SongWriter is a podcast of stories and “answer songs” featuring David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Joyce Carol Oates, Mary Gauthier, Roxane Gay, and Michael Ian Black.
Grammy Award-winning songwriter and founder of supergroup the Highwomen, Amanda Shires, wrote a song in response to a story by bestselling author George Saunders. Below is an edited version of my conversation with Amanda and George about inspiration, songwriting, and Amanda’s song “You Don’t Get to Go.”
George Saunders: It’s so nice to meet you, Amanda. I’m a huge fan. That song just killed me. It was so beautiful. As a failed songwriter I’m just standing there with my jaw dropped, so thank you very much.
Amanda Shires: I’m a huge fan. All the pleasure is on this side of the microphone. I heard that you write songs and you haven’t even shared them with me before!
GS: I do that as a way of keeping my beginner mind, you know? Like, ‘Hey, I suck!’ I think a little bit of self-loathing is an artistic superpower. Seriously, for me, it’s just a way of saying that the first attempt isn’t necessarily that great. So you go longer than your normal ego would let you. I don’t know if it’s true in songs, but at least in stories, you find a lot of riches in the day after you thought you were finished. And then the day after that, and the day after that.
Ben Arthur: Amanda, you said that you had to try a couple of different approaches to this song before you found one that worked. What were some you tried?
AS: I tried a couple of different directions, sketch-wise. I think I just needed to think about it, and get even more nervous. I just had to struggle.
GS: In my line of work I feel like it can just take forever. The process is just starting with a vague space, and just clarifying, clarifying, clarifying. And it’s sort of methodical. But from my limited forays into songwriting, it seems like the great ones have an instinct, where maybe it comes fairly quickly. Maybe the more methodical it gets, or the more rational you get, the more it becomes less of a song.
AS: I talked to Cindy Walker about songwriting. She said you have to write 50 songs and then just throw them all away. After that, you’ll probably get one out of 50 that you like. Maybe after those 50 you’ll like one in ten. Eventually, you’ll get songs that just come to you, like, out of thin air. Those are the ones that just fall into your face. They don’t feel like they took so much work, but they did take all that work.
GS: Amanda, was [“You Don’t Get to Go”] always from the wife’s point of view? Because that’s what I thought was really surprising and brilliant.
AS: I had three directions. One was where they were going to talk to each other, like a duet. I started on that and then I thought, ‘Well, that’s a bad idea.’ I wanted to hear all sides of everybody in there, but generally, songs are 3-5 minutes long if you’re not Pink Floyd. I felt like her side wasn’t gone into as much, on purpose, because it’s not exactly her story to tell. But I did feel like she had a say in it because you know…she does.
GS: You know, both of the songs that you guys did, I just felt like it was blissful. And additive. It suddenly made me love my own story more. So I just really thank you for the push forward.
AS: I’m going to make songs up that are about your stories, and your writing. That’s my new life goal. You’ll see. You’re my favorite. I can’t believe you exist and I get to be alive in the world where you exist.
“You Don’t Get to Go” is exclusively available in the current episode SongWriter, alongside George reading the story that inspired it, “Tenth of December.” Because the story is longer than most, this episode is in two parts. The first half of George’s story is accompanied by a song Ben Arthur wrote called “If You Need Me.”