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Author Topic: 2004 American Songwriter Interview  (Read 4987 times)
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« on: August 11, 2010, 01:54:24 pm »

John Mellencamp
Words & Music

He's creative guy. When he's not writing songs and making records,
he's often busy painting. "When I finish a painting," he says, "I
turn it against the wall." He's much the same about his songwriting-
he likes to write songs, but he doesn't particularly enjoy talking
about them. Regardless, he made an exception for us and spoke at
length about the creation of his words and music. His is a career
that is exceptional. Starting as a singer singing other people's
music, he evolved into an ingeniously poignant and exultant
songwriter, selling more than 40 million albums and receiving 11
Grammy nominations.

By Paul Zollo

He was born on October 7, 1951 in Seymour, Ind. Like many of
America's great songwriters (Lennon, Simon, Springsteen, Berry,
Nyro and many others), he's a Libra, born with an innate gift for
balancing two disparate elements. In his case, and that of the other
songwriters, these happen to be the delicate elements of words and

As a teenager he played in several rock bands. "Some people go
to a bar one night a week, maybe two," he says during our recent
interview. "I was in a bar every night playing with a band." He was
the singer, and sing he did, even without playing guitar. "I was a
Bob Dylan jukebox," he says. "I could play every Bob Dylan song."
In 1975, he moved to New York with the aim of making a living as a
musician. By the next year, he had landed a record deal, but his
managers decided they had to mold him into a different form and
renamed him "Johnny Cougar." The album that was released was
called Chestnut Street Incident, and it consisted of other people's
songs. His second album, The Kid Inside, also consisted of covers but
was never released. He was dropped from the label and soon signed
with another, which released an album called A Biography. It did
little to introduce Johnny Cougar to the world.

But it all shifted when his next album was released, at which time
he started writing his own songs. His first hit, which was also a hit
for Pat Benatar, was "I Need A Lover." Following that, he worked with
the legendary musician Steve Cropper, who produced Mellencamp's next
album, Nothin' Matters And What If It Did— which began to prove
to the world that this man was more than a pop singer. He was a bona-
fide singer/songwriter. He then went out on tour with a host of bands,
including KISS and the Kinks.

By 1982, he was writing the record that would put him over the
top in terms of authentic popularity. The album was called American
Fool, and it included two massive hits, "Jack and Diane" and "Hurts
So Good," both of which are discussed in the following interview.

In 1983 came Uh-Huh, which contained huge hits such as "Pink
Houses." By this time he was no longer Johnny Cougar, as he re-
embraced his true identity and became John Cougar Mellencamp. In
1985, painfully aware of the plight of American farmers, he not only
founded Farm Aid with Willie Nelson, but he put their dilemma
into art and conceived the seminal album Scarecrow. He considered
himself an American troubadour, as he says in the following, but
with folk songs that could be translated into pop-rock songs with
the addition of rock instruments. He called it "folk music with a
rock drum beat."

A succession of powerful albums followed, including The Lone-
some Jubilee (1987), which soared to the top of the charts, galvanized
by gritty songs such as "Paper in Fire" - featuring some of the most
burning violin playing ever to be captured on a pop record. Big
Daddy, containing the classic heartrending cut "Jackie Brown," came
in 1989—and then his first album in 1991 as John Mellencamp,
Whenever We Wanted—energized by the hit single "Get A Leg Up." Two
years later he returned with the masterful Human Wheels; which was
inspired by his life with new wife Elaine. And in 1994, he recorded a
wonderful duet with the eminently soulful MeShell NdegeOcello for
his Dance Naked album. NdegeOcello sang and played bass on the Van
Morrison gem "Wild Night," which became an immense hit and one
of VH-1's most played videos.

