Q: Has the kind of gratification you get from your work changed over time?
A: I don’t know if it’s changed. It certainly hasn’t gotten less. It’s probably gotten more because I kind of think I’m better. Not to sound braggy, but I’ll say this. The things that matter to me, in terms of craftsmanship, I think I’m probably better at, so I get a little more enjoyment, I have more moments. Looking back on my older songs, I think that each of them has one line that I think is pretty good. And the others are kind of workmanlike. But there’s usually one line that I go, “That’s a pretty good line. Thank God for that line.” But I mean I do think most of it was the best I could do at the time, and it was pretty good.
Q: What’s your proudest achievement?
A: I still think “Save Me” is a really good song. It’s simple, but it’s got all the elements it needs to have. It’s got some nice lines. It’s simple language, but nice lines that point to a very specific kind of circumstance.
Q: Do you use a thesaurus when you’re working on a song?
A: I have a really great thesaurus that I think Michael gave me — I can’t remember now if it was Michael or Paul – it’s a Roget’s, but it’s a very weirdly configured one. And it has these categories, it will start out with “Beginnings” or “Creative” or “Nautical” or “Weather,” big categories and then subcategories under them, and I like that because it’s more allusional. You know, if I’m writing something that has a lot of water metaphors and I want nautical things, and I know there are things that are kind of circling around my brain, I scan that. And I do use a rhyming dictionary, because sometimes you’ve got to rewrite and rephrase stuff and then you’ve got to get a whole new rhyme.
Q: Do you write words and music simultaneously?
A: I always start out with chords that I like and sing a melody over it. Sometimes I’ll sing a phrase and then the music has a feeling. And then I go, what story is this feeling about? If this is a subtext for a story, what is the story? And sometimes there will just be a phrase or some words and I’ll go, OK, how can I incorporate that? Does that word push me in the direction of the story? And then I try to hammer out an initial verse to get the meter so that the meter is then locked in.
Q: And has that process remained pretty constant over time?
A: Yeah. It’s pretty constant. Every now and then I’ll do a different thing, but not often. I really can’t start from lyrics. Because if I write lyrics it’s always “duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh.” It’s this real dumb-ass rhythm. And then the music will be that dumb-ass rhythm and suddenly you’re writing, “Humpty dumpty sat on the wall/Humpty dumpty had a great fall.” I feel that rhythmically is where I really don’t have a lot of imagination. I don’t have a big vocabulary, rhythmically, which is why it’s so great to have Paul around, because he’s the rhythm king. I write mostly on my own but some people are really fun to collaborate with. Jon Brion I wrote a lot of songs together. I’m the great editor, but he’s the generator and he’s just terrible at finishing. So he would generate and I would finish. Musically and harmonically I felt like he was literally the other lobe of my brain. He would play something and I’d go, I know how that goes. I know what the chorus is to that song.
Q: Do you and Michael collaborate?
A: No. We’re too similar. We have the same skill set. We’re both finishers. We’re not good generators. We’re both perfectionists. If somebody has to take it over the other person never wants to let them do it. We’re both procrastinators, so one person’s always like, when are you going to finish that thing? And the other is like, no, don’t worry about it, I’m getting to it. So yeah, we’re not a good fit. We do have to write some songs together because we did this thing for a friend of ours, this actress who gets all her friends together for a charity and you just like write down something like “I’ll wash your car” or “I’ll bring you three weeks worth of great chicken soup” and then you auction it off. So we said we’d write and record a personalized song for somebody. And this person bid a lot of money. And then it did so well our friend was like, “Come on, do another one.” So then we had two songs to write and we still – well, we finished one of them. We do have to do the second one. There was a little fighting.
Q: You’ve embraced the world of comedy. How did you fall in with that crowd?
A: I love comedians.
Q: Have you always loved them?
A: No. In fact when I lived in Boston I remember people saying they were going to a comedy club and I’m like, not me. I actually just hated the very idea. But when I was in L.A. and playing this club called Largo they would have comedy nights on Monday and so we started going. And then we saw these great comedians and became friends with them. So that’s kind of how it started. But comedians, when you’re around them, you see the workings of their mind. They’re out in the world and they’re having conversations and they see the interesting possibilities in everything that’s happening, in everything people say. It’s more than being funny. It’s about turning things around and looking at them from different angles. And when you’re around these people enough it’s like you pick up the vibe of their brain a little bit.
Q: Have you integrated that into your work?
A: A little bit.