Did the Willie Nelson hit, Nothing I Can Do About It Now, come next?
Fred Foster was producing Willie, and Willie was going through a divorce and a few other things and needed some songs. Fred told me that Willie liked Strong Enough To Bend and would I write a song for him. He gave me three months to write it. I thought of the title first, Nothing I Can Do About It Now, which sounded like the perfect Willie Nelson title. The world can be falling apart and he is saying, “Hey, I am doing the best I can.” It had a friendly tone and it seemed that everybody I ran to was saying that phrase. I kept hoping that nobody would say, “That’s a great title, I think I will write that.” In fact, Don Schlitz would say to me, “Be careful how you write your songs. You can’t copyright a title and if you are writing a song with a great title, bear in mind that somebody else may be writing a song with the same title, and yours had better be the better one.”
I gave the song a train beat rhythm like On The Road Again but it was hard work as I had to rhyme “now” in every verse. There is brow, how, vow, wow, I didn’t even use wow. I had 20 pages of rewrites and I grew as a lyricist. I finished it at 1am and Fred was flying to Austin at 6am. I met him at the airport in my slippers and my robe and handed him the demo. The following night we got a call from Austin. It was Willie and he said, “Come on and play guitar on it.” Within 24 hours, I was sitting with Willie Nelson in the Cut’n’Putt studio which is in the middle of a golf course, and I was watching him with that guitar with the hole in it. They kicked off the song and played it once. The drummer changed the feel to a shuffle. I thought they were just running it down and Willie would say, “Let’s listen to the demo again.” Instead, he said, “That’s great, let’s go to lunch.” I said, “I think Paul might have played it like a shuffle.” Willie goes, “Paul, did you play that like a shuffle?” He said, “Yes, I did.” Willie said, “That’s what I thought too. Let’s go to lunch.” That was it. The farther up the chart it went, the more it sounded like the perfect way to do the song and it went to No.l. He did If My World Didn’t Have You on the same album and on the next he did, Ain’t Necessarily So, which was also a single. I have told I am available for co-writes but his songs come through so purely that I don’t think he does much co-writing.
Never mind, you’ve written with quite a few of your heroes.
Well, I’ve not written with Willie but I have worked with Waylon. Waylon was so funny and so entertaining to be around, and I had a lovely time with Hal David last summer and we wrote three songs together. I was very nervous of being with Neil Diamond. I thought, “How can I write with Neil Diamond, I will have to do this perfectly.” I teach songwriting and I forgot everything that I taught because my ego took over, “Let’s not make a mistake and make a really good impression” and so on. As soon as that is going on, your creative energy goes out of the window. If the ego gets into your head and makes too much noise, you are in trouble. I said, “Neil, I’m sorry. I’m not normally this halting, but you’re Neil Diamond.” He said, “How do you think I feel? Every time I write a song I have to live with being Neil Diamond.”
Come on, he’s not all that great – “And no one spoke at all, not even the chair.”
Yeah, but that to me is a mystery song lyric. That is a weird song and I should have asked him about it. I did ask Jimmy Webb about the “sweet green icing flowing down”, and he said, “No, no, I’m not going into that.” I try to make sense with my lyrics, I don’t like these opaque lyrics which can mean four things and it depends on what you had for breakfast. Songs are about communicating something but it doesn’t mean that you have to be dead on it. Paul Simon wrote, “She wore diamonds on the soles of her shoes”, but who cares what that means? The feeling is so strong that it transcends the literal meaning of the words. The melody of MacArthur Park is so ridiculously good that Richard Harris could be reading the phone book. It is a rare exception where the sound of the melody with those words is the thing. There is a feeling of angst in there, “Ah, my sweet beautiful thing is melting.” It contains disappointment and despair and it is a great song.
What makes you want to write a song with anybody else when you can write both words and music, or do you have half-written songs that they could help you complete?
The songs that I write by myself tend to be very different and some of my best songs have been co-written and so I am hooked on that. One of the reasons I co-write is to hang out with people I admire. I never imagined that I would meet Neil Diamond or Bonnie Raitt or Harlan Howard. I sang Time Won’t Tell last night which is on the Look album as someone called it out. Harlan wrote incredible songs like Heartaches By The Number and I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail and I loved to write him as he was a powerhouse writer.
Didn’t he write his songs in the bar?
Not really. He would meet you to write at 9.30 and promptly at 11.30, it would be time to “go drink lunch”. The first time I wrote with him I had to get a friend to pick me up. (Laughs) I never drink during the day and he was going, “You gotta have one of these, it is a White Russian, you gotta try it.” Okay, what the heck? Melanie, his wife, was a smart, wonderful woman. She would call the bar and have the bartender give him the lightest possible amount of alcohol. He would stay until 4 in the afternoon so he had to pace himself.
Could he write drunk or sober?
I don’t think he wrote a lot when he moved into the lunch part of the day but he wrote so well before that that he had usually finished a song. I walked in and I said, “I have got this title and I have got this melody and you have to got to write it with me.” We roared through it for two hours and then it was time to drink lunch. He thought it was finished, but I said, “No, no, we have to write this extra little verse” and he was going, “No, we’ve got to go.” I was forcing him to stay longer and at 2.30, his wife Melanie came in and said, “Harlan, are you okay?” He said, “She’s giving me a hard time, Melanie.” Maybe I did, but we got a great song. He rang me when I was touring in the UK and he said, “What are you and Nanci Griffith doing out there touring? You get your butts home and write some songs for other people.” I really miss him.
