson in music history.

It wouldn't be a stretch to say that Wire has had a considerable influence on rock music.  I say "rock," because as songwriter Colin Newman told me, their music "takes the axe to 'rock n roll' and leaves the 'n roll' part out."  Wire has been cited by bands like U2, The Cure, R.E.M., Guided By Voices, Minor Threat, and Black Flag (among countless others) as an influence.  They are one of the innovators of the punk scene of the 70s and 80s, be it punk rock, art punk, post-punk, whatever. With releases like their 1977 debut Pink Flag and later Chairs Missing, Wire were era-defining; if you listen to indie rock in some form today, chances are there's a Wire influence somewhere. 

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Matt Pryor, The Get Up Kids

The Get Up Kids formed in 1995 in Kansas and were a major player in the second wave of emo. They enjoyed considerable success, both in worldwide touring and record sales, before disbanding in 2005. Relatively speaking, back then life was pretty uncomplicated for singer and guitarist Matt Pryor.  Sure, he was busy touring the world and writing music.  But at least he didn’t have kids.

The Get Up Kids have reunited for a new tour and record.  And now, Pryor is the married father of three kids ages eight and under.  His family informs—in a good way—everything he does now as a songwriter.  He is a devoted family man.  He takes the kids to school in the morning and writes when they are gone.  He puts them to bed and writes when they are asleep.  His band schedule revolves around his wife's graduate school schedule.  He’s even written two children’s records.  As the father of three kids ages seven and under, I can appreciate Pryor's life.  But as Pryor told me, people ask him, “Well why can’t you just find time to write?” To which he responds, "Unless you have kids, you just don’t understand.”

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