Phillip Peterson has a lot to say. Especially when it comes to the idea of writer’s block.
The supremely accomplished musician, songwriter, and producer has worked with big-name artists like Macklemore, Taylor Swift, Lorde, A$AP Rocky, Ed Sheeran, Portugal. the Man and many more. How has he done this? By—in his own words—not being “precious” about his work.
Peterson’s advice? Write, create, make work and release it or throw it out or do anything but sit on it. In other words, don’t have a closet full of last year’s dresses.
We caught up to Peterson to ask him about his career, his writing process, his thoughts on writer’s block, and the idea that you have to live all the songs you sing.
American Songwriter: How did you get started in songwriting?
Phillip Peterson: I always wanted to be a composer when I was a kid. I grew up in a musical family, mostly around classical music. Starting on cello and piano very early, I was able to get a grasp of bassline, note leading, pitch, melody, harmony, phrasing, chord structure, ensemble. I was always in Quartets, Pep Band, Jazz Band, orchestras, rock bands with friends, so my exposure to great writing was there before I ever started on my own material.
AS: What do you believe goes into writing a hit song?
PP: Good songwriting takes a lack of preciousness. Tell a story that other people will understand. Make people feel something, sharing emotions that you have felt with strangers who may relate and identify with that feeling. Fight vehemently to preserve the freshness of your ears. I always tell my collaborators if you listen to it more than three times you’re playing with it, more than 10 times and you should be done for the day, you’ve lost your level of taste.
Take lots of breaks and keep your perspective fresh. Listen to something similar, listen to something opposite. Overworking and overthinking is just gonna make your song more boring. If you need to add 1 million things to make your song work, maybe it’s not a song.
AS: Have you ever experienced writer’s block and how did you get past it?
PP: Writer’s block happens when artists don’t have an established process. You have to know how to start, and fail, and learn from the outcome. If you have writer’s block you are thinking too hard. Don’t be precious. Make stuff and throw it away. Or release it. Whatever. It’s just paint on a canvas. I once made a joke song about chicken sandwiches. We finished it in 20 minutes and released it within a couple of days. Popeye’s found the release on their own, picked it up for a radio spot and we got paid well, considering the amount of time we put into it.
There are so many ways around an obstacle. Writer’s block plays into that definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. You don’t have to keep stubbing your toe on the same obstacle. In a video game if you can’t get in the door that is locked you don’t just keep banging on the door, you go and defeat the boss of the level who then gives you the key to the door.
Writer’s block is a choice. Who’s to say how much quantity you’re supposed to turn out? There is no designated amount of productivity that any of us are supposed to have when it comes to creative endeavors. If you don’t feel like writing, there are lots of writers. Pull over, get out of the way of the people who have somewhere to be. Or better yet, facilitate someone else’s idea.
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?
PP: How does an actor play a character? It’s such a double standard in the music industry to think that a storyteller has to have lived every detail of the story. It’s part of what actually kills artists. Can’t the story be told from the perspective of an untrustworthy narrator? Just like a great actor would do, embody the story, embody the character. Of course, drawing from your own personal experience helps. Most of us have definitely experienced a pretty wide array of emotions. Find those and tap into them.
AS: How do songs typically come together for you?
PP: There’s no formula. it starts with a spark: a great story, a melodic hook, a lyrical turn of phrase or punchline, a great verse, a groove that drips inspiration. Once you have one of those things, you start to find those other gems that fit.
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?
PP: We know it’s good when we collectively recognize one of those elements: a great story, a melodic hook, a lyrical turn of phrase or punchline, a great verse, a groove that drips inspiration. That’s another reason for collaboration because it’s a lot easier to tell if your ideas are working when the people in the room are all feeling it. This still works when working remotely, it’s the back and forth that fuels the fire.
AS: Is it hard to let a song go?
PP: No. It’s hard to hang onto a song and not want it out in the universe. It’s torture to hang onto unreleased finished material. There never will be a perfect version of your song. But the worst version of your song is the unreleased version of your song. A good song can be played on a guitar, piano, banjo, glockenspiel or the cup game, or a plethora of other mediums. That’s one of the tests.
