January/February 2014 Lyric Spotlight: John Carlson


Videos by American Songwriter

1st Place
“Songs I’d Never Sing”
Written by John Carlson

When did you write “Songs I’d Never Sing?”

I probably started it 25 years ago, and then I finished it last year. Like many writers, I have a notebook and tons of scraps of paper, and I’ve got this big plastic bin full of songs – I call it “the well.” And every now and again, whenever I’m looking for inspiration, I’ll dig through hundreds of pieces of paper. Last year I was digging in the well and, by golly, that song came out. It was close to being done and I thought, this would be a song that I would want to finish, so I did. I polished it up last year and that was it.

It’s funny, too, because it’s a song about aging and mortality, right?

Yeah, it’s about looking at the whole of your life. It was kind of apropos that it went that way. It still rang true 25 years later. And that’s why I thought, you know, I’m going to finish it and put it out there.

The “songs that you never sing” – is the idea that you wouldn’t sing sad songs?

Early in your career as a songwriter and a young man, you have such optimism and you’re going to really take the world by storm but all these things in life just kind of happen – marriage, kids. And then it kind of falls by the wayside. You would hope you could always sing positive songs and then you find yourself all those years later singing a sad song, which never was something I wanted to do. You would have hoped that you could have sung a happier song. Well, maybe that’s songwriting in itself – just telling the truth, being truthful with yourself about an emotion.

Who are some of the songwriters that that you admire?

Bob Dylan because I was born in the little town right next to where he was born in northern Minnesota. He was born in Hibbing and I was born in the next town over called Eveleth. And then John Prine for sure, I love John Prine. But probably the biggest influence for me was my mom. My mom was a literary writer, she writes short stories and poetry. And as a kid I used to take some of her poems and put music to them. And that’s how I started writing music. To this day – she’s in her eighties – she still writes.

What do you do for a living?

I produce television and web programing. I tell stories visually. We work for Duke University and for UNC – we produce all of their web programming. You get to tell people’s stories and I always feel a connection, so professionally it’s still creative. But then at night I get to come home and really kind of reflect that in my music. I can really carry some of these stories with me.

How often do you write songs?

I write almost every day. I probably have about 1,500 given papers at a time. Every day five to ten lines will come to me and I’ll just keep writing them down, putting them in the well. You have to catch it while inspiration happens. And then when you go back later and find that paper, a lot of times that inspiration comes back. So in my opinion, you should always catch those lines as they come out, so that someday when you have inspiration, just go digging, and there are those lines, and it gets the spark back for that idea.


Click here to see John Carlson’s winning lyrics.

Click here to see John’s Songspace Profile.

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