He’s a artistic guy. Aback he’s not autograph songs and authoritative records, he’s about active painting. “When I accomplishment a painting,” he says, “I about-face it adjoin the wall.” He’s abundant the aforementioned about his songwriting-he brand to address songs, but he doesn’t decidedly adore talking about them. Regardless, he fabricated an barring for us and batten at breadth about the conception of his words and music.
His is a atypical career; starting as a accompanist singing added people’s music, he acquired into an ingeniously agitating and exultant songwriter, affairs added than 40 actor albums and accepting 11 Grammy nominations.
He was built-in on October 7, 1951 in Seymour, Ind. Like abounding of America’s abundant songwriters (Lennon, Simon, Springsteen, Berry, Nyro and abounding others) he’s a Libra, built-in with an congenital allowance for acclimation two disparate elements. In his case, and that of the added songwriters, these arise to be the aerial elements of words and music.
As a jailbait he played in several bedrock bands. “Some bodies go to a bar one night a week, maybe two,” he says during our contempo interview. “I was in a bar every night arena with a band.” He was the singer, and sing he did, alike afterwards arena guitar. “I was a Bob Dylan jukebox,” he says. “I could comedy every Bob Dylan song.”
In 1975, he confused to New York with the aim of authoritative a active as a musician. By the abutting year, he had landed a almanac deal, but his managers absitively they had to cast him into a altered anatomy and renamed him “Johnny Cougar.” The anthology that was arise was alleged Chestnut Street Incident, and it consisted of added people’s songs. His additional album, The Kid Inside, additionally consisted of covers but was never released. He was alone from the characterization and anon active with another, which arise an anthology alleged A Biography. It did little to acquaint Johnny Cougar to the world.
But it all confused aback his abutting anthology was released, at which time he started autograph his own songs. His aboriginal hit, which was additionally a hit for Pat Benatar, was “I Need A Lover.” Afterward that, he formed with the allegorical artist Steve Cropper, who produced Mellencamp’s abutting album, Nothin’ Matters And What If It Did-which began to prove to the apple that this man was added than a pop singer. He was a bona-fide singer/songwriter. He afresh went out on bout with a host of bands, including KISS and the Kinks.
By 1982, he was autograph the almanac that would put him over the top in agreement of accurate popularity. The anthology was alleged American Fool, and it included two massive hits, “Jack and Diane” and “Hurts So Good,” both of which are discussed in the afterward interview.
In 1983 came Uh-Huh, which independent huge hits such as “Pink Houses.” By this time he was no best Johnny Cougar, as he re-embraced his accurate character and became John Cougar Mellencamp. In 1985, acutely acquainted of the plight of American farmers, he not alone founded Farm Aid with Willie Nelson, but he put their bind into art and conceived the seminal anthology Scarecrow. He advised himself an American troubadour, as he says in the following, but with folk songs that could be translated into pop-rock songs with the accession of bedrock instruments. He alleged it “folk music with a bedrock boom beat.”
A assumption of able albums followed, including The Lonesome Jubilee (1987), which soared to the top of the charts, galvanized by abrasive songs such as “Paper In Fire”-featuring some of the best afire violin arena anytime to be captured on a pop record. Big Daddy, absolute the archetypal afflictive cut “Jackie Brown,” came in 1989-and afresh his aboriginal anthology in 1991 as John Mellencamp, Whenever We Wanted-energized by the hit distinct “Get A Leg Up.” Two years afterwards he alternate with the adept Human Wheels, which was aggressive by his activity with new wife Elaine. And in 1994, he recorded a admirable affiliation with the conspicuously soulful MeShell NdegeOcello for his Dance Naked album. NdegeOcello sang and played bass on the Van Morrison gem “Wild Night,” which became an immense hit and one of VH-1’s best played videos.
Mellencamp took a breach from the carelessness of the music apple to retreat into a adored Midwest activity with his wife-a aperture that was reflected in his abutting album, Mr. Adored Go Lucky (released in 1996, featuring “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)” and added abundant songs). Mercury arise two added albums, The Best That I Could Do (1978-1988), a fractional career retrospective, and Rough Harvest, an accession of unreleased songs.
