Of all the songwriters I've interviewed on this site, none has made the following declaration: "I've never read a book in my life!" When Eric Sean Nally, leader of Foxy Shazam, told me this, it came as a bit of a surprise; most of the interviewees here have a long list of authors who have influenced them. Nally's favorite author is Shel Silverstein, who wrote the book Where the Sidewalk Ends.
But Nally has no trouble getting inspired. He merely seeks inspiration from other places. Like smell (in the form of candles and of the freshly cut grass that reminds him of his childhood), kids (in the form of his two sons), and other bandmembers (with whom he regularly collaborates on songs).
Read more of my interview with Nally after the video. The band is touring now with Free Energy (whose lead singer, Paul Sprangers, I interviewed recently) in support of their eponymous debut on Sire Records. And I'll be reviewing that album in the Washington Post next week in advance of the band's show at the Rock n Roll Hotel.
It might be a little hard to understand, but I sometimes think of the person who admires the art as being creative as well. I am definitely an admirer of paintings and drawings, and sports, musicals, plays, things like that. It takes a certain technique to admire something, and I think I am good at admiring pieces of creative expression outside of what I do as a songwriter. I know music, so when I see a different art form, I am good at admiring it for why it has value. So I consider myself an artist in that sense, by picking out the good things in an art form. I think that takes talent.
Take one of those art forms and tell me what you admire in it.
The most important thing in my life has been sports. The biggest inspiration to me has been Michael Jordan because the way he plays basketball is different from the way that everyone else plays it. I am not really that big of a fan of basketball, but I just know the way he plays is different. It’s magical. Everything he did in his career was perfect.
Does any literature inspire you?
I have never read a book in my life! I’ve gotten a few pages in, but I’ve never finished one. But I read poems a lot.
What poets do you like?
Who was the guy who wrote Where the Sidewalk Ends?
I love that guy. Everything he has ever done.
You have two kids, right? How do they inform your songwriting?
Correct. Francis is four, and Julian is eight. I have two kids, but my wife has three because I am a kid myself. I got started early; I am only 25. My kids get to watch their dad grow up.
It’s a great thing to have as a musician, to see the mind of a child. It’s the whole Peter Pan story. You forget how to be a kid, but when you have kids it reminds you. And that’s great as a songwriter, just being immature and not overthinking things. When you are a kid, you don’t care what anybody thinks, and that’s a good way to think about music.
As far as your songwriting process, I read that the band often works in pairs to write.
When I was a kid, all of the classes were made of small groups, to zone in more on the individual. So I always felt that working in small groups is the way to go and you can get more work done that way. You can understand things better. So for our process, we work one-on-one to write, but the partner changes depending on the song because we are all great songwriters. Once a pair has something they think is good, they bring it to the rest of the band so that they can put their spin on it. If there are too many chefs in the kitchen, it can be pulled in too many directions, so sometimes it helps to focus just on one part then bring it to everyone.
So how do you pick who you want to work with?
Over the years we’ve learned who works best together, and every now and then we’ll go out of our comfort zone and work with someone else. But we pair people based on what strengths they bring.
If you say that you want to write a song about a certain topic, do you pick a pair based on who would write about that topic the best?
That all came into play when I picked my band members. I wanted to make sure that everyone had the abilities that I didn’t have. Everyone plays a role.
When you sit down to write, what do you start with?
When I want to write a song, I have to be inspired. Clapton, I think it was, said that songs just wait for you in different corners. If you’ve never been to a certain corner of your house, go there; there may be a song waiting for you. Being on tour is great for that, to be places you’ve never been that can inspire you. So I put my body in a place I’ve never been and experience things I’ve never experienced. Once I am inspired, I run with it.
What comes first, the melody or the lyrics?
Usually the melody. I don’t know what it is, but that’s the first thing of a song that hooks me, the melody. Even if I don’t know what they are saying. If I heard a song with bad lyrics but a good melody, I would like it. But if it’s great lyrics and a bad melody, probably not. That could be why I don’t really read that much—there’s no melody.
If the melody comes to you first, do you find that the melody then inspires lyrics because of the emotion associated with it?
Absolutely, and that all goes back to language and pronunciation. You can tell how someone is feeling by how they pronounce a word. It helps a lot when you write the words if you know how it sounds when you sing it.
Back to the idea of inspiration, do you make a conscious effort to be inspired?
I am extremely active in looking for it. I can easily shut it off and be dull. That’s what separates people who are artistically fluent: are they willing to seek out inspiration? I can tell when I meet people if they are the kind of person who stops and smells the roses or if they just rush by them.
Then what sense is the most inspiring to you?
Definitely smell. All my senses are keen, but when I was growing up my father was a landscaper and every time he came home he smelled like fresh cut grass. Music is a weird time machine, because if you write a song about something that happened in your life, it brings you back to that time.
If you are out and you get inspired, how do you ensure the ideas don't get lost?
I have a little voice recorder. I don’t write it down because, like I said, it all matters how you say something. And i want to listen later and hear the way i first said it.
What do you do when you have writer's block?
When something challenges me in life, I turn it into a positive by writing about having writer's block. That can inspire me. It totally wipes out the idea of being blocked if you write about being blocked.
What is your perfect writing environment?
In the shower because of the way my voice sounds.
Is there any quirky part to your writing process?
I love candles. Maybe it all goes back to that smell thing.
When you sit down and write with a partner, is it the two of you thinking about lines together?
It’s a difficult thing to master. If it was my idea, then I am driving the group. There’s recommendations by my partner, but I make the call.
When your partnter is driving the group, is it difficult to give feedback about such a personal process?
It’s the hardest part about it, but I feel more comfortable writing with someone than by myself. I need someone to tell me I am doing something wrong. I always like to hear other people's opinions. I am not writing music for myself, so I need to hear what other people saying about it. You become numb to your own work after a while.