A: So I didn’t want to write songs, because if I wrote them then they’d hear them and then they’d say something shitty. And I didn’t. I just didn’t. It was kind of like this self-protective thing that went too far, sort of unconsciously it went too far. And then I couldn’t write. I couldn’t write anything.
Q: Did you stop writing altogether?
A: Yeah I absolutely could not write. I had really serious writer’s block. And how I got out of that, I’m totally embarrassed to admit this, but a friend of mine, Buddy Judge, had said that he got that book The Artist’s Way, and even though I think it’s not very well-written, he was like, “You know what? I did it. I did all the exercises.” And I’m like, “What the fuck, I’ll try it too. If Buddy can do it, I’ll do it.” And I think that it really does have some good ideas, mostly to just take suggestions. And if you feel uncomfortable, if you’re embarrassed, do it anyway. And I think that’s kind of great advice in any problem. Say yes to stuff. Ask people their advice and take it. Stop taking your own advice because it’s just a closed system. So I did that and it helped. I would make up these games for myself – I still do this actually – and Michael [Penn, her husband] and I started to do this with a friend of ours. We have, like, a songwriter’s club. We developed a really elaborate version of it, but I had a simpler version. I always started with writing down names of chords on little slips of paper, and then just threw them up in the air. And whatever landed face up, those were the chords. I did some other stuff, like cutting out headlines and things from newspapers. I got that idea from Fiona Apple, actually, to kind of jump start lyrical stuff. There’s a song of mine, “Calling It Quits,” that I wrote that way.
Q: Is that right?
A: Yeah. Some of those lines, like “get-tough girls turn into gold mines,” I think that was from snipped-up headlines. It helps because the games make it fun and it’s less pressure on you to talk about your feelings first. You can play with language and music first and then tell a story on top of it. That was the first song that I wrote in that state, having those sort of very depressed and repressed feelings being on that record label. The first song I wrote was about calling it quits. Like, I can’t fucking doing this anymore.
Q: How long did your block last?
A: I don’t know. It was months.
Q: And that’s unusual for you?
Q: Let me ask you about lyrics. Have your interests or concerns changed over time? Are you drawn to different kinds of subject matter?
A: Yeah. I mean I’ve definitely over a period of years started to get interested in the concept of drug addiction. First as a metaphor, but then outright, with meeting and knowing and having relationships with drug addicts. That’s a big subject for me.
Q: When you use addiction as a metaphor, what does it represent?
A: My friend Scott Miller, who was in this band called the Loud Family, we exchanged some emails about this and he put it really well. He said the thing about drug addiction is that it’s like this secret world and people who are in that world kind of get it. Like, they understand the drive and what the goal is and the feeling towards it. And people who aren’t in that world like do not get it. And he said that’s a state he often finds himself in when he’s trying to talk to people about trying to be a better person and do things that are good in the world. There are people who just don’t understand, and you can really feel isolated from the world sometimes by having values and goals that other people just don’t understand. So that’s part of it. But part of it is that I think that most people on some level have a degree of addiction. A symptom of addiction is compulsive behavior and obsessive thinking and it’s the obsessive thinking part and the compulsive behavior part that I’m interested in. That part of drug addiction is certainly something I can relate to and that I see in every one I know, sometimes to a huge extent, sometimes to a smaller extent. But I think everybody has it and that’s why to me it’s a very rich metaphor because it’s really universal.
Q: Speaking of which, are you working on a musical based on your concept album The Forgotten Arm?
A: Yeah. So then I can write about drugs all I want.
Q: That must be a different kind of challenge.
A: Very different. I’m writing new songs for it, too, with Paul Bryan, who produced my last record. We’ve worked together for many years but we’ve only started writing songs together for this project.
Q: Who’s writing the book? How fleshed-out is the project?
A: It’s not. We were working with somebody but I think we’ll probably look for somebody else. At this point I don’t have a story I’m happy with, and although Paul and I don’t know anything about writing we want to be involved in the story. And then there’s the whole political world of the theater scene. So it’s a big learning curve. Meanwhile, we’ve written a bunch of songs and it’s great.