Ah, the topics of inspirations for songwriters: love, heartbreak, the wind, the trees, the water, the conversations around them . . . and, in Grace Potter's case, the Plan B contraceptive pill.
Sure, the frontwoman of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals gets inspired by the usually bevy of songwriting topics, but she gets inspired everywhere—even, as you’ll read, by a Plan B birth pill commercial that she saw while in her hotel room. Of course, the theme has universality—the “doings and undoings” in life—but Potter’s ability to be inspired anywhere is a part of her songwriting talent. Perhaps it started in her high school English class, where she found great value in the brainstorming technique called freewriting, those bursts of five minute stream-of-consciousness writing sessions where you never stop writing. Even if you can’t think of a topic, you write, “I can’t think of a topic.” High school, as you’ll find out, was also a place where Potter staged a mini-revolt against the computer as a symbol of technology. She preferred to compose on a typewriter, so she typed a manifesto of sorts to the students and taped it up around the school, advocating something to the effect of “kill the computer.”
So read my interview with Grace Potter to find out all about her creative process. But before you do, please watch what is one of my favorite videos, their hotel room version of “Paris”:
So how did you get your start as a writer?
It’s funny, because I just started digging through an old box of English papers from high school, and all the work I was doing was focused on poetry and freewriting that my teacher had us do. We’d spend about five minutes at the beginning of class, just in stream-of-consciousness writing. I was writing some crazy shit! Totally out there. Sometimes I rhymed my freewrites, other times I just let it hang out with run-on sentences. I do realize now that I had a lot of poetry in my life as a student. Whether I knew it or not then, it had a lot of influence on me as a songwriter.
Some of the things I came up with in freewriting, it was almost like going to therapy. Given the freedom, without format or expectations of what type of writing it is supposed to be, you do get a lot out of it emotionally. And it gets the juices flowing at the beginning of the day.
Who are your literary inspirations?
I am legally blind, and reading is hard for me. So when I lose my glasses, it costs a lot of money to get my prescriptions renewed. I just picked up reading again because I finally picked up a new pair of glasses. I am mainly into the Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Bukowski, Kerouac, those types.
As a student, it was all about Pablo Neruda. He had a big influence on my poetry as a kid. I imitated him whenever possible. I speak a little Spanish, and I prefer the untranslated Neruda. I still read him.
Talk to me about your writing process.
There are two pieces to my writing. One piece is the birth of a lyrical idea without a melody on it, and that tends to go into my notebook straight away. Unfortunately, my iPhone is now my notebook, which I feel terrible about because I don’t like the idea of digitizing concepts. So I have my notebook on my iPhone, with all these weird one liners. It’s not a whole song or a full piece, just concepts or streams of words that I like putting together.
Then there’s the music side of it. That’s usually more productive, and rarely do I ever go back to my notebook to refer to the ideas that I have. I build a beat on Garage Band or find a melody on the piano, and I’ll basically write a song—or at least the verse of a song—to start with. Then maybe I’ll find some lyrics to go with it, but usually I like to find the chords for the chorus before I even start thinking about the lyrics. And that’s just on this most recent record. Every record is different, and I don’t have a formula, but I do spend a lot of time building beats because I need musical inspiration to come up with the right idea lyrically.
You mentioned “one-liners.” Where do you get those?
Yeah, like yesterday I was lying in bed and had this cynical attitude towards life, about how it’s a series of doings and undoings. I don’t know what I meant by it, and I don’t know if it’s a song or an idea. Laughs. It’s actually because I saw one of those Plan B birth control pill commercials, and it made me think of how life is a series of doing and undoings. Who knows whether it will wind up in a song. So yeah, I can be inspired by a commercial, something somebody says, even a song I hear where I think, “I know what they are trying to say, but I would have said it like this.”
How disciplined are you as a writer?
I am highly highly disciplined. I have to finish a song. I hate half-written songs. My life is so chaotic that the only thing I have control over is the fact that I can start and finish a song in the same day.
To have a good writing session, is there anything you must have with you?
My computer, my headphones, a notebook, and a rhyming dictionary.
A rhyming dictionary?
Oh yeah, I definitely use it. I don’t like Dr. Suess-y rhymes, but my earlier records sound very much like that. I had to think my way out of it. A lot of times, the words and rhymes I come up with are so out of nowhere. The dictionary helps me center the rhyme and not just come up with the first word I can think of that rhymes. Instead, I can dig trough all the options of words and come up with a meaning that’s even better.
Stuart McLamb of The Love Language told me that he uses a website called RhymeZone for his rhymes, so you should check that out. What about when you are blocked—what techniques do you use to work through it?
I’ll listen to the song a million times. A lot of the time I like my songs to go around and wind up where they started, but with a new perspective at the end. So sometimes if I have a great opening line or a great opening chorus line, I’ll take those words and mash them up and rescramble them to see if there’s a verse in there. It’s not a competition to see how many words you can fit into a song. Sometimes you need just a few words, like “Girl, You Really Got Me Now.” It kinda worked for The Kinks, you know?
Very true. Are you a late night writer?
It’s funny. I’ve always been a day writer , especially with my new material I’ve been working on. We had some gorgeous weather in Vermont recently, and everyone was outside enjoying the day. I wanted to as well. But lo and behold, a song hit me, and I can’t ignore it when it comes. So I had to sit down and do it. In my mind, I felt like I was being indulgent by writing a song and not being productive around the house. But the song is going to stay written forever—it’s a great song. My house is only going to stay clean for a couple of days. Laughs.
Since you live in Vermont, you probably have a great writing environment. If you could create your perfect writing environment, what would it be?
I don’t need much. I can find inspiration in a hotel room, in a train, on a bus, wherever. The only thing I need is privacy. I can’t write a song around other people. I don’t like people coming in when I am coming up with stuff. That really bothers me. I don’t want people talking to me.
How do you know when a song is done?
I’m usually ready for a song to be done before it’s actually done. I’m very quick to finish a song. I like to finish a song in a day For a song to be done, it needs to feel full . . . I like to write two verses and a bridge; that’s my ideal song. Bridges are hard—they can sometimes turn into their own songs.
What is your preferred method of composition?
Like I said, now it’s the iPhone. The paper notebook was actually not a good method for me, since I didn’t like the way all my songs were mashed together. I didn’t like turning the page from one song, and then seeing a new song. I needed more separation, something that the iPhone gives me.
Rene Villanueva from Hacienda told me that he likes to compose on typewriter, but few people do that. Note: Potter took Hacienda with her on the road this year, and they'll be doing a few dates together this fall.
I used to type on the typewriter. I was anti-computer in high school. I once typed a big letter to the school and printed it out and spread it around the whole school, saying like, “Kill the computer.” I hated computers. I didn’t like what they were doing to kids.