Wisdom on Songwriting & Creativity,
Joe Henry, Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Sammy Cahn, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Cohen, Jimmy Webb,
Stephen Schwartz & Richard Thompson
“The truth is like a rabbit in a bramble patch. You can’t lay your hand on it.
All you do is circle around and point, and say, ‘It’s in there somewhere.’”
– Pete Seeger
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: “The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.”
Leonard Cohen: I’m very happy to be able to speak this way to fellow craftsmen. Some people may find it encouraging to see how slow and dismal and painstaking is the process.
Joe Henry: We engage the song in process and we know that something there is beckoning us forward; you know that there’s a living thing there in the midst. You walk towards it with a bit of good faith and courage, but I think it’s really important not to be too sure about what you think the outcome should be. To stay out of the results business as much as possible.
Lucinda Williams: I guess you could write a good song if your heart hadn’t been broken, but I don’t know of anyone whose heart hasn’t been broken.
Videos by American Songwriter
Richard Thompson: I think sometimes you can write a song totally backwards. You get this killer line that ends the song and you think about how you get back from there, or you start from a title or an idea, and you build from that. You can hear it in writing by Dylan, where he has some line he wants to use and writes backwards from there.
Bob Dylan: Still staying in the unconscious frame of mind, you can pull yourself out and throw up two rhymes first and work it back. You get the rhymes first and work it back and then see if you can make it make sense in another kind of way. You can still stay in the unconscious frame of mind to pull it off, which is the state of mind you have to be in anyway.
Richard Thompson:I’m happy to say you hear the odd leaden line in a Dylan song, where he doesn’t really care, he just wants to get to the good line. Which means he’s human after all.
Leonard Cohen: I find that easy versions of the song arrive first. Although they might be able to stand as songs, they can’t stand as songs that I can sing. So to find a song that I can sing,to engage my interest, to penetrate my boredom with myself and my disinterest in my own opinions, to penetrate those barriers, the song has to speak to me with a certain urgency. To be able to find that song that I can be interested in takes many versions and it takes a lot of uncovering.
Jimmy Webb: Every time I sit down and do it I know I’m not going to be able to do it. It’s awful. So before I ever launch into this highly terrifying process of trying to write a song, I’d have to have some chord structure under me that was inspiring, and I felt was reasonably original. And I know this isn’t always possible, but if it fell too far below par in terms of just being interesting to me, there’s no way I could write the song. I’d run out of gas very very quickly.
Keith Richards: I hesitate to use the words `write them’ about writing songs, really, because I receive them I think. I don’t want to get mystical about it, but a lot of songwriters will tell you, really, you don’t know where it comes from. You sit down at a piano in an empty room, or a guitar, and you play your favorite songs somebody else wrote, you know? Anything that you’re into, that you feel like. And on a good day, after about twenty minutes or so, you’re suddenly playing something new.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: Keep it simple. Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. “To be or not to be?” asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story “Eveline” is this one: “She was tired.” At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.
Jimmy Webb: I usually know what kind of song I’m after. I know what I’m trying to do when I start. I don’t always get there. But I try to visualize the way the song’s gonna be. And then, again, I might be led in a totally different direction. But at least when I start out I Iike to think I know where I’m going.
Sammy Cahn: A melody will never be out of fashion. See, The Beatles are lasting because they wrote music. Noise diminishes; music lingers. See how simple that is? You must write something that you’ll take away.
Jimmy Webb: I like titles. I like to have a good title to work with or at least organize myself to work around. And th4e song may end up with another title. And the title may be a fragment or a phrase from the lyric. But if you start out with a tangible, then the whole song stays more focused for me. I almost have to do it that way.
Joe Henry: I personally believe that most of us have a much wider palette of musical experience than the industry ever wanted to acknowledge. Not everybody obsesses over records, but plenty of people are enriched by song. I think that if we went tomorrow and took over KROQ at drive-time and put on Edith Piaf, there would be a certain number of people who would pull over to the side of the road and say, “I don’t know what this is, but my life is different now.”
Richard Thompson: Making music, either creating it or playing it, is sort of a handshake between the two sides of the brain. The intuitive part of the brain is kind of flying and the logical part of the brain interjects occasionally, and says, “Four bars left,” or says, “Key change” or says, “F chord coming up,” or says, “What rhymes with bush?”
Joe Henry: We’re so busy telling people that “This shouldn’t matter to you,” or “This music is too old for you or “You’re too young to accept this,” or “You’re too old to participate in this kind of music. That doesn’t serve any of us, and I pay it no mind.
Stevie Wonder: I can’t say that I’m always writing in my head, but I do spend a lot of time in my head writing and coming up with ideas. And what I do usually is write the music and melody and maybe the basic idea, but when I feel that I don’t have a song, I just say ‘God please give me another song,’ and I just am quiet, and it happens, and it’s just amazing.
Joe Henry: I think it’s a really important balance as writers to marry our hearts and minds, but we can’t let one ever overtake the other. And when I say that, I’m talking about your intellect and your instinct.
Stephen Schwartz: A way to practice developing your technique, is to find music to some songs whose words you are not familiar with, and try writing your own lyrics to the tunes. Then compare your lyrics to the actual lyrics of the songs, and see how they compare rhythmically, what you can learn from the original lyrics, and where you may actually prefer what you have done!
Sammy Cahn: Tell your young songwriters, if they are trying to be a composer, let them take the great lyrics, let them take”All the Things You Are” by Jerome Kern and write your own melody to those lyrics, If you’re a lyric writer, take Jerome Kern’s “All The Things You Are” and write your own lyrics. So then you’re writing with Jerome Kern, aren’t you? It’s one of the great training grounds. I do this every single day of my life. Practicing my craft.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
Joe Henry: You don’t examine a shadow by shining a light on it.
Keith Richards: Because you’ve been playing every day, sometimes two or three shows a day, ideas are flowing. One thing feeds the other. You might be having a swim or screwing the old lady, but somewhere in the back of the mind, you’re thinking about this chord sequence or something related to a song. No matter what the hell’s going on. You might be getting shot at, and you’ll still be “Oh! That’s the bridge!”
Stephen Sondheim: The ears expect certain rhymes, so you want to fool them because one of the things you want to do is surprise an audience.
Leonard Cohen: Nothing works. After a while, if you stick with a song long enough it will yield. But long enough is way beyond any reasonable estimation of what you think long enough may be. In fact, long enough is way beyond. It’s abandoning, it’s abandoning that idea of what you think long enough may be.
Keith Richards: The radar is on whether you know it or not. You cannot switch it off. You hear this piece of conversation from across the room, “I just can’t stand you anymore”… That’s a song. It just flows in.
Stephen Sondheim: Music is structure out of chaos.
Leonard Cohen: [Songwriting] begins with an appetite to discover my self-respect. To redeem the day. So the day does not go down in debt. It begins with that kind of appetite.
F. Scott Fitzgerald: Nothing good isn’t hard.
Joe Henry: There are times in life when a wind knocks the hat off your head and you have to chase it down the street, dust it off and reset it.
Sammy Cahn: There’s a time and a place for everything. Life repeats itself and regenerates.