Moving to Columbia Records, he delivered his aboriginal self-titled anthology in 1998, John Mellencamp, followed by Cuttin’ Heads in 2001, which included the effectively admirable “Peaceful World.” Trouble No Added followed in 2003.
Now we’re adored with a massive 2-CD accumulating alleged Words & Music: John Mellencamp’s Greatest Hits. It contains 22 of his Top-40 pop hits to date, as able-bodied as two new songs-“Walk Tall” and “Thank You” (which he produced with Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds). “I’m on accommodation now to Island/Def Jam Records,” he says happily. “And the guy who owns it, L.A. Reid, is a guy I love. He’s the aboriginal almanac aggregation admiral that I absolutely accept account for. He’s a musician, and he absolutely understands the artistic process…because he’s a artistic guy.”
Our account with Mellencamp was delayed a few hours because, according to his publicist, he was “stuck on line.” But he wasn’t on his computer, rather, he was physically cat-and-mouse in bandage to vote-as this was November 2, acclamation day. Alone canicule earlier, he was out arena and advancement for what he believed in: “to accomplish this a added advanced country than the one we are active in now.”
But now he’s home in Bloomington, Oh., the baby boondocks he’s articulate and accounting about and area he still lives with his family. He’s currently autograph a agreeable with Stephen King, accepting completed about bisected a dozen songs for it. Alleged The Mississippi Ghost Brothers, it takes abode both in the 40s and present day, and is about a ancestors that goes aback to its apparitional summer home. And it’s “home” area our altercation commenced.
Did you abound up in a agreeable home?
Yes. My grandmother could comedy piano, cord instruments and she could sing. It was all Appalachian blazon stuff. And I had an beforehand brother who played guitar and was in the choir. I was apparent to a lot of music. My dad is alone 20 years beforehand than me. Aback I was a kid, he was into folk music. We had Odetta annal about the house. I admired folk music-from Peter, Paul & Mary to Woody Guthrie.
When you started autograph songs, you already had a almanac deal?
Yeah. Isn’t that wild? That’s why my aboriginal songs are so crummy. [Laughter]
You were John Cougar then?
That was put on me by some manager. I went to New York and everybody said, “You complete like a hillbilly.” And I said, “Well, I am.” So that’s area he came up with that name. I was absolutely blind of it until it showed up on the anthology jacket. Aback I objected it to it, he said, “Well, either you’re activity to go for it, or we’re not activity to put the almanac out.” So that was what I had to do…but I anticipation the name was appealing silly.
When you started autograph your own songs, were your managers accept with that idea?
Yeah, I anticipate so. There were consistently managers absent to put their two cents in. But afterwards that Johnny Cougar debacle, I appealing abundant alone about aggregate they anytime said. You know, I’ve consistently been an outsider. I’ve never absolutely been allotment of any New York-hip or L.A.-cool scene. I’ve consistently been from the Midwest. I’ve backward actuality and done things the way I’ve capital to do them. I listened to bodies aback I had to sometimes, but about I aloof did things the way I capital to do them. I wrote a song alleged “Minutes to Memories” a few years ago that says, “I do things my way and I pay an clumsily aerial price.” And I still feel that way.
When you started autograph songs, did it arise calmly to you?
No. Listen to my beforehand records. You know, it takes a actuality a continued time to acquisition his voice. I consistently curiosity at guys whose aboriginal annal are so well-written and so able-bodied done. Booty Elvis Costello’s aboriginal record. How did he do that?
Yes. Or John Prine.
Yeah, John Prine’s aboriginal record. How did that happen? So, for me, I was singing in bars. I was 14-years old, arena at academy fraternities. I was singing Sam & Dave. I was the accompanist in the band.
Once you started autograph songs, did you address a lot?
I had to, because I had a almanac deal. I was in a bandage and arena in bedfast aback I aboriginal got a almanac deal, so my acquaintance of the apple in my mid-20s was actuality in bedfast all the time. We played 365 canicule a year.
Did you apprentice a lot about songwriting from arena all those covers?
I didn’t at the time. But attractive aback at it, I see that I did.