Mellencamp took a break from the madness of the music world
to retreat into a happy Midwest life with his wife—a hiatus that
was reflected in his next album. Mr. Happy Go lucky (released in 1996,
featuring "Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)" and other great
songs). Mercury released two more albums, The Best That I Could Do
(1978-1988), a partial career retrospective, and Rough Harvest, an
accumulation of unreleased songs.

Moving to Columbia Records,he delivered his first self-titled
album in 1998, John Mellencamp, followed by Cuttin' Heads in 2001,
which included the powerfully beautiful "Peaceful World." Trouble No
More came in 2003.

Now we're blessed with a massive 2-CD collection called
Words&Music: John Mellencamp's Greatest Hits. It contains 22 of his
Top-40 pop hits to date, as well as two new songs— "Walk Tall"
and "Thank You" (which he produced with Kenneth "Baby-face"
Edmonds). "I'm on loan now to Island Defjam Records," he says
happily. "And the guy who owns it, L.A. Reid, is a guy I love. He's
the first record company president that I really have respect for.
He's a musician, and he really understands the creative process ...
because he's a creative guy."

Our interview with Mellencamp was delayed a few hours
because, according to his publicist, he was "stuck on line." But he
wasn't on his computer, rather, he was physically waiting in line to
vote—as this was November 2, election day. Only days earlier, he
was out playing and campaigning for what he believed in: "To make
this a more tolerant country than the one we are living in now."

But now he's home in Bloomington, Ind., the small town he's
sung and written about and where he still lives with his family.
He's currently writing a musical with Stephen King, having com-
pleted about half a dozen songs for it. Called The Mississippi Ghost
Brothers, it takes place both in the 40's and present day, and is
about a family that goes back to its haunted summer home. And it's
"home" where our discussion commenced.

AS: Did you grow up in a musical home?

JM: Yes. My grandmother could play piano, string instruments and she
could sing. It was all Appalachian type stuff. And I had an older
brother who played guitar and was in the choir. I was exposed to a
lot of music. My dad is only 20 years older than me. When I was a
kid, he was into folk music. We had Odetta records around the
house. I loved folk music—from Peter, Paul & Mary to Woody

AS: When you started writing songs, you already had a record deal?

JM: Yeah. Isn't that wild? That's why my first songs are so crummy.

AS: You were John Cougar then.

JM: That was put on me by some man-
ager. I went to New York and every-
body said, "You sound like a
hillbilly." And I said, "Well, I am."
that's where he came up with
that name. I was totally unaware
of it until it showed up on the
album jacket. When I objected to it,
he said, "Well, either you're going
to go for it, or we're not going to
put the record out." So that was
what I had to do ... but I thought
the name was pretty silly.

AS: When you started writing your own songs, were your managers okay
with that idea?

JM: Yeah, I think so. There were always
managers wanting to put their two
cents in. But after that Johnny
Cougar debacle, I pretty much
rejected about everything they ever said. You know, I've always
been an outsider. I've never really been part of any New York-hip or
L.A.-cool scene. I've always been from the Midwest. I've stayed here
and done things the way I've wanted to do them. I listened to people
when I had to sometimes, but generally I just did things the way I
wanted to do them. I wrote a song called "Minutes to Memories" a
few years ago that says, "I do things my way and I pay an awfully
high price." And I still feel that way.

AS: When you started writing songs, did it come easily to you?

JM: No. Listen to my earlier records. You know, it takes a person a
long time to find his voice. I always marvel at guys whose first
records are so well-written and so well done. Take Elvis Costello's
first record. How did he do that?

AS: Yes. Or John Prine.

JM: Yeah, John Prine's first record. How did that happen? So, for me,
I was singing in bars. I was 14-years-old, playing at college
fraternities. I was singing Sam & Dave. I was the singer in the band.

AS: Once you started writing songs, did you write alot?

JM: I had to, because I had a record deal. I was in a band and
playing in bars when I first got a record deal, so my experience of
the world in my mid-20's was being in bars all the time. We played
365 days a year.

