One of the questions someone interviewing a songwriter invariably asks is “How do you come up with ideas for songs?” Here, in the master’s own words, are some of his responses.
“Chris Whitley Interviewed: The Law Man Living with the Lore,” Graham Reid, Elsewhere 1991
“I love that rural blues thing, it’s like an idea before thinking about it. It has a real purity.”
When Whitley puts that strange, primitive guitar sound together with his literate lyrics it also has a purity about it. His lyrics flick out images and an acute visual sense which he attributes to both his parents being visual artists.
“The Visions of an Artist with Both Feet Planted Firmly on the Ground,” Ken Robison, The Fresno Bee, Nov 26, 1991
And what about those sometimes obtuse lyrics? Whitley claims he’s just a guy trying to create visual images — to make people feel instead of think.
“I try to simplify complicated ideas, use small words, I’m comfortable with that. Visual references are the simplest way to illustrate a complicated idea …. I try to put [my idea] across in working man’s terms, in hopes of being on the ground. I hate intellectual stuff. I want it to be ‘I understand this and I don’t know why.’ I want people to understand with their instinct more than with their brain. I try to get at how something makes you feel. The logistics of the lyrics don’t matter that much. I try to paint something with lyrics.”
“Chris Whitley Is Striving for Visceral Sounds,” Dan DeLuca, The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 23, 1995.
“This album [Din] is more confused,” says Whitley, who takes his power trio to the Khyber Pass for three nights, starting Monday. “Which is kind of the point. The gray areas are what attract me when I’m writing. I don’t write well in an obvious, clear kind of way. I’m best in a more mysterious in-between- the-words area.”
Whitley says his favorite artists are writers like David Byrne and Heroes- and Low-era David Bowie. They “deal in abstraction,” he says, “but you get a real clear feeling about what they’re singing about. As opposed to someone like Michael Stipe, who I never felt was talking about anything.”
“The stuff I love is real obvious and simple and dumb on the surface, but you can get something much deeper from it. It’s like Howlin’ Wolf or Kurt Cobain. It’s so human and so literal, but the sound of the music and the pain in their voice gives you a certain vibe that takes you away.”
“Contradiction Important to Chris Whitley,” The Press of Atlantic City, August 7, 1995.
Chris Whitley thrives on contradiction. His new album, “Din of Ecstasy,” is a series of emotionally raw songs messed up and beat up with sculpted, distorted electric guitar.
Even the paradox of its title fits with Whitley’s disdain for the usual.
“It’s like “excruciating and beautiful.’ They make total sense – not just make sense, but they just feel right,” he said.
He thinks “Din” is more vulnerable than his debut, the mostly acoustic “Living With the Law,” despite its electric emphasis. He can’t understand why vulnerability is generally associated with acoustic music.
“I like playing vulnerable music loud and confrontational music very quietly,” he said. “It’s the same with lyrics and music – if the chords are beautiful, I want to make the lyrics more like realism and no romanticism.”
Whitley calls many of his songs “male and female.” He cites “Can’t Get Off,” which twitches and squirms with frustration, as an example. “When I think about it lyrically, it feels like a guy being a guy, but being really stupidly vulnerable,” he said. “It almost seems like the lyrics are like the masculine and the music is like the feminine, in terms of feel.”
“Chris Whitley Readily Journeying into ‘Terra Incognita,'”John Fortunato, Aquarian Weekly
Whitley recalls, “I learned to better link lyrical ideas with “Din Of Ecstacy.” It was a natural, organic growth that was aesthetically quite different from the first album. It’s not post-modern, but instead extreme soul music.”
“I don’t trust abstract lyrics. Early David Byrne songs with the Talking Heads were not specific, but they were intent in clarity. Some of David Bowie’s records were also like that. Dylan could be too literal, but he has a sensual, subconscious resonation,” he explains. “If I could mumble into a Walkman before even thinking about what I want to say, I could almost hear the words I’d like to write. They don’t necessarily have to make sense. I also loved Nat King Cole, Burt Bacharach, and Gershwin because they favored intuition and instinct over intellect.”
“Nomadic Tendencies and Jimmy Page Colour Chris Whitley’s Creative Outlook“
Whitley’s songs come to him anywhere and anytime, and he has his own proven method for weeding out a newborn tune’s weaker aspects.
“When I can’t get behind a lyric as it’s coming out of my mouth,” he says, “then I throw it away and try to come up with something else. And sometimes I end up throwing the whole song away, because I find that overworking things doesn’t get me anywhere. Often I try to trust stuff that doesn’t even make sense, because if it feels like I have an intent, that’s the whole point, too. But it can’t just be abstract, top-of-your-head words that happen to rhyme or something, because I don’t believe in that either.
“I think that a lot of inspiration comes from your subconscious if you allow it,” he adds, “and that’s why a lot of my songs aren’t particularly about something—I only realize what they’re about after I’ve written them, almost. I go through an editing process of what feels right to sing, and what rhythmically feels right, but what informs my best songs is stuff that’s a bit below my conscious level. And that can happen anywhere, you know.”
