Allison Moorer

Everyone offering career advice seems to want to steer people away from the humanities. Don't be an English major, they say. You won't make any money.  Singer/songwriter Allison Moorer has fortunately dispensed with this silly bit of advice: she's finishing her first semester at The New School in Chelsea, where she's getting her MFA in creative non-fiction. As someone with a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature, I fully support her new career path.

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Ray Wylie Hubbard

I know no better demonstration of the link between reading and songwriting than the advice Ray Wylie Hubbard gives songwriters: "Don't just listen to 'The Ghost of Tom Joad.' Read The Grapes of Wrath. That’s a classic song, but Springsteen wouldn't have written it if he hadn’t read Steinbeck."  Of course, Steinbeck is probably a beach read for Hubbard. His staples are writers like Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Rimbaud. And before he goes to bed each night, he'll often pull down Dante's Divine Comedy from the bookshelf to see how that text might inspire his songwriting. 

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Ashley Monroe

Ashley Monroe has been writing songs since she was a young kid, which means she's been carrying around that bucket for a loooong time. This bucket is her "idea bucket."  By her own admission, Monroe is never not a songwriter. She's always thinking about songs, so whenever she goes out (much to the chagrin of her husband), she's always attuned to her environment, its sights and sounds, for song ideas. And that's why she has her "idea bucket." She carries it everywhere she goes, and in that bucket go the song ideas that she gets by being hypersensitive to everything around her. 

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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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Bethany Cosentino, Best Coast

Put Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast in a hotel bathroom, and she's one happy songwriter. If you're with her and she's in there for a looong time, don't worry. She's creating. Music.

The traveling ways of the songwriter dictate that they can't be too picky with their environment when it comes to writing. They have to adapt to their surroundings and write whenever they can, wherever they can. But according to Cosentino, environment plays a "huge" role in her songwriting process. When she's at home, she writes in her "music room," which contains nothing but music related stuff, from guitars to CDs to posters. She loves to write there because the room's solitude gives her privacy. "I try on tour to write, but the problem is that I don't want people to hear me when I'm trying to write. I like to be able to make mistakes and sing badly and play really bad chords that don't sound good together. It's a very private process for me that I enjoy doing entirely on my own. A place like that is hard to find on tour."

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Li-Young Lee

Ed Note: today I digress slightly to interview one of the best poets today, Li-Young Lee.

Reason number one why I am not introspective enough to be a poet:

When I get up in the morning and look at a messy bed, I see a bed that needs to be made.  The poet Li-Young Lee, on the other hand, sees beauty in the absence of a body and the shape of a body simultaneously.

Poets have a different perspective on the world around us.  They see beauty in things that I cannot possibly imagine. Heck, they just see things that I cannot imagine.  Which is why, I suppose, they became poets.  When Lee says, "I am aware of the fact that there are poems everywhere.  My whole experience, both inside and outside, is one giant poem: my dreams, the things I am looking at.  I am sitting here talking to you and looking at these books on my shelf, and there is a poem there somewhere,"  this is what I mean.  And when he has trouble writing, it's not because he doesn't know what to write about.  It's because he is so overwhelmed by everything around him that he doesn't know where to start.

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Dan Deacon

Dan Deacon is best known for his work as an electronic musician and, more recently, even as a classical composer. He's received tremendous (and well-deserved) critical acclaim for the novelty of the sounds in his electronic music, not to mention his live shows. His new album, Gliss Riffer is the first of his releases to feature vocal tracks, to see his voice as an instrument to ply just like all the myriad instruments we hear on his albums.

As you'll read, my interview with Deacon was not about the specifics of the writer's routine, as many of my interviews are. Deacon sees himself as an artist in the true sense of someone who creates art; he's much more than just a songwriter. So this conversation is more about the amorphous idea of creativity. More specifically, it's about Deacon's frustration with not having enough time to create. As his popularity increases, so do the demands of his career: the interviews, the meetings, the emails. Even the live shows. When he's touring for an album, he's not able create new art. And that means less time to create, which frustrates him.

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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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Mac McCaughan, Superchunk

Mac McCaughan is a busy guy, but does that surprise you? He's married, has two kids, runs Merge Records (which he also co-founded), fronts Superchunk, and has the side project Portastatic. Now, on May 4, he'll release Non-Believershis first solo album.  As you can imagine, McCaughan has little free time, which is why his creative process is more disciplined than most artists'. His window for creative work on the new album was small: since he made the album at home, he did most of the work in the morning, when the kids were at school. Then he'd head to work at Merge in the afternoon. At night, when the kids were in bed, he'd work on it some more. 

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Alaina Moore, Tennis

The story behind the creative process of Tennis' debut Cape Dory has been told ad nauseam elsewhere. Make that "everywhere else"; the internet seems incapable of mentioning the band without talking about The Trip. And in that narrative, you'll see words like beach and sunny to describe the music of this Denver-based couple (Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley are married).

But that's not what Moore and I wanted to talk about. 

I remember an interview with an author who said that the term "beach read" is an insult because it implies that the writing has no depth and can be consumed with little effort. As you'll see, Moore's songwriting process--really, her life--reflects the anxiety behind that idea. When descriptors like that follow your music everywhere, I imagine it must be frustrating to Moore, whose songwriting has far more depth than that. 

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John Oates, Hall and Oates

When I started this site in 2010, I had a goal: treat songwriters as writers, plain and simple. As someone with a Ph.D. in English Literature, I had read my share of interviews with poets, playwrights, novelists, and short story writers detailing their writing process. But what about songwriters? Aren't they writers too? Shouldn't they be included? So when John Oates started our interview by saying, "I've always looked at myself as a writer," I swooned.  Because songwriters are writers. Period. 

I'm going to borrow from Questlove's excellent induction speech when he introduced Hall and Oates at the 2014 Rock n Roll Hall of Fame ceremony.  In the rock era, here's a list of the duos who are more successful than Hall and Oates, according to the RIAA:

Done. None.

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