The Writer’s Block: Shakey Graves on the “Practice” Songwriting Requires

The 36-year-old Austin, Texas-born songwriter and performer Shakey Graves is not afraid to get a little weird, from his odd moniker to his mind-twisting tunes, Graves (born Alejandro Rose-Garcia) is bold and effective, blending genres and providing bombastic lyrics.

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But how do these songs come about and what happens when they don’t spring from the well of creativity? That is what we asked Graves in the latest installment of the American Songwriter series, The Writer’s Block.

[RELATED: 5 Songs We Think Should Have Been Nominated for Grammy Song of the Year That Weren’t]

Here, the talented musician gives us an insight into his process and the practice it takes to keep going.

American Songwriter: How did you get started in songwriting

Shakey Graves: I was lucky enough to grow up in a house of artistic types. My mother was a playwright, and my father was a set and light designer for local theater, so my babysitter roster was chock full of dancers, acid heads, students, poets, colorful characters spanning the creative spectrum.

Out of the various disciplines I encountered, my corner of the map wasn’t music; it was drawing. My lust for animation and cartoons brought me face to face with comics like Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, and the animated works of Don Bluth. These stories filled my brain with imagination and wonder, dark humor and heart, and in retrospect, very much set up my tone and worldview.

It wasn’t until I fell in wildly preteen love with my first girlfriend, who, in turn, was in wildly preteen love with all guitar players.

For the first time in my young life, my drawing skills didn’t pay the bills, and she broke up with me over the summer. I was so heartbroken that I devised a plan to master the guitar and return to school with such gusto that she simply would HAVE to see the error of her ways. I pulled an old guitar of my mother’s out of the closet and started to pluck away at it, and what came was not mastery but a release. A door was opened.

I immediately started to record myself and build songs the way I would build a drawing. This was a new way to create, a new way to dream awake and build cheap poetry to soothe my aching. The act of songwriting and playing an instrument became inextricably bound forever in my heart. Predictably, two months of feeble guitar playing and a little heartbreak did not make me the master I envisioned, and when we returned to school, the damsel was unimpressed. Only the songwriting (and my braces) remained.

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

SG: I’ll let you know when I make one!

I think there are lots of ways to manufacture “pleasurable” music, but a true hit seems to be a perfect storm of intention and situation. Sometimes it’s an earworm created by syllables that you cannot rid yourself from and can only cure by hearing ten million times through tiny speakers in corner stores and car radios worldwide. Sometimes it’s a novelty, a zeitgeist, or a cultural milestone.

Either way, the most satisfying hits feel undeniable, almost like déjà vu. When I feel I’ve written “hits,” there’s an A-HA moment when you catch the rabbit.  Sometimes those hits are small-scale, beautiful and timeless, and then I guess sometimes there’s “(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?”…so…beats me.

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

SG: Everyone encounters something like writer’s block. For me, it often comes from an overabundance of self-analysis and harsh comparison. For instance, some songs seemingly appear out of the blue and simply fall into your lap, once you experience that, it’s easy to assume that your creativity is a fountain, a gift, a spigot to turn on and off.

This can set you up for a harsh reckoning. Writing comes and goes like the weather. There are seasons, hours, and places in which I know that I am more likely to come across a diamond or a fresh idea, and my job is to make sure I am prepared for that type of psychic weather. Do I have a notebook? Did I clear my schedule? Did I wake up when I said I would? Did I stay up until that magical hour? Did I imbibe too much? Too Little?

During seasons of heavy sonic weather, I accumulate and hoard ideas for when the droughts come…because they will. In some cases, ideas are best kept in the cellar for 3 weeks to 20 years; it can be hard to tell. On the other hand, let’s say that you are on a hard deadline, you have no reserve cans of music in your cellar, and you need to work on a project now. My advice would be: don’t edit while you create. Record and deal with it later.

Howl, say weird syllables, throw everything out, then look at it and assemble the pieces into a strange collage. Whatever you do, don’t be angry that lightning didn’t strike today. Also, phone a friend. Not to state the obvious, but both writing and reading take practice. Like muscles, they need stretching and consistent use.

Having the patience to read large works, poetry, the newspaper, or even your own handwriting takes a lot. It can be frustrating to feel out of touch, and similarly, it can feel impossible to form an “original idea.” Just allow yourself to get back into a trusted routine or develop some tools to trick your noodle into having fun; the rest will fall into place… or so I constantly tell myself.

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?

SG: If I’m writing for someone else’s project it’s important for that artist to connect to said song even if it’s only through fantasy. If I, as a writer, think there’s a clever metaphor that is overlooked or not felt by an artist I will always do my due diligence to mention it or see if it strikes a nerve. If not, move on, back to the heart of what they are trying to create. If I have more agency in it I will be stubborn and make my point known, but co-writing can not be thought about in terms of “right and wrong.” For me it’s often about who or what the song is for. Is it for a specific demographic? Is it personal? Is it to inject pace into a slow part of the album? Is it to make your partner laugh?

AS: Is it hard to let a song go?

Impossible. I am a no-song left-behind kind of person. Doesn’t mean I’ll ever get around to it but nothing feels worse to me than rushing a beautiful song/idea out and having it be green or undeveloped. I still run a home for wayward songs in my mind, always looking for their home.

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

SG: I don’t think everything in this world needs to be recorded or shared. The micro-transactions and mundane scraps left behind every day are usually the tastiest bits. Meeting strange people and learning with a burning curiosity are all the practices I can’t live without, and without writing, it’s easier to forget.

I often have to remind myself that I don’t need to constantly take photos, and archive in order to create a story for everything in case it would make a good song. At the same time I try and leave little clues and stay diligent when things really move me, it is often like promising yourself you will remember your dreams.

Photo by Barbara FG / Courtesy Sacks & Co.

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