In this series, I ask other songwriters about their quest for inspiration and how they tackle the day-to-day tasks of writing quality, engaging songs. Behind every good song is a hard-worker. I want to know how songwriters work and how they fill their well so it never goes dry.
KEEGAN DEWITT writes a lot of music that is used in several different capacities – film scores, commercial soundtracks, introspective dance jams. In 2013 alone, he scored the Oscar Award-winning short documentary “Inocente” and took two films to the Sundance Film Festival, one of which (“This Is Martin Bonner”) would win the prestigious Audience Award. The second, “Life According To Sam” will air on HBO in the fall of ’13. He writes music on a commercial level for Facebook, Merrell, Country Time Lemonade, Amtrak, Dolby, Save The Children and more. He is an established solo artist and one half of the tropical-electro pop band WILD CUB. How does he keep it all straight? You find him very hard at work…
1. What is your typical work day?
I try to be up early. Mainly because you can beat a lot of emails (especially when you are on the east coast) and you can try and catch up. If I need to be writing lyrics, this is when it has to happen. If you push it late in the day, your brain will be too cluttered and you won’t have the clean focus you need. I feel like I’m also way less likely to surprise myself later in the day. It’s much simpler to be impulsive and just work in volume early in the day. I’m usually at my most open creatively first thing in the AM or late at night with a bourbon.
Somewhere in the middle of that, I catch up on film score work and emails. The day usually splits 50/50 from Wild Cub to film scores. It’s nice sometimes to be able to slide from one to the other because they are so different. Shifting gears in your brain like that can sometimes jar loose some great things.
2. What tools do you use to keep you organized and productive?
We build everything in Logic. I’ve got a standing desk, where I’m always moving. I’ve got everything ready to go at a moment’s notice because often, momentum hits you and you don’t want anything to impede that. Guitars are hanging on the walls within a step, the vocal mix is right there and hooked up. This makes it so you can just start running and look back at what you’ve created later.
Beyond that, voice memos really go a long way. A lot of times, I’ll through songs on my iPhone so that I can drive around and listen through them. That’s when I can make a lot of progress on melodies. You’ll end up surprising yourself when you can hear it in a less literal context.
I do have a notebook, and I’ll switch back and forth between writing lyrics on a computer or in a book. Often, the book is for random ideas, words, sentences and scattered inspirations, then things come into focus on the computer, where I can write them out, rearrange them and so on. Included in that world are a couple key books of poetry that I always dig back into. Philip Larkin’s collected poems, Richard Wilbur’s collected works, a couple anthologies and so on.
Lastly, I have a folder of images that I pull from all over the internet. In my RSS reader, I have a folder of about 30 random tumblr blogs and websites that are very image-centered. I’ll pluck things from these every single day. Visuals feed me a lot. When you’re deep in the writing process, it’s good to sort of strip away random intake of Youtube videos, Facebook browsing, all of that. If I feel stuck, I’ll block off a whole day from that stuff and set aside time to really bury myself in something supremely visual, lately that was Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” and “Le Eclise” by Antonioni.
3. Do you have any habits, exercises or activities that jumpstart your creativity?
If I’m stuck lyrically, I will begin with amassing words. From our last record “Youth”, I have pages and pages of just words, combinations of words… things that sort of spark towards what I’m exploring but maybe not be a literal lyric. I also try and always record a scratch vocal track of pure improvisational gibberish. Actual words, but unintelligible sentences. Not only are you chasing a melody by doing this, but you are exploring vocal rhythms and sometimes, lyrical secrets reveal themselves there. You’ll end up spitting out a word or a phrase and that becomes the big cornerstone of the entire song’s words.
4. Are there any specific (or favorite) books, films, lectures, etc. that continue to inspire you?
I really think of music as a narrative–you are presenting “moments.” The narratives and moments that compel me are more flat, open and answerless, so my big heroes usually tend to be filmmakers or poets. A real titan in that world for me is Michelangelo Antonioni, the incredible Italian director. He vigilantly explored the idea of absence, narrative, thorough character descriptions.
Then there is someone like David Byrne, who feels like words don’t have to make literal sense. He talks a lot about how rhythm and presentation can be just as valuable, if not more, than the words themselves. This is a really compelling concept when coupled with the idea of “small moments.” You can provide these vague slivers of words and images, and it fully engages people to invest and identify themselves within the piece.
In my opinion, a listener/viewer’s personal experience (shaded and coloured by their own personal circumstance and catalog of experiences) is WAY more dynamic and fascinating than anything I could force upon them. I’d hope that our songs feel like the perfect combination of those two artists Antonioni’s assertion that humanity, in it’s simple, small, unsatisfied and searching nature (without conclusion or answers) and David Byrne’s improvisational hinting at a subconscious spark, that you’re playing on pure instinct and that a combination of impulses accumulates into a more transcendent truth.
5. Where do you get your best work done?
Standing, moving, in my home studio or driving and listening.
6. How do you combat writer’s block?
Writer’s Block is an exceptionally daunting thing. I have battled with long and dark bits of it. Especially as you age and become more busy as a musician. When you are 18 and no one is releasing a record anytime soon, you can amass hundreds of demos. It becomes different now that every single day I have to work on 2-3 score pieces for a film, finish a remix, work on a mix of new single and write 3 more singles for the band. All with people awaiting those things.
This doesn’t even mention the BEASTLY administrative side of being a full time creative entity in the world.
I think that there is no easy answer to this, except to say that you have to be hungry to want to express something, and there has to be a mystery or uncharted bit of territory in front of your for you to dig into. A great example being, it was easy for me to write when I was searching for a companion, searching for a transcendent love. Recently, I got married and became immensely satisfied and happy. Early on, the celebration of that fueled writing, but then eventually, you want less for those huge things. But I think the transition out of adolescence, a loss of big sweeping grand things to pine for plays a big part in my writer’s block. I am rich in life, and then that makes me, sadly, wanting in pining love songs for an unknown lover haha.
7. Who is your songwriting hero?
Damon Albarn is probably my biggest pop music hero. He is so curious and wonderfully adventurous. His investment in music seems truly based in the purist of places. To work with incredible people, in incredible places, and creative COMPELLING pieces of music. It happens that they are all extremely catching and are hits, but if you really break them down and listen to what they are, how they are constructed, they aren’t obvious. They are all so interesting. I admire him more than anyone. If I could have a career, it would be his, maybe without all the Blur years.
8. Do you have any advice to offer a new songwriter?
Make your music and do it in a bubble and be diligent. You need to have your own work, and have it be definitive, and you can take shelter in that, and pull confidence from it. Work tirelessly in all ways, on words, on music, on refining your process, on listening, on exploring the infinite options of your talents. If you can seclude yourself in that, dealing with all the endless temporary and uninventive bullshit that is the “music industry” will be much easier. You are the genuine article, and you’ll continue to meet industry people, journalists, publicists, radio people, etc. who all will be more than willing to share their opinions with you. But if your creative secluded world is sound, you’ll be fine.
Thank you, Keegan. This is exactly what I imagined when I dreamed up this series (in line at the checkout at the Sainsbury’s). I wanted to know how artists fill their well – what sources they draw from to make their art and how they systematically make sure they have stuff to go off of. Keegan’s well is deep, varied and fascinating.
Wild Cub’s new (amazing) album YOUTH is out now in the US & UK.