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POP MUSIC : HOW I WROTE THE SONG

For John Hiatt, words follow

September 14, 2008|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

JOHN HIATT has recorded a string of critically lauded albums dating to the mid 1970s, but his profile rose markedly in 1987 with "Bring the Family," an intimate collection of songs that included "Thing Called Love," which Bonnie Raitt subsequently popularized when she included it on her multiple Grammy-winning "Nick of Time" album in 1989.

The Illinois native, who will receive a lifetime achievement award for songwriting this week at the Americana Music Assn. conference in Nashville and also will be inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in October, recently took time out to discuss the emotionally rich songs that have become a hallmark of his body of work over lunch in L.A., where he worked in the 1980s.

How does a song typically begin -- with an idea, with an evocative catchphrase or with a melody or chord progression?

I almost always start off with the music. . . . I'll be honest with you, lyrics really come out of necessity: You don't want to sing something silly. Really it just starts there. For me the lyrics are actually formed by the music . . . , that's why I hate to have the lyrics separated from the song. I'm a little uncomfortable with that, because it's not really poetry per se. At least my lyrics aren't. They don't stand up by themselves. The lyrics are so involved in the chord structure and the melody and the sound of the words. So when I'm writing the melody and the music, nine times out of 10, I start singing nonsense sounds, and out of that comes a lyric direction. . . . Then I don't know what happens, an emotional thing gets in there.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, September 18, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
John Hiatt: An interview with singer-songwriter John Hiatt in Sunday's Arts & Music section described him as an Illinois native. Hiatt is from Indiana.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 28, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
John Hiatt: An interview with singer-songwriter John Hiatt in the Sept. 14 Arts & Books section described him as an Illinois native. Hiatt is from Indiana.

"Thing Called Love" opens with that five-note guitar riff. Is that the first thing that came to you?

No, it was that rhythm. I had that sort of loopy rhythm that's in betweeny. I had that rhythm and that weird chord structure: It was down in an F-sharp thing, lifted up to the A, down to the E then back to the F-sharp major, then lifted up into key of D for the chorus. It's the typical three chords in chorus -- D-G-A-D; kinda like two songs in a way.

The lyrics came out of the actual sound of the music. Of course, I was falling in love with my wife at the time. I had the fire in my belly, romantically I was just head over heels, but I was scared, which you can hear in the lyrics obviously. I'm hedging my bets at every turn, talking tough: "You ain't no Queen of Sheba . . . we're not amoebas," so don't try and make me one. Don't try to make me a dull husband, little Missy! I'm a rough and tough musician. . . .

In the new song "What Love Can Do," you suggest that you and your partner exchange her tiara and your crown for pauper's rags. Was that a direct reference back to the Queen of Sheba?

That line popped out as I was strumming those chords. I just loved the feel and all of a sudden I just sang that line. It's that deceptively simple thing that I'm real fond of when you can hit it.

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randy.lewis@latimes.com

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