Q: Do you have rituals? Has your approach to songwriting changed over the years?
A: I’ve had to change it every time I make a record. I can’t do it the same way twice. For some reason I have to always reinvent a new way to make songs, and that’s the impetus for writing songs. It’s weird. When I was in the Plimsouls I bought this ghetto blaster and took it on the road with me. I would set it up in my motel room and get my guitar and start rocking and wait until something happened. Then when I went solo, for the first solo record, me and T Bone Burnett were living together down in Texas and I was writing in the living room and I would sit there all day and write he’d come in at night and I’d sing what I had written to him. I’d read stuff, think about stuff, play other old songs. Then I got into this thing where I got this pen, this weird pen that wrote really tiny, and I wrote this whole other album in tiny little letters. I was drinking a lot of coffee and write these really concise lyrics. It was all written tiny in these notebooks. It seemed to me like every word was important. The next record I wrote with other people because after Blue Guitar I got married and we had children and all of a sudden I had no peace of mind anymore and no place to work. The publisher called up and said go write with other people so I wrote the record with Billy Swan, Fontaine Brown, John Prine, Tonio K, Tom Russell. It was communal writing. People generally think it’s my worst record and there’s a lot of different reasons for that, not just the writing process. I was distracted. Having children was super demanding. That’s when I started doing the dream thing.
Q: What exactly do you mean by the dream thing?
A: When you’re writing songs, sometimes you don’t really work on the songs. You try to get yourself more in the moment, more in tune with your dreams, less distracted. You put away all the books and stuff, whatever it takes. You try to work on yourself, you know? And maybe you try to be more articulate with people, and you try to be nicer to people, you try to do different things so that you’re in a better state of mind. You have to work on yourself. You don’t work on the songs. I mean, you do work on the songs, but the most important thing is to get yourself in a frame of mind, which could involve doing things differently in your life. You have to be living on the up, to the best of your ability dealing with things. You have to take chances, to feel alive. You have to be aggressive with yourself, to push yourself out on a limb. You have to do things that make you feel excited.
Q: Is it second nature now, getting yourself into that frame of mind, or does it get harder? You sound very alive on the new songs.
A: I agree that my songwriting does seem like it’s still alive, and one of the reasons is that I have not been successful monetarily. Every year starts out and the question is how are we going to get through this fucking year. And at the end of the year it’s, oh my god how’s it going to work? It’s a constant thing. But the nice part of that is it keeps you in touch with something really alive. It’s the world’s condition, you know? My heroes are blues singers and poets, Allen Ginsberg and Lightning Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. Those people taught me something, and what they taught me was that what you want to be, you already are. You can be everything you want to be right now. You’re it. You’re living it, you’re making it right now. John Lee Hooker didn’t need a hit record. Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell, they went out and made incredible music all the time and nobody knew them from Adam. I love Allen Ginsberg.
When I was a kid in San Francisco I had this group called the Frozen Chosen, we’d play on the street across from City Lights, and Ginsberg started coming out. He’d come over to the corner with us and say, hey guys, you mind if I sit in? He never introduced himself, but we knew who he was. We’d say, sure man. He’d say, can you do some country blues? We’d go yeah. So we’d play blues and he’d make up songs on the corner and sing to people going by. It’s 1974. Sailors and hookers and tourists and kids are going by and nobody ever stopped but he would make up these incredible songs. If you have that real love of a thing it drives you through it. I love words and I love poetry and I love blues music and I love rock and roll and I love it so much that maybe I could survive getting a million bucks for it. I know Bob Dylan did. He made it through. Some people do and some don’t.
Q: What made you start playing music?
A: I had a lot of problems and music was a solution to me, maybe on a level of the boy who couldn’t stop washing himself. I went through a period that I describe in my book a little bit where I lost my depth perception and nothing seemed real. It was a really trippy period that brought a lot of anxiety. Music was a solution to a lot of different problems I had.
Q: Is it still?
A: Yeah. Absolutely. As you get older, though, you get a few other solutions, you know? I’ve had different things in my life that have really helped me. I don’t put the same weight on music that I used to and in a way it’s been better. I’m still on the road all the time but, without getting too corny about it, I’ve got different things that people do to soothe themselves. Meditation, or whatever you want to call it. As you get older you find things like that. I was against it for a long time, but it has helped me.
Q: Does meditation help with songwriting?
A: Not necessarily. It helps with comfort.