When talking about his songwriting process, Nils Lofgren, guitarist for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, espouses a view shared by successful long-form writers. To many of them, writer's block is merely a failure of courage: it happens when writers expect perfection whenever they put pen to paper. They're afraid to write badly. But any good writer will tell you that you cannot be afraid to write badly, because writing badly makes you better. Some writing is better than no writing, and with work you can turn bad writing into better writing. If you wait for perfection, you won't get much accomplished.
Lofgren follows this precept in his own process. He has two modes as a songwriter: amateur mode and professional mode. The amateur mode comes first; it's when he writes ten or so what he calls "stupid, corny love songs" to prepare for the real songwriting. Because he can't get much writing done on the marathon Springsteen tours, this amateur mode helps him clear the cobwebs and shake off the rust. After amateur mode, he enters professional mode to write in earnest for a new album, and by this time his skills are razor sharp and kink-free.
Though he's been a member of the E Street Band since 1984, Lofgren has been a solo artist for almost 40 years. He fronted Grin in the early 1970s and was a member of Neil Young's Crazy Horse. After talking to Lofgren, I've concluded that his longevity is the result of two factors. One, he's an artist, but he treats songwriting as a job, according it the proper discipline. And two, while he's an artist and a songwriter, he's got enviable work/life balance. If he's out in the studio recording and his wife Amy (a professional chef) calls him for dinner, it's time to eat. He recognizes that his family life is one of the reasons he's still so prolific.
Nils Lofgren's new album Old School, his first album of original material in five years, is out now. Read my interview with Lofgren about his songwriting process after the video for "Too Many Miles." But I warn you: if you're looking for questions about the E Street Band, you can stop reading. As a guitar legend and supremely talented songwriter, he deserves to be viewed through his own lens.
I've always been passionate about playing basketball. And I love to play ping-pong. I love sports, and I'd rather play than watch. Besides that, I've managed, over the last 12 years in the E Street Band, to become the swingman by going off and learning to play some instruments that I'd never played before. I've learned to play pedal steel guitar, lap steel, dobro, bottleneck slide, and six string banjo. I'm a decent beginner as a professional, but it's also a hobby for me to learn those instruments. Two Christmases ago, my wife Amy gave me a harp, so I give myself permission to have hobbies in music. I like to play instruments as a hobby without having to worry about the pressure of crafting something professional.
We also have six dogs in our home, and just hanging around with the dogs is an exercise in spiritual healing and relaxation. But music is still my primary love and primary hobby. I learned decades ago that I had to give myself permission to treat it as hobby occasionally, though.
A few months ago I interviewed Franz Nicolay. He told me that that he's also learned to play a lot of new instruments and that learning to play them made him a better songwriter because he was able to hear music in so many different ways.
I hadn't looked at it in the way he describes that journey, but it was more like a happy accident for me to learn those new instruments. For instance, the last studio record of my own songs, five or six years ago, was called Sacred Weapon. Before that album, I had just challenged myself during the last five months of The Rising tour with the E Street Band by playing a dobro set up as a bottleneck. The action is low enough so that you fret the instrument with your fingers as you play bottleneck with a slide on your little finger. Initially, it was a foreign thing to me because I had always played the slide with the bar in my fist, usually a big glass slide, and with the guitar in my lap as a normal tuning. The dobro is a different tuning, basically an open D, and I put the slide on my little finger, my weakest finger, to fret. It took a long time, but over those five months I got pretty comfortable.
I got off the road and started writing for Sacred Weapon around Christmas. I set up the instrument in the living room because I've learned the hard way that if I have to go to the guitar closet in the studio barn, take down the case, walk out into the main room and back into the house to set everything up, nine times out of ten I'm gonna decide I'm too busy to do all that. So I've tricked myself by leaving guitars set up all over the house. It's so much easier. Working with Bruce and the E Street Band, everything is so musically adventurous and chaotic. We take a lot of chances and always changing everything. So even ten minutes here and five minutes there is better than nothing when you're on an unfamiliar instrument. Anyway, I was having fun with the bottleneck and working on a riff. The next thing I knew, I had a song. My first composition on bottleneck dolgro was called "In Your Hands." It was a birthday gift to my wife Amy, and I sang it for her Christmas morning. That became a song on Sacred Weapon, and it ended up being a duet with Willie Nelson.
Is there a somewhat typical songwriting process for you?
