Tom Petty once revealed the secrets to his songwriting
(Credit: Mark Spowart / Alamy)

Music

Tom Petty once revealed the secrets to his songwriting

@SamWKemp

    Tom Petty’s songwriting is the stuff of legend. With tracks like ‘Refugee‘, ‘I Won’t’ Back Down’, and ‘American Girl’, he went from being a young Elvis Presley fan from the backwaters of Florida to one of the most famous faces in rock music. It’s no wonder so many of his songs make reference to the American Dream, Petty practically lived it. In an extensive interview before his death, we join Tom Petty in conversation with Jian Ghomeshi, exploring his songcraft, the rehearsal process with The Heartbreakers, and life in the studio.

    What becomes clear during this conversation is that Petty worked incredibly hard. His first group, the brilliantly named Mudcrutch, were gigging around Petty’s hometown of Florida during the “working band” era, before disco – and the DJ’s that accompanied it – made live bands redundant. Petty wasn’t born with some god-given musical gift – rather, he spent years honing his craft with that group because the alternative was not being able to eat.

    By the time Mudcrutch transformed into The Heartbreakers, they had mastered their instruments and – having released two singles that failed to chart – learned a thing or two about what it takes to write a hit single. Even in 2014, Petty was still improving his songwriting. “I’m doing the best I can,” he says in part two of the hour-long interview. “You can’t say I didn’t try really hard because I’m really trying hard to be good.”

    One of the most important takeaways from this insight into Petty’s life in music is that he never bought into the idea that good music comes from emotional turmoil. Good music, he suggests, comes from hard graft: “Well something horrible might happen, but you don’t really write a song when you’re feeling horrible. If I’m feeling horrible, the last thing I’m gonna do is reach for a guitar.” Rather than using his music to exorcise negative emotions, Petty chose to let them simmer down then return to them at a later time, at which point he would draw on them for inspiration. “You take what you can,” he notes at one point. “It’s part of just living through this life, it’s just, you know, just take all you can carry.”

    Elsewhere, we find Petty explaining how he knows when a song is ready to take to the band: “Well if I can sing it on my guitar or on the piano and it sounds, you know I’m not embarrassed to sing it for them, then I’ll take it down,” he says. “When I have something good I think ‘you know this is coming off’. I make a little recording of it, just myself playing it with the guitar, and I listen to it back and go ‘OK, well this would work on that level, so it’s probably gonna sound good with the band.”

    Make sure you check out the full interview, parts one and two, below. It’s well worth your time.

      Leave a Reply