The seven recording artists who gathered Nov. 11 for THR‘s Songwriter Roundtable — Jack Antonoff, 34 (“Alfie’s Song (Not So Typical Love Song)” from Love, Simon); David Crosby, 77 (“Home Free” from Little Pink House); Kesha, 31 (“Here Comes the Change” from On the Basis of Sex); Tim McGraw, 51 (“Gravity” from Free Solo); Boots Riley, 47 (the soundtrack for Sorry to Bother You, which he also wrote and directed); Mark Ronson, 43 (“Shallow” from A Star Is Born) and Diane Warren, 62 (“I’ll Fight” from the doc RBG) — span genres and generations, but these musicians, who penned some of awards season’s strongest song contenders, have plenty in common. In their lively discussion (condensed and edited here), they explored why songwriting is so scary and how to tackle politics with their art. Says Crosby, “I don’t think we should lose track of the fact that we want to make people feel good.”
What’s the first song you wrote?
TIM MCGRAW I grew up in a little town — Start, Louisiana — just cotton farming and bean farming, been driving a tractor my whole life. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but it was when Princess Diana and Charles got married. I just fell in love with her like everybody else did. So I sat down and wrote a song about their wedding and how beautiful she was. I don’t remember how it goes, I just remember something about “You look so much like a queen” or something like that. It was terrible.
KESHA That’s neat. I was 12, and it was about champagne. (Laughter.) I had no idea what champagne tasted like, but I was singing about that.
BOOTS RILEY I was writing the school play and I didn’t rap or anything, but it was requested that we do an East Oakland version of West Side Story with raps in it instead of songs. What’s the song they sing, “To be in America” or something?
MARK RONSON (Singing) “I like to be in America …”
RILEY Yeah, so I wrote a rap version of that, thinking this is going to be terrible. And it was terrible. But nobody booed, so I was like, “Maybe I could rap!”
DAVID CROSBY Yeah, well, when your ego’s involved you want to be good. And in the bands that I was in — not now, I’m in a cooperative band now — but I was in a very competitive band, so we were always trying to top each other. Frantically trying to make the songs be as good as we possibly could
RILEY Did that make the songs better than in your cooperative situation?
CROSBY Competitive winds up at war, collaborative winds up in a symphony orchestra. When I was a little kid, I saw a symphony orchestra and it stuck in me, the power of the whole thing — all those elbows moving at the same time, cooperating to make one thing.
DIANE WARREN Kind of like the government. (Laughter.)
CROSBY No! Kind of like what the government is supposed to be.
Let’s talk about the writing process. Do you get writer’s block? What do you do if a song just isn’t working?
WARREN I don’t get writer’s block a lot. I write by myself most of the time, basically all the time, and everything will be really easy and then one little piece will be so hard. I’ll spend two days on two lines. But if I believe in a song, I just have to walk away for a minute.
RILEY I have to walk away to something else creative. If I walk away and just, like, take a break, I always have to relearn how to write songs every time I start back up. Somewhere halfway through writing the song, I’m like, “Oh, yeah, this is what I do.”
RONSON Going into a first day of a new project for me is like a terrible first day of school — you just feel like, “Oh, this is going to be the one everyone remembers and finds out I’m a fraud.” Then you sit down and over a day or two days you’re like, “OK, something’s coming back.”
JACK ANTONOFF But I think you don’t get good at it. People think that songwriters get good at songwriting; I think you just sort of do it.
WARREN You do get better.
MCGRAW But it’s not linear.
ANTONOFF One thing I’ve been obsessed with lately is it does go away. It’s not an endless well. I think all writers know that.
RILEY But life is infinite so there’s always something to write about that you didn’t think about.
MCGRAW It could be like luck — you have luck and then one day you wake up and you just don’t have luck anymore. It just goes away.
ANTONOFF Songwriters do this fascinating thing where they have one foot in and one foot out, which is why I think a lot of songwriters have tough personal lives. Having half of your mind or body not in reality because you’re putting it in this file cabinet, it’s fuckin’ great for songwriting but …
RILEY Bad for life experience.
CROSBY I started out writing by myself. And recently, in the last four years, I’ve been writing almost constantly with other people because the other guy always thinks of something I didn’t. It’s as if you had two painters and they each had a palette. And this guy has seven colors and [the other] guy has seven colors. Put them together, you’ve got 14 colors and this better painting.
