So let’s get back to the craft of songwriting I’m amazed that they come out, from what you’re saying, fully formed almost. Do you sit down and start to write and have to plan it? Or do you just go with inspiration whenever?
Mostly, I write poems. And my poems come directly out of my journals. On the righthand side of my big, leather-bound journals, I write prose, which is basically what happened today. If nothing good or spectacular happened, I don’t write. But I just got back from London; I did Hard Rock Calling for like 50,000, 60, 000 people, so of course I’m going to write about that. So out of that, whatever I wrote about, if I see something that looks like a song, then I’ll go to the lefthand page, which I never write on except for poetry. And I’ll pull a poem straight out of that, so I might write a song about the experience of Hard Rock Calling—not that I am; that’s just a good example of something that was really fun and really exciting, and there were so many people there and I had been in London for three weeks, so I was really feeling very English—so I might pull a poem out of there and call it “Hard Rock Calling.” And then what I do—it’s a full-on, formal poem—let’s see, let’s compare it to the full-on formal poem of, say, “Soldier’s Angel,” which is a poem that has existed since 2005, five formal verses. Then I go to the piano, and I sit there and I stare at the words and I start playing. And just like in that little bit of “Dreams” I sang for you, all of the sudden I’ll just go [sings]“I am a soldier’s angel in the eyes of a soldier/ in the eyes of a soldier I am a soldier’s mother,” and then I’m on a roll, and the whole song just comes … it usually takes 20 minutes.
I’m sure there are a lot of other writers who would be insanely jealous to know it’s so easy for you.
They are, because anybody who knows me knows that’s how I write. I had a great experience when I was writing “For What It’s Worth.” I had gone to Hawaii for two weeks and my niece Jessi, who’s 19, came over, and I had some tracks from Mike and I had listened to them a couple months before didn’t hear anything, but I said, “I’m gonna revisit those tracks.” And there were, like, 10 tracks, and I hit track seven and I went, “oh my …” and I just started—I didn’t even have a formal poem—which doesn’t often happen. There’s this little train bell at the beginning and I started thinking about my granddad and how my grandfather rode the rails in the ‘40s and was a songwriter and played gigs all over the United States. And I just started singing along, and I was running around the room at the same time looking for paper and pencil and yelling at my assistant to get some kind of recording device. And all we have is a camera, so we immediately put the camera on video and we were able to record it. And then Jessi came in and I said, “Do you want to hear this?” I just sang it to her and at the end she said—and she’d lived with me, her parents [brother Chris and sister-in-law/backup singer Lori Nicks] have lived with me off-and-on for years—and she just said, “Oh, Aunt Stevie, that is so awesome.” Because it was the first time in the whole 19 years that she had known me that she actually saw the process and saw a brand new song happen; the second time I sang it, I sang it for her. And she was like, “How did you do that?” and I’m like, “I don’t know, Jess. It’s my little special gift from God.” That’s how I look at it.
A lot of artists have said it’s just like channeling. So you always come up with the music after? Unless somebody like Mike offers some to you?
How about with you and Dave, did you just trade verses, lyrics?
No, what we did was, I called him in January 2010 and asked him if he wanted to produce this record that I had decided to do after 10 years. And that day I sent him 40 pages of poetry, never really expecting him to read all of it, but he did. We had my living room set up with a Pro Tools rig, so I’m sitting on my couch, he’s sitting across from me in front of the fireplace. He puts his guitar on and he takes one of the poems out of the binder that I had sent him, and he said, “I like this poem. Let’s do this one.” And I’m like a deer in headlights at this point because I want to say to him, “I don’t really write songs with people.” But I didn’t because something in me said, “Don’t say that. Just sit there and see what he is gonna do.” And he just started playing guitar, playing kind of a cool thing, and I’m staring at him like, I’m still the deer, you know, and he looks and me and he goes, “Well, sing.” And I’m like, dying, and I start reciting the poem in a sing-songy sort of way. That’s actually the third to the last song on the record, it’s called “You May Be The One.” [Sings]“You may be the one, but you’ll never be the one, you may be my love, but you’ll never be my love,” So that’s how it started, and 20 minutes later, we had a really good song and it was recorded.
And I went to myself, “OK, I now understand why people write together. I understand why John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote together when they didn’t have to, because they were great on their own. [It’s] because of what just happened between me and Dave.” Because there were no egos; he can read me like a book. He could tell if he played a chord I didn’t like. I didn’t say, “Stop, I hate that chord.” I think that my face probably twisted up, so he was reading my face as we went, and if I seemed to falter, he would go to another chord. So we never even stopped, it just went all the way through, almost as if I was writing it myself.
I wrote all the lyrics on the whole record except for the chorus of “Everybody Loves You,” and that’s the first song that he sent me the night that I called him. It had the chorus, which said [sings], “Everybody loves you but you’re so alone, no one really knows you, but I’m the only one.” He said, “Write the verses to that.” And I said, “OK.” But that’s not like getting a track with no vocals. He had set the song up with that chorus, so then I had to build a story around those four lines, which was great—it was a challenge. And I immediately took it like he was writing that about Annie Lennox, because that sounded like a person from a duo writing a song about the other person in the duo. And what Dave and I had that was great was that we’d both been in really famous duos, so the whole time we were making this record, I feel like Lindsey and Annie were floating around in the room. Because a lot of the stuff that we both wrote seemed to be directed to our years as famous people in duos.