How did you apprentice to write? Was it balloon and error?
Trial by fire. [Laughs] Already I started autograph songs, and already I begin my voice, I knew what I had to do. I saw myself as an American songwriter in the accompanist fashion; it’s aloof that I happened to accept a bedrock bandage abaft me. But if you’d heard my songs aback they were originally written, they were aloof brittle folk songs.
Do you address words and music together?
Yes. Generally. I address the melody and the lyrics and the accent all at the aforementioned time. It aloof happens. And afresh sometimes I’ll go aback and rewrite. Sometimes I don’t.
So about you will get an absolute song all at once?
Sure. Not often. Best of the time.
Are those the best songs-the ones that arise all at once?
Generally-speaking. But there are holes in those songs. I’ll apprehend a song I wrote abounding years ago alleged “Pink Houses” on the radio, and I’ll think, “Man, I ambition I would accept spent a little added time on the aftermost verse.” I never absolutely appearance my songs as done. I aloof anticipate they’re abandoned. You think, ‘Okay, well, I’m in the flat now, and now it’s time to anticipate about what the guitar amateur is activity to do, and what the bass amateur is activity to do, and what the drummer’s activity to do.’ So already you get to that point, the song is appealing abundant abandoned. You’ve got to be able to cycle with what these musicians try to do with the song.
Nowadays, do you address songs all the time?
Once you alpha autograph songs, you address all the time. Everything’s a song now. It’s aloof a bulk of attractive out my window. I won’t alike appetite to write, but I’ll anticipate of a acceptable idea, and I bigger get that down. And all of a sudden, I’ll accept two or three verses in my head, and I’ll anticipate I accept to put these bottomward on paper…because if I don’t, I’ll balloon them appealing soon. I accept to say that I accept to address ten songs to get one acceptable one. I’ll address ten, fifteen songs, and there won’t be a acceptable one in the bunch.
Do you accomplishment those, alike if you don’t anticipate they’re acceptable ones?
I get to a point area I can see if they’re activity to assignment or not.
How abundant do you accept to address to accomplish that judgment?
A ballad and a chorus. The aboriginal ballad and the aboriginal choir consistently arise accessible to me. But afresh it’s area the song goes that I consistently alpha to accomplish missteps. I booty it in the amiss administration or get too accurate about something. So it’s adamantine to address in a ambiguous manner, but still be poignant. It’s actual adamantine to do.
I’ve never absolutely enjoyed accepting too specific about topics. I consistently feel you accept to be a absolutely abundant songwriter to get specific and allure the acuteness of the listener. That’s an absurd task. There’s alone a brace of guys who can do that. It’s important for me to accumulate it vague, so that aback bodies apprehend it, they are able to put themselves central the song. I try to accomplish my songs not about me as abundant as possible.
You’ve accounting some effectively specific, anecdotal adventure songs like “Jack and Diane.”
Well, they’re not adventure songs as abundant as vignette songs. I’ll go from vignette to vignette in a song and afresh tie it calm with a chorus. But a lot of times my songs arise out on the affronted side, or the bleak side, or the craggly side, until you get to the end of them…and afresh I’ll try to address something, in the end, that gives achievement to the situation. Never try to acknowledgment any questions-only ask questions.
In “Jack and Diane” you sing, “Here’s a little ditty…” But it’s added than a ditty.
From the angle of a adolescent man in his late-20s, aback I wrote that song, it was such a baby story. It wasn’t as abundant about the song. It was the characters. They were aloof so average. So the chat “ditty” aloof seemed appropriate. Alike as you said it, it still does to me.
That song became a big hit, as accept so abounding of your songs. Does it change your activity about a song if it becomes a hit?
No, not really. Sometimes I’m aghast that some songs [that I anticipation were bigger than hits], bodies weren’t able to lock on to. But I don’t absolutely accept animosity about songs the way some bodies do. You know, I paint. And I do the aforementioned things with the paintings. I adore creating them, and I adore alive on them, and I adore the problems that they actualize for me to solve. But already I’ve done that, and alone it, afresh I’m done with it. It’s on to the abutting painting. Or it’s on to the abutting song. It’s on to the abutting affair to try to create. It makes things bearable…doing that. Hanging on to a song like “Jack and Diane,” I absolutely don’t booty a smidgen of pride in that I’ve accounting that. I don’t booty pride in the actuality that one song was able to ascend the archive and one song wasn’t. I booty pride in the actuality that I was able to actualize these songs. That seems to be added important than the actuality that this song was a hit or that song was a hit.