RONSON My thing is basically purely collaborative because I rarely sit down and write by myself at the piano. Usually I’m producing an artist and sometimes you’re there to give a lot of the song, sometimes you’re there just to help with a few lyrics, be a bouncing board, give a few chords, help finish the next line. Luckily, for better or for worse, the best songs come when you’re going through a trying time. That’s what I find. And in that place, whether it’s like an Amy Winehouse or whoever it is, I get to sort of tap into their well of giant emotion for a little while. And sometimes it’s not even fair because I’m going along for the ride on their horrible, tragic life.
In the movie industry, movies go through test screenings to get feedback on what works and what doesn’t. Who do you first show a song to? Who do you need that feedback from?
CROSBY My wife, Jan. I’ve been married to her for 41 years and part of my writing process is: We eat dinner together as a family, and then I go in the bedroom and make a fire and then I smoke a joint and then I take a guitar off the wall and then I play. And that’s one of the only things pot’s any good for is you get hung up playing. She’s there and so as I’m fooling around and finding melodies and sets of changes and stuff, she’s sitting right there and she will take her phone if it gets good — that’s how I know I’m pleasing her and I’m coming up with something good — the phone will slide out from underneath the pillow. She’ll just sort of tuck it in, get it over next to me.
Will she tell you if something’s not working or is no good?
MCGRAW Mine will.
WARREN It’s always good to have someone to tell you something sucks. There’s somebody that I work with, Julie, that I’ve worked with for a long time that I’ll play something, she’s like “Nope.” It’s good to have those people.
MCGRAW Most of the group of people I go to are not in the music industry at all.
ANTONOFF Yeah, because other songwriters have too much baggage.
CROSBY I think it’s absolutely crucial that you have people that you will sing stuff to that are not afraid of you and will be critical to you and you can trust that. Because I know, I can think of at least one really perfect example of somebody who doesn’t have anybody near them that doesn’t work for them.
KESHA My mom tells me everything. I send it all to her and she’ll just be like …
WARREN Is she brutal?
KESHA Oh she’s so brutal. She’ll be like, “This is terrible, this sucks, you’re trying way too hard.” I’ll be like, “Oh fuck, she’s right.” She’s always right.
RILEY I also take my stuff to Best Buy and Target and just play it and walk into the other aisle and the see if anybody’s bobbin’ their head.
KESHA That is such a good idea. I’m gonna borrow that.
Mark, you worked on Lady Gaga’s album Joanne — how did you and Gaga come up with this stripped-down version of her for A Star Is Born?
RONSON We were probably lucky that we had worked on Joanne and broken some ground where she was ready to go somewhere very personal when we wrote “Shallow.” If it was a regular songwriting session, we had just met the day before, I don’t know if we would’ve tapped into that. She was obviously writing as [her character] Ally, but you can’t help but tap into your own emotion. Everybody’s shit and life experience and trials and tribulations is kind of being channeled in that song, but for this one person to sing in the film. We imagined it was the end credits song. We had no idea it was going to become part of the narrative.
Jack, coming-of-age romance movies often are known for these iconic soundtrack moments. Did you consider that when writing for Love, Simon?
ANTONOFF I had never done a soundtrack before, I had only done songs — and I believe so much in soundtracks. In my generation Reality Bites was really big, and when I hear any of those songs I still go right to the film. I love John Hughes. He was a big part of my life growing up. I grew up in a real suburban environment and kind of had to dream about a lot of things and not really experience, like there wasn’t a lot of drugs or sex or anything. And I always felt that John Hughes and those songs spoke to that, and spoke to me. So when I started talking about the soundtrack, you spend a lot of years of your life not being invited, right? And then if you have any success you start getting invited [to do soundtracks] and you have to start asking yourself, “Can I actually help here or do I just wanna do this?”
MCGRAW “Has my ambition outstretched my talent?”
ANTONOFF Yeah, totally. Because even the film is dicey — this idea of an LGBT love story rocketed into the mainstream. It could go so wrong or so right. It could really be this gross corporate spin, or it could be beautiful. And I found it to be totally beautiful, and it felt like a modern John Hughes movie. I just wanted to write songs from the perspective of me growing up and being in high school, thinking that my life was going to continue to be extremely unimportant by my standards, which I think is how most people feel. And although I didn’t have the experience of the main character, I wanted to write the soundtrack because I did have the experience of just feeling like shit at that point in my life. And that’s really what the film is about. And I think that’s why it’s progressive is because it’s the gay story that has nothing to do with gayness; it has to do with …
Kesha and Diane, you both wrote songs for films about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. How did you approach writing for such an icon?
WARREN I wanted to write a song that could be her theme because she is a fighter. She speaks so softly but she is louder than anybody, what she has to say and what she stands for, which is us. But when I write a song for this or when I write a song for any movie, I want it to live out. Obviously first and foremost it has to live for the movie and be Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s theme song, but I want it to be also outside the movie, where you could be saying that to your friends, you could be saying it to your kids.
