Name: Dan Whitaker
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current Release: Dan Whitaker’s current release, One More Story Told is available from Empty Highway.
If you enjoyed this Dan Whitaker interview, his website is the ideal place to start your journey into his world. You can also find him on Facebook, twitter, Soundcloud, and bandcamp.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
Most songs I write are due to naturally occurring events. I may be strumming a guitar or perhaps playing on a piano and I’ll start improvising without thinking too much about it. After a while I’ll recognize that the theme I’m playing is something new and then try to elaborate on it. Another common way I come up with something new is I hear it in a dream. If I can wake myself up I’ll record that bit on my phone before I forget and go back to sleep.
I’d say most of my songs are started in fragments that I build upon later. Words generally come later for me after I’ve lived with the melody for a while, long enough to let that sink into my memory. Personal relationships, politics, random observations, movies, conversations, emails, news stories can all inspire me to write lyrics.
Sometimes I’ll just be in an emotional state where I can tell I have something weighing on me that needs to come out lyrically. My song "One More Story Told" is a good example of this.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
I generally don’t need a concrete idea to start a song if I’m writing the music first, which is generally the case for me. I like to let the melody sink in and then play with a few rhymes to get going lyrically. Often these early lyric lines will be entirely thrown out once I zero in on a theme.
So I’m moving from blurry to clear as the song is developed with chance playing a greater role than planning.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
Any early versions of my songs are just unfinished songs. I do change lyric lines sometimes after I start rehearsing the song if I feel I’m missing the theme or perhaps a rhyme is clumsy or cliche.
For the most part I’ll keep revisiting a song in the writing process until all the verses are completed. At that point I consider the song ready to rehearse where I can see if all the parts are working as I intended in the writing process.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
I don't have any rituals to get into the mood. At most maybe a hit of pot is all that is needed to get me going creatively. It also helps if I’m not being bothered by any obligations and I have a block of time for myself.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
I usually start with a couple of chords over a basic melody line and build from there. I’ll start singing gibberish over that bit and hope for some words to pop out of it. This may work or it may not.
If I get stuck I’ll shelve the tune until I look at it again. Sometimes I won’t get back to it for weeks, months or years. In my song "Lying to Myself" I expand upon the theme of writer’s block and allowing creativity and success to come naturally.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
I’ve written a few songs with other people where they gave me lyrics and I put a song together from those words, possibly editing them for best fit. But generally the words start flowing once I have at least a melody for the tune. I guess I try to tap into my subconscious for the lyrics after humming along with the music.
Often a couple words will steer me down a path towards a theme. Sometimes that path is a dead end so I’ll need to shelve the song or start over with a few new words, or maybe even change the melody so I can get something new flowing. I do think the mood of the melody or chords I have can bring to mind a corresponding mood for the lyrics.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
Good lyrics should be original and descriptive, and they should bring to mind something universal and personal to the listener. Ideally I think a listener should feel that they can relate to the song so that it could apply to them in some way. That may be a fantasy or something much more close to reality.
Whatever the case, if listeners can connect with your lyrics then you have done your job as a songwriter.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I tend to follow things as they lead me in the songwriting process.
There’s a fine line between forcing and flowing that I don’t want to cross. For me lyric writing is tied very closely to rhyme schemes. For a particular verse I may have a rhyme that works with my theme or not. If it doesn’t work I’ll try a different rhyme which may alter the course of the song.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
I think the creative state is just a place of calmness where I can reflect or be open to “the muse” in whatever direction it takes me. I need a time and space where I’m not being distracted with work or communications.
I do think that a dream state is the best way to directly tap into that flow, but that is dependent on lucidity so that you can remember what’s going on and transfer that to your waking consciousness. "I Want to Be With You" is a song of mine that originated in a dream.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
I don’t think there is an end to the process as long as the writer is still alive and kicking. I still change lines or chords here and there even if I’ve already recorded the song. I may record it again or just perform the newest version live. But I would say the song is mostly done if I bring it to the band to practice. After that I’m in the tinkering stage where if I do make a change it’s fairly minor.
For example, for "Broken Song" on my new album I changed the music intro as well as the words of the first verse from the original version I recorded on the Great Plains Gypsies’ Meeting at the Building.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
Mastering is something best left for experts, but I do feel that I should be involved in the production and mixing of my works. Unless I had complete trust in the individual in their creative decisions and I wasn’t concerned about cost or possibly redoing what they did on their own I think I would need to be involved.
For example, on my latest album I played pedal steel over overdubs on many of the tracks and after I listened to the rough mixes I made detailed notes on the pieces I wanted to keep and the parts I wanted to edit out.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
I wouldn’t describe this feeling as emptiness, but rather a separate period of work that must be done to get your music out to the public. There’s a time for everything and those different periods happen naturally. I don't have a problem not writing for a period of time, and sometimes I feel the time away from the creative songwriting process gives me a new perspective about new works.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
I don’t think learning a craft is that similar to songwriting in terms of creativity. Songwriting is more similar to painting or creative writing than something like being able to fry bacon perfectly. You can write about anything in a song. There is no limit other than the length of time it would take to perform the song.
Being able to directly tap into people’s emotions is probably the difference between songwriting and crafts.