Songwriter U: Jay Joyce and the Power of Mistakes

Written by Mike Errico

Videos by American Songwriter

Parts of this interview are excerpted from Music, Lyrics, and Life: A Field Guide for the Advancing Songwriter, available everywhere, including Amazon and Bandcamp (signed copies).

If there’s anything that’s gotten more powerful in the songwriter’s toolbox, it’s the ability to erase blemishes. Writers and singers—especially singers—hide flaws with ever-improving software, thinking the song will improve with perfection because that’s what the listener wants. 

But what if it’s not? What if listeners, like the rest of us, are tired of airbrushed grooves and surgically enhanced hooks where everything is in its right place, and everything else is rubbed out?

Jay Joyce has been fighting this songwriting tendency and pumping out perfectly imperfect songs for years. His studio, a converted church in East Nashville, was constructed specifically to catch what makes a song’s performance real, and in this way, he’s crafted hits for Miranda Lambert, Eric Church, Orville Peck, Brandy Clark, Declan McKenna, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, and a host of others. His philosophy—keep the mistakes—sounds retro, maybe even careless; and yet, Jay’s approach bypasses the sterility of modern songwriting, and creates music that is urgent, dangerous, and alive. It’s as if mistakes are the future of authentic art.

Mike Errico: How do you get the best work out of writers and artists? 

Jay Joyce: I don’t have a vocal booth. People come in, and they’re like, “Where do I sing?” And I’m like, “Wherever you want.” I don’t have a control room—I never did like that. We don’t have to be, like, “Put your guitar down, come into the control room.” I can go on about the way studios are designed. It’s just stupid. 

ME: With so much changing technology, are you seeing changes in the kind of artists coming through your doors?

JJ: I’m not being Mr. Negative—there’s plenty of good music being made, no doubt—but some bands are not really a band. They’re just a bunch of guys who play with the one guy recording into Logic. They don’t really come up with parts like a real band does. They get the blueprint from the songwriter or whoever’s got a handle on a laptop, and they all end up just playing that, you know? They’re just sort of following the demo of the demo. Then they get in the studio and everybody chokes up—it has that apprehensive nature to it. I hear it on records all the time. It doesn’t feel like the Stones, you know what I mean? Everything runs away from you. Trying to get them to perform is a challenge sometimes.

ME: How do you work against that?

JJ: I try to get people to just wing it. Start throwing syllables into the mic. And I try to get people physically to be performing, you know? Like, a lot of songwriters or artists write as a songwriter and then perform it. But with the great ones, part of the performance is their writing. You know what I mean? The way they might breathe and shorten a word or need a double syllable here or there. To me, if they give in to their performance, then it’s going to be a better lyric. You get that feel of, you know, the tenth night out on a tour, your muscles are working, your strings are a little nasty ’cause you’ve been sweating on them. You know what I’m talking about. You’re loose. You’re, like, even not warmed up but you’re in it, you know? If you can get somebody in that place recording, then they’re gonna go way beyond what they even thought they could do, you know? Like, let things just happen

ME: Do you have specific ways you help them loosen up? 

JJ: Geez, it’s always different, man. Sometimes you just play a lot. That helps, or creating diversions and making it more difficult for them. Maybe don’t have such a great headphone mix. I don’t do separate headphones for players. They all have to play to the same mix. Hell, I’ll map out accidents intentionally, you know? Tell the drummer to do one thing and the bass player to do another and then get it. And they’ll never do that accident again. [Laughs] You know, just things that kind of force the person to not be so focused on what they’re doing. 

ME: Why do you think writers and performers tighten up in the studio?

JJ: I think there’s such a combination of things. I mean, take social media. I feel for kids just kind of coming up, you know? I mean, I was making really stupid music when I was 22. And they have to live that down. It’s pretty wild.

Most of what I do is work with bands and just get them to realize that it’s not that hard. I did that for years, you know—we all make it out to be harder than it is when, in truth, it’s like, just play like you’re in the rehearsal room. It’s all just spirit and not thinking, man. Just bang it out without thinking and it’s gonna feel great, you know?

About Mike Errico: Mike Errico is a recording artist, author, and songwriting professor at Yale, the New School, and NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. In additions to his performing and teaching careers, Errico’s opinions and insights have appeared in publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and CNN. His new book, Music, Lyrics, and Life: A Field Guide for the Advancing Songwriter, is available now.

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