Ah, the solitary life of the singer/songwriter. Crafting songs in isolation, writing about deep introspective topics like love, loss, and life's meaning. We imagine them toiling away at their craft, going it alone until they get the song just right.
Nathaniel Rateliff does all these things. And he certainly goes it alone; after all, he does a lot of his writing in the bathroom. To be precise, he does a lot of his best work "on the shitter." And while he might write songs that make people cry when performed live, he'll talk about fried chicken between those melancholy tunes. It's hard to capture the mood of my interview with Rateliff; we spent a good deal of the time laughing. But when the guy tells me that he needs "a clean house, lots of sex, and no dogs" for a productive writing session, or that sometimes he's too lazy to finish a song in the studio, it's easy to laugh.
Nathaniel Rateliff was recently named Paste's #4 Top Solo Artist of 2010, and his album "In Memory of Loss" saw many year-end "best of" lists, like Amazon's "Outstanding 2010 Albums You Might Have Missed." Read my interview with him after the video.
I started as an artist, drawing. I wanted to be a cartoonist when I was younger.
That's a common theme among songwriters I interview. Any idea why?
Writing and any form of art is some sort of outlet, but I did it because I didn't have anything to do.
That's not exactly the deep answer I was looking for!
Laughs. You were looking for something heavy, I know. But I think it's about spending a lot of time in solitiude and having connection to yourself, along with a willingness to listen to yourself and the things around you.
Do you think being an illustrator makes you a better songwriter?
It's funny. I lost that skill because I stopped drawing and started playing drums. It's something I would love to get back into. I have been meaning to buy a sketchbook.
When you write song, do you find yourself thinking like a visual artist?
Yeah, I've even written songs where I'll start with a picture in my head, and I'll write about that picture.
Tell me about your writing process.
It happens a lot of different ways. I've started with a picture in my head, like I said. I've also had a dream and woke up and wrote down what was in my dream. I do some very stream of consciousness writing, where I just play guitar, sing, then write or record what comes out and edit later. And sometimes I've had a melody in my head without a guitar and written down that melody in the same way.
Do you ever start with the lyrics?
It usually starts with a melody, not even an instrument. Words will pop out and I'll get attached to them and dig deeper. If I have a tape recorder, I'll just start singing some nonsense words then go through and listen to their cadence and find words that fit.
Do you approach songwriting with topics in hand, or do you let the music dictate what the song is about?
Either way. I've had ideas, a phrase, even one word. Sometimes I'll just have a title, and I'll write words around the title. Or an emotion or a feeling, and I'll write a story about that feeling.
Do you return to consistent themes in your writing?
It's funny, because most of the songs I've written have been about relationships, and not necessarily romantic ones. And it gives away a lot of information about your personal life if you are in a romantic situation with someone and you write about it. It can be kind of unfair. I guess I give away a lot of information and just let it happen, and then say I'm sorry later. But I still think: what do I not write about? It's important for everyone to allow some honesty to come out of the situation, even if someone gets their feelings hurt. If we edit that out, we'd never have any art.
Speaking of art, do you have any literary inspirations?
I am a horrible reader. I have a fear of reading. I read now, but a lot of fantasy stuff. I've tried to read On the Road, didn't like it; Farewell to Arms, didn't like it; Walden, couldn't finish it. But I love The People's History of the United States, so I don't know why I could read that and not finish the other ones. They are all equally boring. But I like history, especially Native American history.
On the Road is one of those books that songwriters love.
I just don't like the character in that book. He's a scumbag. The Beat poets just did whatever they want, and that kind of goes against what I was saying earlier about disregarding the emotions of others.
What about poetry?
I've read some of Leonard Cohen's stuff. Also William Blake. I've even tried to write some, since my life was full of crazy stories, but I couldn't do it.
What is your preferred method of composition?
By hand or with something in front of me recording. I like the way words look on paper.
What's your ideal emotional state to have a productive writing session?
