For a while now, I’ve been putting together some new songs for my third record. To me, writing songs is serious business as they each have a piece of me within their notes and lyrics. I was just talking with Sally Browder, the producer of my second record, Trip To Horizon a few days ago and we were having a blast coming up with ideas for the direction this record will take. I am so inspired right now by the White Stripes and Jack White’s new solo record, Blunderbuss. There is a simple, honest, raw feel, with a touch of punk to the writing and how these records are produced. It really allows you to understand where he is coming from as a writer. I just love the vocal feel and the inspired guitar sounds in all their music.
After spending some time with Sally discussing the approach for this record, she suggested doing a more acoustic, singer-songwriter type of project so that the songs can be really stripped down and simple, but still have an edge and unpredictability that will keep them driving. That really fits with some of my current writing influences like Jack White and Lucinda Williams. By focusing on the simplicity of the songs, we will be able to let the songs breathe and still let ‘em rock. It’s gonna be fun to see what happens.
In recording a record in the studio, each song comes to life in different ways. Some come together very
quickly, without any hurdles and some can require perseverance. My Johnny Depp Song was one that
was much more the former, but also required some tough decisions that eventually made the song
one that I am most excited by. Even on the tracking days of that song, the energy and cool groove was
already bouncing off the track. Guided by my incredible producer, Sally Browder, we had a great lead
guitarist, Billy Watts, who had a take on the song that really helped to bring out the bass and drums.
When it came time for guitar over-dubs, Sally said she had just the right guitar player who could ‘take
the Johnny Depp song to another level’. When Sally, myself and Bob Boulding got together in the
studio, I was blown away with what Bob was doing with the song. The intro and guitar solo that Bob
came up with for “Johnny Depp” is one that blows your hair back and never loses energy, even after
listening to it hundreds of times. It seemed like everything just came together on this song, from the
guitar, to vocals to the percussion work by Pete Anderson. Even today, when people talk about my
record Trip to Horizon, many will say their favorite is my Johnny Depp Song, which makes all the work
we did in the studio even more special.
The one thing that can be said about Americana Songs is that they are brilliant at telling a story. When
you think about Americana art, with all its vibrancy and many different textures that invite you in, it
seems to me to be very similar to a true Americana song. Much more than just the lyrics, these songs
are built on music that comes to life and sets the stage for the narrative to be told in a way that helps
to enhance the lyrics. The result is that you feel like you are right there with the story and you wouldn’t
want to be anywhere else at that moment.
Americana Songs are timeless and effortless journey’s that have a truth and simplicity to them that
is absent in much of the music that is being produced today. To write a great Americana song, you
must be able to be totally honest and open, to the point of challenging yourself in ways you never have
before. You may be writing about an idea, even a brilliant idea, but if it is not a true experience for you,
the song will not be authentic. It is this search for truth and simplicity that gives Americana Songs the
ability to be so universal in their effect on the listener.
I recently came across a tribute to Buddy Holly and I was reminded once again how timeless and truthful this great artist and Americana Music songwriter is. It amazes me how all of his songs are just as magical and transcending as the day he wrote them. It was so cool seeing his wife and inspiration, Maria Elena sitting in the audience of this concert, while singers like Stevie Nicks, Chris Isaac, Michelle Branch, Peter Asher and Raul Malo performed Buddy’s beautiful songs. There is not a lot of this simple, wonderful Americana Music being written today.
Even though I have been playing and singing these songs for many years, I was truly re-inspired to keep writing and to have the courage and integrity to stay the course of what this incredible artist began. Though Buddy was successful even in his own day, it has been over the passage of time that his legacy has really become clear through his inspiration for songwriters like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and other great musicians. I was reminded again by this Americana Music tribute that while trends in music may come and go without any long lasting impact, artists like Buddy Holly will always be cherished and never fade away.
I have been fortunate to be involved with a few great non-profit groups and participate as an artist in contributing to these amazing causes. The benefit shows that I perform are always very different, exciting and seem to bring out the best in everyone involved. I think it’s because there is a heightened sense of purpose and contribution. On my first record, I had such a great time doing all the photos for the CD layout because we had the Nature of Wildworks bring some adult and baby possums for the shoot in Topanga Canyon, CA that day. They were all so wonderful, but I really fell in love with one particular possum named Beauty. I was sad to learn that a possum’s life span is only about three years. A while later, I was able to do an on-site visit at Wildworks and Beauty was about three when we were reunited. I was able to hold her and spend quite a while with her that day, which was magical, but I knew that would probably be our last time together. All of the animals at Nature of Wildworks, from mountain lions, skunks, a wolf and many birds of prey are so awesome to be up close with. It really is an experience of a lifetime.
I knew that I wanted to raise some awareness and resources for Nature of Wildworks because this group gives kids and people of all ages an incredible up close experience with these beautiful animals. We held the benefit at Froggy’s in Topanga Canyon and the founder, Molly, brought some of the animals for a cool demo and then my band played. It was a great celebration and I was so honored to be a part of helping any way I possibly could. To be able to combine my music with such a worthy cause truly gave me a different perspective about what I do and how art can play a part in helping.
