Posts in Rock
Kevn Kinney, Drivin' N Cryin'

It is a testament to Kevn Kinney's stature among songwriters that other artists like Matt Nathanson and David Bazan tweeted their enthusiasm when I announced that Kinney would be featured here.  Kinney has fronted Drivin' N Cryin' for close to 30 years now, and I've been a fan for most of those years.  Kinney is a native of Milwaukee but the band started in Atlanta, so naturally they've been pegged as a Southern rock band, whatever THAT designation is.  I prefer to see them as a rock band, plain and simple, with early staples like "Fly Me Courageous," "Honeysuckle Blue,"  and "Can't Promise You the World." The band is still active in both recording and touring, releasing one LP and four EPs since 2009. 

 

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Rhett Miller, Old 97's

started this site in 2010 as a way to give a voice to songwriters in the same way that interviewers give poets and prose writers. I wanted to treat songwriters as writers and to have an intelligent discussion about the writing process. A Paris Review of songwriting interviews. Rhett Miller of the Old 97's fulfilled that mission for me perhaps better than any other. But that's because he sees himself as a writer, not because I treated him as one. There are a few times during our conversation when Miller reveals himself as a songwriter when he discusses guitars and chord progressions, but for the most part Miller could just as well be a poet or a short story writer. Of course, Miller is both of those: he's written poems and essays and short stories.  

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Richard On, O.A.R.

Richard On, guitarist and songwriter for O.A.R, is a working man. He's up before sunrise to work out.  He hears melodies all day that he's constantly recording to his phone. And he does most of his best writing at night, after he's put the kids to bed and is finally able to relax with his wife. Heck, even when he sleeps he's still working: he wrote the riff to one of their songs after getting up in the middle of the nigh. On recorded it, then went back to sleep.  It was only when he saw the timestamp on the recording later that he remembered what he'd done. Of course, all this hard work can be undone by the tiny fingers of his children, as you'll read.

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Tom Keifer, Cinderella

For almost thirty years, Tom Keifer has had seeds rolling around in his head.  All day long. They never stop. But Keifer wants it no other way.

Keifer achieved tremendous success as the frontman for the 80s hard rock band Cinderella, selling over 20 million albums worldwide. Throughout his career, Keifer's creative process has involved the sifting of these "seeds," as he calls them. These seeds take the form of melodies and lines that he's always juggling in his mind. Those that he forgets are probably not meant to be anyway, he figures. But those seeds that stick around for weeks or even months are probably, in Keifer's view, meant to be songs. It's not surprising, then, that Keifer's songwriting process always starts with the lyrics. The guitar hooks, he says, are "the easy part." He can write those all day long. 

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Mark Morton, Lamb of God

This site is woefully short of interviews with metal songwriters. I've been a Lamb of God fan for a while, but it was only recently that I watched the 2014 documentary about the band "As the Palaces Burn." No less a metal god than Slash calls them one of the biggest metal acts in the world in the trailer (below). I was impressed by the introspection and thoughtful responses in the band member interviews, so I figured that Mark Morton, guitarist and songwriter for the band, would make a fantastic interview.  And boy was I right. 

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Matt Nathanson

You may not know that Matt Nathanson has a writing partner.  The problem, though, is that Nathanson doesn't want this guy around. In fact, Nathanson told me, he'd love to "tape his mouth shut and stuff him in a trunk."  And even worse: this guy is an assassin.

This assassin is in Nathanson's mind.  It's the part of him that tells him not to write certain words or ideas.  The assassin is there to kill Nathanson's words by telling him that what he's writing is "dumb." And Nathanson hates the assassin, because when he's around, creativity suffers.  Nathanson does his best to keep the assassin at bay so that he can write from the most honest and unselfconscious perspective he knows.

Read my interview with Matt Nathanson about his songwriting process.  We talk about the assassin, morning puking, and shitting songs. It's long, sure, but worth every word.  Of the 160 interviews I've done, this ranks as one of my favorites because Nathanson is so introspective. He doesn't just tell me about his process, he reflects on it and talks about what it says about him as a person.  

