Joshua Black Wilkins

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Earlier this year, singer-songwriter – and noted photographer – Joshua Black Wilkins released Settling The Dust, an album he cut at Nashville’s Fry Pharmacy on 2-inch tape. We caught up with Wilkins before the holidays and talked about “truth” in songwriting, the words he loves and hates, what he considers to be the perfect song, and more.

Who are your songwriting heroes?

My earliest songwriting heroes were Bob Dylan and Neil Young. When I started writing at 14-15, they were the artists that everyone else claimed to have been inspired by.

When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?

It was the early/mid nineties. I was engulfed in Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Ben Harper, etc.  I’m sure I thought my first songs were good, and there are a few that still exist with new arrangements and edits. I had learned to write in quatrains, so everything I did for many years was pretty uniform. It wasn’t until the past five or six years that I really got my head around writing a bridge!

What was the first song you ever wrote?

It was probably a poem that I ended up putting to music at 15. I have all those old journals, but I don’t remember which song came out first. My first original song I ever performed live was at church.

How do you go about writing songs?

I don’t have a set routine.  Sometimes a single line comes first, while driving or in conversation, and sometimes I’m playing guitar around the house and humming words, which turn into lines, which can quickly turn into complete songs. There are only a few songs I have written completely before putting to music, though I have had many guitar “licks” or progressions that have stayed in my head for years before any lyrics are put to them. I tend to write more when I get a new guitar. Hearing new sounds can inspire me quickly to write.

What is your approach to writing lyrics?

Being honest is a big one for me. I can’t/don’t always write autobiographically, but I always mean what I say.  There have been plenty of songs that I have re-written because I knew the original lyrics were not accurate representations of what I was trying to say. Some old songs of mine that have been rehashed in recent years have very different subjects and outcomes. Songs like “Backseat of Her Car” is nearly 20 years old, and has had a complete role reversal.

Do you have any standards for your songs you try to adhere by when choosing them for an album?

Picking songs for an album is very important. Although I don’t typically write for an album,  the song selections are always pretty deliberate. I have songs that have been “queued” for several albums and never made the cut. I end up writing a lot while making a record, so there have been plenty of songs that were only days old when I recorded them. Fair Weather was almost entirely written while making the record. I wrote 9 songs in less than 6 weeks. But not on purpose. An entire set of songs went on the back burner after I started that record.  The Girlfriend Sessions was a collection of new and old songs that I wanted to record Nebraska style (all acoustic versions) with the intention of recording full production versions later. So, on Settling The Dust, I used 5 songs from TGFS. Those 5 songs were either fully realized after TGFS came out, or fit very well with what I wanted Setting The Dust to be.

What sort of things inspire you to write?

I like tragedy. Personal, global, social, 2nd hand. I like hearing stories, and I like to read, so many songs started out from a single word in a book, or story that I heard. I’m a visual person, so movies and photos have also inspired me in the past.  Heartbreak is a great subject. It’s universal. Everyone has their own story, or version of a story. So if I am writing about someone else’s story, I can let myself be the judge and jury.

Is it easier or harder to write songs, the more you write?

It has become a lot harder to write in recent years. I am a lot more critical of myself and have really worked hard on the craft of songwriting. Living in Nashville, I get to be surrounded by some of the most talented songwriters alive, and many of them are friends of mine. So studying their talents is not only humbling but greatly inspiring. People like Jason Isbell and Cory Branan slay me. Their use of words cannot be taught, or equaled.

Are there any words you love or hate?

Ha. Those two words.  I have hardly ever used the words “love” or “hate” in a song. They are too definite, and very strong. We all know what they mean. I’ve always been a sucker for a good metaphor, and I’d rather take 5 verses to say the same thing than simply write “I hate you” in the key of F.

The most annoying thing about songwriting is….

Dishonesty. A lot of songwriters spend a lot of time making sure everyone likes their song. That it is “perfect.” Like any other kind of art, songs should be honest. Maybe not pretty, but whomever writes it should believe it is true.  I have started and given up on many songs over the past 20 years because they strayed too far from the truth.

If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?

I’ve never been interested in co-writing. I can’t tell someone else how to express themselves, and I would have a hard time letting someone tell me what to feel too.

Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?

I will always think that Tom Waits doesn’t get enough credit.  No one can write a song like he does, or sing one! He could make an entire album with just vocals and a jaw harp and it would be more effective than any band. Recently I’ve been blown away by Ian Fitzgerald, after finally seeing him in New England in October. I look forward to more people listening to his music.

What do you consider to be the perfect song (written by somebody else), and why?

The finest love song I have ever heard is “Picture In a Frame” by Tom Waits. I cover it at almost every show — it’s short, and sweet.  Socially, Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues” is also a perfect song. You imagine yourself there, it will make you cry.