>Subtitled: The Process of Songwriting, My Tentative Answer to “Why Aren’t You Writing These Days?”
“I write three songs before breakfast.” -Bob Dylan
“Brian told me he needed another song for the film, so I worked that night and came in the next morning with what ended up being “Hard Day’s Night.” -John Lennon
“I think I wrote it in ten minutes. Maybe fifteen.” -Kurt Cobain on “Pennyroyal Tea”
One question I get asked the most frequently is, “Are you writing new songs?” And, although I tend to give an abbreviated answer at the time, I’d like to use this space to give a lengthy, explanatory version of, “no.”
I’ve used the quotes above to demonstrate how just a few of the greatest songwriting talents have been known to work, and to show how, even for the most prolific or prodigious composers, the process is always different. With Dylan, at least in his earlier and more prolific years, he seemingly wrote, and wrote, and wrote, because quantity, at least in the folk tradition, was something to revere rather than fear. “Like a Rolling Stone” emerged from 10+ pages of “rambling,” an exercise that contemporary Nashville hitmakers employ. He simply worked frequently in preparation for the next time Columbia said, “Time for a new album, Bob.”
The Beatles seemed to write as needed, as though their producer would say, “We need four more songs,” and then John and Paul would get to work. One can speculate that, considering their unparalleled gift for pop songwriting, they simply recognized and utilized their gifts in this very functional way, almost like master carpenters crafting desks, or chairs, or bedframes as directed. This is not to underestimate the emotional aspect of the songwriting process–I’m sure they always had material. But I get the impression that the work came to them, and then the writing began out of necessity.
With Cobain, the process was rudely inconsistent. He bragged about his ability to churn out the occasional “Pennyroyal Tea” during a commercial break, but there’s also plenty of evidence to suggest that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was not, in fact, the product of immense and fleeting inspiration, but rather months of revision. And it’s a good thing, because first drafts of that lyric do not contain its motif of opposition, and the original melody was nearly monotone. “On a Plain” is a song that Cobain had for quite some time, but wrote the final lyrics to in the studio, during tracking (hence the song’s self-referentiality: “it is that time to make it all clear/to write off lines that don’t make sense”).
So what does this have to do with me? I’m not sure. I can say that the songwriting process for the group of songs that eventually became Leaving Tennessee was varied. A few songs I had for over a year; several I wrote in a two-week span over my winter break, knowing that I needed songs for the upcoming shows and studio time. Some were scrapped and will likely never see the light of day; others I might use in the future. Many came from flashes of inspiration, the kind that songwriters often wait for. While I can remember the general circumstances surrounding the composition of each song, the details of the process are hazy at best. For example, while I remember that hearing the phrase “whenever it rains” in conversation gave me the basic idea for the song, I can’t really recall where each verse came from, or how I built the melody. Sometimes it’s only there for a second, and I simply rush to get it down before it vanishes as quickly as it arrived. While “Memphis Queen” was a song that appeared late one night, before I went to sleep, “A City That Sleeps” was the result of a much more methodical, deliberate process. I barely remember writing “Lisa, My Dear.”
Ultimately, some songs are created of their own accord, at their own time, and by their own rules, and some are created by the songwriter, after some wrangling and struggling and hours of revision. Some come easily and some don’t. Currently, I’m focusing so much on the promotion and performance of my current catalogue that I haven’t given much emphasis to expanding it. Of course, I’m writing down ideas, I’m recording new melodies and riffs, and generally compiling a bunch of new material. But as for actual, complete new songs, I’m just not there yet. It could be that I’m just waiting too much for those bursts of inspiration, or that I’ve been out of the habit of writing and therefore the proverbial “floodgates” aren’t as open. It could be that the actual writing and rewriting of a song can be, for the critics among us, a rough process of self-censorship and doubt. Or it could be that I’m focusing much more on some other things. Fear not, however: life breeds material, material breeds inspiration, and inspiration breeds production. Throw in some talent and you might just have something. New songs come to those who wait.
Or so my muses tell me…
P.S. After a few months of production, Shut Eye Records has released its third volume of the United State of Americana compilation, which features my song “Leaving Tennessee” alongside greats from Jeff Black and the Greencards, among others. This comp will be promoted to a few hundred radio stations and press outlets, so let me know if you want a copy or stay tuned for info on how to hear me on your nearest radio…