Do you anticipate of a appellation afore autograph a song?
Very rarely. Generally, the appellation comes afterwards the song has been written, and sometimes alike afterwards the song has been recorded. I don’t adhere abundant accent in a name.
It seems that sometimes a song is based about the title, such as “Paper In Fire.”
A song like “Paper In Fire”…I didn’t absolutely accept to appellation the song, it blue-blooded itself. That was the alone logical, artistic choice. There’s annihilation abroad to alarm that song.
When you say that a song titles itself, is songwriting added a adjustment of afterward a song than arch it?
Oh yeah. I never try to advance a song in a specific direction. Because afresh you alpha alteration yourself. And I do do that, and I anticipate every songwriter apparently does that. But, that makes activity a lot harder…when you alpha alteration yourself. The best conception is aback you’re chargeless with it and it becomes what it becomes. I apperceive in my paintings, if I activity over it too much, it gets ugly.
But with painting, you can actualize it afterwards any accurate ideas. Is that a altered action than creating songs, area you accept to accord with exact thoughts?
You’re still ambidextrous with reality. There are assertive things that accept to arise in a painting. It’s like a language. If you don’t use that accent on the canvas, it won’t work…it won’t attending right. Afresh you apprehend you approved to abstain that allotment of the painting action and approved to booty a short-cut that didn’t work. And you accept to accord with it.
Does music arise calmly to you?
Melodies are actual simple for me. I, for some reason, accept an absolute bulk of melodies in my head. I actual rarely feel that I am repeating myself. A lot of the active curve on my annal are curve I’ve accustomed the musicians to play. Authoritative up melodies is the simplest affair for me to do.
Do you arise up with melodies in your head, or on a guitar?
In my head. Then, I accept musicians amount them out. That’s aback I bandy the guitar away. I don’t like actuality bedfast to an instrument. I’ll sing a melody-and the violinist or the guitar amateur or the piano player, or all of them-will amount out that bandage and advice anniversary other.
Many songwriters address melodies generated by ambit progressions they comedy on guitar or piano…
Well you accept to chase a melody central the ambit progression, so the ambit progression can behest which administration the melody goes. But there are so abounding addendum that can go into a D-chord. It’s bottomless how abounding addendum will assignment central that chord. I never anticipate about that. I never anticipate of the algebraic of it.
Yes, the math. Music is math. There are so abounding beats in a measure. It’s all algebraic aback you get appropriate bottomward to it. Music is a algebraic problem. And I never, never try to attending at the algebraic of a song until the song is over. And afresh I adjudge if the algebraic is correct. In abounding of my songs, I accept awash so abounding lyrics into a melody and into a admeasurement that mathematically it doesn’t work. Ah, but it does assignment if the abutting bandage doesn’t chase that cadence. There are so abounding things you can do. And I try to do it added from feel than from the algebraic point.
What affectionate of feel are you activity for?
That depends on anniversary song. Anniversary song has a altered accent and a altered beat and a altered message, so anniversary song dictates that feel. If you booty a song like “Walk Tall” (the new single), aback I comedy it acoustically, it’s a folk song-in the attitude of Woody Guthrie. But I knew appropriate abroad that I capital to accept an r&b feel for that song. I played it for Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, who’s a absolute r&b guy. I said, “Listen to this song, and see what affectionate of r&b feel you can put to it.” I anticipate I played one ballad and one choir and he had already arise up with the feel. And that happened within, no exaggeration, thirty abnormal of him audition the song. He hadn’t alike heard me comedy the song once, and he was already arena that accent adjoin my folk rhythm. So I looked at him at that point and said, “I’ll see you in Indiana in a few weeks.”
Where do you anticipate your account for songs arise from?
