The New York Times
The New York Timeshas been running an interesting series of opinion pieces called measure for measure which explore the creative process of songwriting. Nobody understands the songwriting process better than Paul Zollo, who was editor in chief of SongTalk. I first discovered his writing in an interview he did with Madonna surrounding the making of my all-time favorite album “Like a Prayer” back in 1989, but rediscovered his writing today.
I am fascinated with the daily habits that stimulate creativity. I love listening to music when I run. James Taylor is one of my favorite singer songwriters. Most people seem to like a ‘disco beat’ when jogging—I love running to James Taylor. “Sweet Baby James” was actually an anthem that I used whenever I did the Badwater 135-mile run through Death Valley in July. It kept me calm. In The Athlete’s Way I describe my relationship to that song. You can check out those pages of The Athlete’s Way here if interested.
I read an interview between Paul Zollo and James Taylor today. For convenience, I put Paul Zollo in bold—James Taylor is not. Please take some time to read the entire interview whenever you have time. It’s brilliant. Here is the link.
Paul Zollo: Thinking about you creating that first album in the context of The Beatles, it’s interesting that your work was always poetic but never oblique. You weren’t writing “I Am The Walrus” —the meaning of your songs is clear. Is that intentional?
James Taylor: No, that’s the way it comes out. It’s a cliché, but that’s because it’s true to say I don’t have any real conscious control over what comes out. I just don’t direct it. I wish I could say, “Oh, that would be great to write a song about.” But what I am doing is assembling and minimally directing what is sort of unconsciously coming out. It’s not something I can direct or control. I just end up being the first person to hear these songs. That’s what it feels like, that I don’t feel as though I write them.
Many songwriters have said it’s more a sense of following than leading—I know you’re a songwriter. Is that your experience too?
I find it’s both. I’ll think of a subject and I’ll lead it, but the best lines are those which just occur. And then I might consciously think of a set-up rhyme. So it’s both conscious and unconscious at the same time.
Yes, that’s right.
And I think there’s a phase that’s unconscious. And then there’s a phase where you kind of have to button it up and finish it. And pull it into a form that’s presentable. Make it five minutes long. I don’t know why songs are five minutes long but they are. Three, four and five minutes long. That’s a conscious process, when you’re trying to finish off a song. And find a third verse that’s gonna complete the first two or complements them somehow, or a bridge that’s gonna make a general statement about the whole thing, or look at it from afar and them come back down into it again.
There are stages in it that are very conscious. But it all starts with a lightning strike of some sort, an unconscious emergence. And to me it happens most when I’m sitting down and playing the guitar. That’s when these things will iterate.
Words and music at the same time?
Yeah, usually. A melody will suggest itself in the context of whatever I’m playing. And then the rhythm of that melody, the cadence of it, will suggest words. And those words, and the rhythm of them, I don’t think comes from a conscious place.
Often, for instance, if I’m stuck on a song I’ll lie down, and close my eyes. Take a nap. 15 minutes or so, and when I wake up often it will be solved. There will be a solution and I think it happens when you’re asleep.
You sit down and those things come to your mind. It’s hard to say whether that is conscious. Sometimes I open a rhyming dictionary just to remind myself of what words might fit the bill. But it’s what those words mean, and if one of them will catch.
I’ve written a few songs that were real Chinese puzzles of rhyming schemes. “Sweet Baby James” has about three rhyming schemes in each verse.
Yeah—it’s got “horse and his cattle” with “sits in the saddle”—and “companion” with “canyon.”
Right. “Lives on the range” and then four lines later, “his pastures to change.” It is. That’s right. There are a number of rhymes in it.
Was that one that emerged or you consciously crafted?
Another place I write a lot is—I’m either sitting down playing the guitar, I’m walking, or I’m driving. Those are the three things I’m apt to be doing when I write.
I was driving down Route 95 to North Carolina after I picked up my car in Elizabeth, New Jersey, a car that I bought in England in 1968. And I was driving it down to see my brother Alex and his wife Brent, who had given birth to little James. First child born to my generation in my family. And they had named a kid after me, and I was gonna go down and see the little baby. And I was driving down there thinking of a cowboy lullaby, what to sing to little James. Rock-a-bye sweet baby James.
I was very excited that they had a kid, and very moved that they named it after me, and I was behind the wheel for 20 hours or so, straight, maybe 15 hours, driving straight down. And that song just assembled itself as I was driving down there. My memory was good enough in those days that I remembered it all. As soon as I got home, I wrote it down.
The music came to you, too, when you were driving?
Yeah. I already had been working on the music to it. That arrived intact, that song. So did “Millworker.” I was asleep on Martha’s Vineyard in my bed, and I woke up with the song entirely in my mind. I walked down, it was a moonlit light, I walked down and turned on the light on the desk that was in this library space in the house. And wrote down the song, went back upstairs, and fell back to sleep. In the morning I really didn’t know if the song was down there. I came down and there it was. It was amazing.
Do those kind of experiences cause you to have any notion what the source of those songs is?
I think it’s largely unconscious and out of my control. Like language itself. When kids begin to speak they say gobble-dee-gook that takes the form of sentences and syllables and has the form that sounds like a question or sounds like a statement or an expletive or whatever. The cadence is already there and it comes out as language. They start to plug language into it as they hear it more and more.
I speak French and a little bit of German, and I’m constantly, in the back of my brain, translating things into those two languages. It’s just a little game that I’m constantly playing to see if I know how to do that. And somehow songwriting is like that. It’s always making little attempts.
And as I said before, I find that now I’m revisiting topics over and over again that I’m compelled to write about. Loss or celebration. Or a kind of mystical statement. Trying to give consciousness the slip. And relax back into the context that we come from.
I think that human beings are an experiment in consciousness, and we are individuated and ego-based, and we recreate the world with these conscious minds we have, and that allows us to be isolated. We live in these conscious recreations of the world. And what that does, it predicts the world. It predicts behavior, it predicts reality. So that we can basically stay out of trouble. That’s the essential job of consciousness, to look for and avoid trouble. And secondarily you want food and third you want sex. So I think that this individuated consciousness that we are an experiment in allows us to be isolated and it also allows us to get things wrong, to get lost.
So we’re always doing two things almost constantly: One is that we’re comparing our world view, our reality, with other people’s to make sure we’re not getting it wrong. Because otherwise maybe the tree will fall on your tent, or whatever. And the other thing that we’re constantly doing is trying to somehow get back to give that whole mechanism the slip. Because it is an illusion. Everybody says it’s an illusion and that’s because it is. Consciousness is an illusion. It’s hopelessly subjective, and it is not the truth. Because it is too tainted by individual and human priorities.
Conclusion: Consciousness + Unconsciousness + Hard Work = Creativity
Researchers at Brown University have honed in on specific brainwaves linked to stages of the sleep cycle as linked to learning and memory. During sleep and movment the oscillations of our brainwaves change creating various states of conciousness, unconsciousness, and creativity. There is undoubtedly, a neuroscientific explanation for why James Taylor's songwriting process is inspired by movement and sleep which is most likely linked to changes in his brainwaves and neural connectivity.
I went into a Paul Zollo rabbit hole this afternoon and read about 10 of his detailed interviews with songwriters talking about their songwriting process. Hard work and having a way to consciously jot down ideas when they bubble up from an unconscious place is a recurring theme. Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Sting, Alanis Morissette, Siedah Garrett, Madonna and almost every musician jot down ideas on a napkin, notecard, or in a journal. If you are a writer or musician looking for clues please Google Paul Zollo.
If you’d like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blogs: