25 Great Songwriters on the Art of Songwriting

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Thomas Edison’s famous and oft-abused quote about genius being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration is one of the great truisms of our time. But is it actually, y’know, true? How creativity actually works — in terms of the nuts and bolts of actually getting things down on the page/tape/canvas/etc. — is perhaps the most mysterious aspect of art, a process that’s both romanticized and often misunderstood. And in view of this, we thought it might be interesting to see what some of our favorite songwriters had to say about how they approach the process of writing. Click through to read opinions from Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Björk, Patti Smith and a whole heap more. We hope they provide some measure of inspiration, interest, or insight.

Leonard Cohen

“I’m writing all the time. And as the songs begin to coalesce, I’m not doing anything else but writing. I wish I were one of those people who wrote songs quickly. But I’m not. So it takes me a great deal of time to find out what the song is.”

PJ Harvey

“If you want to be good at anything, you have to work hard at it. It doesn’t just fall from the sky. I work every day at trying to improve my writing, and I really enjoy it. Nothing fascinates me more than putting words together, and seeing how a collection of words can produce quite a profound effect.”

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Fiona Apple

“I really, really enjoy fitting words together — but I only enjoy it when it’s easy, when it sort of rolls along by itself. I never erase anything [and] I hardly ever write anything down… The song will be finished before I write it down… I won’t write a song unless it serves me in some way, unless I feel I have to write the song to make myself feel better. If you’re not overflowing with something, there’s nothing to give.”

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Trent Reznor

“If I come up with rules or limitations it focuses me in a direction. And those rules can change if you realize it’s a dumb idea. You start to mutate it to see what fits best.”

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John Lennon

“Songwriting is about getting the demon out of me. It’s like being possessed.”

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Nick Cave

“Inspiration is a word used by people who aren’t really doing anything. I go into my office every day that I’m in Brighton and work. Whether I feel like it or not is irrelevant.'”

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Bob Marley

“Well, it grow together. Is like, first time mi try to write a song is the first time mi try to play the guitar. And soh mi can write a song without the guitar. But it really grow together. Mi really like stay with mi guitar. But it just happen, is Jah inspiration come thru man. Because, I personally, it look like, could ah write a whole heap a tune, it look like. But I pick special tune fi write. ‘Cause a man can think of plenty things. Yuh know wah ah mean.”

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Regina Spektor

“I don’t know if it’s like this for other people, but for me, I hear all kinds of things when I write songs… When I write, everything is very abstract. They’re probably sounds that don’t exist in the world. Even taking it out of my head and putting it into piano and voice makes it more in the real world. As soon as you touch it into the real world, that’s it — it forgets that kind of [abstract] sound. At that point, you’re just playing with it, and out of that playing comes however you decide to make it sound, because it’s all just a million choices. I never start out with any songs saying, ‘This is how it’s going to sound.’ That’s the whole fun of it for me, because I can’t chase the abstract, because I don’t even remember it when I put it into the real world.”

[Interview with the author]

Bob Dylan

“If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to. Anyone who wants to be a songwriter should listen to as much folk music as they can, study the form and structure of stuff that has been around for 100 years.”

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Chuck D

“My news source for [songwriting] is everything. It has to be. It’s not just anything — it’s everything. I can’t ignore what people are saying in the world or in the streets. I hate that term now, ‘the streets,’ because it’s so commercial. You have to use the world. Your head has to be open… Perspective is always important for songwriters, too. You have to have the perspective of who you are talking to and have a perspective of who is talking to you and you’ve got to stitch it together. Then you have to have historical perspective. That means a lot if you’re trying to take something on and make it pertinent for the future.”

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David Bowie

“You write down a paragraph or two describing several different subjects creating a kind of story ingredients-list, I suppose, and then cut the sentences into four or five-word sections; mix ’em up and reconnect them. You can get some pretty interesting idea combinations like this. You can use them as is or, if you have a craven need to not lose control, bounce off these ideas and write whole new sections.”

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Dolly Parton

“It’s therapy. It’s fun. It’s creative. I love getting on a big writing binge and staying up a couple days working on song and knowing at the end of those two or three days that I’ve created something that was never in the world before. It’s like a feeling of creating, not that the same stories ain’t been told before, but it ain’t been told through my point of view. And it’s my way of relaxing. Songwriting is a hobby and to me it’s therapy. It’s a joy. It’s a thrill. It’s like mind exercises or something.”

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Iron and Wine

“Do I start with the lyrics? No. Quite honestly, it’s the opposite. I generally get the melody first — I kinda fiddle around on the guitar and work out a melody. The lyrics are there to flesh out the tone of the music. I’ve tried before to do things the other way around, but it never seems to work. Obviously, I spend a lot of time on my lyrics, I take them very seriously, but they’re kinda secondary. Well, equal, maybe. I think sometimes that if you write a poem, it should remain as just a poem, just… words.”