Sober! For sure. But I could be bummed out or happy; it's all in my songs. I feel like alcohol is a distraction. It's an obvious distraction in my everyday life, so it should also be a distraction to my writing.
How disciplined are you as a writer?
I am the laziest writer ever. Someone told me once that one of my songs was prolific, and I was like, "Are you kidding? I wrote this song on the toilet!" I do write a lot of songs on the toilet, actually. Heartfelt emotions come on the shitter.
Does that bother you to be lazy?
For sure! I get anxious about being fat, too, but I still don't go to the gym every day. I stopped worrying about when a song was going to come to me and when I was going to take time to write. If I am sober, I end up writing all the time.
Like every day?
Yeah. I used to carry a moleskine journal in my back pocket and write shit down when I was bummed out, but I don't think I'd want anyone to read that. You gotta have some sort of editing process. It's a shame when Kerouac's journals were released. That never should have happened.
Tell me about that editing process.
Usually I search for words that fit the emotion of the song. I do like old vernacular, but I feel like my vocabulary is weak. I am at the mercy of my education at this point, which is nothing. I go back and make sure that I get those weak words out so that it doesn't sound like a four year old wrote it.
But like I said, I am lazy, so I make a lot of compromises. A lot of times, I'll be like, (in nonchalant voice) "Oh, that'll work. That's good enough."
When do you get your best writing done?
Usually early morning when the house is clean and quiet, and I have coffee and the sun is coming up. But sometimes I've woken up in the middle of the night to write something down, or been up late and had a feeling that needed to be written down.
How do you know when a song is done?
It feels done. It's funny you say that, because I have a bunch of songs that just stop. And my friends are like, "You've got all these two minute folk songs." And I tell him that's all there was to it. Or a producer will tell me that a song needs a bridge, and I'll tell him, "Well, I can't think of shit, so that's it. It's done." It's a shame because, instead of working really hard to finish a song, my thought is, "Oh well. I guess were never going to play that one again."
Do you ever get writer's block?
I used to be afraid of it, but writing seems to be a seasonal thing for me. Like depression. I stopped worrying about output and being scared that the muse will never come back.
What is your ideal writing environment?
A clean house, lots of sex, and no dogs. Because I have two dogs that are always a distraction, two Basset Hounds that just howl all the time. They run around and make noises.
I have to say, this has been hilarious.
I played a show the other day that ended up sounding like a comedy routine. This guy said to me afterwards, "You play these songs that are so emotional, you had me crying. Then you started talking about fried chicken between songs."
How has your writing process changed over the years?
I started writing songs when I was 13, and I'm 32 now. Now, I'm willing to give it more time and go back to things that I didn't finish and try to finish them. I feel like something at some point just changed and words made sense to me. They had a connection with each other. It's a matter of finding out which word matches which emotion, and which word has a connection to another word. Like putting together a puzzle.
There's a bunch of words floating around out there, and I have to pick the words that I want. I joked about making a fake documentary about me being an idiot savant. the way my old process worked. I would go to the zoo and throw word balls into the seal pool and let them push the word balls around, and that's how I used to write my songs.
Do you ever bounce ideas off your wife?
I play stuff for her. Right now, since I'm not on tour, I have a lot of unfinished ideas and songs out there. They're not finished because I've been drinking, probably. When it's done, I want people's opinions, but I usually feel like it's good anyway, so it's really that I'm just trying to get attention from people. I'll be like, "What do you think? Because I'm so vain and I want you to think it's good. I already know it's good, so just tell me it's good."
Do you get much writing done on tour?
I always thought I would write a lot on tour, but I don't. I have a schedule every day and it's hard to to find time. Plus, I'm lazy, so I don't want to make time. Instead, I'm like, "Whoa, we have a hotel room with a TV! I don't even own a TV. This is awesome." So I'll watch Deadliest Catch instead of writing songs. But I wish I would write more.
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