The Writer’s Block: Phillip Peterson on Songwriting, Creating and Avoiding Writer’s Block
Phillip Peterson has a lot to say. Especially when it comes to the idea of ââWriter’s Block.
The extremely accomplished musician, songwriter and producer has worked with renowned artists such as Macklemore, Taylor Swift, Lorde, A $ AP Rocky, Ed Sheeran, Portugal. Man and many others. How did he do it? In – in his own words – not being “valuable” about his work.
Peterson’s advice? Write, create, run and post it or throw it away or do something other than sit on it. In other words, don’t have a closet full of dresses from last year.
We caught up with Peterson to ask him questions about his career, his writing process, his thoughts on Writer’s Block, and the idea that you have to live every song you sing.
American songwriter: How did you get started writing songs?
Phillip Peterson: I always wanted to be a composer when I was a child. I grew up in a musical family, mainly around classical music. Beginning very early on the cello and the piano, I was able to understand the bass line, the orientation of the notes, the pitch, the melody, the harmony, the phrasing, the structure of the chords, the whole. I’ve always been in quartets, Pep Bands, Jazz Bands, orchestras, rock bands with friends, so my exposure to great writing was there before I started my own material.
AS: What do you think goes into writing a hit song?
PP: A good musical composition requires a lack of preciousness. Tell a story that others will understand. Make people feel something, by sharing the emotions you have felt with strangers who can relate to and relate to that feeling. Fight vehemently to keep your ears fresh. I always tell my collaborators that if you listen to it more than three times you play with it, more than 10 times and you should be done for the day, you’ve lost your taste level.
Take lots of breaks and keep your perspective fresh. Listen to something similar, listen to something opposite. Overwork and overthinking will only make your song more boring. If you need to add 1 million things to make your song work, it might not be a song.
AS: Have you ever experienced Writer’s Block and how did you overcome it?
PP: Writer’s Block happens when artists don’t have an established process. You have to know how to start, and how to fail, and learn from the result. If you have writer’s block, you’re thinking too hard. Don’t be precious. Do stuff and throw it away. Or release it. No matter. It’s just paint on a canvas. I once made a joke about chicken sandwiches. We finished it in 20 minutes and published it in a few days. Popeye found the outing on his own, mistook it for a radio commercial and we were paid well for the time we spent on it.
There are so many ways to get around an obstacle. Writer’s Block plays into this definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. You don’t have to hit your toe on the same obstacle. In a video game, if you can’t get into the door that is locked, you don’t just knock on the door, you are going to defeat the level boss who then gives you the key to the door.
Writer’s Block is a choice. Who can say how much you are supposed to produce? There is no designated amount of productivity that all of us are meant to have when it comes to creative endeavors. If you don’t feel like writing, there are a lot of writers. Stop, get away from the people that’s got somewhere to be. Or better yet, facilitate someone else’s idea.
AS: Is there that on / off switch when you tap into someone else’s story for a song. I’m sure you can tackle more universal themes, but how do you connect when it’s something deeper and more personal for this artist?
PP: How does an actor play a character? It is a double standard in the music industry that a storyteller should have lived through every detail of the story. It’s part of what really kills artists. Can’t the story be told from the perspective of an untrustworthy narrator? Like a great actor would, embody the story, embody the character. Of course, drawing on your own personal experience helps. Most of us have certainly experienced a wide range of emotions. Find them and exploit them.
AS: How do songs generally fit together for you?
PP: There is no formula. it starts with a spark: a great story, a melodic hook, a lyrical turn of phrase or a punchline, a great verse, an inspirational dripping groove. Once you have one of these things, you start to find the other gems that are right for you.
AS: When you work with other artists, what’s that spark, or the moment when you know it’s gonna be a great session or a great song?
PP: We know it’s good when we collectively recognize one of those elements: a great story, a melodic hook, a lyrical turn of phrase or a punchline, a great verse, a groove that drips with inspiration. This is another reason for collaborating, because it’s much easier to tell if your ideas are working when everyone in the room is all feeling it. It always works by teleworking, it is the comings and goings that feed the fire.
AS: Is it difficult to give up a song?
