For Clint Black, it’s a whole new ballgame. He’s signed with a new label, Equity Records; a new album, Spend My Time, has just been released; and he’s found new freedom in the fact that there were no restraints on the recording of his first studio album in five years.
The one thing that hasn’t changed with Black is the time, effort and quality he puts into his songwriting. As he puts into his songwriting. As he puts it, “This is the first time in my life I’ve completed an album that faced no externally imposed deadlines, so there was a long gestation and a lot of labor. I feel like I’ve given birth!”
Five years is a long time for a singer/songwriter to be writing but not recording, so obviously Black had a lot of songs to consider when it was time to go in and record.
“I had about 35 songs I wanted to put on the album, then I narrowed it down to 20, and from there I just had to start thinking about the song keys, tempos, and themes. I finally eliminated another eight from the running, which ended up getting it down to 13. Then it was just a matter of the 13th song I wrote by myself so I decided to save it for another time.”
The new album has a combination of co-writes and Black-only songs, but one familiar that continues to crop up as a co-writer is Hayden Nicholas. Black met Nicholas just before his career took off, in January 1987.
“Hayden had an eight track recorder in his garage and I needed to do a demo,” Black recalls. “The first song we did was “Nobody’s Home” so I took it and got a manager. Right about that time Hayden started playing gigs with me and he’s been with me ever since.”
Black said the two work so well together as co-writers because of the long-time association. “Together we’re a brain trust for all the songs I’ve written and recorded, so there’s a shorthand here for thinking about what we don’t have. I try not to repeat myself. There’s a quickness there; we know what we have already, what I’ve recorded, so that’s one thing.
“And I guess when you’re doing something together for so long there is a comfort level with rejecting ideas. But a lot of it has to do with friendship; being real close with somebody after so many years and (them) being somebody you like to work with. It’s a combination of all those things that make it a natural.”
Black says he’s written with a lot of people over the years, some he knew well, other he barely knew. “It’s a little awkward sometimes at first; everybody has a different way of approaching writing a song, and a different bar for themselves as far as what is a great verse or line or melody. Sometimes it’s just a little bit of work to get into a groove. You have to be comfortable in saying, ‘That’s good, but I don’t know if it’s great—let’s keep trying.’
“I’ve written with some people who have different ways of approaching songwriting, and that really is challenging, which I don’t mind. I enjoy a good challenge. But it takes a lot of work in the brain as you’re going through it to kind of find a way of adapting to their style and getting them to adapt to my style. It’s kind of pulling myself towards the barrel and them towards the barrel so we can both get over it and be on the same page and do something productive.”
Black’s style is simple but it’s worked well for him over the years. “I’ve always got a notebook full of ideas, some fleshed song is the way an actor approaches a scene in a movie. The idea has to be profound enough to inspire the other ideas that have to come around it. I have to decide if it’s an essential idea or is it just a starting point. And I’ll look at the idea in those terms—can it inspire the entire song or support something stronger.”
As an example, Black pointed to “Bad Goodbye,” which he says was wide open for direction when he started writing.
“When I started to think about it, I found the sadder meaning of a bad goodbye, and started thinking okay, if we’re going to the sad part and somebody’s leaving with a bad goodbye or not wanting to leave, there must be still some love there. I started thinking about what I would be feeling and then the song began writing itself and things came out that were real.”
One of the things Black says he does is an exercise of writing everything he can that relates to the central idea of the song. “Somehow when you get out there on the outside of it all, and write things down from every spectrum possible, then everything ties back together,” he says. “Then I can grab the strongest things out of that and put them in some order. With fun songs it’s easy to do that and approach it that way.”
A good example of this type of writing is “If I Had A Mind To,” which Black said was literally a jigsaw puzzle in the beginning. “We had written all these machines gun lines, those little two line rhymes, without thinking of how they fit in. We decided that after we wrote them all down, we’d put them on index cards and lay them out on the table, and then start looking at them in relationship to how they best would work together. We didn’t bog ourselves down in editing as we went, we just wrote them down as they came to us, sometimes laughing at some of the lines we came up with.
“With an emotional song that needs to be about feelings, I tend to work more in trying to get myself to feel something. When Skip Ewing and I wrote “A Love She Can’t Live Without,” we tried to get to know this woman that was in that situation. We had to define her in order to relate to her. We felt sadness and the emotions of the relationship in order to tell the story of this fictional character.”
Black is adamant that he not repeat himself with his songs, yet he’s the first to admit it’s hard to keep it all new and fresh.
“That’s the hard part. I think it has to start with a new way of saying it. And it’s got to feel like there’s a spark in the room when you’re writing it. There have been times when I was writing that it felt like something someone else had done and I can’t stand that, I have to try something else.
“If I’m writing about love, well, love isn’t one thing to everybody; love isn’t even just one thing to me. I have a lot of different types of live; for my wife, child, mom and dad, friend, brother, our troops, so there are a lot of different kinds of love. Just because you are writing on the same subject doesn’t mean you come from the same place. When I wrote ‘love isn’t something you have, it’s something you do’ then I got excited and knew I was saying something in a different way.”
There are other things in a song that might remind Black of something he’s done before or a song that people might be familiar with. “If the melody is bothering then I’ll change the whole style of the song. Or I’ll go away from singing on the root pattern, or natural melody; I’ll go above it and sing in thirds, and take the melody up to feel more natural as a harmony part.
“If it’s about a lyric, I think the way I’d approach it would be to think it through and try to figure out if it’s really something I’ve heard before or is it just ringing a bell. I’d have to get away from it if it really does sound like something. If it’s a real core part of what I’m trying to say it’s gonna be harder to abandon. If it’s a fun little line it’s easier to get away from. As soon as I recognize something I try to get away from it right away.”
Black had some sage advice for people who aspire to write songs.
“Listen to everything from the past, listen to it all. Know how the great songs have and what they said so you don’t come around and say it again. At the same time, when you’re writing a song, you just can’t be thinking of other songs—you have to get them out of your mind and concentrate on the song you’re working on.
“Songwriters should look at song books and learn the different chords that people have used and different ways they used to get from one to the other and back again. It’s the little colors you put in a song that will force your melody out of the box and give you a new inspiration in the song. If I’m trying to write G, C, D, it’s hard to carve out fresh new melody. But I could add some color to those chords, by adding a ninth or sixth, instead of playing D play D-7 or D-11. By adding the colors it really helps to inspire a more unique sounding melody.”
Black also said he’s glad he is not required to write every day so that he has the opportunity to accumulate more life experiences before he goes back in to create a song.
“I think the tough part of being a staff writer is writing every day. I have the luxury of not having to write all the time, and I’ve found that if I don’t try to write all the time when I come back around to do it again. I’ve had enough new experiences to draw on so I feel fresh and invigorated and excited about sitting down to write. If you’re a staff writer, that’s what you do and that’s your job. Young people need to go out there and have some experiences, and then try to remember how you felt and use those moments when you write a song.”