We all understand how difficult it is to be productive right now. The monotony of living in isolation, the radical change in how we work during a pandemic, and the unbearable weight of all that’s happening in the world make it hard to get things done, and even harder to do them well. When your job is to make music, the same holds true: Like all of us, songwriters have been robbed of their day-to-day routines, and they’re struggling to adapt to our strange, new reality. In some ways, there’s never been more to write about. There's also never been less.
VICE spoke with eight songwriters—Sharon Van Etten, Lianne La Havas, Kevin Morby, Oceanator, Bartees Strange, Lomelda, Tasha, and Sen Morimoto—about how the sea changes of the past six months have affected the way they make music. No two artists have experienced exactly the same thing—but they all agree that writing songs has never been quite like this before.
Have you been writing songs since the pandemic began—and if so, have you been writing more or less than you typically might?
Sharon Van Etten: The first few months, I felt really productive. Then I got to a point where I got scared and more nervous about the world and more internal. My moods have ebbed and flowed, and that's really affected my productivity. So sometimes [I'm writing] a lot, sometimes nothing.
Lianne La Havas: I've started songs. I think my frequency of songwriting hasn't really changed: I've always sort of got things started and then they take time to develop into anything. But I've definitely had more time than I usually would have had to play guitar and just practice and explore a little bit.
Kevin Morby: When I'm always in motion, I'm always writing, and I'm always putting something out, and I'm always touring, which is just making me write more. I was wondering if I would find myself dragging at this time. But in the past two or three months, I've actually been [writing] kind of a lot.
Bartees Strange: Earlier in the pandemic I was writing a lot more, but now I'm kind of fried and struggling to make anything I like. I'm trying to write, and getting all the ideas down has been good, but I feel like I can't really write anything great.
Tasha: I have not been writing any songs whatsoever. Not one. I've sat down a couple of times to try, but it's been extremely forced. Before there was always this feeling in me that I wanted to write. I knew there was something that I could get to if I just spent enough time or energy digging at it. These last few months, I've almost felt no desire at all. I think this time has just proven to me how ingrained capitalist productivity was in my creative process, even if I didn't think it was, or didn't admit that it was. By that I mean a lot of motivation would come from having an end goal, or having a schedule or a timeline to meet. When I can feel like the only thing I have to worry about today or tomorrow or the day after is writing songs, then I can give myself the space for them to come out.
How has life under quarantine changed the way you write songs?
Oceanator: I've been writing a lot of music, but almost no lyrics. I haven't been able to put together any lyrics that aren't terrible because everything just feels like a big fuzzy, terrible blur. But music-wise, I started a ton of sketches, and some of them I think are pretty cool. Right now, my writing is coming up with a bunch of scattered ideas [rather] than just focusing on one thing and seeing it through.
Kevin Morby: Usually I'm writing on the go, where I'm writing something in a hotel room and I have to catch a flight and I'm listening to the demo on the way, or on the plane, and picking it back up when I'm backstage somewhere. And because my scenery is not changing as often as I'm used to, I have so much time to come up with an idea and really explore that idea. I have a lot more time to write now.
Lianne La Havas: Pre-pandemic, I would have been writing ideas myself and finishing some things myself, but mostly not—getting stuck and then calling my good friend, Matt Hales, and saying, 'Hey, can I come over? I got a thing.' And then we would just hang out for a few days, drink loads of tea, and then make something. Now I'm noticing that I am more able to rely on myself—just kind of playing guitar on my own because I'm not allowed to see my producer. I find it very liberating, actually—trying to push myself to actually finish things that I set out to finish by myself. When you're left to your own devices, it can be a blessing, and you can get also get stuck easily. As long as I'm trying to be creatively productive, then hopefully it'll be okay. And there is a bit more time to do that.
Sen Morimoto: It's funny, the little, short moments that I have sat down to write have been more efficient. I have felt that it's been simpler in my mind to make decisions about writing or follow through with ideas. I think it probably just has to do with so much going on at once—the small decisions you have to make in music feel less dire. When so much shit is going on, it's easier to not nitpick every decision that I make when I'm creating.
How have you continued to collaborate with other musicians during the pandemic—and has quarantine made that harder?
Sharon Van Etten: Literally just two days ago, I put about 20 songs on Dropbox that I shared with my band, and I shared with a couple friends that are engineers and producers. Sometimes one of my bandmates will be like, 'I hear this on acoustic guitar instead,' or, 'Instead of this being electronic, we should make this country.' I'm just creating the dialogue as of this week.
Lomelda: I've found it to be easier to collaborate. I usually write songs and I don't show anybody until they're totally done. This time around, here's the plan: I'm going to not finish the songs before I bring them to my collaborators, and we're going to finish them together, via the internet, probably. I think [before the pandemic], I viewed [songs] more as static in a way—like, I made this. It's my song. And I'm moving away from that. I'm not really interested in being a great individual. I'm much more interested in being in this thing together. And I guess it's a little bit of quarantine and it's a little bit of self-examination.
Tasha: I'm finishing up a record, so working with my producer has been so refreshing. I've been so in my brain and I haven't felt anything new or interesting come out of me musically. But listening to songs I've already recorded with another person was so great. Just to get someone else's perspective and hear it through their ears was needed. I've also been sending music back and forth with Lillie West from Lala Lala. Even if we know it might not end up turning into anything, it's great to do. I've never done anything like that before, and it was so fun to come up with those ideas.
Bartees Strange: I'm very collaborative; it's rare that I write by myself. I've been sending stuff back and forth with people, but it is so much less inspiring to work that way exclusively.
Sen Morimoto: Especially for Chicago artists, it's such a tight-knit community that we do go to each other's houses and hang out or record stuff, so not being able to do that is definitely a bummer. It takes a little bit of excitement out of making the music. It's hard to say whether the music is better or worse, but sometimes the excitement you had making it is what makes you like listening to it later. So not having that memory in that moment affects it for sure.
Kevin Morby: I really do pine for the moment that I can pick up a guitar again and be in a room with people making music.
Sharon Van Etten: I miss being able to go into a studio and just record a song last-minute because everyone's excited about one song and we want to track it live to get a feel. I miss the immediacy of making things happen quickly. I think I'm about to start having my band come in one-by-one and play them tracks that I think they would be into and get their feedback and maybe add some stuff. Just talk it out and practice it super stripped-down.
Do you find that it’s harder to find inspiration under quarantine, at a time when day-to-day life is a lot more limited than it used to be?
Bartees Strange: It's definitely limited what I can be inspired by. We're seeing everything from the screen, and there's no interaction. I feel like I'm inspired by small moments and things that don't really matter, but occur when you're living in the world and traveling. Without those little moments and those appearances and those little feelings that develop through those interactions, it's hard to find that feeling in the song. If you're trying to convey emotion, but you're not receiving any new ones, you're just going through the memory bank and you're not really actively writing.
Tasha: It's obviously just a completely unreliable, tumultuous, and emotional time. I think about the last few months, and there's not a moment when things felt settled or stable in any way, whether it'd be within myself or within the environment around me. Even if I have lots of free time, even if I have much fewer obligations, there's still a way in which I don't feel settled. I think it has created a really hard environment to feel comfortable enough to create.
Sen Morimoto: It's hard to even focus on making music when you're constantly spiraling out about everything that's going on. But at the same time, for me, there's a balance in the sense that [songwriting] feels more trivial—not that the music is less important, but overthinking it feels trivial now. So it's a bit easier to just have ideas and not question them.
Kevin Morby: I write a lot about characters and about other conceptual things. There's never a lack of that—of being interested in something, whether it's a city, or a public figure, or an old actor, or whatever it is.
How has life during the pandemic—and more broadly, all the sociopolitical change that's been happening the past few months—influenced what you write about?
Bartees Strange: I wrote one song about George Floyd. That's obviously a very present song. But otherwise, it's impossible for me to capture any thoughts about what's happening right now. I'm still in it, so I need it to end and then I need some time to look back at it. It's hard to talk about it when it's happening.
Sharon Van Etten: I feel a responsibility as someone that has a platform that can reach many people [to write songs about this moment]. But I'm struggling to find a voice that isn't offensive to people, or appropriating other messages. I feel like I'm maybe overanalyzing it, because I think that any positive voice is good right now. A friend of mine sent me an instrumental song, and I was just feeling this vocal, and I ended up kind of writing a protest song. But I'm super insecure about sharing it because it's coming from a white woman. I would want other voices on there, not just mine. I want to share it with other people—to help me with the lyrics, to make sure that it's not taken the wrong way and that I didn't overlook something that might offend somebody. So all those things that I want to share, I feel like I'm nursing, right now, to make sure [they're] shared in the right way.
Tasha: Sometimes I turn away from very explicitly writing songs about a specific cultural moment. It just often comes off as a little corny, at least for me. I'm not saying that other people can't do it and do it well, but I don't think I've found a way to make it fit into my songwriting style. That being said, I would like to get back into writing things. I'm just trying to think about what I've always done: writing about my specific experience, inside myself on the smallest level. That's something that could still be rich and interesting and worthwhile for me to explore.
Oceanator: I think my songs were already about the end of the world, everything being terrible, and being alone. My songs will have something to do with what's been happening, but not in a drastic way. It's probably going to feel pretty similar to the thematic content I've already been writing about. Just maybe slightly more lonely.
Lianne La Havas: I've been drawing more than writing about these things. That's just how I choose to deal with it. If I ever did write lyrics about something like this, I'd want them to be good; I'd want them to be useful. I wouldn't want to profit off it, even. It's a strange position to be in because you do want to respond with your art. It's the fear of not being eloquent enough or not being useful enough which makes me just want to draw instead.
There's lots of things I'm sad about; there's equally lots of things I'm happy about. I don't want to not feel happy about something because I'm Black, and [I'm] being told that I should be really sad. If you are Black, you don't want to just be asked about your pain of being Black, which you've gone through your whole life, that's completely unexplainable to a lot of people. [I try to] be as positive as you can be about things, and try to enjoy this time on the planet, try to help people if you can, and just try to have a happy existence for as long as you're here. Time is finite.