Posts in Folk Rock
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. 

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James McMurtry

James McMurtry wants his old iPhone back. The singer-songwriter hasn't been the same writer without it.  And it's all because Apple changed its Notes app.

In the days before computers were the default method for composition, McMurtry wrote lyrics on legal pads. He has boxes filled with legal pads filled with lyrics. He became intensely familiar and comfortable with those yellow pages; there was something about that yellow and those lines that made the words pour forth from his felt-tip pen. McMurtry eventually turned to computers, but with them he sacrificed portability. Cell phones solved that problem. And when McMurtry found that the Notes app on his iPhone 3 looked like that old yellow legal pad paper, well, the words flowed. It was creative nirvana. 

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Ben Bridwell, Band of Horses

Oh, to be a young and single songwriter.  There are no limits to your creative process: without family commitments, you can write anywhere, anytime.  And that's what Ben Bridwell, singer and songwriter for Band of Horses, did.  He went to cabins and cabooses, from mountains to ocean shores.  Bridwell craves that isolation to write, and he thought it was a necessary component to his process. And that isolation, he believed, couldn't be a quiet room in the house. It had to be far away. (Not all songwriters need solitude, though; many have told me that they prefer to be around at least a little bit of action.  There's Cory Branan, who wrote his first two albums in a mall food court.  And there's Rhett Miller, who likes venue stairwells, where it's quiet but he not too far from the hustle and bustle of load in.)

Three daughters and a wife later, Bridwell can no longer pack up his notebooks and head to the hills to write like he used to.  He's got a family now.  But he's found the perfect space: his garage-cum-studio.  No one bothers him there, though admittedly they stay away for more practical reasons: according to Bridwell, "it's dark and there are lots of bugs."  Having this space made Bridwell realize that it's solitude that matters, not where the solitude is.

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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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Amanda Shires

In the nearly 150 interviews I've done for this site, one thing stands out: songwriters are voracious readers, much more so that the general public. They read all the time. They read novels, they read short stories, they read non-fiction. But curiously, not nearly as many read poetry as I would expect. That surprises me, given the similarities between song lyrics and poetry.  

Amanda Shires is the exception. She reads poetry with a passion. But she's taken it one step further: Shires is pursuing her MFA in poetry from Sewanee, and she's almost finished. It's no surprise that her coursework has had a tremendous impact on her songwriting, since she's learning about the craft of poetry  But it hasn't been without its challenges.  While it's easy for Shires to share her songs with an audience, sharing her poetry is a different experience.  

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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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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. 

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Tim Kasher, Cursive

Tim Kasher of Cursive is a multidisciplinary writer:  he writes songs, but he also writes screenplays and short stories.  It's no surprise that the process of songwriting and the process of writing long form pieces influence each other.  What does surprise me, though, is that the process of the former has made him more disciplined when it comes to the latter: Kasher has long been able to sit for long stretches and write songs, something that's more common to fiction writers.  Then again, Kasher's songwriting process is somewhat unconventional: this a guy whose ideas come best in the morning after a good night's sleep. That's rare among the 120+ songwriters I've interviewed, most of whom say they work best in the late hours of the night. The phrase "in the morning after a good night's sleep" is not often associated with indie songwriters.

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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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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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