An Excerpt from "Shakey" by Jimmy McDonough
Neil Young has been remarkably consistent on the subject of songwriting over the years: It happens, I don’t understand it, I’m grateful and it’s pretty pointless to talk about it. I pity the poor fool who attempts to crack the meaning of his lyrics as if breaking a code. It can’t be done – not with Young’s help, at least, and he doesn’t care. Although he’d never put it this way, I get the feeling Neil Young views songwriting almost superstitiously, like a conjurer’s gift. Define it – question it – fuck with it too much, and it might just go away.
I don’t feel the need to write a song. it’s not like that It’s almost like the song feels the need for me to write it and I’m just there. It’s not like I’m not doing a job.
Songwriting, for me, is like a release. It’s not a craft. Crafts usually involve a little bit of training and expertise and you draw on your experiences – but if you’re thinking about that while you’re writing, don’t! If I can do it without thinking about, I’m doing it great.
– You’ve written songs that feel well crafted, like you’ve worked at them.
Yeah – and they are the most boring songs that I’ve ever written, probably.
– So you don’t write songs, you just get the fax?
I don’t know how to describe what I do. I’m waiting to see hat I’m gonna do next. That should give you some indication of how much planning goes into it.
– How important are lyrics?
Well, it depends on the song.
– What about an abstract song like “Cowgirl in the Sand?”
The words to “Cowgirl in the Sand” are very important because you can free-associate with them. Some words won’t let you do that, so you’re locked into the specific fuckin’ thing the guy’s singin’ about… This way it could be anything.
The thing is, as long as there’s a thread that carries through it, then when you imagine what it’s about, there’s gonna be a thread that takes you to the end, too. You can follow your thought all the way through if you happen to have one – or if you don’t, your realize it doesn’t matter.
– Do all the songs you write make sense to you?
No. That’s not a requirement. It doesn’t have to make sense, just give you a feeling. You get a feeling from something that doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t make sense – it kind of gives you a sense. Like “Last Trip to Tulsa” or “Rapid Transit” don’t make a lotta sense. Some do, some don’t. It’s not important to me.
– So are your songs autobiographical?
It’s not about information. The song is not meant for them to think about me. The song is meant for people to think about themselves.
The specifics of what songs are about are not necessarily constructive of relevant. Songs come from a source and the source may be several… It could give credence to the theory of reincarnation, where you’ve been a lotta different places but obviously you haven’t. What the fuck am I doing writing about Aztecs in “Cortez the Killer” like I was there, wandering around? ‘Cause I only read about it in a few books. A lotta the shit I just made up because it came to me.
– And you were open enough to receive it?
Yea… I believed in myself enough to let it come in.
– Does believing in yourself have a lot to do with writing songs?
I don’t know. Did Kurt Cobain believe in himself?
– How does stream of consciousness work in your writing?
If it’s a steady stream of consciousness for me, and I can follow the picture all the way through, you can just go smoothly through it on another level. You’re listening to the sound of the words and the pictures and the melody – and they go together. It transcends any one of the elements – so y'know, you just keep going. You’re not thinking about this word or that word, you just get a big blur of images. That’ll happen with me when I’m singing the song and I’m seeing some image that’s unrelated to the words – seemingly unrelated. If i see it and keep seeing it, y'know, the next time I sing it, it may come back. Keeps coming back for years sometimes, a little glimmer of something. If that happens with me, then I think that everybody is gonna have their own identifying place with the song that’s gonna carry them all the way through, too, and they’re gonna think I’m singing directly to them.
– Any songs of yours cut the closest?
– Not “Will to Love”?
It was a good song, but its weakness is it was a one-shot deal. I mean, that was it. I can’t even sing it. I can’t remember it. I can’t remember the melody. I can’t even… that’s perfect. To have it like that – so every verse is different and it’s all just comin’ out. It’s real good to get it like that. But uh… I don’t think that’s the only one – several have that vibe… “Goin’ Back” is one of my all-time favorites.
– Did smoking pot have an effect on your writing?
Yea… I was just writing, I don’t know if it had to do with smoking any grass or not smoking any grass. I don’t think it mattered, but it had an effect, yea. What it was I don’t know. 'Cause I can write both ways. Y'know, I can write in a car, I can write while I’m asleep. And all of a sudden I’ve got a melody or words or both – the whole fuckin’ thing.
– Do you have a policy on song editing?
Well, try not to edit. Sometimes you write too much. You take a verse out, whatever. The time to edit is the only important thing. Try not to judge and edit yourself unless you’ve completely finished what you’ve done. Because to start second-guessing yourself as it’s coming out of you, you’re going to jam it up and it’s not gonna come out. Thinking in songs – that’s where it gets lost. Either playing it or writing it.
– Has your writing changed over the years?
I think it has – it’s the same basic kind of writing… it’s evolved. I’ve gotten more sure of things. Less thinking.
–Ever think you’re guilty of preaching in your songs?
Probably I am – but I’m preaching to myself. Ya gotta remember that. The person that I talk to in my songs is mostly me. When I say, “You gotta blah, blah, blah,” I’m talkin’ to myself.
– Are you preaching in “Throw Your Hatred Down”?
I don’t think I’m preaching. I’m reflecting. Maybe talkin’ to myself – I dunno. I hate to take responsibility for every word that I say.
– Francis Bacon once said, “I can’t be held responsible for the products of my subconscious.”
I agree with that. That’s what art’s all about – if you wanna get it out there. Well, I think that applies to songwriting, but it doesn’t apply to life. I’m not sure how far that goes.
– More than a few of your songs mean completely different things to different people.
Open ambiguity. It’s not stated, it’s understood. Something’s there that’s understood, but you can’t put your finger on it. It’s a feeling you have that “Yes, I’m not hearing it all, but I can put it together from what I’m getting.” Y'know what I mean? So that’s part of what happens in my writing naturally. I think that’s my style. What comes out of me is full of those things – where you leave out the connection and assume that the person knows the connection just subliminally. Just keep on goin’. Leave out key words and stuff and it still makes perfect sense – but it doesn’t mean literally what it means … if you read it out word by word, it means one thing, but if you say it all in a line, it means something else – that’s what I think songwriting is. That’s the mystery. The mystery of art.