John Prine, Mose Allison, Carole King, Stan Ridgway, James Taylor, Janis Ian, Lamont Dozier & Leonard Cohen share ideas about writing songs
“The truth is like a rabbit in a bramble patch. You can’t lay your hand on it.
All you do is circle around and point, and say, ‘It’s in there somewhere.’”
– Pete Seeger
JOHN PRINE: [Songwriting] is very elusive. You gotta learn patience. I know that I’m basically a very lazy person. As much as I enjoy writing, I would rather do anything in the world but sit down and write. But once I get into it, I’m into it. If you said, “Let’s go get a hot dog first,” I would always go for the hot dog. I wouldn’t go, “No, let’s finish this song.” And I know that about myself. I know when I’m trying to avoid writing. So I have to balance out my patience waiting for the right thing to come along with my laziness.
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CAROLE KING: There’s a lot of hard work involved in songwriting. The inspiration part is where it comes through you, but once it comes through you, the shaping of it, the craft of it, is something that I pride myself in knowing how to do.
JAMES TAYLOR: I’ve written maybe 150 songs. But really what I’ve done is written 25 songs ten times. That’s what I do. I write different versions of the same thing. There are themes I will write about.
STAN RIDGWAY: I’ve been going through all these old standards, old Sammy Cahn and Johnny Mandel songs, just singing them and getting them into my body. Singing songs by other writers is great: It’s like reading a great book or going to a museum. If you take that in, a lot of it starts to work its way into your work.
LEONARD COHEN: Once the song enters the mill, it’s worked on by everything that I can summon. And I need everything. I try everything. I try to ignore it, try to repress it, try to get high, try to get intoxicated, try to get sober, all the versions of myself that I can summon are summoned to participate in this project, this work force. I try everything. I’ll do anything. By any means possible.
MOSE ALLISON: A lot of people keep notes and things and it’s probably a good idea, especially at my age. But a writer once said, `The only things worth writing about are the things you can’t forget.’ So I sort of took that for my rule. I wait for the things to keep coming back. If something keeps coming back, if I keep thinking of that phrase, if I see manifestations of it at different times and different places, then I feel that it’s worth trying to make a song out of.
JANIS IAN: If you can spend some time going back to the basics, whether it’s poetry or literature or songwriting, and put it into your body in some way, it makes all the difference. People forget how much of this stuff in the arts is mechanical; it’s body memory, it’s voice memory, it’s emotional memory. It’s much like teaching somebody guitar: You can teach somebody all you know, but there are times I go back to boom-chuck-boom-chuck. Because it reminds me of a lot of stuff that I’ve forgotten.
LAMONT DOZIER: It’s possible to connect with the creative source by thinking right and being right. That’s the secret to having a successful life, no matter what it is. Thinking right and being right. And you’ll tap into all these positive forces. If you walk around negative-thinking, nothing but negative things will come up. I think about the good things, in spite of all the bad things that are all around us. I’m always looking for that ray of sunshine. And it’s always there for those who have eyes to see.
CAROLE KING: [In songs] I do not like to do the predictable thing. One of the things that I try to be conscious about crafting a song is the concept of bringing it home. That is, there’s a beginning to a song, and there should be an end of a song, and of course there’s a middle. And I like to take the middle any place it wants to go. But whenever I take it to the end, I like to bring it somewhere familiar, some place that people feel it’s resolved, it’s settled. It comes back home at the end.
JOHN PRINE: I try and stay true to wherever the writing comes from. And it comes from the deepest well of emotion. Whether it’s something political, something humorous, something that might break your heart, if that’s what’s down in the well, that’s what I’ll come up with. You don’t want to force songs. Unfortunately a lot of your best first-person songs come from a relationship, from something awful happening in your life to someone you love very much. So you wouldn’t want to force those things. Not for the purpose of a good song. Though some guys I’ve met, I wouldn’t put anything past them.
JANIS IAN: Pythagoras felt that specific notes affected people to very minute gradations of feeling. And every songwriter, I think, knows that D is a great key for a long song. It just happens to work. And B flat is always a great jump key for jazz.
LEONARD COHEN: At a certain point I realized I only had one ball in my hand, and that was The Song. Everything else had been wrecked or compromised and I couldn’t go back, and I was a one-ball juggler. I’d do incredible things with that ball to justify the absurdity of the presentation.
Because what are you going to do with that ball? You don’t have three anymore. You’ve just got one. And maybe only one arm. What are you going to do? You can flip it off your wrist, or bounce it off your head. You have to come up with some pretty good moves. You have to learn them from scratch. And that’s what I learned, that you have to learn them from scratch.
Maybe it’s like you lose your arm, you’re a shoemaker. You’re a pretty good shoemaker, maybe not the best but one of the top ten. You lose your arm and nobody knows. All they know is that your shoes keep on being pretty good. But in your workshop, you’re holding onto the edge of the shoe with your teeth, you’re holding it down and hammering with your other hand. It’s quite an acrobatic presentation to get that shoe together. It may be the same shoe, it’s just a lot harder to come by and you don’t want to complain about it.