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.
JOSEPH LeMAY is an Americana singer-songwriter based in Nashville. His debut album Seventeen Acres was a stand-out for me last year – an impressive, well-crafted debut. Two years ago, Joseph and his new wife left Nashville for a tiny town in northwest Tennessee to live rent-free in an abandoned trailer on his family’s farm. He waded into his isolation with honesty and nurtured his craft with respect, and his songs really show for that. Learn about Joseph’s methods and see what inspires him after the jump…
1. What is your typical work day?
It all depends on what needs doing. My ideal work day is when there’s no “business” to tend to–no coffee meetings or conference calls, and preferably no social media or email tasks to see to. I’ll wake up around 6am and have coffee with Molly before she leaves for work. I’ll get my head right between 7am and 8am, which usually includes taking the dog on a walk through the woods behind our house. Then, I’ll either work on a new song or demo a tune from yesterday or the day before. Of course, there’s a mandatory run around the yard with Shelly (the dog)/lunch break. Aside from that, a new tune or a new demo can easily take all day. I’ll wrap things up around 4 or 4:30, and transition into family mode.
This all changes if there’s “business” to tend to, which there usually is. This can take a lot of different forms. It may mean I stop writing at 1pm and go meet someone for a lunch meeting. I may have to do some work on my MailChimp account–adding emails, organizing lists. etc. In spring there’s the dreaded receipt box that the Tax-Man requires we feed and organize.
Then there are the weird days where I spend the day measuring and pricing fence materials or researching artful dialogue and character design (AKA binging on Mad Men).
2. What tools do you use to keep you organized and productive?
I’ve used all kinds of different notepad/pen combinations in the hopes that I’ll find the perfect match that will write that perfect song, but I would inevitably forget one or both of them somewhere or accidentally start writing on a hotel notepad instead. I think I used to make it too complicated and psych myself out. You know, “I HAVE to have my red Moleskine for co-writes, and I need to find a cool old fountain pen to keep on my desk so I can write like Stephen Foster would have.” That kind of thing. But I’ve also been too lax with my method. I would end up with all kinds of non-music related notes in my songwriting book and piles of scraps with song ideas littering my bedside. That lack of boundaries between normal life and the muse’s realm was detrimental for me. Now I’m at a middle ground with all that. I have one Moleskine journal that I do all of my writing in. If a lyric idea turns into more than a phrase (a verse or more), it gets it’s own page. Chord progressions usually get there own page too. Single phrases, hooks, concepts, etc. usually organize themselves into lists throughout my notebooks. I use that journal until it’s full. Then, I go buy a new one. I’ve also grown fond of Voice Memos on my phone. I do a lot of solo touring. So, I’ll have long drives where I’ll just hit record and write out loud while I’m driving. I’ve had some cool songs come from that process.
3. Do you have any habits, exercises or activities that jumpstart your creativity?
I have grown very fond of long baths. There’s not much else you can do alone in the bath, but get pruney and think.
4. Are there any specific (or favorite) books, films, lectures, etc. that have impacted your creative process?
Ooh…I don’t know if these works effected my process specifically, but they definitely inspired, elevated my thinking, or kicked my ass into gear: The Universal Mind of Bill Evans (documentary), The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (book), Ken Burns’ Jazz (documentary), Muscle Shoals (documentary), The Sound of Jazz (documentary), and any Mark Twain whether it be biographical commentary or his own work.
5. Where do you get ideas for songs? How do you catalog them?
I’m still figuring this out. It’s too much of a mystery to me to describe just yet.
6. What have you been listening to lately?
I’ve been listening to Billie Holiday’s performances from The Sound of Jazz a lot. Lot’s of Big Star (#1 Record and Radio City mainly). Sticky Fingers by The Rolling Stones. I’ve also been revisiting The Bends by Radiohead and The Rising Tide by Sunny Day Real Estate.
7. Who is your songwriting hero?
The depth of Elliot Smith’s songwriting never stops impressing me.
8. Do you have any advice to offer a new songwriter?
Stop worrying about T-shirts, EPs, logos, and retweets. In fact, stop talking about your songs. Just write. Write for 5 years, then burn all your notebooks. Then, fill another one, and I guarantee it will be the best shit you’ve ever written. Okay, so maybe don’t literally burn them. The point is, let the writing be the reward–not the collateral gains that come with being “the songwriter.” Your process, your time spent in “the zone,” and your relationship with your muse: those are the only rewards worth anything if you ask me.
That last sentence was a zinger! Thank you Joseph! Find him online at josephlemaymusic.com and check out his seriously fantastic album on Spotify.
Bonus question! I love Joseph’s song ‘Seventeen Acres’ so I asked him to go into detail about the song’s evolution. Here’s his reply:
“Seventeen Acres” was one of the first good songs I wrote after we moved to the farm. I was working on two songs that had similar but different 60′s/classic feels harmonically and melodically. I was listening to lots of Otis Redding as well as Bahamas’ second LP Barchords. I was focusing a lot on pairing interesting but simple chord progressions with lyrics that we’re similarly plain spoken yet meaningful (hopefully). So anyways, these two songs came about almost like brothers or something. They share lyrics and have melodies that resemble each other, etc. I’m pretty sure I composed them on the guitar on the couch just out loud kinda on the same day. They ended up being these two love letters. One left on your way out the door and one sent home from the road. Deep expressive letters meant to bolster, remind, reassure…One was “Seventeen Acres”. I stuck to a pretty strict rhyme scheme w the verses. Er in V1, ee in V2, and another ee variation in v3. The bridge has a similar repetitive rhyme scheme as well. (This is all getting a little nerdy and metric. I should clarify that I wasn’t thinking in these terms while writing the song. This is just my objective assessment of my work on this song in retrospect.) Having these repetitive rhymes made it easy to play with meter to find the right lyrics for the story. This kind of freedom can really open up your songs to lots of interesting combinations.