KESHA I’ve never written a song for a movie before, so I went and saw the movie, and it was kind of daunting because it was supposed to be the end credit song. After you watch what she’s done for women, I felt even more overwhelmed and I was like, “Oh, shit, this is a big task.” I had three hours in the studio and I left for a tour the next day. So we went in, and we just fucked about for like 20 minutes. Because it’s a period movie, we wanted the song to feel that it could’ve been from the ’50s, it could’ve been from the ’70s or it could be current. It was very much inspired by Bob Dylan, which I think if you listen to it, it’s obvious.
Artists are often influenced by the current political climate. How is that inspiring your work?
CROSBY Here’s how I feel about it: I think that is part of our job. It comes from the troubadours in Middle Ages Europe, the people who carried news from town to town, they were the media. That has descended to us, to the singer-songwriters, as part of our job. This is a crucial point: It’s only part. Our main job is to make you boogie, our main job is to take you on a little emotional voyage.
MCGRAW Make you feel good.
CROSBY Tell you stories.
KESHA And entertain.
CROSBY Music is a lifting force. It makes things better.
ANTONOFF Everything is inherently political, so sometimes being less on the nose — like, if you put out a song that, as you would say, makes you boogie, that’s political right now because that’s in the face of what’s happening.
CROSBY Being directly political is appropriate sometimes. If they start shooting children at Kent State, you should write about it.
RILEY Every piece of art and everything we say is political because, to use a well-worn analogy, if you were a singer in Nazi Germany and your thing was “Let’s all party,” that would be a political statement because you are ignoring everything. But what music does, what art does, is it’s like people yelling at the stars and saying, “We are here, this moment is happening!” It’s a way for the listener and the artist to be engaged with the world, engaged with the universe, and feel this moment more.
RONSON You can only write what genuinely comes out of you. I am probably the only person here who is not really a lyricist. I write music, so I try and let my politics [speak in other ways], whether it’s supporting Swing Left or whatever it is — that’s what I can do. I’m sort of envious of what you guys have been able to do. I just try and find my way in.
KESHA Sounds can be really punk rock and political also, just sonically. It’s not as obvious as words, but when you hear an insane bass sound, for instance, that can be really moving, at least to me.
RILEY The Dead Kennedys broke up because they were trying to use “Holiday in Cambodia” for a Volkswagen commercial and [Jello Biafra] didn’t want all the meaning taken out of that. Now whatever your stance is on that, the point is that if rebellion is only aesthetic, then that aesthetic won’t be rebellious for long because that aesthetic gets consumed and used.
ANTONOFF That’s what we’re in now. You turn on the TV and every commercial is so absurdly woke. And on the one hand it’s incredible, but on the other hand there’s a part of you that’s still like, “You guys didn’t give a shit until it became part of a moneymaking machine.”
How has music saved each of you?
KESHA Music is something that almost gets channeled through me. I will just be asleep or in the shower and have an idea. And all of a sudden I go into a panic and I start yelling, “It’s an emergency situation,” and everybody in my house just knows to give me a tape recorder or a piece of paper. And after I write, it feels so cathartic. And I love knowing that as a woman I can be self-sufficient. Something nobody can ever take away from me is my ability to write. That makes me feel safe.
MCGRAW In a literal sense, it saved me because I was getting an eviction notice from my apartment and I got my first royalty check pretty much within the same week. But in a broader sense, everything good that has happened to me in my life has come from music. I met my wife [Faith Hill] through it, which was the first turning point in my life into a real understanding of what love is and finding out who you are in a lot of ways and discovering the bad sides of yourself and the good sides of yourself. And music is such therapy. Especially if you grew up in a dysfunctional environment, to have that as a tool that you can go to is something that I’m always grateful for. Or I try to be grateful, I’m not always — because it can go away. You can wake up one morning and, like you said, your magic is gone.
CROSBY I’m not gonna worry about it. It could happen, but I can’t think about it. But cathartic. Exactly the word. You get to look at parts of your life and things that you’re going through in a way that we couldn’t otherwise. I love that about it.
WARREN Music saves you, but it’s saving other people too. I get notes from people — like, literally songs can save your life. People wanted to kill themselves and they … somehow a song you wrote in your little room just saved someone’s life. So what we do is really important.
RONSON I really don’t go to happy music. If I’m in a depressed state, I want to listen to sad songs. I want to feel like someone understands me.
CROSBY Listen to the blues, it’s good for ya.
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.