PP: No. It’s hard to hang on to a song and not want it in the universe. It is torture to cling to unpublished finished material. There will never be a perfect version of your song. But the worst version of your song is the unreleased version of your song. A good song can be played on a guitar, piano, banjo, glockenspiel or cutting board, or a plethora of other mediums. This is one of the tests.
If someone can’t cover your song on the instrument of their choice, you probably don’t have a song. If you have a good song, other people should be able to pull it out of the sky and send it back to you. To finish with a work of art is an arbitrary thing. A work of art is potentially never finished. The perfect is the enemy of the beautiful.
AS: What’s the hardest part for you when it comes to staying motivated to keep practicing and writing?
PP: Supporting myself financially and being in a creative headspace aren’t always compatible. Restlessness can stifle inspiration just as much as it can drive it. I try to put myself in a place where I don’t care about day-to-day survival stuff, and I can have room in my psyche for creativity. The hungry artist mentality is not sustainable. If you can get out of survival mode, your outlook really improves. And then on the other hand, there are always moments of real difficulty that can also make a poignant story. So yeah, surviving is the hardest part anyway.
AS: Are you looking to break into new genres or are you happy where you are?
PP: I don’t write with a genre in mind. Gender is a tool for marketing and public relations to sell products. I don’t care about doing their job for them. Why would I limit my ideas? My favorite artists push the boundaries. All genres have good music and bad music. We are now in a global creative community. Throw away the rule books.
AS: What advice would you share with songwriters who are just starting out in the business, or who are already working in the ranks?
PP: To make friends. Collaborate. Share your toys. The spoiled child plays alone in the sandbox while all the other children have fun in the other sandbox. If you think you can do it all on your own, you are not giving the universe a chance to help you. Share material that other people have worked on with you. If you hang on to it, you not only harm yourself, but you insult everyone who has touched on your project. No one wants to be last year’s dress.
If I’m working on something with you take it out as soon as you can while the art is fresh don’t let it be last year’s dress it’s just embarrassing. Don’t be afraid of all the horror stories so much that it inhibits your ability to break bread. I have been ripped off a lot, but I don’t let myself be bothered. More than not, when I put my neck out, I make stronger and deeper relationships. Also, when I put my neck outside, it’s easier to see when the snakes are showing their fangs. They can’t help it, and it becomes easy to know who to trust.
AS: What was the biggest turning point in taking your composition to the next level?
PP: I’m pretty sure I’m turning this corner right now. But I think I feel it perpetually. I certainly haven’t peaked in my career. In fact, I am underutilized, especially locally.
I wrote music for a church in what seems like a past life, it was pretty easy to see what worked and what didn’t depending on attendance. I learned a lot from this about how to write in a meaningful way so that people can choose a melody in the air.
AS: What are your most significant achievements today, according to you?
PP: I have been fortunate enough to play platinum records from A $ AP Rocky, Taylor Swift, Lorde, Ed Sheeran, Owl City, Pink, Trey Songz, Benny Blanco, Maroon 5, Gym Class Heroes and other hits. like Kesha, St. Vincent, Haim, Mastodon, Lupe Fiasco, Flo Rida, Ryan Beatty, Juice Wrld, Cashmere Cat.
My group Tennis Pro made a movie in Tokyo called Big in Japan, which premiered at SXSW in 2014. After that we played film festivals in many beautiful places including the Bahamas and Sayulita in Mexico. Recently I produced Tennis Pro songs for Blender Studio’s new animation on YouTube, Fear of Sprites, currently at 1.4 million views since Halloween. Joining Nada Surf on Conan and Leno was amazing. I think of BB King and hanging out in his motorhome, he was very sweet and quick as a whip.
Right now I’m very excited to write and record with PNW artists including Acid Tongue, Nobi, Ryan Lewis, Calvin Valentine, Parisalexa, Elan Wright, Budo, Buddy Ross, Torin Frost, Haley Graves, Mark Diamond, Fluencie, Anna Thompson, Cervantes, Versona, Otys, Nightcallers, Rachael Gold, River of Dust, Thavoron, King Youngblood, Ivy Bona and Macklemore.
Photo courtesy of Phillip Peterson