Welcome back to Part 7 of the interview with Michael Peterson. Here he talks about where he gets inspiration for his songs.
HitSongTips.com: You’ve had hits as an artist, but you’ve also had cuts as a songwriter. Your songs have been recorded by artists like Travis Tritt, Timothy B. Schmidt (The Eagles), Ty Herndon, The Imperials, John Berry, and Deniece “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” Williams. We’ve talked a lot about being a songwriter. So, do you consider yourself more of a songwriter or a recording artist or both?
Peterson: I’m an artist. Painters paint. And an artist will paint sometimes with other people’s paint, but they always use their own canvas. I’m trying to make painting as a metaphor. Being an artist means being a creator. Today, I might be creating a song that I’m writing. Or today, I might be creating my version of another writer’s song. I really see myself more as an artist. I don’t see the writing as being separate from the artist because the definition of artistry is creativity. You’re creating something whether all the pieces that you have been using on a given day to communicate are drawn from your own hand or reinterpreted from someone else’s hand.
HitSongTips.com: Where do you feel that your songs come from?
Peterson: Life experiences. And the habits that develop to look for the songs. I think those are two very different things, but they work hand in glove. We all live on the same planet and we share more of the same experiences in common- than not. So, why is it that some people see and feel the urge to express as an art form what they’re experiencing, while others don’t? That’s that inner calling that you can’t necessarily quantify or hold in your hand or prove how it got there. That’s the urge to do that. But what supports that over the long haul are the habits that you develop. I’ve had a lifetime of caring enough about it to nurture it. That has resulted in these songs showing up. When you ask me where do the songs come from- they come from paying attention to life, having a desire to express what you’re experiencing, supported by the habits.
There have been some seasons where my habits lapsed, and looking back, I missed what I think were good ideas. People say when you show up to write, how do you know what to write about? Do you just wait to be inspired? Well, yeah, I wait to be inspired every single day. I consider that part of the writing process, even if I didn’t sit down with a pen and a guitar in my hand.
Sometimes songwriting means reading a book. I just finished reading a book full of quotes cover to cover, Uncle John’s Bathroom Book. I read it as an exercise to get myself more tuned up to playing with words, and saying meaningful things, and saying it with brevity. Somebody said that’s not songwriting. Well, for me it is! It’s all contributing to a certain kind of energy that I’m feeling. I have an intention that will show up as a real, quality, crafted, piece of work. That’s part of the habits that you develop. Ultimately, without those habits being exercised, you might drift away and not be that way anymore. It’s not a given that I’m going to do this. You have to nurture it like anything else. If you let it go, you might just find one day that you haven’t done it for a long time, and…
C.S. Lewis said an amazing thing and I paraphrase here: If you want to get warm, you’ve got to get near the fire. If you want to get wet, you’ve got to stay near the river.
I think that same way creatively. That’s why developing the habits and caring enough to nurture those habits (is so important). That way when you show up for a writing appointment and somebody says what do you want to write about, you’re not going to stare at ceiling and say, I don’t know, I don’t have anything to write about. I show up at every writing appointment with dozens of ideas that I’ve collected that interest me, that I think might be interesting to my co-writer. Or, if I’m just going to write by myself, I never have to wait to be inspired. Every day I conspire to look for something that was inspiring to me. If I couldn’t write it today, I collected it. Then I was able to come back to a file full of things that inspired me.
There was a great quote, I don’t know who said it: A publisher is looking for someone who has something to say. Why would you sign a writer who had nothing to say? A writer’s job is to be inspired. Certainly don’t wait for it to hit you like a lightning bolt. What are we going to write about? (Imitates two songwriters talking) Well, I have no idea. I’m not really inspired by anything. (laughs)
HitSongTips.com: I keep a ‘hook book’ that’s full of titles and ideas. And I’ll show up with half songs, which often become whole songs with my co-writers.
Peterson: Me too. I would suspect a lot of writers do the same thing.
HitSongTips.com: I think non-writers have a funny notion that, especially in Nashville, two writers show up with yellow pads, and pencils, and no ideas whatsoever. Suddenly, they write the song in three hours. Next they get it cut instantly.
Peterson: Then here comes the million-dollar check, you know. (laughs)
Continued next week…