Mickey Newbury: Write Heart Songs, Not Clever Hooks

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This article originally appeared in the January/February 1989 issue of American Songwriter.

The only thing better than hearing a great Mickey Newbury song is hearing Mickey Newbury sing his great songs in a live performance.

Now if that statement sounds biased, let me assure you it is, but let me also assure you I am not the only person who would ever make such a statement. Newbury is a writer of classic material – “She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye,” “San Francisco Mabel Joy,” “Funny Familiar Forgotten Feelings,” “American Trilogy,” “Sweet Memories” – but he also possesses a voice that is second to none.

Newbury is not a singer-songwriter in the sense that he records two albums a year of self-penned material and hits the road to perform for his fans. His most recent tour was in support of an album on the newly established Airborne label in Nashville, for which he re-recorded several of the above mentioned songs that have been recorded by other artists as well as songs he had previously recorded, including “Cortelia Clark,” “Wish I Was A Willow Tree,” and “Lovers.” The album was recorded with violinist Marie Rhines, who accompanied Newbury on his synthesizerized guitar. It’s an interesting combination – almost as interesting as talking Newbury about songwriting.

“I got a call from a famous writer while I’ve been in town, now I’m not gonna call his name, but he called to congratulate me on the new album,” Newbury starts off our conversation. “Then he asks me how the hell I’m still writing after all these years. I asked him why he doesn’t write and he said he didn’t have anything to write about anymore.”

Newbury pauses, as he must have when he heard that statement from a fellow songwriter, then continues.

“I asked him if he’d ever given any thought to writing a song about not having anything to write about? Just sit down and say he has nothing to say.”

Newbury explains that he writes just the way he suggested to his songwriter friend – when he sits down to write, he writes what is on his mind.

“The reason none of my songs have hook lines is ‘cause I don’t start with any story or hook line. If I wake up and feel like writing and the sun is shining, I might start off with ‘… I woke up this morning and the sun is shining…’ or ‘… I woke up this morning and it was raining …’ Seldom does that wind up being the lead line, but it creates a thread that goes through the song and somewhere down the line the sounds starts.

“It’s an old way of writing and I really believe in it because it’s the only way you can get into an unconscious flow. If you ever want to study a song and see if it’s inspired, take the lines and switch them around and see if they still have content and still make sense.”

Newbury illustrates with “Sweet Memories” – “My world is like a river, as dark as it is deep…night after night the past slips in, and gathers all my sleep…my days are just an endless stream, of emptiness to me … filled only by the fleeting moments of the memories.’ Now take those line and switch them around.

” ‘My days are just an endless stream, of emptiness to me…filled only by the fleeting moments of the memories … my world is like a river, as dark as it is deep … night after night the past slips in, and gathers all my sleep’.”

Newbury contends that the unconscious mind is what writes lines like those, as opposed to the conscious mind, which comes up with the hook lines and clever innuendoes.

“The unconscious mind, which retains 100% of its input, as opposed to the conscious mind, which retains only 15% of its input, is crazy as hell,” he says. “I loved that kind of writing…’cause you never know what’s gonna come out. Free flowing is the way to go (for writing a song)…but you can’t take credit for it and your ego doesn’t get stroked when you write like that. But it’s the source of the greater art if you can tap into it and are able to tap into it when you need it, you do it when you need it and then when you don’t need it, you are on another level.”

In trying to tell the young songwriter how to tap into this source of adrenalin, Newbury espouses the theory that you are born a songwriter, not made one.

“The first thing I would tell you is that you don’t learn to be a songwriter, you are a songwriter,” he emphasizes. “You must place the emphasis on the need to create. Don’t worry about whether it’s commercial or not, because if you work long enough and really try to write what is inside of you, eventually you’ll write the things that will have commercial acceptance and earn you a living. If you start to write from the conscious brain, you’ll be writing formula crap that’s gonna be something that might make you money for a short term, but it will destroy your creativity. Success is when you get what you want. Happiness is when you want what you get. A writer wants to be able to get inspiration (to write) and if you constantly do it without inspiration, it’s gonna leave you. That’s why I’m still writing after 30 years.”

Newbury grew up around a myriad of musical influences in Houston, Texas, including country, black, jazz, Mexican and folk. His first outlet for creativity was poetry, which he read in coffee houses in and around Houston. Soon he was putting music to those lines and performing as a singer.

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