For our third Artist in Residence interview with Drew Holcomb, we asked the prolifically creative songsmith to pull back the curtain a bit on his songwriting process. From his first foray into writing songs to his proudest lyrical moments to the collaborative writing he did on his newest release Souvenir, our interview follows Holcomb’s songwriting journey from page to stage.
NoiseTrade: Let’s start at the beginning. When did you first begin writing songs, what sparked that pursuit, and do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
Drew Holcomb: I was a junior in college and living abroad in Scotland. I had been playing guitar and singing for years but the solitude I experience there sort of drew out some parts of me towards songwriting that I didn’t know about before that time. I don’t remember the first song I wrote, but I’m sure it was not very good, haha!
NT: What was the first song you wrote that made you feel accomplished and like a legit songwriter? Did it make it to one of your records?
Holcomb: It’s a song called “Long Gone Away” and it is on my first album Washed in Blue which is no longer in print, but I’m still proud of it. I felt that way because I knew I had a complete, complex, emotionally-engaging, melodically-interesting, and vocally-moving song. Putting all the ingredients all together for the first time made my heart burst with joy.
NT: Looking back over your catalog, what are some of the songs or lyrics that stick out to you the most as your proudest songwriting achievements?
Holcomb: For the sake of brevity, I’ll just bring up three, one from each of the latest albums. The first is “New Year,” which is a song about the quickly moving pace of time and the heartbreaks and frustrations along the way. A dear friend and his brother do not speak because of unreconcilable arguments over time. This is a snippet of my thoughts on the tragedy of that.
“We talk about your brother, stories left unheard
You share blood but you don’t share words
Same room on holidays, no apologies
It’s a new year its a new song, its the same mystery”
The second is “American Beauty.” As a songwriter, this is probably my finest moment, the song as a whole. It paints a picture of a woman – a strong, youthful, mysterious woman – and the wake of heartbreak she created.
“A gorgeous vagabond
She was sweet but she was strong
She was an American beauty
She was deja vu
She was a catch-22
She was an American beauty”
Finally, there’s “What Would I Do Without You.” This is me at my most self-reflective. Somehow this song, which I thought would be a deep cut, has become our most popular song.
“The difference between what I’ve said and done
And you’re still standing by my side
A guilty soul and a worried mind
I will never make it, if I’m on my own”
NT: Do you have any cringe-worthy lyrics that you wish you could go back in time and change or do you take them all in stride as part of the long-game creative process?
Holcomb: Not really cringe-worthy but there are moments I think are not awesome and that I wish I had not released. But you take it all in stride for sure. Neil Young says he throws away half his songs. So if that’s the case, I’m in good company.
NT: Do you approach writing a song with band members or co-writers any differently than when you write one on your own? How did that process work out on your most recent Souvenir album?
Holcomb: Collaboration is certainly different than working alone. With Nate and Rich, there are three perspectives and three different musical and emotional intelligences firing at all times. You have to be a lot more patient when co-writing, because everyone needs to be on the same page to keep the song moving in the right direction.
NT: Finally, who are some songwriters that you don’t just enjoy, but truly admire as songwriters and which of their lyrics do you wish you had written yourself?
Holcomb: Thats a long list, but John Prine, Springsteen, Dylan, and Petty all have a dozen songs I wish I had written. I was thinking the other day about powerful single lines. The one I have been thinking on today is “I can’t make you love me, if you don’t.” Short, powerful, and it tells a long heartbreaking story in just nine words. I aspire to that.