July 1, 2004

John Hiatt on Abandoning Mechanics

Celebrated tunesmith John Hiatt adheres to a simple philosophy when it comes to songwriting: “I’m with John Coltrane, who said, ‘If the man on the street can’t whistle it, you don’t have a song.’”

From there, it’s all about letting his muse lead the way. “There’s just something that happens with the act of picking up an acoustic guitar for me,” says Hiatt. “When you play it, and it resonates against your body, there are physical, mental, and emotional reactions that all happen at the same time. Generally, that results in a riff or chord progression and hopefully a melody develops from there. Lyrics are generally the last thing to happen—unless I have a lyrical idea from the outset, which is very rare. Lyrics represent the ‘adventure’ part of the process. I usually start by singing nonsense. It’s like when Paul McCartney sang ‘scrambled eggs’ when he was writing ‘Yesterday.’ You’re just singing to make noise, but it’s not really nonsense. What you’re doing is shaping the melody.

“I also try to be open to letting the song go where it wants to. All of my favorite writing—from short stories to novels to poetry—takes a less-is-more approach. It’s a way of writing where you don’t see or hear the thought or mechanics behind it. It’s also important for the lyrics to ring true and say something about the real human experience. That’s all people really want.”

—Anil Prasad,

Leni Stern’s Transformational Odyssey

Although best known as a gifted jazz guitarist and arranger, Leni Stern reinvented herself as a singer/songwriter for her recent release, When Evening Falls [Ryko]. The project required the German-born instrumentalist to get comfortable singing and writing lyrics in English, which she worked at tirelessly during daily sessions with her Collings acoustic, her notebook, and a recorder.

What do you like most about writing vocal songs as opposed to composing instrumental works?
Songwriting opens your eyes to people and to the way things are. It makes you look a little closer. It’s kind of a rush to write, and it’s a fascinating thing to watch a song take shape. All of a sudden, you see the possibilities and different forms it can take.

Did your instrumental background help your writing?
It’s a nice balance being both a musician and a composer. I feel the two keep each other in check. As a composer, you think everything is possible, and, as an instrumentalist, you realize it’s not. You can imagine anything, but then when you have to sing it and play it, you want to shy away from those three-and-a-half octave melodies!

Is there one thing that helped your writing the most?
What helps most is writing every day. The hardest thing is to get it going, but once you’re on a roll, it just stays with you. You carry the melodies and words with you as you go through the day, and they get pushed around and shaped into something that moves you further along the process the next time you sit down to write. It’s important to keep the thread going so you don’t have to start over again.

—Bridget Oates  

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