The Writer’s Block: Emily James on the “Happy Accidents” of Songwriting

If you were to fast-forward time about three or four years in the future, you may look up and see Emily James’ name on a billboard. Or 500 of them. The Los Angeles-based artist has a keen touch, lovely sound, and general vibe of someone who may, just may, take the world by storm.

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So, it’s only right that we catch up with the artist to talk about songwriting. How does the artist, who has garnered hundreds of thousands of streams for songs like “Brooklyn” work out a tune, find inspiration and get through the dreaded writer’s block?

[RELATED: The Writer’s Block: Sarah Jarosz on Writing as a “Cyclical Process”]

From James, who is releasing a string of songs these days as part of her the aLtErNaTeS project, which is a collection of tracks inspired by the ups and downs of her and her friends’ relationships, there is a lot to learn.

Americna Songwriter: How did you get started in songwriting?

Emily James: I was always making up stories and little piano songs when I was little, but the two finally united on one path when I was about 10 years old. I had always loved music, but something switched on in me around that time that made me become obsessed. I remember the feeling I got when I wrote my first “real” song (with a bridge and everything) and that was the moment I knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. There’s just no comparison to how it feels when you’ve completed a song that means something to you.

AS: What do you believe goes into writing a hit song?

EJ: I think if there was a simple answer to this we’d all be writing hit songs! But I do think that something every song needs is truth—even if it’s just a tiny kernel of truth that gets exaggerated. In order for someone to connect to a song, they have to believe it. And no one will believe it if you don’t believe it.

AS: Have you ever experienced writer’s block and how did you get past it?

EJ: I have experienced writer’s block, but I think that’s really just a name for letting fear and judgment get in the way of creativity. What helps me to get out of that is stepping away for a minute and looking for a new perspective. I know some people believe it’s better to write every single day and get your “bad ideas” out, but personally, I only feel worse after forcing a song out. If I’m hitting a wall or don’t feel connected to where something is going, I will either stop and start something else, or just pivot in a completely different direction so that it feels refreshing to me. Going on walks and runs really help me, as well as reading books and watching movies. There is so much to be inspired by, sometimes you just have to let yourself be an observer for a bit.

AS: Is there this on-and-off switch, when you’re tapping into someone else’s story for a song?

I’m sure you can pick up on more universal themes, but how do you connect when it’s something deeper and more personal for that artist? When I’m tapping into another person’s story for a song, I try to see things from their perspective as much as possible and write from their point of view. Obviously, it’s impossible to completely put yourself in someone else’s shoes, so in my head, I try to relate it to something that made me feel the way they’re feeling. The story itself may be different for every person, but the feelings are going to be the same. I believe that finding the core sentiment of the song is the most important objective when writing, and all the details fall in around that.

AS: How do songs typically come together for you?

EJ: It’s different every time, but the most common and organic way for me is by sitting down with an
instrument and finding some chords that spark an emotion in me. Then I’ll start singing melodies over those chords, and usually, there are some words that start tumbling out from my mumbles. I like to do it this way because it’s like my subconscious is speaking to me, rather than me writing about what’s at the front of my mind. When I’m writing with other people it’s fun too because we’ll all be mumbling things and then be like, “Woah did you just say _?” and then be like “No, but I love that—let’s write that down!” Little happy accidents like that are one of my favorite parts of the writing process.

AS: When working with other artists, what is that spark, or the moment when you know it’s going to be a good session or a great song?

EJ: Writing sessions are a lot like dates! You start the session by chatting and getting to know each other a bit (especially if it’s someone you’ve never met before) and you can usually tell pretty early on whether there’s a vibe or connection there. When I’m immediately comfortable with someone and we share a similar taste in music, I know it’s going to be a good session because I feel like I can trust them. The more trust there is, the more vulnerable and honest we can both be, and that’s where the best songs get written.

AS: Is it hard to let a song go?

EJ: I wouldn’t say I’ve ever had a hard time letting a song go—I realized a long time ago that, once I release a song, it’s not mine anymore, so I always make sure I’m ready for that. Everyone listening to it is going to attach their own experiences and memories to it, and that’s so beautiful to me. I sometimes get nervous before releasing a song because it usually doesn’t hit me until right before I put the song out how much I’m exposing myself!

AS: What is the hardest part for you when it comes to staying motivated to keep practicing and writing?

EJ: When I’m practicing for a show or some kind of performance, it can be hard to stay motivated because it’s just simply not as fun to play songs in your room to a pretend audience as it is to a bunch of people standing in front of you. I try to remember that even though it’s a bit tedious, it will help me feel more prepared and confident, and that will allow me to enjoy the performance that much more when it’s happening. With writing, what gets in my way is just a fear of failure, I guess.

Sometimes it’s scary to sit down and write because I’m afraid I won’t like any of the ideas that come out, or that there won’t be any ideas at all. I try to get past that place of judgment, be patient, and just show up for myself. Some of my favorite songs that I’ve written have come from me sitting down at the piano or with a guitar, letting go of control and just allowing the song to be what it wants to be. In that sense, I feel more like a vessel for wherever inspiration comes from, rather than the source. There’s something comforting about that.

AS: Are you looking to cross into any new genres, or are you happy right where you are?

EJ: I’m always excited about trying out new things. I’m in a place where I have a pretty solid sense of who I am as an artist and what my “sound” is. The most important thing to me is that, regardless of what kind of production surrounds the song, I want to make sure it always feels real and feels like me.

AS: What advice would you share with songwriters just getting into the business, or already working through the ranks?

EJ: On a technical level I would say if you’re going into a session with other people, have some ideas or sonic nuggets prepared ahead of time. Even if you don’t use any of them, it will make you feel more
confident because you know you have something to lean on if it’s difficult getting the song started.

On a more inspirational level, I would say, don’t give yourself a plan B. If you know in your heart that you are a songwriter, don’t give yourself another option. This isn’t an easy business so if you have a backup plan, you’ll probably fall back on it. Remember that you bring something unique to every room you walk into because you’re the only you that exists. You have your own special voice and perspective, so don’t let that go to waste.

AS: What was the biggest turning point in taking your songwriting to the next level?

EJ: Letting go of rules. Once I realized a song can be anything, have any kind of structure, sound any way you want it to, I became more open to experimenting and following the natural path of the song, rather than forcing it to fit into some kind of mold. It’s so much more fun that way—then you’re not just doing the same thing over and over again.

AS: What are your most noteworthy achievements today, in your own mind?

EJ: Honestly, the fact that making music is my full-time job is my biggest achievement. Sometimes
when I get too caught up in all the nonsense of numbers and analytics, I force myself to take a step back and think about my five-year-old self who was singing all the time, everywhere she went, and wouldn’t let anyone shut her up. I think about how she would feel if I got to go back and tell her that we’re really doing it, we’re still singing and people all around the world listen to us and come to see us on stage. Then I think about all the people who have reached out to me and told me that my music means something to them, and has helped them in some way. That always puts things in perspective and makes me really grateful to be doing what I’m doing.

Photo by Lindsey Byrnes / Courtesy Nettwerk

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