When he was a little boy, J.D. Cronise wanted to be a comic book illustrator. To those familiar with The Sword's lyrics, this should come as little surprise. Their three albums are filled with images and narratives from ancient mythology and science fiction. And like a visual artist with an illustration, Cronise, the band's songwriter/vocalist and guitarist, starts his creative process with a single image. It's a process that he describes as "organic": he never forces himself to write, instead waiting until the ideas come to him. If Cronise writes because of extrinsic motivation, it's not true art.
The Sword is touring in support of their new release Warp Riders on Kemado Records. You can read my review of Warp Riders in the Washington Post here. And read the rest of my interview with Cronise after the video.
I started out more interested in drawing as a kid. I wanted to be a comic book artist when I was very young. Then I did some research and found out just how much they had to draw. That was too much for me. I just like to focus on one picture at a time; I can’t imagine drawing panels and panels.
At some point in my early teens I picked up a guitar, and that became my primary artistic outlet. But even today, I do artwork for the band. I’ve always been a visually oriented person.
Why do think so many songwriters are also illustrators?
There are similarities between writing a song and completed a drawing, for sure. With both, you are often concentrating only on one image. And you can say the same thing in an illustration that you can through a song.
Your lyrics are very visual. You paint a picture. So when you write songs, are you thinking about an image?
Absolutely. There are very few lyrics that did not start with some visual reference or image in my mind. It’s all meant to paint a picture, both the music and the lyrics. I start with an image, or a set of images, or a scene, and work from there.
Take me through your writing process. When do the lyrics enter the picture?
There’s no specific process. It varies from song to song. Sometimes the music comes first, other times it's the lyrics. I don’t think it’s ever happened where an entire set of lyrics for a song was written before the music, though. Usually if lyrics come first, it’s just a line or two, or maybe just the chorus. Then I’ll come up with music while singing those lyrics. After that I’ll write more music, then more lyrics follow that.
A lot of times, though, the music comes first. I’ve learned to leave room for lyrics in the music, to leave room to place a vocal melody. I don’t want to make every part too busy. I try to leave space for the words, especially since I have to play and sing at the same time. I don’t want to be playing anything too complicated while I am trying to sing.
So you often start with a single line, and from that line the rest of the lyrics fall into place?
If the lyrics come first, that’s how it works. If the music comes first, I’ll work on various parts of the song at once and revise verses here and there. If there is a key line, then things build from there. But when the music comes first, I craft the melody to fit.
One of the things that interests me about your lyrics is that you take contemporary topics or themes and give them either a futuristic or historical spin. What inspires you?
Many things. I am inspired by a lot of literature and even movies. I read a lot of history and folklore. For our last record, I drew from more varied sources and made it into one narrative that covers lots of areas.
How often are you inspired by ideas outside of what you read?
A lot, especially with some of our earlier stuff that’s very apocalyptic. That stuff wasn’t inspired by anything fictional. It’s my way of interpreting what's around us without singing about depressing facts. I don’t like to be too overt in things like that. I am not really comfortable explaining things using contemporary references that people immediately recognize.
So let’s say you are out and you get an idea for a song. How do you get it down so you don’t forget it?
It depends. It’s rare that I get some ideas that I can’t remember later. Usually they come while playing guitar. If I come up with a line, I jot it down somewhere.
Do you let the guitar guide your ideas, or do you start writing with an idea in mind?
It’s best not to start with an idea in mind, at least for me. Usually if I sit down with the intent of writing a song, it’s not going to be good. Creativity is not something I can turn on. When I hear bands talking about taking a specific amount of time to write songs, or how they wrote a song in only a few minutes, I can’t wrap my head around that. Everything that I do takes time to marinate and rework and revise. We are not especially prolific songwriters, so we don’t try a bunch of things to see what works. We concentrate on fewer things, but put more effort into them.
I have to wait until the ideas come. If I force it and do it because I have to, it’ll never be good. If I do it because someone wants me to, that’s not true expression. It’s not art. It has to be for its own sake. And it is hard to ignore outside pressures and forget that you are supposed to be doing it. It’s essential that I maintain the illusion, at least, that it’s entirely from intrinsic motivation. If I think about doing it because someone else wants it—that’s poison to my creativity.
How do you ensure that the music you are creating is always original?
I’ve always been a mercurial person when it comes to taste. Not that I abandon things, but I am always looking for new bands and things to get into. That’s the only constant with me—that there is constant change. So it would actually be hard for me to do the same thing over and over, because it’s so unnatural to me. Something in my brain would tell me that I’ve done it before.
Who are your literary inspirations?
HP Lovecraft is my favorite, and a huge lyrical influence as well. His vocabulary was “singular,” to use one of his favorite words. Also Robert E. Howard. Those classic science fiction and fantasy pulp writers who are very vivid in their language. They are so visceral in their descriptions. It’s what I try to do in my writing.
How have their messages about mankind influenced your writing?
As far as a message about mankind, I would say that I'm more influenced by Robert E. Howard in that area than H.P. Lovecraft. Howard believed society to be perpetually on the brink of chaos and reverting back to barbarism due to mankind's inability to truly evolve, which is something I think is sadly true. Lovecraft presented a universe of dark, malicious entities with little interest in mankind aside from his destruction or enslavement. I'd like to think the one we live in is not as grim as that. And I'd like to say that I share neither of their antiquated views on race. Lovecraft especially was evidently a raging bigot and xenophobe, which, while presenting an interesting insight into the individual and his era, is unfortunate.
What kind of emotional state is ideal for you to have a productive writing session?
I think when writing music what I'm trying to do is somehow transmute emotional energy into a purer and more universally resonant form. So I suppose the emotional state itself is not as important as its intensity. All that matters is that it's strong enough that I need to write a song about it.
What do you do when you have writer’s block?
I walk away, but it’s something that I can’t think about too much. Music is something I like to do and play, so I have to hope that I will always have music to play. I consider music a spiritual thing; it's a kind of energy that I don’t try to explain or control. As long as it comes, it comes. If it stops, then that’s all there was to begin with, and no more was meant to come.
Does that every make you anxious?
No, I’m comfortable with that. I know that there is plenty of music to be made, so if I am blocked, I know it will come eventually. It’s really not something I worry about. Worrying isn’t healthy for the creative process. I’m sure that some people have shorter creative lives than others, but I think it has more to do with what’s going on personally than losing touch with your creative side. As long as you are enjoying it and moving forward, even slowly, in a positive direction, your energies with remain with you.
You mention positive energy, but is it easy to block out distractions when you write?
That’s a good question. I’ve always written under different circumstances, and each record has had its accompanying distractions, and somehow I’ve managed to get it done. But it depends what’s happening in my life. It can definitely affect cycles of creativity and stall things, but eventually the cycle comes around again.
Literary history is filled with people who have written their best when their lives are at their worst.
Absolutely. I think it depends on the type of depression. If you are hungry and really desire something, it can be good. But if you’ve been beaten down, sometimes it can be detrimental.
What is your ideal writing environment?
See, while I am an idealist, I don’t like to deal with hypothetical ideal situations because that’s part of what helps inspire me: whatever environment I am in. The parts that aren’t ideal are necessary for the process. An ideal setting, where you didn’t want for anything, might sap creativity instead of fuel it. When things seem too perfect, I always get a little uncomfortable.
What’s your preferred method of composition?
I usually write stuff down in a notebook, then transfer it to a computer. That’s how they need to be inscribed initially, from the brain to the hand without use if electronics, to give birth to the ideas and their lyrics.