AS: Did you learn a lot about songwriting from playing all those

JM: I didn't at the time. But looking back at it, I see that I did.

AS: How did you learn to write? Was it trial and error?

JM: Trial by fire. [Laughs] Once I started
writing songs, and once I found my
voice, I knew what I had to do. I
saw myself as an American song-
writer in the troubadour fashion;
it's just that I happened to have a
rock band behind me. But if you'd
heard my songs when they were
originally written, they were just
fragile folk songs.

AS: Do you write words and music together?

JM: Yes. Generally. I write the melody
and the lyrics and the rhythm all at
the same time. It just happens. And
then sometimes I'll go back and rewrite. Sometimes I don't.

AS: So often you will get an entire song all at once?

JM: Sure. Not often. Most of the time.

AS: Are those the best songs-the ones that come all at once?

JM: Generally-speaking. But there are holes in those songs. I'll hear
a song I wrote many years ago called "Pink Houses" on the radio, and
I'll think, "Man, I wish I would have spent a little more time on the
last verse." I never really view my songs as done. I just think
they're abandoned. You think, 'Okay, well, I'm in the studio now, and
now it's time to think about what the guitar player is going to do,
and what the bass player is going to do, and what the drummer's going
to do.' So once you get to that point, the song is pretty much aban-
doned. You've got to be able to roll with what these musicians try to
do with the song.

AS: Nowadays, do you write songs all the time?

JM: Once you start writing songs, you write all the time.
Everything's a song now. It's just a matter of looking
out my window. I won't even want to write, but I'll
think of a good idea, and I better get that down. And
all of a sudden, I'll have two or three verses in my
head, and I'll think I have to put these down on
paper...because if I don't, I'll forget them pretty
soon. I have to say that I have to write 10 songs to get
one good one. I'll write 10,15 songs, and there won't
be a good one in the bunch.

AS: Do you finish those, even if you don't think they're good ones?

JM: I get to a point where I can see if they're going to work or not.

AS: How much do you have to write to make that judgement?

JM: A verse and a chorus. The first verse and the first
chorus always come easy to me. But then it's where
the song goes that I always start to make missteps. I
take it in the wrong direction or get too literal about
something. So it's hard to write in a vague manner
and still be poignant. It's very hard to do.

AS: Why vague?

JM: I've never really enjoyed getting too specific about
topics. I always feel you have to be a really great
songwriter to get specific and captivate the imagina-
tion of the listener. That's an impossible task.
There's only a couple of guys who can do that. It's
important for me to keep it vague, so that when peo-
ple hear it, they are able to put themselves inside
the song. I try to make my songs not about me as
much as possible.

AS: You've written some powerfully specific narrative story songs
like "Jack and Diane".

JM: Well, they're not story songs as much as vignette
songs. I'll go from vignette to vignette in a song and
then tie it together with a chorus. But a lot of times
my songs come out on the angry side, or the pes-
simistic side, or the craggly side, until you get to the end of
them.. .and then I'll try to write something, in the end, that gives
hope to the situation. Never try to answer any questions—only ask

AS: In "Jack and Diane" you sing 'Here's a little ditty..." But it's
more tha a ditty.

JM: From the perspective of a young man in His late-20's, when I wrote
that song, it was such a small story. It wasn't as much
about the song. It was the characters. They were just
so average. So the word "ditty" just seemed appropri-
ate. Even as you said it, it still does to me.

AS: That song became a big hit, as have so many of your songs. Does
it change your feeling about a song if it becomes a hit?

JM: No, not really. Sometimes I'm disappointed that
some songs [that I thought were better than hits],
people weren't able to lock on to. But I don't really
have feelings about songs the way some people do.
You know, I paint. And I do the same things with the
paintings. I enjoy creating them, and I enjoy work-
ing on them, and I enjoy the problems that they cre-
ate for me to solve. But once I've done that, and
abandoned it, then I'm done with it. It's on to the
next painting. Or it's on to the next song. It's on to
the next thing to try to create. It makes things bear-
able ... doing that. Hanging on to a song like "Jack
and Diane," I really don't take a smidgen of pride in
that I've written that. I don't take pride in the fact
that one song was able to climb the charts and one
song wasn't. I take pride in the fact that I was able to
create these songs. That seems to be more important
than the fact that this song was a hit or that song
was a hit.