Because I'm a bit scattered and all over the place, sometimes it's hard to keep my attention on any one thing. I like to stay excited and inspired. Music tends to come easily for me, and lyrics tend to take a little more work. I travel with a notebook, one of those old black and white spotted composition notebooks. I have a stack of them from the past fifteen or twenty years. When I fill one up, I start another, and I keep it in my backpack. That's where I jot down ideas for lyrics. Sometimes I hear a phrase that I like. Sometimes I hear an idea or seed for a song in my travels. I've written on the road in earnest, but I usually just try to sketch out ideas that I get and remember them for later, because I'm so busy on the road. If it's a song title or a theme for a song, I'll put it in the index that I've created.
I write riffs very easily. I can create a good musical melody, whereas I can certainly get an idea for a song that's average or bad that I would never share with anyone. Those riffs I create used to be on microcassettes or boom boxes. Now it's on a handheld digital recorder. So if I get a riff, I put it on tape, and if I get a lyric idea, I put it in the notebook. Then when I get home, it's like having two jigsaw puzzles: I take an idea for a song and try to match it with a piece of music. Sometimes its just a couple of lines that rhyme for a catchy chorus, and I find music that I think fits. I put those two pieces of the puzzle together. Then I work backwards from the seed and try to write more of the lyrics. Sometimes it's specific lines that I start with, but usually it's just a concept for the entire song or a theme or a phrase. After that, it's using elbow grease to marry the theme to the music.
My favorite songs, of course, happen when the words and music come together and accidentally you just channel this entire song through you, and in an hour or two its done. But that rarely happens. Because my attention span is so short, usually I have 12 to 15 of these ideas where the music is married to the theme. When I start writing in earnest, I write for, say, four or five hours at a stretch, but rarely on the same song. If after an hour and a half the first song bogs down and I start to get frustrated, I go to another jigsaw puzzle and make progress on another piece.
So it sounds like you work most effectively on several songs at a time.
Yeah, my intent is not that. I'd like to finish a song all in one sitting. But if I get stuck, as a professional writer whose job is to get 15 good songs for an album, I won't walk away frustrated and go hang with the dogs or shoot baskets or hang with my wife. I'll just keep writing and making progress on something else.
Something I learned a long time ago about myself is that as a professional writer I'm critical enough of what I do and capable enough of mediocrity that I've had to give myself permission to be an amateur writer. In other words, I've given myself permission to write anything that comes out, and I complete it even if it's a stupid, corny love song. As the amateur writer, I'll complete the song. And that's easier to do because there's no pressure for quality.
In the exercise of producing an entire record, as the writer and the singer and the instrumentalist, I need to do that for a few weeks or months. After I've written those corny songs, I might not play them for anyone, not even my wife. But once they get to the point of being a good amateur song, I'll start demoing them. I'm not en engineer, but I've been determined to record on my own. And that recording process can become a rusty skill too if I've been on the road with the E Street Band for a year. So the demoing of the corny songs is important to my process because it keeps my engineering and recording skills sharp. And in that process, I get my sea legs with the many hats I have to wear to create a whole album on my own. That act of giving myself permission to be an amateur musician and writer and producer and roadie and guitar tech is necessary to me since the whole process is so complex. I need to do that for a month or two to get comfortable with the process again before I enter the professional mode. So when it comes time to record the good songs, all the rust has disappeared.
Many writers, not songwriters but poets and long form writers, tell me that the key to avoiding writer's block is not to be afraid to write badly.
I developed writer's block because I was always writing as a professional and was never writing anything good enough. So that led to this process of being comfortable with writing as an amateur.
How disciplined are you as a writer? Do you carve time out of your day to write?
I usually remain fairly undisciplined during my process as an amateur, and even when there are ideas I'm proud of, I try find a balance between being on the road touring, being at home with my family and dogs, seeing friends, and spending time as a husband, step-father, and animal lover. But I keep chipping away at that notebook, so when I feel like I have a dozen songs ready as a professional writer, I move into the mode of writing, for three to five hours a day. At that point I go to the studio or just the living room. But if the dogs need to go out, I'm not so much of an artiste that I can't be bothered.
I mean, I have a family, I have a home, I'm a 60 year-old man and I'm trying to find a balance with some dignity for all the aspects of myself as a person. I don't want to just do that thing I did as a kid where I spend 15 hours in the studio and can't be bothered by anyone. I'm trying to strike a balance, so when I get distracted, I might go back to the living room, sit on the couch with the dogs, and keep at the notebook and the tape recorder.
Is physical environment important to you when it comes to writing?