I aloof attending out the window and they arise to me. I see myself in the old attitude of the troubadour. I apprehend the papers. I watch the news. I allocution to people. I’m aggressive by those things. There are so abounding things to address about. Anyone could be a songwriter. I could alpha autograph today, and address two or three songs a day for the blow of my life, and still never run out of material.
Can a song accommodate any content?
Sure. If it’s any acceptable is questionable. That’s the botheration best bodies accept aback they alpha autograph songs. They apprehend to address at the akin of songs that they’ve heard on the radio. But that’s all magic. Aback I started writing, I didn’t apperceive how bewitched “Highway 61” was. How do you attempt with that aback you’re 22-years old and aggravating to address songs? You can’t. There’s aloof so abundant that you can’t alike attempt with. It’s like putting a grade-school football aggregation adjoin the NFL champions. It’s not activity to work. There’s no akin arena acreage for the songwriter.
How does a songwriter ability that magic?
He has to acquisition his own voice. And that takes a continued time. I adore guys like Elvis Costello, who begin his own articulation [early in his career]. Some songwriters stop at a assertive point and don’t accumulate activity forward. Elvis Costello was able to accumulate affective forward. He ability be the best songwriter of all of us guys who started out in the 70s. But aback you put addition up adjoin Bob Dylan, he is the alone singer/songwriter. With Bob, it’s God’s apperception to Bob’s fingers. There’s aloof cipher else. You know, I asked Bob how he did it. And he aloof looked at me and said, “I address the aforementioned four songs every time I write.” [Laughs]
I adulation your song “Human Wheels.”
That song was co-written with George Green. That was the acclaim from his grandfather’s funeral. He didn’t intend for me to use those lyrics as a song. He apprehend them to me, and I said, “George, accelerate those over to me…I’m activity to put music to those…those are so beautiful.” I wrote that song afterwards a guitar or anything. I aloof sang that melody. I ample out the accent in my head, and afresh I went to my guitar to amount out the chords.
Where do acceptable melodies arise from?
With me, and I don’t beggarly to arise smug, it’s innate. I’m aloof able to do it. It’s article I’ve never struggled with. The accomplished point is autograph simple melodies that bodies can sing alternating with. That’s what Lennon and McCartney were able to do. That’s what Hank Williams was able to do. That’s what John Fogerty was able to do. That’s what Bob Dylan was able to do. I mean, “Stuck central of Mobile”…how adamantine is that to sing? It’s not. It has aloof abundant movement that it creates this admirable melody. Or “Knocking On Heaven’s Door.” His melodies are so beautiful.
Is the melody added important than the words?
I would say probably…to the accepted public…it is. It’s not to me. I anticipate to your accidental music listener, they accept to chronicle to the melody or they’re never activity to get the words.
You’ve talked about autograph ambiguous songs, yet you’re accounting abounding specific songs, such as “Jackie Brown.”
When I’m autograph songs like that, the melody absolutely has to be beautiful. I anticipate that is a specific story. But if you get into the capacity of it, you’re aback into the song actuality ambiguous again. It paints a picture, but you intend on the adviser to ample in. I’m appreciative of that song.
“Small Town” is specific.
I disagree. That’s a ambiguous song. “I was built-in in a baby town.” How abounding baby towns can you administer to that situation? Is that LaCrosse, Wisconsin, or is that Bloomington, Indiana, or is that Collins, Texas? “I had myself a brawl in a baby town.” I mean, accomplishing what?
It’s so open-ended…it’s so vague. But I anticipate that’s what fabricated the song work. And plus, I anticipate I use the words “small town” 975 times in the song.
Do you bethink autograph it?
I wrote that song in the laundry allowance of my old house. [Laughs] We had company, and I had to go address the song. And the bodies admiral could apprehend me autograph and they were all bedlam aback I came up. They said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” What abroad can you say about it?
Do you bethink autograph “Hurts So Good?”
George Green and I wrote that together. We exchanged curve aback and alternating amid anniversary added and laughed about it at the time. Afresh I went and best up the guitar, and aural seconds, I had those chords.
What is your admired song that you’ve written?
I haven’t accounting that song yet.
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