AS: Do you think of a title before writing a song?

JM: Very rarely. Generally, the title comes after the song
has been written, and sometimes even after the song
has been recorded. I don't hang much importance in
a name.

AS: It seems that sometimes a song is based
around the title, such as "Paper In Fire".

JM: A song like "Paper In Fire" ... I didn't really have to
title the song, it titled itself. That was the only logical,
creative choice. There's nothing else to call that song.

AS: When you say that a song titles itself, is songwriting more a
method of following a song than leading it?

JM: Oh yeah. I never try to lead a song in a specific direction.
Because then you start editing yourself. And I do do that, and I
think every songwriter probably does that. But, that makes life a lot
harder .. when you start editing yourself. The best creation is when
you're free with it and it becomes what it becomes. I know in my
paintings, if I labor over it too much, it gets ugly.

AS: But with painting you can create it without any literal ideas. Is
that a different process than creating songs, where you have to deal
with verbal thoughts?

JM: You're still dealing with reality. There are certain
things that have to happen in a painting. It's like a
language. If you don't use that language on the can-
vas, it won't work ... it won't look right. Then you
realize-you tried to sidestep that part of the painting
process and tried to take a short-cut that didn't
work. And you have to deal with it.

AS: Does music come easily to you?

JM: Melodies are very simple for me. I, for some reason,
have an unlimited amount of melodies in my head. I
very rarely feel that I am repeating myself. A lot of
the instrumental lines on my records are lines I've
given the musicians to play. Making up melodies is
the simplest thing for me to do.

AS: Do you come up with melodies in your head, or on a guitar?

JM: In my head. Then, I have musicians figure them out.
That's when I throw the guitar away. I don't like
being confined to an instrument. I'll sing a
melody—and the violinist or the guitar player or
the piano player, or all of them—will figure out that
line and help each other.

AS: Many songwriters write melodies generated by chord progressions
they play on guitar or piano...

JM: Well you have to follow a melody inside the chord
progression, so the chord progression can dictate
which direction the melody goes. But there are so
many notes that can go into a D-chord. It's limitless
how many notes will work inside that chord. I never
think about that. I never think of the math of it.

AS: The math?

JM: Yes, the math. Music is math. There are so many
beats in a measure. It's all math when you get right down to it.
Music is a mathematical problem. And I never, never try to look at
the math of a song until the song is over. And then I decide if the
math is correct. In many of my songs, I have crammed so many
lyrics into a melody and into a measure that mathematically it
doesn't work. Ah, but it does work if the next line doesn't follow
that cadence. There are so many things you can do. And I try to do if
more from feel than from the mathematical point.

AS: What kind of feel are you going for?

JM: That depends on each song. Each song has a different
cadence and a different rhyme and a different mes-
sage, so each song dictates that feel. If you take a
song like "Walk Tall" (the new single), when I play it .
acoustically, it's a folk song—in the tradition of
Woody Guthrie. But I knew right away that I wanted
to have an r£rb feel for that song. I played it for
Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, who's a real r&b guy. I
said, "Listen to this song, and see what kind of r&b
feel you can put to it." I think I played one verse and
one chorus and he had already come up with the
feel. And that happened within, no exaggeration, 30
seconds of him hearing the song. He hadn't even
heard me play the song once, and he was already
playing that rhythm against my folk rhythm. So I
looked at him at that point and said, "I'll see you in •
Indiana in a few weeks."

AS: Where do you think your ideas for songs come from?