I have had several people say that my music is like a west coast Americana Band. Every time I hear this assessment, I feel very honored and complimented, mostly, because I am influenced by many different Americana artists, East, West and everywhere in between. Whether it is John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen or Steve Earle from the east or western artists like Bonnie Raitt, Chris Isaak and The Killers. Like most artists, I guess I found my earliest influences through seeing local bands at clubs, bars and concerts, so It’s probably safe to say that as a young artist trying to find my way that ‘west coast’ Americana had a major impact.
As a southern California girl, the western Americana Band scene drew me in with its earthy, yet free spirited feel. Los Angeles artists like Ry Cooder, Fleetwood Mac and Credence Clearwater Revival blazed a trail for many of the great western Americana artists like Lone Justice and Los Lobos. While both east and west explore many of the same themes of the classic American dream, they tend to look at it in different ways. It’s great to feel like I have been equally influenced both by the more eastern point of view of the working man struggle and the more western concept of freeing yourself from society’s structures.
As a songwriter, it’s never been my purpose to discuss or write about what my songs mean or the motivations behind writing them. The reason for that is because I have always felt that it’s better to leave interpretation up to the listener so that they can derive from the song what they want and to determine what it means to them. Recently though, I have had a lot of people asking about how I came up with the Johnny Depp Song from my second record, Trip To Horizon. I’m not sure why this song has gotten more attention than any other song on the record, other than it does mention the famous actor and some of his movies by name.
Instead of simply talking about how the my Johnny Depp Song came about, I thought I would start with sharing a bit of how the song-writing process works for me. Every songwriter has a different take on how to create, but at the end of the day, it’s the journey the artist goes through that really counts. Sometimes a song may develop through a lyric idea or an isolated thing that you see or hear, even a single word or title idea can spark the beginning of a song. Who knows, maybe Paul McCartney heard someone say “Hey, Jude!” and instantly thought of a song title. Other writers find a particular chord progression or a simple riff that sets them off. Keith Richards for example, woke up one night with the main guitar part of “Satisfaction” in his head and he was off and running to write this classic Rolling Stones song.
For me, songwriting is all about telling stories that when the listener hears it, the song means something to them. That’s why it usually starts with trying to tell a story that means something to me. In the case of the Johnny Depp Song, I had been watching an interview with director Wes Craven, who while discussing his movie A Nightmare on Elm Street, said it wasn’t until after Johnny Depp auditioned that his daughter saw the actor’s head shot and thought he was perfect for the role. As an artist who has spent a lot of time in Hollywood as a musician and actress (and dealing with LOTS of rejection), I found it very funny that it was the picture that was so important.
I’m very influenced by writers like Warren Zevon and Joan Didion who can look at a subject and always find a unique, funny way of bringing it to light. So, having spent my time in the trenches of Hollywood, (and hopefully channeling my best Zevon and Didion), the Johnny Depp Song came about as a tongue in cheek point of view on the whole ‘Hollywood thing’. Hopefully this article helps clarify some of the questions I have been receiving about the process I went through when writing my Johnny Depp song.
My favorite thing about great songwriters is that they can tell an entire story in a few minutes and it’s all set to music. That is so cool. It’s hard not to want to know when you hear a great story in a song, what the writer was writing about. And it’s easy to ask, ‘wow, I wonder who this song is about’ or ‘do you think that this really happened’? For me, I have always been interested in all the life that’s going on around me. It draws me in, but not just how people interact and their stories intermingle. The way each day ends, the changing of the seasons, the quiet and coolness of the autumn night air. These kinds of things inspire songwriting and every art form. It’s these circumstances that somehow come together and make me, as a writer, want to capture them in a story and put music to it.
No matter how many times I’ve seen them, it always amazes me when I see the work of artists like Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso and Rodin because they have this amazing ability to look at an object, person or even the wind and capture it in a totally different way, yet still manage to keep the essence of the life that’s in it. Amazing. I’m not a painter or sculptor, but I guess that’s what I try to do when I’m writing a song. If you get a chance, let me know your thoughts on how you create.
Music has always gone through its fads and phases and it seems for quite a while now that we have been going through a period of big budget, heavily produced music. With all the contest shows and ‘high concept’ music out there, you might think that the classic Americana Band has seen its day. If there’s one thing I’ve learned though, it’s that musical fads may come and go, but like Shakespeare says, ‘the play’s the thing’. The wonderful thing about music that comes from a good story concept, with thoughtful lyrics and great melody is that it will always transcend the most recent trends.
I am very happy to say that with the current group of great musicians, the americana and roots rock band tradition is alive and well and thriving in America today. Artists like Lucinda Williams, Allison Krause and Ryan Adams, who continue to have great success both in music sales and touring, are helping to give many other americana artists hope and inspire us to write more songs that tell a great story. Every time I hear a new song that has a great melody and strong lyrics, it makes me want to sit down and write, so that I can do my own small part in continuing this incredible tradition of the Americana Band. It’s my hope that if you are a songwriter/musician, you will be inspired as well and add your voice to all of the americana artists who have brought us this amazing, inspiring music.