I'm pretty flexible with environment, but that's come out of necessity. I've tried to make those standards pretty low, so that I don't need to have the right candle or the right drink or the right rug color. That's the beauty of music: when I have an idea that's exciting, I can write in a hotel or anywhere. I love writing at home here in Scottsdale; we live in a 1935 adobe on 2 1/2 acres of land. It's very rustic and primitive. My wife is a professional cook, so there's always great food in the fridge. It's just nice to be a part of the family as I'm working. If the doors are open to the studio when I'm working, I tell people to just interrupt me. If they're locked, I tell them to just leave a message. I'm trying to be a participant in all areas of my life. I will say, though, that when I do get off the road, I like waking up really early, around 5am, and going to the coffee shop. There's that peace in the early morning, when the darkness is still there, and a solitude. That's a great time to get work done.
Do you think that inspiration is something you should work at?
I try to be open to everything. If I just wait for the muse, because my life is so rich and colorful, he might be waiting in a long line. By the time he gets to the front of the line, I might be singing onstage on the road where I can't write. But for the times when the muse comes, I walk around with a pencil and a piece of folded paper in my pocket. Even if I'm doing something else, I'll whip it out and write on it. I know some writers who, if they are out somewhere with friends, just say see ya and run to the parking lot to capture that melody. I'm not saying that's wrong, but it's wrong for me because I don't want to be rude. Maybe I've lost some good songs that way, but what I will do is jot down the idea on the piece of paper in my lap. Otherwise, I'll forget it. When I was young, I can't tell you how many times I woke up at 4am with the complete seed of a great song. But I wouldn't write it down, so when I woke up again for the day, it was gone. So I keep that piece of paper and pencil next to me always on the side of the bed, and it's in my pocket during the day. I've learned, as a professional, to make progress even when the muse is not on my shoulder.
How do you think your work/life balance makes you a better songwriter?
It's partly a function of my age. When I was younger, I spent maybe decades being unbalanced and consumed by every aspect of music. In the early days of Grin, there was no balance, other than going to see Mom and Dad on Thanksgiving. I became someone lucky enough to have a great home life. And if I ignore that, then why even have a family? If ignore them, it's a detriment to writing. If I'm making progress on the harp my wife gave me and she calls me for dinner, I stop what I'm doing, sit down to dinner, and look my family in the eye as they talk about their day. They don't want to hear about what I'm doing on my dinky harp.
You've mentioned your dogs a lot. It sounds like they are a part of your writing process.
I love animals because they are honest and truthful. My last album was called The Loner: Nils sings Neil, where I sang Neil Young songs live in my home with a piano and a guitar. I picked thirty songs, and for about three weeks, four hours a day, I sang. It was my four dogs, two cats, and me; they would just listen to me sing, each day, with a piano or guitar. After those three weeks, it stopped sounding like karaoke and instead like something special. I don't know if I could have done that without the animals there. The companionship of the animals reminded me that, hey, this is just a journey, we don't know where it's going to lead, so I'll just keep singing.
How much reading do you get to do?
I read a lot. There's a stable of authors I love, usually from the mystery/crime/fiction genre. I love James Lee Burke, Clive Cussler, Harlan Coben, Robert Crais, and Robert Parker. I love Stephen King, and I used to read him religiously, but now he scares me. Laughs. Twenty-three years ago I got clean and sober, and now his writing seems a little too real to me! I always have a book with me on the road.
Does that influence your songwriting?
I think those writers influence my songwriting by giving me the permission and the courage to explore some of the darker characters I come up with. On my new record, there are some pretty radical lyrics and dark characters and I think that has been encouraged by these great writers.
With any new record, do you reflect on what worked or didn't work with the last one?
All my life, I've realized I'm better live. I'm less thoughtful, more out of my head, and I trust the muse more when I play live. I don't have an audience when I'm at home in the studio, so with this new album I didn't even record until I could play every song live. There was no bridge to be written after the track was cut, there were no parts missing, there were no lines that needed to be tweaked. I waited until the whole song could be played as a performance piece, and then I recorded it.
How do you know when a song is done?
I write in pencil so I can erase things. When I feel like all the lyrics are complete, I go into performance mode and sing it on the couch with my guitar. Usually after a few days, I tweak a couple of words, but after I'm able to sing it 10 or 20 times over the course of a couple of days and I don't get any more ideas to change lyrics or melodies, then I realize it's ready to go to the studio.
Also read my interviews with
- Craig Finn (The Hold Steady)
- Brian Fallon (Gaslight Anthem)
- Franz Nicolay
- Jack Tempchin (Eagles songwriter)
- Chris Difford (Squeeze)
- Neil Finn (Crowded House)
- Carl Broemel (My Morning Jacket)
- Kurt Vile
- Richard Buckner
- Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes)
- Pete Yorn
*photo by Joseph Quever