East Nashville-based singer-songwriter Amelia White impressed the heck out of us with her latest album, the rootsy, gritty Old Postcard. We quizzed White about crafting lyrics, her songwriting heroes, the words she loves and hates and more.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
The Beatles, Hank Williams, Leonard Cohen, Lucinda Williams, Neil Young, Karla Bonoff, and Paul Westerberg. There are more but these come to mind always.
Tell us a bit about Old Postcard.
It’s a concept album that started with a bunch of tunes about my old folks, and the changing tides between us over the years. I was helping them move into assisted living and looking through old souvenirs of our lives got me writing about that. After that I started thinking about all kinds of different angels of home. So there is a song about a street person, and one about a family coping with loss of a child. There are a couple songs about the different sides of Nashville, my home, a song about a motherless child, and a song about the dream state one returns to every night in their own bed. Oh and a touch of humor with a dark tune about loosing a friend to marriage.
How would you compare it to your last album?
I think musically its more balanced. Of all my albums this one has the most co-writes. There are some lilting tender melodies, and some real rockers. I didn’t shy away from songs that felt a bit more straight ahead, and we found a way to mix them with my own signature twists and turns. The lyrical content seems to pull it all together, and Mike Poole did a fantastic job of orchestrating a grand musical cohesion. It’s also a smaller cast of players than my last album.
Whose songs do you like to cover when no one’s listening?
I don’t cover a lot of tunes not because I don’t love them but because I don’t feel I can improve upon them. My rule is that I have to feel like I wrote it, and that I can make it my own. I’ve covered Hank Williams, Lucinda Williams, Bryan Ferry, Fred Eaglesmith and the Beatles.
Who’s an artist you listen to that might surprise people?
I love Kelly Clarkson’s voice, and will listen to her sing just about anything. If she ever wants to cut a song of mine, she can!
What advice do you have for songwriters hoping to start a successful career?
Be humble, be patient, be ready to work like a mule, and listen to yourself above all. The business side threatens to overtake the artistic side, and that’s a problem that I wish there was more of an answer for. Collect and love your supporters, embrace the miraculous, and don’t lose faith. It’s a brutally tough career. I’m still learning how to do it everyday.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
I started really young — my brother got me a guitar and I took right to it. Then I got in a real groove with it when I was 13 and my family moved out west. I was already at odds with my Mom and Dad, and the ensuing loneliness of no friends got my muse cranking and it’s been in high gear ever since. I think there have always been some good songs, and lots of leave behinds, or re-works. Of course I’ve begun to learn the real craft of writing as I’ve gotten older, especially since moving to Nashville. Part of that craft has been learning what not to keep, and learning to take the nut of what is great in something I’m working on and try to pull every line and note up to that bar.
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
My dog Molly died, and I told the story of the loss, and a bit about her life. It had a nice melody and was pretty well structured. I used to laugh about how she looked important “like a teacher talking to the principle” when she had her head out the window of the car– and somehow I got that into a verse. It’s an unexpected flash image in the middle that I’m proud of even now.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
I finished a song a couple days ago that I started about a week ago, it’s called Killer Thorn, and I’m digging it. I also have about five melody ideas begging for my attention.
How do you go about writing songs?
It comes really naturally to me, but it’s always a mystery. Usually starts with a melody, or a few words that invoke a strong image tied to something I’m feeling strongly. That leads to me trying to make some kind of cohesive story, and some kind of compelling melody. The lyrics are important but the melody is more important in my world. Once I get in a space with an idea/melody I immediately record the first nugget (iPhone works great) and let everything else go- other tasks at hand. The song stays with me lately until it’s done and I work on it in my head when I’m away for an instrument, and sometimes when I’m washing the dishes. People think I’m spacey… but it’s usually because I’m working. I get my strongest best ideas when I’m traveling, running, driving, in motion and away from the endless business of a music career, and life.
What’s your approach to writing lyrics?
Once I get an idea going, I believe the words are all floating near me, and I just have to find them, and I don’t like to force it. Sometimes a whole song lyric comes out at once, and I barely have to edit. Lately I’ve been more critical and do more editing by listening back. I definitely see images in my head as the story forms, and sometimes stepping away and running or walking helps. By the way, all of these same things pretty much apply to co-writing, but it’s two heads instead of one.
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
Like a mamma I love them all in different ways, but I’d have to pick out “Daddy Run.” First off it has lyric chunks pulled straight out of my Dad’s memoirs, stuff I couldn’t imagine. Secondly, it’s upbeat and catchy but not shallow. Hard combo for me to master, something I aspire to.
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
Both. Harder because I want to be great at it, and the more I understand how rare a great song is, the harder I judge myself. Easier because it’s a very natural common place for me to be, lately I have to fight to NOT go there. Harder because I don’t want to loose the spontaneity and innocence of it. Easier because I have some great co-writers here in Nashville to call upon to help flesh things out if I want to. I could go on and on with this thread.
Are there any words you love or hate?
I mostly hate clichés, and as far as loving any words, it’s not really the words alone, it’s the way they are put together. I like writing that has a feel to it, that’s something innate that cannot be taught.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
“Beautiful and Wild” comes to mind, because it is written to and about Duane Jarvis a very well loved man who no longer walks among us. Everyone wants to remember him, and I think the song does him and his work some poetic justice.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing? Did you excel in writing classes when you were a kid?
I have a bunch of short stories started. I’m not proud that I’ve not found the time to finish them — especially when I can waste an entire day watching football. I hope as I’m not as overwhelmed by the business of being a songwriter I can find time to write short stories and maybe even a novel, or a play. Yes I’ve always done really well in writing classes; while the rest of my grades were average or below.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
Living: Paul McCartney, Leonard Cohen, Kate Bush, Paul Westerberg, and Sheryl Crow. Dead: John Lennon, George Harrison, Hank Williams, and Buddy Holly.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
I have some friends here in Nashville I think deserve a lot more recognition- Kevin Gordon comes to mind above all with his large beautiful body of work that takes my breath away especially lyrically, but also it’s melody, feel, and the way it rises above it’s genre.
What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?
Let’s see, off the top of my head: “City Of New Orleans” by Steve Goodman, because I love train songs and it’s the absolute king. The images give me chills and tears, and the rhythm of the words with the melody are just perfect. “Hey Jude” has that miles of melody thing I just love, and who can deny those lyrics with their simple honest plea to a friend?