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Cy Curnin, The Fixx

Sometimes when I transcribe these interviews, one of the artist’s songs constantly loops through my head.  That’s a testament, of course, to the powerful melody the songwriter has crafted. This happened as I transcribed my conversation with Cy Curnin of The Fixx, but it wasn’t just one song.  It was several:  songs like “Red Skies,” “Stand or Fall,” “Secret Separation,” Are We Ourselves,” and of course “One Thing Leads to Another,” with their infectious choruses and bass riffs, never stopped playing in my head. 

Curnin knows about writing a well-crafted song.  The band formed in 1979 and had four hits in the US top twenty.  I’ve interviewed other artists from that time period—people like Colin Newman (Wire), Chris Difford (Squeeze), Neil Finn (Crowded House), and Andy McCluskey (OMD)—and they all have one thing in common: discipline. Sure, they are artists, but they work at their craft.  There’s no waiting for the muse.  They write every day and they actively seek inspiration. There’s a reason these songwriters have been around so long: at some point, they accepted that what they do takes work.  With his methodical songwriting process, Curnin is no exception. While some songwriters tell me that the songs just happen, Curnin knows how, when, where, and why they happen. His words are decidedly self-assured, but with his catalog, it's no surprise.

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Chris Shiflett, Foo Fighters

Chris Shiflett doesn't get to write as the guitarist in his other band, so his side project Chris Shiflett and the Dead Peasants allows him to showcase his songwriting and love of honky tonk. It's a good thing, because Shiflett knows what it takes to be a good writer: he writes every day, and he reads every day. He knows that you can't improve as a writer unless you practice, and you won't be a good writer unless you know what good writing looks like. "You write all the time so that even if you write shitty songs, you'll be in good shape when the good ones come along," he told me. 

Now that Shiflett has a family (three young sons), he doesn't have much free time, driving the kids to school and taking them to afternoon sports practices.  So to maintain his skill as a writer (not just a songwriter), he often gets up at 5am before the kids are awake and writes.  As for the reading, Shiflett has dedicated his remaining free time to immersing himself in the classics, having recently torn through F. Scott Fitzgerald's catalog. I came away from our conversation impressed with his dedication to the craft: Shiflett is a tireless student of the writing process.

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Paul Sprangers, Free Energy (redux)

When I interviewed Paul Sprangers of Free Energy in 2010, he mentioned his affinity for psychologist Carl Jung.  It's the only time I've ever heard a songwriter namecheck the father of the collective unconscious. Knowing this, then, you can read some context into our discussion about his creative process when you see words like subconscious, urge, tension, and ego. According to Sprangers, lyrics come from a place unknown even to him; his body is just a conduit for the words and ideas.  "It's all my subconscious barfing lines onto the page," he told me.

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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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Chuck Ragan

Man would I love to take a look inside Chuck Ragan's piano bench.  Songwriting for Ragan is an intensely personal act, a type of therapy.  It's something he has to do, and he really doesn't care whether anyone sees or hears what he writes.  The last thing he's thinking of is turning a piece of writing into a song. That's why, according to his estimate, probably three quarters of the stuff he's written you'll never see.

And this is where the piano bench comes into play.  Ragan is always writing down ideas and thoughts everywhere he goes, usually on a notepad he stuffs in his back pocket. Then when he gets home, he opens up the bench and adds those scraps of paper to the growing pile already there.  Some of those scraps have been there for over five years. And that's where a lot of his song ideas originate.

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Jimmy Chamberlin, Smashing Pumpkins

Ah, the life of the rock star: adoring fans, packed gigs, fame, global travel, and . . . Montessori schools? Such is the happy life of Jimmy Chamberlin.  He's been involved in music for 38 years, most famously as the drummer for the Smashing Pumpkins and most recently with his new band Skysaw.  His time as a musician has given him a unique perspective on the role of the songwriter in society, a role that transcends merely traveling from city to city playing music.  For Chamberlin, it's much bigger than that.

According to him, the songwriter, like any other writer, has a duty to "put the sophistication back in society." Chamberlin does his part: he reads constantly, often three or four books at a time, and makes sure that his young children see him reading so that they follow suit.  As a result, they've become bookworms (his 8 year-old has read The Hobbit).  And this brings us to his children's Montessori school, where he sits on the board of directors and champions the importance of reading.  Chamberlin's love of the written word is not surprising, given that his favorite writer is Emily Dickinson.

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