Adam Granduciel, The War on Drugs

After talking to Adam Granduciel from The War on Drugs, I want to thank his utility company for still sending him a paper bill each month.  You see, Granduciel eschews the traditional notebook favored by most songwriters as the place to write his lyrics.  Instead, he uses scraps of any paper lying around, which oftens happens to be the back of retail receipts, parking tickets, and electric bills.  He piles these scraps into a heap on the table in his studio (and warns his girlfriend that it isn't trash), where they form the basis for his songwriting.  

What I found most interesting about Granduciel's process is that he favors imperfection.  As a teenager, he was immersed in photography and painting, and just as he does in those creative endeavors, he finds that the "unintentional little mistakes" that emerge from the creative process of songwriting often produce the best work.  Those scraps of paper I mentioned above only contain lyrical ideas, because Granduciel tends to hold lyrics in his head and "write" them in that space until he's ready to sing them.  He doesn't do much revising: much of what you hear in his recordings is a first take improvisation after the lyrics have stewed in his head.  With "Brothers," for example, eighty percent of the lyrics were improvised; it went, in his words, "from nothing to something in six minutes."

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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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Juliette Commagere

If you happen to be eating in a restaurant and see Juliette Commagere suddenly get up from her table, notebook or iPhone in hand, and rush to the bathroom, don't be alarmed.  She's in the middle of her writing process.  And if you are a fan of Commagere's music, you'd be wise not to follow her in.  Because she writes best when she's alone. 

According to Commagere, a major shift in the inspiration phase of her writing process took place a few years ago, when she became more open to observing everything around her, not just certain things.  In short, she became hypersensitive to her surroundings.  That means, then, that if she hears or sees something in a restaurant that might serve as a catalyst to a song, she's going to get up and go to the bathroom to either scribble down some lyrics or sing into her iPhone.

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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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Franz Nicolay

After reading this interview with Franz Nicolay, you'll want to do two things: brush up on your classic works of literature and practice your detective skills.  Because according to Nicolay, his songs are like puzzles: he fills them with literary references waiting to be discovered and word games waiting to be solved.  Nicolay is a voracious reader, so it comes as no surprise that his lyrics contain many references to works of literature, and he's constantly mining those works for a line or a reference he can stick in a song. Given the methodical nature and intensity with which he approaches his songwriting, the depth of his lyrics comes as no surprise.

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Adam Turla, Murder By Death (2011)

If you go back to the first interview on this site back in June 2010, it was with Adam Turla of Murder By Death.  We talked backstage at Lincoln Hall in Chicago as he lay on a couch in the green room, the victim of a pinched nerve in his back (though you never would have known it a couple hours later watching him play).

I am an unabashed Murder By Death fan.  Turla writes some of the best lyrics around, and the band's music sounds like no one else (Turla describes them as "a rock and roll band with a little bit of country.  There’s a cello, a guy with a low voice, and some piano.  It’s music that can exist at any time. And we tell great stories.”).  I have enormous respect for the reverence with which he treats his creative process. Here's a look into that process after the video as he talks about writing for the upcoming album.

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Kurt Vile

In his own words, Kurt Vile runs around like a "headless chicken" when he's on tour, so it's hard for him to write.  Given that he needs a clutter-free environment ("Open space and open air in my head," he says) this is hardly surprising.  Vile works best when he's away from all of his comfort zones, which explains why a trip to the countryside can often be a salve for any songwriting rut he might be in. Vile's new EP So Outta Reach comes out November 8.  The EP contains five songs recorded during the sessions for his latest LP Smoke Ring for My Halo.  

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Eric Bachmann, Crooked Fingers and Archers of Loaf

Sure, Eric Bachmann is strong: he benches 240 lbs, according to his bio on the Merge Records site. But what I'm more impressed with is his mental strength.  The Archers of Loaf and Crooked Fingers frontman has been known to exist on a torrid two-week writing schedule, aided by lots of coffee and easy-to-prepare food: 40 hours of writing followed by 6 hours of sleep, then repeating this cycle for up to 14 days. And it's not like he's looking over a wonderful vista while he's writing, since his ideal writing environment is a small room with confining walls painted in a dark color.  But this desire for confinement is at odds with how Bachmann lives his life: he never stays in the same place for more than six months, always moving from place to place in his van. So while he's in Athens, Georgia now, he'll be gone by spring. This nomadic lifestyle is reflected in his creative process as well, because Bachmann never likes to stay too comfortable with the same method of creating songs.

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Matt Iwanusa, Caveman

Back in February, I got an email from Dylan Von Wagner of Linfinity.  I interviewed Von Wagner for this site a while ago and reviewed the band's album Martian's Bloom for the Washington Post.  His email carried a sense of urgency: You've gotta check out this new band Caveman, he wrote.  He told me how talented they were and that Matt Iwanusa, their songwriter, would be a good interview for this site.  I liked what I heard and filed that thought away.

The music blogosphere is littered with failed "the next big thing" or "these guys are gonna be huge" tags.  Most of these promises never pan out, of course, which is why I'll never say that.  But I will say this: Caveman are good.  Really good.  Their debut album CoCo Beware comes out September 13, and they are on tour now with The War on Drugs.  Read my interview with Matt Iwanusa after the video, where he talks about how both walking the streets of New York City and the video game Galaga influence his songwriting process.  Naturally, he talked to me while walking those streets. 

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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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Keith Goodwin, Good Old War

It's a good thing that Keith Goodwin of Good Old War is disciplined in his songwriting process (most of the songwriters I've interviewed are, in their own words, not disciplined). His wife is due with their first child in October, so he's only got a couple more months of solitude in the house.  We have four young kids, and as I told Goodwin, being a parent has actually made me more disciplined: I have limited free time, so I know not to waste the little time I do have.  Parenting has a way of enforcing discipline on the writing process. But as you'll read, this may all be for naught, because in true Pavlovian fashion, it appears that all Goodwin needs to get himself writing is a good ol' slice of pizza.

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