“Din Man: Chris Whitley Finds His Musical Heart,” Ted Drozdowski, Boston Phoenix, May 1, 1997.
And his poetic instincts are intact, combining nature imagery with emotional terrain in numbers like “Weightless” and “Cool Wooden Crosses.” It’s a quality that marked him as a colorful and intelligent lyricist — with maybe a streak of Walt Whitman in his soul — on Living with the Law.
“I just can’t start off with words in my head and feel like I’m writing a song,” he observes. “I like playing as much as singing, and I need to springboard off a chord or melody to write lyrics. There’s no separation in the singer/songwriter thing for me. When it comes to lyrics, the chords are functional. On this album, the sounds of the words — how they mesh with the chords — grew more important, and the inflections of how I sing them gives them more feeling than they might literally have. I guess that’s where the poetic element comes into this. I’ve always felt that I have to believe words to sing them, but if they get too literal or too clever, I mistrust them.”
“Whitley Sweeps Bad Times Away with ‘Dirt Floor,'” Keith Spera, The New Orleans Times-Picayune, August 7, 1998.
The stripped-down songs that litter “Dirt Floor” are made all the more striking by Whitley’s haunted vocals, the tension of his guitar and the fleeting images offered by his lyrics, which he fashions to be abstract.
“My stuff is always personal, but I don’t really go with a confessional thing, because I don’t think I’m confessing anything,” he said. “And I don’t think a song has to be about something to get your subconscious going. That’s where poetry comes from, when you’re not writing about a subject. Most pop songs are clear what they’re about. But most pop songs aren’t poetry, or art; they’re pop art, decorative art, different than a Dylan or a Hendrix.
“I think songs explain themselves to you by your subconscious, if you allow it and if you know how to let it prime your instinct. (On ‘Dirt Floor,’) I got a little wordy on a couple of these tunes, because with the pragmatics of just vocals and one instrument, there’s minimal ways you can deal with emotional tension, so I lean on words. This record has a bit of that in it, but I didn’t particularly know what I was writing about with each tune. That’s when they’re the most elemental, when there’s some instinct behind it. It can be anything, eroticism through life and death, very fundamental things.
“That’s what I wanted to get to with this record. It’s also what I needed spiritually.”
“Chris Whitley’s music is all over the place, just like he wants.” Jeff Spevak, USA TODAY, March 26, 1999
“I know in most popular music, people look for literal things, and I can usually figure them out,” says Whitley. “But usually I don’t know what the song is about until I’m done. At least they’re not deliberated that way. They’re formed by my subconscious, really. They’re symbols and metaphors. It’s like interpreting dreams. `Wild Country’ is a metaphor for innocence.”
“Drinking With … Chris Whitley,” Jeff McErlain, New York Hangover, April 2000
Could you talk about your writing process?
I used to write lyrics first when I began writing songs…. Nowadays I use chord, chord change or a riff as feeling or mood to try to define something lyrically. Basically I try to play shit and mumble over it and listen to it in a Walkman and see what I’m trying to get at subconsciously. I can’t really pick subjects and write about them — I’m not that much of a craftsman, I think that I’m not that motivated to just write about anything.
So the topics come from the mood of the song?
Yeah, it’s trying to pull out what you’re feeling without really defining it too much consciously so that the emotion is more, perhaps more intense or more pure or trying to translate something else. It’s really trying to get at the subconscious for me. I think that’s the most exciting thing. I do respect big song writers from Burt Bacharach and Randy Newman to fuckin’ Tom Waits, you know, the people who are high craftsmen as well as write about a specific subject. I don’t think that is a strength of mine really, the song has to define itself a bit in order for me to be able to weed out the abstractions. I don’t mean like surrealism or something, it’s more like poetics. I read a lot of Charles Simic, Pablo Neruda, and lately, Garcia Lorca. But it’s also from visual art; my mom’s a sculptor. What I’m trying to say is, what the tune is literally about is not necessarily as important as the impetus and how resonant the expression is.
There is some abstract writing that really turns me off too, when I feel like the people are being arty or clever or just stupid. …. You’ve got to admit, most pop music is pretty literal, it’s pretty obvious what it’s about, usually.
But when you’re writing for a pop audience you have to shoot to the lowest common denominator.
It’s true and that says a lot about the purpose of music for most people—it’s entertainment. I do think there’s a difference between entertainment and art. I don’t think art has as much purpose, in a way. It’s more important but it’s not as useful.
Well, lyrics and poetry are not always the same genre.
They can be, but they’re not usually. Sometimes I feel that way about Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan; I wish musically they were more interesting. Iggy Pop as well. I some times feel that way about other musicians as well; I often wish they were more poetic than musical. I wish I had gotten more for the lyrics than just the music. I found that a lot in the music I did responded to, then after a while I wasn’t getting that much from the lyrics. On the other hand, with singer/song writer stuff you get loads of lyrics and not much musical adventurousness.
“A Category All His Own: Singer-songwriter Chris Whitley Does the Music That Makes Him Happy,” Keith Spera, The New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 18, 2003
“One of the few benefits of my position is I’m not writing a hit record, so I can let the environment influence me,” Whitley said. “It can reflect a certain time. I like atmospheric music in general. Traveling most of my life influences most of what I do anyway.”