[Interview with the author]

Thom Yorke

“What happens a lot with songwriting is that a melody or rhythm or something stays with you like catching a cold. And during that time what happens is that I can then fit things on to it, it all fits and glues together. Sometimes it’s crazy ‘cos it can almost be anything. But if you catch the cold then the nonsense makes sense. It’s like you’re getting beamed it, like with a ouija board and something’s pushing your hand. It’s not a pleasant experience necessarily.”

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Björk

“What comes first? The melody, always. It’s all about singing the melodies live in my head. They go in circles. I guess I’m quite conservative and romantic about the power of melodies. I try not to record them on my Dictaphone when I first hear them. If I forget all about it and it pops up later on, then I know it’s good enough. I let my subconscious do the editing for me.”

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Tracy Chapman

“Songwriting is a very mysterious process. It feels like creating something from nothing. It’s something I don’t feel like I really control.”

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Morrissey

“The title is often more important than the song because more people will read the title than hear the song, and the title will draw them in or repel them. It’s very important to me that the words have very soft edges and are easy to say.”

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Alicia Keys

“For me, writing comes directly from a specific source. Like something that just happened to me, a conversation, a strong emotion, a line in a book, a word… Usually I seize that exact moment to write down what [I] felt, even if it makes no sense or it doesn’t rhyme… Or I will call my [voicemail] and leave my self a message if I have no pen, or only a melody. Later, when I have time alone, I like to sit quietly, most times at my piano… and I revisit what I felt. I allow myself to say everything that my heart feels about it with no judgement, [until] I get all I need out… and I feel the spirit in the song. Then I begin to arrange it, or share it, or get feedback. The most important thing for me when I write is that I properly express that emotion that struck me so deeply.”

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Townes Van Zandt

“I don’t think you can ever do your best. Doing your best is a process of trying to do your best.”

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Mos Def

“Speech is my hammer, bang the world into shape/ Now let it fall/ My restlessness is my nemesis/ It’s hard to really chill and sit still/ Committed to page, I write a rhyme/ Sometimes won’t finish for days/ Scrutinize my literature, from the large to the miniature/ I mathematically administer/ Subtract the wack/ Selector, wheel it back, I’m feeling that/ From the core to the perimeter black/ You know the motto/ Stay fluid even in staccato.”

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Patti Smith

“Poetry is a solitary process. One does not write poetry for the masses. Poetry is a self-involved, lofty pursuit. Songs are for the people. When I’m writing a song, I imagine performing it. I imagine giving it. It’s a different aspect of communication. It’s for the people.”

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Janis Ian

“One of the hardest things of all is to start. Just sitting down and getting over your own intimidations. Every professional songwriter I know — people who do it 100% for their living — is terrified every time they sit down to write. You’re always convinced that your next song is going to be your last, or that it’s going to be your worst, or that you’ll never be able to write anything as good as your hit. It’s a constant terror. I think all artists live in a constant state of terror. And part of our job is to know our own chaos well enough to be able to make sense of it when you can.”

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Lauryn Hill

“When I create music, the feeling that you get… I get first. You [the listener] have a delayed experience with the feeling I initially get when I have a creative insight. Not just the voice, but all the creativity — the production, the idea, the concept, the music involved. There is a high. There is an emotional experience that happens when everything comes together… I made music as consistently as I did, especially back in the day, because it made me feel so good… When everything is on, it’s a wonderful feeling.”

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Prince

“Attention to detail makes the difference between a good song and a great song. And I meticulously try to put the right sound in the right place, even sounds that you would only notice if I left them out. Sometimes I hear a melody in my head, and it seems like the first color in a painting. And then you can build the rest of the song with other added sounds. You just have to try to be with that first color, like a baby yearns to come to its parents. That’s why creating music is really like giving birth. Music is like the universe: The sounds are like the planets, the air and the light fitting together.

“When I write an arrangement, I always picture a blind person listening to the song. And I choose chords and sounds and percussion instruments which would help clarify the feel of the song to a blind person. For instance, a fat chord can conjure up a fat person, or a particular kind of color, or a particular kind of fabric or setting that I’m singing about. Also, some chords suggest a male, others a female, and some ambient sounds suggest togetherness while others suggest loneliness. But with everything I do, I try to keep that blind person in mind. And I make my musicians pay attention to that, too. Like my bassist, Sonny T., can really play a girl’s measurements on his instrument and make you see them. I love the idea of visual sounds.”

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Morrissey, again

“It doesn’t stop. It really doesn’t stop. It’s the way I live every single day. I don’t do anything else. I have no other interest other than music. At all.”

(And no, we couldn’t help re-posting the cat-on-head photo. We’re not sorry.)