I’ve been enjoying reading the transcript of an older interview (June 2011) with Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon on the Pitchfork website. Vernon is a singer/songwriter I have a lot of respect for. He puts a lot of thought into the music he writes, and in particular the lyrics.
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I thought I’d post three of his comments here, as I think they’re really important for those who are trying to find a way to write more powerful songs, ones that really make a statement. I’ve shared my own thoughts on each of his comments:
On Musical Beauty:
“When I made [the album] ‘For Emma’, it was my last chance to see if I could sit down and make something, for myself, that was beautiful.”
I like that statement because it reminds me that when all is said and done, no matter who you’re writing your songs for, you’re always writing them for yourself.
On How the Songwriter as a Singer Guides the Process:
“Bob Dylan wrote good words, but the underrated thing about why he is one of the best, if not the best, songwriter is that his words always sounded good with his voice.”
When you write a song, you’re usually writing with your own voice in mind, and in that sense, your own voice is an important part of the decision-making process with regard to chord choice, melody, and the basic intensity of the song.
On How Songwriting is Basically the Sculpting of Sound:
“I don’t find inspiration by just sitting down with a guitar anymore. I lost that. I started being so interested in other kinds of music, and allowing influences that I’ve always listened to– from Bruce Hornsby to Charlie Mingus– to come into the fold. I was exploring what about those records sounded good to me.”
In this part of the interview he was making the case for allowing yourself to be inspired by the work of others. The musicians he mentions are only tangentially related to the kind of music Vernon writes, but his point is important: while it’s true that we find inspiration in our own hard work, it’s also true that we can get inspired by other writers’ hard work. That requires listening, and absorbing ideas wherever we find them.
And as a final comment, I like what Vernon says about being true to who you are as a songwriter:
“You never have to be scared about who you are. You never have to be scared to look to the future for opportunity. You never have to change your scene because you’re always comfortable with evolving. It’s about the opportunity to never have to worry about being something someone expects you to be– you just have to be who you are.”