This morning I listened to Terry Gross's recent interview with Nick Lowe. It was just before Christmas and Lowe went on Fresh Air to promote his Christmas album Quality Street. Around the 18-minute mark Lowe gives one of the best descriptions of the songwriting process I've ever heard:
I sort of have various theories when people ask me about songwriting, 'cause it is a mystery. You don't really know, sometimes you can do it and sometimes you can't. It's really peculiar. But my latest theory, is it's...I describe it as like being in an apartment with kind of thin walls. And in the apartment next door they've got a radio tuned constantly on, tuned to a really cool radio station. It's on all the time. And you can just hear it coming through the wall all the time.
Then one day they program a new tune and it really catches your ear. You can be doing the washing up or something in your apartment, and suddenly you go "woah what are they playing in there?" And you run to the wall but it's finished. The song's finished. You only heard enough of it just to pique your interest. And you never know when they're gonna play it again, of course, like a normal radio station. So you can be about your business and then on it comes again, and this time you're ready and you've got a wine glass or something and you put the glass up to the wall and you can hear through the wall a little bit more of the song. Maybe just the middle bit this time. You know you manage to get in a little bit of the end.
And so it goes on, until, because you've just go to, you really just want to sing it. You want to sing this song. And so it goes on until, eventually after–or however long it can take, sometimes a few days, sometimes months–you piece the whole thing together. And I think the best songs that come to me are the ones that you sort of listen for, the ones...when I listen to some of my old stuff I can tell when I had a good idea, but I forced it through. And I can hear myself, the bit that I've written, which sounds clunkier than the stuff that just sort of comes. The older I get the more I think it's this listening. You listen for it, and you have a bit of patience, and it'll come until it sounds, to me, the best songs that I've written I think are ones that I can't hear any of myself in it. It sounds like a cover song, like somebody else's song. Really something you've stolen wholesale off a radio that you've listened to in someone else's flat.
Sage advice on how to write a song starts around the 18-minute mark if you're so inclined. Listen to the full interview: