Songwriting Interview with Mofro’s JJ GreyBy Don • Category: Inspiration, Songwriter Interviews, Songwriting Advice, Songwriting Articles, Songwriting Tips
Florida’s own Mofro plays my favorite sort of groove – a southern funk swamp shuffle that can easily switch to different genres, without compromising their fundamental sound.
Their debut album was deemed one of the “Best Albums of the Decade” in 1999.
Their third – and latest – album is called “Country Ghetto” and sounds like JJ and company at their best. Songs like Country Ghetto, Circles, and others have the trademark Mofro sound. Other songs extend the sounds with tinges of Sly and The Family Stone (“War”), Sam Cooke (“Woman”), Otis Redding (“The Sun Is Shining Down”), and more. Truly a great “slice of life”, as JJ would put it.
Currently (March 2007) the band is working the Northeast leg of their tour and will the skirt the lower half of the United States and working their way up the west coast.
Blogging Muses caught JJ walking around the streets in Baltimore the afternoon before their show at the Recher Theater.
Here are some of his thoughts on songwriting:
Blogging Muses: Thanks for taking time out to talk with us. So, did you guys do some road testing of the songs before the album came out?
JJ: We played some. I didn’t want to play every one of them live. We have a lot of die hard live fans and even a lot of tapers come to the shows and we wanted there to still be some surprises on the album for the fans.
JJ: I would say a little more angst. A little angrier I guess. I wouldn’t say it’s jazzier or bluesier. I never think in those terms whether I’m writing a song or writing the music or arranging or figuring out the tones and the instrumentation that I want to hear. I never really think too much about any of that stuff. I try to let my influences just sort of come out, as a rule.
Blogging Muses: How about songwriting processes? What would you say are some of the most common ways your songs are constructed. Do you go off a riff? melody? lyric? title? chord progression?
JJ: Oh … any and all of the above. But for me the main ingredient is to let go – and to not think to let go. Just let go. For me, it doesn’t happen every day. It only happens every now and again. But the further I go along in my life the more I realize no matter what I’m doing – and it doesn’t even have to be songwriting – the best stuff happens if I let go. You can just never be too relaxed or to “let go”. Letting go of the moment and letting stuff happens and then things write themselves. I write the songs but in a lot of ways I don’t write anything. It just happens.
Blogging Muses: That’s a common theme I hear among successful songwriters.
JJ:Â Yeah let go and let it happen. The more I try and the more I try to dictate where I want it to go the more chance the song has to have landed in the “edited” heap where I say, “No I don’t like that cut i don’t want to do it”. I just let em happen.
Blogging Muses: You spoke of angst earlier. I haven’t had a chance to examine the lyrics in detail, but based on the song titles some might say that the songs are more political. Is that true?
JJ: Nah. The song “War” isn’t really political at all. It deals with self-politics. In that way I guess you could call it political. Just because, with that particular tune we all tend to make the world black and white, but the world in our own minds are gray.
But in some ways I’m definitely guilty of championing my own memory, you know what I mean? No one person, no one ideal, no one nothing. Some of the memories are great, some not so great. I hope that all that comes across in the different songs that I do. I never know if it is or it isn’t gonna happen.
Blogging Muses: I think it does, definitely.
JJ: Because the music I love the most and the songwriting I love the most from people like Otis Redding to people like George Jones and alot of those old country singers, old R&B artist, soul, blues, funk, James Brown. Those guys are all telling stories and a lot of them have to do with childhood fond memories and some that weren’t so fond. At the end of the day I always felt like I was getting a slice of life from somewhere. From somebody with a different perspective.
Blogging Muses: Are there other songwriters today that seem to capture that essence of songs you love?
JJ: I don’t find it, um, it is not as prevalent in music today. At least I don’t hear it as much anymore. In fact, I don’t know what I am listening to a lot of times. Or why I am supposed to listen to it, and subsequently I wind up not listening to it for very long without losing interest.
There’s still plenty of stuff coming out though at the same time, that I feel captures it. But for whatever reason I feel the further back you go the more the music was about the culture, and the culture from where that particular person came from – whether it’s Loretta Lynn talking about being a coal miner’s daughter to James Brown singing about “hambone funk and georgia clump I’m talking red clay funk”. You name it. Any of the blues guys singing about what they’re singing about or a group like The Band doing their thing. There’s just so many different things. There used to be a central theme throughout a lot of that music and it was just one of the reasons it is my favorite era of music.
There’s still plenty of people out there that do it. I just wouldn’t say it’s the norm or it’s in the mainstream. The mainstream of yesteryear seemed to be a lot more connected culturally to the world they came from and not so much attached to what people try to call culture now. To me that is pop culture and that’s a fad and changes every ten minutes. That is them trying to guess what people want instead of just telling your story. So I hope that I reflect more of that influence on me from the old days.
Blogging Muses: Speaking of capturing a slice of culture, I gave a copy of “Blackwater” to a friend of mine who is in his 50′s. He loved it. I think that is in part to the way the songs have a vibe that captures a “slice of culture” as you say.
JJ: Well I say thank you because that is one of the ways the word really spreads for us.
Blogging Muses: What was remarkable to me is that he’s not really a new music kinda guy. But he ended up using it as one of the albums on his iPod for running a marathon! For me, that spoke to the quality of the songs. Many of the songs feel like they have just ‘always been’, yet they have a newness to them that makes them fresh.
JJ: Cool cool. Thank you very much.
Blogging Muses: So, um, let’s get back to your songwriting processes. Do you write whenever the mood hits you or do you set aside time? Do you write on the road as well as at home?
JJ: I tell ya. I tried to set aside time in the past and I failed. It’s not that I never came up with anything that really worked for me. But what I have discovered is the more passionate you are about something the easier it is for you to write about it as long as you just don’t TRY to write about it.
For me, a song could come from anywhere. It could happen on the road, it could happen at home. It can happen anytime anyplace. I bet everybody that makes up anything would say this, whether they are writing songs, a movie, a book or anything that I’ve forgotten probably the best stuff I’ve ever done.
Because trying to tell a story – whether it’s you writing this article or whether it’s writing a song or writing a film – anytime you try to sit down and write something it can be really difficult if you can’t let go and just do it. I have found the more passionate you are about it the easier it is. So, somebody that has to write about something they can’t stand, or write about something they are just not passionate about. If you can’t stand it you’re passionate enough to hate it, you know what I mean. But if just don’t give a shit one way or the next you could be in trouble.
But that’s where the gift comes in for people that can write about anything, and tell that story and that’s special. But I certainly wouldn’t claim to have that ability. I’m more or less writing about my own passions.
So as long as I can be occupied by other things in the world – being at home, working, fixing the car if it’s broke – that’s when the inspiration comes. It comes when I have let go of music. Let go of the idea of writing a song. Let go of the idea of writing a record.
Blogging Muses: Would you say it’s important to have things in place, or be receptive to it when the idea hits you?
JJ:Â Yes. And what make me a better quote-unquote “songwriter” is that – well – I feel like 99.9% of the stuff I write I’m not really writing. It’s coming through my brain somehow but I don’t really know how. And that other 1/10th of a percent sucks so I get rid of it! (laughs) So I try to stay away from getting in my own way.
But I’ve found the hardest thing in the world to do is to let go. And it’s the easiest thing once it’s over and happened. It’s almost surreal. It’s like a great show or a good time with friends or a great evening or something with your lady. Before you know it you have let go and everything is great.
Now all you gotta do is fight the urge to go back and recreate that moment cause you can’t do that. That took a long time for me to learn that lesson. And the other thing is the more you familiarize yourself with playing an instrument or listening to other people play music or letting yourself be caught up in the soul of somebody else’s story or song or whatever. To me, the more often that happens for you the easier it becomes for you to translate your own thoughts.
For me the songwriting process starts with the idea that comes out quickly without thought. Then you come to the other half of your brain when you are trying to get those ideas down to tape, and that stuff’s huge too man, and it takes a long time for – well it took a long time for me maybe not other people – but to actually even learn an instrument well enough to get down your own ideas. But it’s huge to keep doing that. And that is a place you can always continue to grow. And I have way more room to grow than not.
Blogging Muses: Very cool insights. What do you do to keep track of songwriting ideas or capture ideas when you are on the go?
JJ: Well I do have a pocket recorder. I’ve got so much crap on it I can’t find anything. I wind up not ever using the damn thing hardly. I use it to get an idea down.
I tell you what I do:
The pocket recorder is the best. When I put down an idea and just damn well totally forgotten about it. And then a year later I’m just going through it just messin around and then suddenly I hear something and it inspires me or does something and the next thing I know I am making up the song and probably not with any of the intention I had when I first put it down on the pocket recorder. That happens occasionally too.
Yeah that pocket recorder is a great thing for stuff like that.
Blogging Muses: What is the strangest way came up with a song?
JJ:Â It’s not necessarily the strangest way because it’s the way I do things a lot of times but some people might find it strange. On the song “The Sun Is Shining Down”, we were leaving Langerado and it was just around that whole time the chord changes came to me while we were there and as we were leaving all the lyrics came to me. I wrote it down and I had no idea what it meant at the time. It was just only later on that I went back and interpreted what I wrote down. At the end it winds up being as powerful for me as some of the music of the people that I really like a lot. Where I listened to their music and interpreted it in my own way – like a Bill Withers tune – I hear my own story in his song.
And I’ve sort of done that with myself sometimes. I just have those words that came, and then it’s a year later that I figure out what the song’s about. It just dawned on me what this song is ACTUALLY about. So to some people that seems strange. They think that all your ideas come together at one time. That you know exactly what the lyrics mean of your own songs. Sometimes you do sometimes you don’t.
Blogging Muses: Interesting.
JJ: And it’s certainly not the method that works for every song I’ve done. But it does happen. When it does it usually winds up being some of my best stuff I’ve done. But that’s only because I didn’t really do it. If I do it you’ll know it. Or you probably won’t know because it won’t make it onto a record. (laughs)
Before I really try to write a song and fix things up and try to make it right the more it sucks. And I have stuff like that that has made it onto a record, but this record for me is the first record that for some reason, I was out of my own way.
Blogging Muses: You seem to have good intuition for what makes a good song. I guess that comes with workin’ at it for awhile. But how much time do you spend rewriting a song? Do you always rewrite? Or are there songs that have just come out in one lump blob that sound great and you know intuitively not to touch it?
JJ: It can be any of the above. I put down some ideas and then came back to it, and later came back again, and then came back again and then everything works out. But lately I have found that the more I try to come up with riffs that sound cool or beats that are supposed to be hip – I don’t really think about any of that stuff.
Now I’m more on a roll of melody in my head and singing a song than trying to sound like an era of music that I really like or a guitar sound that I think is tough, or a riff that is bluesy and rocking. I’m shying more and more away from that. It’s been that way for awhile, to be honest with you.
At least I should say this: it’s not so much been that way, it’s just I’ve noticed time and time again the bluesiest, nastiest, funkiest, rockinest, swampiest, angriest – everything that feels connected to some sort of passion, really connected,Â comes from when I don’t even try to make it bluesy or nasty or a record that I have really been listening to that I love. The more I let go of it the more that influence just shows up on it’s own.
Blogging Muses: Let’s talk lyrics? How difficult are lyrics for you?
JJ:Â The lyrics are the hardest thing in the world if you try to write them – for me. That’s why I was saying, if a writer can passionately write about something that he is not passionate about then he’s got a gift that I could never have. There are plenty of writers that can do that – songwriters, story writers, journalists, whatever. But for me I’ve got to be connected to it somehow. Or I should say, I’ve got to be totally unconnected for my passion to show up.
And there’s always me that plays my own editor. I might come in with a different mindset and maybe fix a few things. But for the most part the more I get out of the way and let whoever is writing this shit write it through me or whatever – I don’t know how you put it. But the more that happens the more the editor in me doesn’t have to do a damn thing. A matter of fact you lock the editor in a room and say shut up don’t worry about it just go with it.
Blogging Muses: I mentioned this in another interview I recently conducted, but someone gave me a book about songwriters and lyrics. It had about 3 pages of quotes from Joni Mitchell to Kurt Cobain – all of them saying they are often in the control room of the studio while the band sits around waiting for them to finish a final verse or whatever. Lyrics at the last moment. It was the most difficult thing for them. I was wondering how that went with you?
JJ: It’s difficult because one thing that a lot of people – which I can only imagine because it happens to me. You feel like you plagiarize unconsciously stuff that you love or you’re influence by. But everybody has done that from day one. Nobody flew in from Mars – wrote songs by themselves on Mars and then brought it to the earth. Same with lyrics, poems. books, movies – anything. And then there is also a bigger bullshit with plagiarizing yourself. So to me, stay out of your own way and let the chips fall where they may.
Blogging Muses: From a songwriting perspective, are there any new bands or artists that you have been really digging lately? Heard any song and thought, damn how did they pull that off.
JJ: Oh yeah. David Childers and the Modern Don Juans. David Childers is a great songwriter out of Charlotte, NC. I think Chuck Prophet is phenomenal. I love Spooky Daly, Papa Mali, I like what Luther Dickinson writes. Like I was saying there are plenty of great songwriters out there right now. Luther Dickinson – he’s such an awesome guitar player and singer and songwriter. There’s so many that I think I get something for my money when I go to there shows or get their music.
Blogging Muses: I think you have been consistent with what has worked for you, but I have to ask anyways. What advice would you give new songwriters?
JJ: Stay out of your own way. That’s the biggest best advice for anybody. I don’t give a shit if you’re writing a song about going to the goddamn movies with your girlfriend. And it’s hard to do. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no master. I’m hanging on by a thread like everybody else all the time.
Blogging Muses:I think that’s kinda the sexiness of songwriting in some ways.
Blogging Muses: Cool. Well that’s about all I have. I was just looking at the tour page on Mofro.net. Looks like you are gonna be heading south and then the west coast after your done in the Northeast, eh?
JJ: Yeah, we’re gonna do a run right across the bottom of the country. Then out west all the way up the west coast. Then after JazzFest we are gonna be home for two days then we fly out to Europe – that’s not up on the tour page yet. Pretty busy man! We’re just go go go go go man.
People ask me “When you gonna find time to write some songs man?”
I’m like “Shit man, the songs write themselves and they could do it at any moment. They could do it while you’re sitting in Pizza Hut. You never know when or where. Just hope you can remember it.
“If you are somewhere you can’t – then get it down!”
It should be noted that Mofro has one of the coolest interactive tour maps on their website I’ve seen.
They will be playing a steady stream of dates throughout the United States until April 28, 2007. After that you can always check Mofro.net for the latest tour news.
Do yourself a favor and catch a live show soon! You won’t be disappointed.