Ethan Johns has produced records for Ryan Adams, Kings of Leon, Ray LaMontagne, and Counting Crows. Here, he talks about what he has learned about songwriting from being around such respected writers.
Given the amazing songwriters you’ve worked with, I’ll bet you’ve been able to catch a glimpse into their process. Have you learned anything about writing songs from them?
Well, you’re always learning about songwriting, I think. You’re always learning from everybody you work with. I’m still learning so much from the people I work with.
I think the biggest period of time for me that really opened my eyes to the craft of great songwriting was when I moved out to L.A. for the second time, I met a guy named Jon Brion, who I’m sure you know of, and we became really good friends. After a couple of years — his best friend was Mark Flanagan, who owns and runs Largo — that crowd, through Jon and Flanny, had attracted a tremendous collection of songwriters. Like, Aimee Mann was a regular in that crowd, Elliott Smith was a regular in that crowd. And Jon was also an incredibly accomplished writer, as well. So hanging out with those guys regularly… There was an open house at Jon’s every Sunday, it was a potluck and you’d bring food or whatever. And it was an incredible collection of people. Really interesting writers, too. There were a lot of comedians hanging out at the same time. Really, really good, artistic people. And also Rufus Wainwright was another guy who was kind of on the periphery of that scene. When you hang out with guys like that socially and in an environment like that, inevitably you start to talk about process.
I think the most important thing that I learned during that period of time was not to edit yourself. Obviously you hear about guys like Roald Dahl, who had a daily regimen where they would write everyday. It wouldn’t matter what they were doing; they’d sit down for a set amount of time and they would write sides. The crucial thing was to open the gate. It didn’t matter how uninspired you were; you had to sit down and write sides, and out of that you then edit. I think if there was one thing that I learned about writing that has probably been the most beneficial thing to me… Because I would constantly kind of hang myself up; I’d get stuck on a line and would dwell for half an hour on a word. And you’re blocking your flow, then, by trying to find the perfect word. And sometimes you need to take a step back and look at the broader picture and just let things flow a little bit. And you might end up with three or four verses that all lead you to the perfect word you that you’re looking for. But in the process you may find a road from A to B that you didn’t necessarily know was there. So you can go back and edit. That was crucial. A lot of those guys have that in their process. So that was crucial. And doing it everyday, as well, was fascinating, which is sadly something I haven’t built into my daily routine, mainly because I work so much on other people’s records.I tend to really only give myself to one thing at a time. That’s just the way I am. It’s all or nothing with me. So, yeah yeah, I mean talk about lucky, man. To be hanging out with guys like Jon Brion…
Read the full interview here.