So co-writing is an adventure.
Usually. I will write with somebody I admire or somebody I meet and have a good feeling about. It doesn’t matter whether they are well known or not: I will write with them if they have got something that I resonate with. The other kind of writing is with young writers who are very much in development. Most of the time I don’t take a piece of the song. I do a song doctor thing, I will say, “That verse is great and the next one needs to be that good.” I love to give people direction as I have had people do that for me and that is an important part of your development as a writer.
Have any of these new writers come really good?
My son. (Laughs) I have been working on him since he was 12. He’s 26 and he is just finishing his first record. He is writing for himself as an artist and he is very talented. Watching him develop is very exciting for me.
You lost your husband over 10 years ago. Was he in the business too?
Ernest was a counsellor and he ran a group home for adolescents when I first met him in Mobile. When we moved to Nashville in ’85, he continued with a private practice, but he started doing some publishing for me when he became ill. He had a tremendous influence on my development as a writer. He was a very talented writer and a poet and he was very astute and well read. It was putting my stuff through his sieve. When our son was born in 1981, I had decided that I would not be a songwriter as I had lost my record deal with Capitol. I went into this huge denial of my core and it was a dark night of the soul. At the same time, I was a young mother and having an incredibly good time having a baby. All my creative energy went into making fun things for my baby. I was sculpturing with Plato and was making these tiny little heads and I was becoming a visual artist, except Plato doesn’t last long. I can remember my husband coming into the kitchen at 3am and I was working on a nose and he said, “Honey, you really need to be writing songs as this is getting ridiculous.” I started crying and for the first six months, my writing was very jerky and it was as though I had lost the muscle. It is like being a runner. People who have never written a song can try it and say, “That sucks, I am not cut out for this.” Really, you have to give yourself a year and be very kind to yourself. Give yourself that gift of showing up with the idea of creating something. My workshops on creativity are open to everyone, it is not just about being a songwriter and making money: it is about being a person and realising what is inside of you. It is wonderful watching people’s pilot lights going on. They will be going, “Okay, I can do that.” It’s in the same way that exercise is great for nearly everyone who does it. Of course, I never get to the gym, but time to reflect or to mediate is essential and so many people forget about these parts of themselves and they are limping along in their lives. They are not happy and they don’t know why. I don’t get enough sleep, I don’t eat the right foods and I don’t exercise but I know that being creative is just as important as breathing air and drinking water.
Did you know shortly after he died that you wanted to write about it and hence the album Sand And Water?
I am going to sound like some mystical woo-woo person but most of the songs on Sand And Water I wrote half or two-thirds of them before we even knew he was ill. He said that No One Knows But You sounded like somebody was leaving me or going to die. I said, “I know and maybe it is because my parents are getting older.” I had two verses of Seven Shades Of Blue and he said, “I love that song. It is like a Bob Dylan song.” We had no idea about some of the lines in that song. It says, “In the hollow of your shoulder, There’s a tidepool of my tears, Where the waves came crashing over, And the shoreline disappears.” It is about being in a sorrowful place and not knowing where it is going and you can’t even see the horizon. Six months later, we were in the middle of dealing with his diagnosis. He was given a couple of months to live as his cancer was very advanced and there was a moment when I was leaning against him and crying into this hollow. I had the startling feeling that this is what the song was about. He went through 18 months of treatment and he did well for a while and we were both very hopeful. It was an incredibly tense period and the songs were getting finished all through that. I remember writing the last verse to Seven Shades Of Blue just weeks before he passed away. He wanted to have his ashes scattered in the Gulf of Mexico and I wrote this verse, “The whales will steal my laughter and the birds will sing my song, And I’ll be happy ever after, And the world will get along.” I thought it was perfect but he said, “You have got to change that song. I don’t know whether I’ll be happy ever after. I am not happy about this, I would rather stay here.” I said, “Okay but I’m writing the song.” So it became ‘”I’ll be OK forever after”, and when I sing that song, I get a smile on my face as he was very opinionated right out to when he was “stepping out upon the shore”.
My son was 12 at the time and when I got breast cancer, my son was 19 and that was a very different kind of grieving all over again. I could understand what chemotherapy felt like, how it felt to have your hair fall out, and to my son, it was a huge journey as he was reliving the stuff he had put in the back of his mind. We had some very difficult times during my treatment but as I got well and got my energy back, it turned out that going through breast cancer was one of the most healing things that we could have done together. Last night I sang Emily which is a very emotional song about loss and the audience was moved to tears and I said, “Okay, we will do Happy Girl now but isn’t it good to cry?” When you get grief going ,you can pick up all the threads of that extra stuff that you haven’t dealt with. You don’t really have to cry about what you’re crying about, you can go, “There was that time when…” By going through breast cancer, I went through a lot about my husband’s death and I was more okay with it than I was before I had breast cancer. My cancer is cured now and I am happily engaged to a wonderful man and richness is all around me, and I see the world in a different way.
That album has helped a lot of people to come to terms with grief, notably Elton John.
Oh, that was a tremendous honour and I am very aware that when these songs come through us, they can be deeply universal. Elton John had a huge impact on me as a songwriter. He has written so many songs that are universal, so to have him choose that song of mine, from artist to artist, is an incredible honour. His reasons for not singing Candle In The Wind were very honourable as he wanted to keep it special, and so he sang my song about loss instead.