Songwriters work in many ways. Most of them are extremely verbal when it comes to describing in detail their creative process. Below is the first in a series of useful paragraphs I've excerpted from longer interviews I've had with some great songwriters over the years.
Randy Newman is a veteran composer/performer most known for his Oscar winning movie scores and theme songs. He's also the writer of Three Dog Night's second biggest hit, "Mama Told Me Not to Come." His own best-selling chart hit from 1977, "Short People" hardly represents Randy's talent. Much more important are tunes like "Sail Away," "God's Song" and "Louisiana, 1927."
I've always worked the same way. I just sit there. Very rarely, maybe a couple of times, I've jumped out of bed with an inspiration. But usually it comes while I'm sitting at the piano. I hardly ever have the words first. A piece of a melody or a figure of some kind will be enough to get me going, and sometimes the song will be right there, where you can see to the end of if. Usually, I just say what I have to say and that's all I have to say and I'm done. There are songs that could have been longer, I guess. But I'm just happy to be done. I can generally feel when they're finished, but I've been wrong a few times--more than a few. I have urges to change them all the time. I would do it, but I know I could never get them right. There's ruin there if you start to do that. But I can't think of many songs where something musically or lyrically doesn't really bother me. Which is a deterrent from working. You bust your ass with a crazed kind of worrying about every little thing and then you wind up seeing all these bad things about it two weeks later. It's a psychosis. In performing they all seem OK. Performing is so easy, so immediately rewarding. Writing, although I know it's more important, is just rough. Actually, I could quit both performing and writing and just do nothing at all. I'm capable of doing absolutely nothing for long periods of time without much remorse. But every once in a while I'll wake up and say, 'Jesus Christ, what a waste. What a big talent I used to be, like a meteor across the sky.'
Paul Simon has had singles on the charts in four different decades, staring in 1962 with his efforts under names like Tico & the Triumphs and Jerry Landis, continuing with his superstar interlude in Simon & Garfunkel, and culminating with a stellar solo career, capped by the 1990 appearance of "The Obvious Child." Among his best-known songs is "The Boxer," "Mrs. Robinson," "The Sound of Silence," "Graceland," and "The Boy in the Bubble."
Part of the impulse to write is to have a catharsis. As the writing continues you can get into a little pocket where things are coming easily. You find yourself with this inexplicable flow of images, ideas, thoughts that are interesting. You also have to have a very low level of critical faculty operating. The opposite is when you experience periods where nothing comes because the critical faculties get heightened and you won't allow a line to come out without criticizing it. You have to loosen up on yourself to allow things to come. I found that reading different books from people who were writing in the mood that I was writing was helpful. When I was writing "Crazy Love" I was reading Chris Durang. When I was writing "Under African Skies" I was reading Yeats. With "Graceland" I was probably reading Raymond Carver.
Andy Partridge is the founder of XTC, the lush, Beatlesque combo most known for Eighties' albums like English Settlement, Skylarking and Oranges and Lemons. Although their only chart hit is "The Mayor of Simpleton," by far their most controversial effort is "Dear God," from the Todd Rundgren-produced Skylarking.
Usually you get tuned in and this stuff explodes, takes you over. You play too late into the night and your dinner's going cold downstairs. Then it gets like the air changes and you're breathing a sort of different atmosphere somehow. It's like suddenly you feel wonderfully receptive to a load of stuff, things that wouldn't have meant anything a couple of weeks before suddenly all come crowding in real quick. Things suggest other things. A chord can mean a phenomenal amount; just one chord brings you a lot of pictures. In the middle of this kind of creative period you get your brain so wound up you can't turn it off. I go to sleep but my brain is going crazy, inventing or searching, and I wake up screaming. We call it the Billy Bolts or Billy Bolts upright. I just sort of sit up and become this person, Billy Bolt. You just get into the process of thinking and sending your brain out to search, getting those tendrils going everywhere. You find this piece of string and you think, this is a really good piece of string and you're pulling and pulling. God, there's something on the end of this. And I can't turn my head off from doing this at night. And there I am, I'm awake, and I'm yelling like I'm being murdered and I'm facing the wardrobe and it's four a.m. and I don't know what I'm doing.
Jim Webb's most poignant song is the searing "P.F. Sloan," dedicated to the songwriter of the same name. But Webb is perhaps more known for songs he's written for other people, including "Wichita Lineman," "Galveston," "MacArthur Park" and the amazing "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress," as sung by Linda Ronstadt.
There are two kinds of discipline involved with writing every day. There's the discipline to get up in the morning and go to work and work on something for five or six hours. And then there's a reverse discipline to leave it. I don't play the piano at home, even though I might be tempted to worry a tune some more. And since composers are obsessive by nature, it's tough. You have to say I'm not going to look at that until tomorrow. I know from playing tennis, sometimes I play my best after I've been away from the game for a couple of weeks. It's about letting yourself breathe a little bit. I used to be quite a lot more obsessive about what I did, but then when I listen to the old stuff, I sometimes see where I could have stood back a little bit and been a little more objective about what I was doing. In retrospect, if I were going to rewrite something, I'd probably rewrite "MacArthur Park," because I feel that maybe it wasn't my best work.