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Darrell Scott On The Dignity Of Songwriting

Darrell Scott will perform at the Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine on Sunday, July 21.

The Nashville-based musician has written songs that have been covered by the Dixie Chicks, Brad Paisley, Keb Mo and Faith Hill in addition to an ever-growing collection of albums released under his own name. In 2010, he appeared on Robert Plant’s Band of Joy album and was a member of the former Led Zeppelin vocalist’s touring band over the following year.

Scott recently spoke with KMUW about his earliest writing experiences, the power of poetry and isolation in creativity.

Interview Highlights

How did you start writing songs?

I grew up in a musical family. My dad wrote songs. Never professionally. But that was how he expressed himself. I’d hear him writing in the other room. I also had an older brother who wrote. We all played in a family band. I started writing when I was 12. It was a natural thing to do.

I started writing songs the way a young person might write in their journal. Very personal stuff. I didn’t want anybody to know about it. The way I got found out in the family was that my brother got ahold of one of my lyrics. I guess I left it out. He thought it was my dad’s lyric, so he put a tune to it and played it for my dad. He said, “I didn’t write that.”

I was in the other room and had to come out and confess that it was my lyric.

Were you afraid?

I was. Imagine being 12 or 14 and somebody in your family finds your journal with all your little secrets of your world and your poetry and all the inner workings of yourself. Now, they’re reading it aloud. You’d feel found out and maybe not be happy about it. They’re passing your journal around at the dinner table. I didn’t want my family to know that I wrote. The other side of that was, “Here’s another writer in the family.”

I was private with my songs for a long time after that. I’m still private with songs. For example, I refuse to play a song to anyone that’s not finished. If I’m writing with someone I might show them something unfinished but normally no one hears stuff that I’m working on until I figure that the song is ready for outside ears.

Do you have to go away from your house or have a place in your house that you’re just isolated in?

To me, the writing process is, for the most part—and there are some exceptions—about isolation. It is about getting quiet, having the world around you as quiet as you can get it. It’s an inward journey. You go in and then, through whatever goes on during that inward time, after you finish, there’s an outward journey. “Now it’s ready for someone else’s ears.”

That’s when I’m ready to play it for the people I play music with or a publisher or an audience. All of that. It is an isolation practice at first. The exception is when I’m co-writing with somebody. Even then it’s an isolated room with two or three of us in it. You work in a bubble, come out of it, and you’re ready to play it for others or start performing it.

When you finish a song, do you have a sense of, “I don’t know what the next one is going to be but I know there will be a next one”?

I do have that faith. It’s a walking faith. I’m waiting for the next one but I’m not anxious, especially at this age or this many years of doing it. It doesn’t bring anxiety to me if I don’t have one. When a song comes and taps me on the shoulder I’ll be the first one to know. I will know what to do when that comes and that’s about following the inspiration. Seeing where it takes me.

Do you give yourself challenges? I don’t mean tricks, like, “I’m going to write a song about a dog,” but, “I haven’t written about this topic before” or “I haven’t written this kind of song”?

I wait for the inspiration and the inspiration may have that thing I’ve never worked on before, or that subject I never wrestled with before. There have been times, on the front end, where I’ve done tricks. That’s not a bad word for what we’re trying to do in those cases and that’s trying to find a way to bring songs out. I think tricks are fair game.

There some tricks I’ve used a lot: I’ll start something on a guitar, I’m in the song a third of the way through or half and then I’ll switch the instrument just to give myself a new perspective on the same thing. The same song. The same melody. Everything. But I want to see if it gives me a different point of view in the change from guitar to piano or to mandolin to banjo or electric guitar to acoustic guitar.

I put that under the subject of tricks as well, just trying to see the work in a different light.

You write songs on a broad range of topics. Did you know that you’d go down that road from the start? That you’d write songs about more than love, that there’d be family and work and all of that?

I definitely started writing love songs. Probably because I’d grown up on radio and that seemed to be the body of what was on radio. Then I went to college. I went a little late. I started when I was 23 and finished around 28. I majored in English and exposed myself to poetry workshops and poetry readings and theatre. It was stuff I was not aware of before then and certainly had never studied. That made the difference.

When I discovered that poets were writing about anything and everything and in any style, that it was all wide open, I thought, “Why can’t songs have that wide open thing?” My songs changed from that point forward. They were more free, they weren’t just radio-minded. They weren’t just love songs or love-gone-wrong songs.

I really started writing about the bigger world that I saw. I was also a more mature person. I had more living experience in me and it was important to write about family and my growing up. It was important to write about the world or the country or political stuff.

I was also a fan of some of the greatest songwriters on earth. Leonard Cohen, Guy Clark, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne. Paul Simon. James Taylor. Greats. That was the kind of thing that I wanted to do.

Were there were particular poets that were exciting for you?

Walt Whitman was one of those. I couldn’t believe how modern he sounded. Reading his poems in the ‘80s was like reading a contemporary poet. It was an eye-opening experience. I was also lucky enough to study with Philip Levine. He was the poet-in-residence when I was at Tufts.

We hit it off very well. He comes from a working class background. He wrote beautifully about that and everything else too. I come from that working class background too. My dad was a factory worker, steel mill worker, built cars in Detroit. All that stuff.

I saw Philip as this amazing writer. He was probably one of my key figures. There was Levine at the front of the class. I took independent studies with him and heard him read. That was very influential. He wasn’t a high and lofty poet. It wasn’t about poetry being this precious, untouchable thing that was only for academics. He was a workingman’s poet. That made a huge impression on me.

How did you feel when people started cutting songs that you’d written?

When you get a Nashville publishing deal, the goal is to get people to record your songs and make money for the publisher. I never wanted that pressure to change what I was writing. The biggest trick I had was, “How can I keep them off my back and be true to my muse or true to my expression?” It took a while for people to start recording my songs. Eight to 10 years, easily, before that really started happening.

I don’t think it changed my writing but it very easily can if all you’re looking at is the marketplace. But I had people around me who knew about this kind of stuff. Levine was a strong character, Guy Clark. A very important writer and man who understood the dignity of being a Nashville songwriter as opposed to the comedy of being a Nashville songwriter.

When you hear a lot of songs on country music radio, you could ask, “What’s the big deal about that song?” It’s one of the reasons why thousands feel that they could write a radio song. Because they probably could!

[Laughs.]

I decided to write from the place I wanted and see if the marketplace would come toward it. And they did. It took a while. Eventually Nashville learns what a person does and then they come to accept that and whenever they need or want whatever it is that writer brings they might know where to look.

You’ve also worked as a studio musician and toured with Robert Plant’s Band of Joy. I would have to think gigs like that have their own reward. You don’t have to be the guy in the spotlight all the time.

I’m a smorgasbord guy. I want variety of all kinds. I want my next song to be its own thing, not a repeat of what I’ve already done. I know there’s a bigger world out there and I want a part of it sometimes. The Robert Plant thing? How could you not play with Robert? I played on the album and Robert wanted us on the road. I loved playing and singing with the other folks too. I want a lot of experiences. That’s what that’s about.