Johnny Cash, Stevie Nicks, & 3 Other Musical Icons’ Approach to Songwriting

The best type of song crafting is an elusive alchemy unique to its creator, and as such, every great songwriter’s approach to songwriting is different. For some artists, words and music flow from them like dammed-up water—impossible (and messy) to stop. For others, their art creeps out of the dirt like an ancient waterbed roused by a diviner. 

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And as magical as this process can be, the sheer opacity of the entire process can be disheartening to new writers or seasoned songsters suffering from writer’s block. In moments like these, referring to the masters can be a useful way to recalibrate. 

Whether you’re seeking the muse or merely appreciating it, these songwriters’ approach to writing might shake a few inspired ideas loose for you, too.

John Prine: Let The Listener Color In The Picture

In a 2009 interview with American Songwriter, John Prine explained his hands-off approach to songwriting. “I think the more the listener can contribute to the song, the better. Rather than tell them everything, you save your details for things that exist. Like what color the ashtray is. How far away the doorway was. So, when you’re talking about intangible things, like emotions, the listeners can fill in the blanks. You just draw the foundation.”

Prine demonstrates this technique in “Angel From Montgomery.” There’s flies in the kitchen. I can hear ‘em; they’re buzzing, he offers the listeners. Then, an imaginative, emotional prompt: Just give me one thing that I can hold on to. To believe in this livin’ is just a hard way to go.

Stevie Nicks: Leave Your Music Out Of It (For Now)

Fleetwood Mac frontwoman Stevie Nicks outlined her words-first, music-last approach to songwriting in a 1992 interview with Musicians in Tune. Nicks said she began by journaling and writing poetry on her typewriter. “I put on music that I like that’s got a good beat and makes me feel good. Then, I type along to the beat,” she explained. Only then would Nicks take her writing to the piano.

Nicks said that while some musical ideas came quickly, others weren’t as forthcoming. In these instances, she explained, “I just sit down and play a chord. I’ll just write a line, like, say, The white-winged dove, then I’ll play a chord or a couple of chords, and I’ll start humming something” (via InHerOwnWords).

Neil Young: Never Chase The Rabbit

Patti Smith and Neil Young sat down for an interview at the 2012 BookExpo America to promote Young’s memoir Waging Heavy Peace. Unsurprisingly, the conversation shifted from books to Young’s musical process. Smith remarked how effortlessly Young’s approach to songwriting seemed to be, to which he replied, “They do come that way. I don’t try to think of them.”

“A metaphor may be that if you’re trying to catch a rabbit, you don’t wait right by the hole,” Young continued (via The Great Gray Bridge). “Then, the rabbit comes out of the hole. He looks around. You start talking to the rabbit. But you’re not looking at it. Ultimately, the rabbit is friendly, and the song is born. The idea is he’s free to come, free to go. Who would want to intimidate or disrespect the source of the rabbit?”

Taylor Swift: Consider Your Writing Tools

During her acceptance speech for the NSAI’s Songwriter-Artist of the Decade Award in 2022, Taylor Swift offered a unique songwriting tip: switch up your writing utensils. In a fascinating glimpse into her songwriting approach, Swift explained she categorizes her songs into three writing utensil-specific genres: Quill, Fountain, and Glitter Gel Pen. 

Swift explained that her quill songs are flowery and archaic, like “My Tears Ricochet.” Fountain pen songs are modern but poetic, á la “All Too Well.” Finally, glitter gel pen songs are sparkly, fun and unserious (think “Shake It Off”). Her unique songwriting approach allows Swift to create almost in character—a particularly helpful tool for artists whose over-analytical egos can disrupt their creative flow.

Johnny Cash: Do It Even When It’s Inconvenient

Finally, Johnny Cash’s diligent songwriting approach is a useful reminder in today’s age of overpacked schedules, burnt-out downtime, and shortened attention spans. In an exclusive interview with American Songwriter, Cash outlined his handling of his creative muse. The bottom line? Do it even if you don’t feel like it.

“When I start to write, I write enough so that I’ve secured the idea and don’t forget it,” Cash said. “Usually, the first lyrics I come up with are always the best. I make sure they are down on paper because I start thinking about other lines, and I forget them. I make it a point that, no matter how inconvenient it might be, even if I’m in bed, I get up and get a pen and paper and write it down so I don’t lose it.”

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