The more profound influence, however, was Whitley’s current, relatively settled, life. The break from touring that preceded the recording was the longest of his career. In that time he moved to Dresden to live with his girlfriend. As usual, his impressionistic lyrics appeal more to the subconscious. Consider the opening lines from “New Lost World”: “When at last I was left for dead, the dissident sister took me in/Underground at the edge of time, desire alone forgoes the crime.”
“I’ve never been comfortable being real literal,” Whitley said. “I grew up writing songs that way, and I never felt like I was saying what I really felt like; it was more paint-by-numbers. I don’t really think of lyric writing as poetry exactly, because the words are sung to music. There’s a poetics in that combination, in inflections that are different in a song.”
Whitley’s inflections position him in the spaces between musical genres.
“I don’t feel like a blues guitarist, but I don’t really feel like a singer-songwriter either,” he said. “I feel a little more visceral than that. I guess I’m not an easy sell.”
“Chris Whitley: Melancholic Resonance,” in Anil Prasad, Innervisions: Music without Borders, 2010
Tell me how you go about putting songs together.
I’ve found I have to pull things out in a musical way. It’s hard for me to just write instrumental music or put poetry down on a page without music attached. When I write with the two things happening simultaneously, I can usually encourage myself to articulate something and find inspiration without trying too hard. The important thing for me is to not pressure myself while I’m doing it. I try to trust my perceptions and feelings when I’m writing. There’s usually more going on inside me than I directly realize. I attempt to tap into my subconscious and experiential humanity. Often, I write with a Walkman. I’ll come up with a couple of chords and start mumbling into the Walkman without attaching words right away. Then I’ll listen back to it and try to feel some words within my vamping. I try to let the expression reveal itself to me. It’s like writing by ear. I can get images from the feeling in a chord or a sound, or from the tension that exists between two sounds. Sometimes I won’t know why I’m writing the song or where it was coming from exactly until a year later. The songs can end up having so many more levels that way ….
I think one of the most important things songwriters need to do is find an identity. It’s a rare thing for listeners to be able to answer questions like “Who is this person singing this?” and “Where are they coming from?” The answers are the things that make people want to listen to songwriters like Tom Waits, Neil Young, Nick Cave, and Bruce Springsteen. They’re truly articulating something of themselves in their music. They’ve attained something that’s the result of overlooking their limitations. Earlier in my career, I overlooked my technical clumsiness as a musician. When I started to accept my weirdness, it gave me strength as a songwriter and musician. You have to trust your individuality.
“Chris Whitley Seeks the Inspiration to Redefine” Jambands, Dean Budnick, October 15, 2000.
DB- Do you write on a National and how do you think that impacts on your songwriting?
CW- I write on different guitars and come up with different things on different ones. That’s why I got into using guitars in different tunings to throw myself off. I’m very pragmatic and self-taught. So if play something like a little Martin acoustic I’ll come up with different things because the Martin’s easier to play. You don’t have to bang on it, it’s not quite so difficult. The chords are a little bit sweeter and it’s a little easier to phrase on.
DB- When you are writing music what impact do you think particular guitars have on the stories you relate?
In my best writing I get visual imagery from sounds, from chords. I’ll come up with a melody depending on what guitar it’s on. A lot of Living With the Law had deserty, cowboy vibes to it because I hadn’t played a National for a while and I hadn’t played slide guitar for a while. I had been playing in techno bands in Europe where I had only been playing standard tuning and guitar synthesizer. I quit these bands because I didn’t like where that was going and I wanted to write more. So I started playing on the National again without caring what style that was. People could call it blues or whatever. A lot of the imagery is related to the sound, which for me was kind of deserty and southwestern. I lived in Mexico as a kid and the sound would bring me a picture, an atmosphere, a landscape and then I pulled from that. It’s like that whole thing about mythology- stories are always told in myths because they’re more accessible that way. So definitely what kind of guitar I’m using or what kind of chords I’m using bring lyrics to mind to me.
Audio of an interview with Rolling Stone in April 1998: Chris discusses many aspects of his songwriting: what motivates him to write (e.g., contrary to the “suffering artist” meme, he feels that he writes his best songs when he’s feeling good), the importance of “song structure” – no more Beatles songs, please!, and why many of his songs embody a visceral rejection of our contemporary culture (e.g., Wild Country’s “Breaking rocks all day on the avenue/Gets hard to unearth anything that’s true”).
2 thoughts on “In His Own Words: Chris Whitley on Songwriting”
Somehow I only just tuned into Chris Whitley. Which is like living in the valley and never seeing the mountain. But anyway, one day, you do… Thx Katie for this great stuff digging deeper into the man’s world. keep em coming.
Thanks, Ricardo – better late than never, right? I too was a relative latecomer to the Church of Chris Whitley, not having discovered his music until the turn of the century.
Be sure to check my about page (https://allthingschriswhitley.wordpress.com/about/) for links to more goodies re CW.