Minnie Driver

“Desire and intent are really huge,” says actress/musician Minnie Driver about crafting songs, “but the desire can’t just be about having people like you, or becoming famous. You have to figure out why you want to play, and what you’ve got to say.”

Although these words may seem ironic coming from a movie star who is already rather fabulously famous, as a musician, Driver is a delightfully truthful and introspective songwriter who treasures passion over artifice. On Seastories [Zoë/Rounder]—where she is accompanied on some tracks by Ryan Adams and his band, the Cardinals—Driver fingerpicks and strums her Gibson Hummingbird to support the quality and phrasing of her voice.

“I play to write, as opposed to writing to play,” she says. “For me, the guitar is there to serve the song—which is something I learned by listening to Bob Dylan’s guitar parts on Blood on the Tracks.”

You wrap the guitar around your voice so nicely. Is that a calculated arrangement, or do you feel your way through the song, and let your fingers go wherever they go?
When you don’t have any kind of proper training, everything is feeling. I taught myself how to play guitar, and I was definitely led by my vocals. I couldn’t look to my guitar playing to convey my feelings, because I’m not that brilliant at it. The best I could do is to be straightforward, get to the point, play it like I mean it, and not screw around trying to be clever. I think I’m a fairly good example of someone who is not a fantastic guitar player, but who can still get meaning and profundity out of their songwriting. You know, Ryan Adams was so supportive. He said, “Just play to express yourself. There will always be a guitarist who can play your sh*t better than you!”

So do you let your vocal melodies drive the songwriting process?
I wish there actually was a method—although the process won’t lock in for me until I’ve got at least one lyrical line. But I don’t just write down lyrics in a notebook. I kind of know what I’m going to sing about, because most of my songs are about people. I think about a person, and there’s usually something I really want to say to them. Then, I’ll start playing music, and the lyrics will come. Sometimes, it happens very quickly, and, other times, it’s ridiculously painful. For example, I worked on “Beloved” for almost seven years.

What were some of the things that were causing you to go, “Oh, no—it’s not right yet”?
The chorus was sh*t. I loved a lot of the words, but I didn’t like the melody, so I started all over again—although I kept the verse melody. It’s hard to cut things out, because you get so attached to what you write. But it’s like a movie—good stuff ends up on the cutting-room floor. However, that doesn’t mean the material can’t be used again in something else. It just means it doesn’t work in that particular song. You have to be very strict about those decisions.

The inability to step back and assess one’s work is absolutely a problem for some composers. What other miscues do you feel songwriters fall victim to?
Sometimes, writers miss the point of being sloppy and open. People can get so obsessed with the minutiae, and I think the concept of perfection eliminates character. There’s great merit in letting yourself off the hook with the technical stuff, because you can find great ideas in your so-called mistakes.