If somebody can’t cover your song on whatever instrument they choose, you probably don’t have a song. If you have a good song, other people should be able to take it right out of the air and parrot it back to you. Being finished with a piece of art is an arbitrary thing. A piece of art is potentially never finished. Perfect is the enemy of beautiful.
AS: What is the hardest part for you when it comes to staying motivated to keep practicing and writing?
PP: Supporting myself financially and being in a creative headspace are not always compatible. The hustle can squelch inspiration, just as much as drive it. I try to get myself into a place where I’m not worried about the day-to-day survival stuff, and I can have some room in my psyche for creativity. The starving artist mentality is not sustainable. If you can get out of survival mode, your perspective really improves. And then on the other hand there are always times of real hardship that can make for a poignant story as well. So yeah, either way surviving is the hardest part.
AS: Are you looking to cross into any new genres, or are you happy right where you are?
PP: I don’t write with a genre in mind. Genre is a tool for marketing and PR people to sell product. I don’t worry about doing their job for them. Why would I limit my ideas? My favorite artists push boundaries. All genres have good and terrible music. We are now in a global creative community. Throw out the rule books.
AS: What advice would you share with songwriters just getting into the business, or already working through the ranks?
PP: Make friends. Collaborate. Share your toys. The spoiled kid plays by himself in the sandbox while all the other kids are having fun in the other sandbox. If you think you can do everything yourself you are not giving the universe a chance to help. Release material that other people worked on with you. If you hang onto it, you are not only doing yourself a disservice, but you are insulting everyone who touched your project. Nobody wants to be last year‘s dress.
If I work on something with you, put it out as soon as you can while the art is fresh, don’t let it be last year‘s dress, that’s just embarrassing. Don’t be so scared of all the horror stories that it inhibits your ability to break bread. I’ve been ripped off a lot, but I don’t let myself get jaded. More than not, when I put my neck out there, I make stronger and deeper relationships. Also when I put my neck out there, it’s easier to see when the snakes show their fangs. They can’t help it, and it becomes easy to know who you can trust.
AS: What was the biggest turning point in taking your songwriting to the next level?
PP: I’m pretty sure I’m currently turning that corner. But I think I perpetually feel that. I have definitely not peaked in my career. In fact, I’m underutilized, especially locally.
I wrote music for a church in what seems like a previous life, it was pretty easy to see what worked and didn’t work depending on participation. I learned a lot from that about how to write in a relatable manner so that people can pick a tune out of the air.
AS: What are your most noteworthy achievements today, in your own mind?
PP: I’ve been fortunate to perform on platinum-selling records by A$AP Rocky, Taylor Swift, Lorde, Ed Sheeran, Owl City, Pink, Trey Songz, Benny Blanco, Maroon 5, Gym Class Heroes, and other smash hits including Kesha, St. Vincent, Haim, Mastodon, Lupe Fiasco, Flo Rida, Ryan Beatty, Juice Wrld, Cashmere Cat.
My band Tennis Pro made a movie in Tokyo called Big in Japan, which premiered at SXSW in 2014. After that, we played film festivals in many beautiful locations including the Bahamas and Sayulita Mexico. Recently I produced Tennis Pro songs for the new Blender Studio animation on YouTube, Sprite Fright, currently at 1.4 million views since Halloween. Joining Nada Surf on Conan and Leno was amazing. Opening for BB King and hanging out in his RV comes to mind, he was very kind and sharp as a whip.
Right now I am most excited about writing and recording with PNW artists, including Acid Tongue, Nobi, Ryan Lewis, Calvin Valentine, Parisalexa, Elan Wright, Budo, Buddy Ross, Torin Frost, Haley Graves, Mark Diamond, Fluencie, Anna Thompson, Cervantes, Versona, Otys, Nightcallers, Rachael Gold, River of Dust, Thavoron, King Youngblood, Ivy Bona and Macklemore.
Photo courtesy Phillip Peterson