JM: I just look out the window and they come to me. I s
myself in the old tradition of the troubadour. I read
the papers. I watch the news. I talk to people. I'm
inspired by those things. There are so many things to
write about. Anyone could be a songwriter. I could
start writing today, and write two or three songs a
day for the rest of my life, and still never run out of

AS: Can a song contain any content?

JM: Sure. If it's any good is questionable. That's the prob-
lem most people have when they start writing songs.
They expect to write at the level of songs that they've
heard on the radio. But that's all magic. When I start-
ed writing, I didn't know how magical "Highway 61"
was. How do you compete with that when you're 22-
years old and trying to write songs? You can't. There's
just so much that you can't even compete with. It's
like putting a grade-school football team against the
NFL champions. It's not going to work. There's no
level playing field for the songwriter.

AS: How does a songwriter reach that magic?

JM: He has to find his own voice. And that takes a long time. I admire
guys like Elvis Costello, who found his own voice [early in his
career]. Some songwriters stop at a certain point and don't keep
going forward. Elvis Costello was able to keep moving forward. He
might be the best songwriter of all of us guys who started out in the
70s. But when you put someone up against Bob Dylan, he is the only
singer/songwriter. With Bob, it's God's mind to Bob's fingers.
There's just nobody else. You know, I asked Bob how he did it. And
he just looked at me and said, "I write the same four songs every
time I write." [Laughs]

AS: I love your song "Human Wheels".

JM: That song was co-written with George Green. That was the eulogy
from his grandfather's funeral. He didn't intend for me to use those
lyrics as a song. He read them to me, and I said, "George, send those
over to me ... I'm going to put music to those ... those are so beau-
tiful." I wrote that song without a guitar or anything. I just sang
that melody. I figured out the cadence in my head, and then I went
to my guitar to figure out the chords.

AS: Where do good melodies come from?

JM: With me, and I don't mean to appear smug, it's innate. I'm just
able to do it. It's something I've never struggled with. The whole
point is writing simple melodies that people can sing along with.
That's what Lennon and McCartney were able to do. That's what Hank
Williams was able to do. That's what John Fogerty was able to do.
That's what Bob Dylan was able to do. I mean, "Stuck inside of
Mobile" . . . how hard is that to sing? It's not. It has just enough
movement that it creates this beautiful melody. Or "Knockin' On
Heaven's Door." His melodies are so beautiful.

AS: Is the meody more important than the words?

JM: I would say probably-to the general public-it is. It's not to me.
I think to your casual music listener, they have to relate to the
melody or they're never going to get the words.

AS: You've talked about writing vague songs, yet you've written many
specific songs, such as "Jackie Brown".

JM: When I'm writing songs like that, the melody really has to be
beautiful. I think that is a specific story. But if you get into the
details of it, you're back into the song being vague again. It paints
a picture, but you intend on the listener to fill in. I'm proud of
that song.

AS: "Small Town" is specific.

JM: I disagree. That's a vague song. "I was born in a small town." How
many small towns can you apply to that situation? Is that LaCrosse,
Wisconsin, or is that Bloomington, Indiana, or is that Collins,
Texas? "I had myself a ball in a small town." I mean, doing what?

AS: It's open-ended.

JM: It's so open-ended .. . it's so vague. But I think that's what
made the song work. And plus, I think I use the words "small town"
975 times in the song.

AS: Do you remember writing it?

JM: I wrote that song in the laundry room of my old house. [Laughs] We
had company, and I had to go write the song. And the people
upstairs could hear me writing and they were all laughing when I
came up. They said, "You've got to be kidding." What else can you
say about it?

AS: Do you remember writing "Hurts So Good"?

JM: George Green and I wrote that together. We exchanged lines back
and forth between each other and laughed about it at the time.
Then I went and picked up the guitar, and within seconds, I had
those chords.

AS: What is your favorite song that you've written?

JM: I haven't written that song yet.
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