Squirrel Nut Zippers leader Jimbo Mathus knows a thing or two about finding success as a songwriter by doing the exact opposite of what is expected. In the 1990s, at the peak of the grunge era, he chose to take his band in a completely different direction, mixing retro-inspired jazz, blues and swing music. They didn’t initially get much attention, but when they released their second album, Hot, in 1996, the world took notice, and the album achieved platinum status.
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This experience certainly taught Mathus to trust his instincts when it comes to songwriting, and this has served him well ever since. By now, Squirrel Nut Zippers have sold three million albums. On September 25, they released their seventh studio album, Lost Songs of Doc Souchon, which includes original Zippers material alongside covers of early New Orleans jazz songs.
“I look at it like this: a lot in, a lot out,” Mathus says of songwriting. “By ‘a lot in,’ I mean, you read. You observe. You take notes. I’ll hear an expression and I’ll think, ‘That would be a great concept for a little song.’”
Mathus also advises aspiring songwriters to go with their initial flash of inspiration as much as possible. “I don’t force a song. If a song isn’t written in about, say, five minutes, it’s probably not a good song for me. I don’t labor over them. I don’t like to overwork them. Now, some people may want to labor over songs. I don’t think the best songs were written like that, though. I think the best songs were written just in a flash, or in a dream state, that type of thing.”
But, Mathus says, his approach to songwriting does require patience: “I may have one or two good parts and then the rest doesn’t come, I’ll just leave those alone. I will pick them up when the idea is fully formed, so I’m not forcing anything.” If he does this, he says the right idea will come to him eventually. “I’m just going to the mailbox to get the mail or driving go get a six pack of beer or mowing the yard and bam, it’ll hit me.”
Most of all, though, Mathus says to “just keep at it until it becomes second nature. Find your own process, whatever works for you.”