The biggest epiphany I had was when I was 10 or 12 and I saw Elvis in a movie. I thought he wrote his own songs. I was working on a farm, just dying, you know…cold and tired…and I walked into the kitchen. We’d just gotten a television, and there was Elvis. That’s when I started writing songs-at 10 or 12.
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Elvis, Epiphany: The biggest epiphany I had was when I was 10 or 12 and I saw Elvis in a movie. I thought he wrote his own songs. I was working on a farm, just dying, you know…cold and tired…and I walked into the kitchen. We’d just gotten a television, and there was Elvis. That’s when I started writing songs-at 10 or 12.
Prine, Disbelief: Then, when I was about 15, I saw John Prine on television. I went, “Oh, that’s how I feel.” It was the ‘70s and all this flakey stuff was around, but I didn’t want to be writing nice songs. So, I saw John Prine, and it was like, “All right.” I liked the satire, how sardonic he was. The day I saw Prine on The David Frost Show changed my songwriting. Paul Anka had brought Prine on Frost and introduced him to the world. I had to wait for it to come out, but when I got Prine’s record, I remember sitting in my brother and sister’s room listening to it and we just couldn’t believe it.
America vs. Canada: There really are two different schools of songwriting-American and Canadian. It’s interesting. You guys have this history of guys like Paul Williams and Jimmy Webb, and they’re different than Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. All those weird voices come out of Canada. That’s because it’s so cold here we can hardly open our mouth. We get much less light in Canada. No wonder the writing’s dark.
Boats, Cars, The Spark: I wrote “Milly’s Café” driving out of Ft. Worth, Texas one time. I was in a dust storm in my old bus. Beer inside. It was like a sailboat, you know…we couldn’t see anything. Some things about Texas are so different than Ontario. I was just thinking about how different it is from where I live and, you know, whatever happens [to inspire a song] happened.
Clark, Newbury, Keen: I’m a really huge fan of Guy Clark. I think Mickey Newbury probably was the single biggest influence on my songwriting that ever was. I heard him a little later on and just went, “This is huge.” I like Robert Earl Keen. He’s way closer to my heart than the other Canadian songwriters. I identify with Texans because where I was raised was flat, hot and windy-like Texas. We get the weather three days later than Texas there. It was rural, where there were heat waves shimmering up off the road. I almost feel at home in Texas-not quite, but almost.
Carll, Gauthier: I always have my ear to the new guy. I’m a huge fan of Hayes Carll. Hayes is the whole package. I went and saw his show three nights in a row once…because I just liked how hard he worked. I could tell quickly how hard he had worked to get where he was. My friend Mary Gauthier is like that. She’s someone who doesn’t just work at the craft of songwriting. You need to work at the craft, but not only the craft. When I see people working both on themselves and the craft, and they combine those things…I just go, “That’s just fabulous.” Both Hayes and Mary have done that.
The Spiritual Source: I get spiritual-not Christian or precious-spiritual with this. Songwriters have some magic. We have an idea. It comes out of our fingers and becomes a written word. Think about that process; it’s pretty weird. We can’t describe it. You can’t say, “I have an idea and now I’m writing it down.” That doesn’t even compute. There’s some magic in songwriting as it filters through your heart and your mind and your body. If you work on those things, what comes out of your fingers isn’t just craft, but it’s your heart and soul and everything. The only way to do that is to live a real life, to be conscious of all things-spiritual, nature, fellow human beings, compassionate things, all that. When you combine all that and it comes out your fingers, you’re writing songs. I can always tell how hard a person’s lived by the way they write songs.
Eaglesmith’s new live album, Milly’s Café, is now available via Aml Records.