Songwriting Approaches of the Masters: Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and Nick Cave

Photo of Nick Cave by Mark Metcalfe / Staff /Getty. Photo of Tom Waits by Andrew Putler / Staff /Getty. Photo of Bob Dylan by Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer/Getty.

“Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightening to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.”
— Chuck Close, American painter and photographer

Turning an observation or inspiration into a song can be like striking a match. Sometimes it leaps into flame, sometimes it sparks, fizzles, and smokes. Sometimes you can’t find a match, even with the band waiting for you to light their cigarettes. In these moments, it can help to think about the ways three influential songwriters—Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and Nick Cave—find inspiration, prepare themselves to create, and the methods they employ to write songs.

Bob Dylan

Although well known for his cagey persona, Dylan has spoken openly about his approach to songwriting throughout his career. He made it clear as early as 1962, in an interview with Cynthia Gooding on WBAI (New York), that his approach to songwriting is steeped in folk songwriting traditions and that he often begins with a melody he’s heard somewhere else.

The folk songwriting tradition is largely an oral tradition, born in the days before recording. Singers and songwriters learned others’ songs and changed them to suit their own emotions and worldview. Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” for instance, is based on an old song called “Who’s Gonna Buy Your Chickens When I’m Gone.” By the time Dylan got his hands on it, the song already had been redone at least once and recorded under the title “Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons (When I’m Gone).” Each writer and performer took the song a little further away from the original to make it his own composition.

I meditate on a song. … At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song."

When Dylan is composing, he says, he’ll take a song he knows and play it in his head. “That’s the way I meditate. A lot of people will look at a crack on the wall and meditate, or count sheep or angels or money or something, and it’s a proven fact that it’ll help them relax,” Dylan says. “I don’t meditate on any of that stuff. I meditate on a song … At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song.”

In a 1991 SongTalk interview with Paul Zollo, Dylan delves into his process in more detail. “Feelings really aren’t my thing,” Dylan says. Songwriting is not about pouring his insides out. It’s about craftsmanship, perspective, lyrical meter, simple melodies, having something to say and a “pure-hearted motivation” for writing.

A songwriter should be able to sort and identify different types of thoughts, Dylan says, and be able to define them as good or evil. He also is open to ideas offered by his subconscious and unconscious mind and is concerned about over-analyzing, which can stifle creativity. “Your primary impulse is going to take you so far,” Dylan says. “But then you might think … is this one of these things where it’s all just going to come? And then all of a sudden you start thinking … and my mind starts to get into it, that’s trouble right away.”

Just take the whole thing and change key, keeping the same melody. And see if that brings you any place. More times than not, that will take you down the road."

When inspiration and execution collide, Dylan suggests changing key. “Just take the whole thing and change key, keeping the same melody. And see if that brings you any place. More times than not, that will take you down the road,” Dylan says.

So where does Dylan find inspiration? When Zollo asked him to respond to a lyric of his—“I stand here at your yellow railroad / in the ruins of your balcony”—he responds that it “could have been a blinding day when the sun was bright on a railroad someplace and it stayed in my mind. These aren’t contrived images. These are images which are just in there and have got to come out.”

Dylan also suggests learning a little theory and as many chords as you can. “If you see me do it [songwriting], any idiot can do it,” Dylan says. “It’s just not that difficult of a thing. Everybody writes a song, just like everybody’s got that one great novel in them.”

Tom Waits

“What I try to do is write adventure songs and Halloween music,” Waits says in a video put together for his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. “You put yourself into some sort of trance to receive certain songs. You know, it’s like setting a trap for a song. It’s like fishing or anything else. You have to be real quiet to catch the big ones.”

In a 2002 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Waits says a lot of his inspiration comes from mishearing things, and that he gets a lot of ideas from turning on two radios at once, or from listening to music from far away.

Collaboration also is important. In a 2011 interview on Fresh Air, Waits discusses his collaboration with his wife Kathleen Brennan, the musician, songwriter, record producer, and artist. Brennan brings something different to his songs, Waits says, and that if two people bring the same ideas to the table, then one of them is redundant. “I'm the other half of what I consider to be a really great songwriting team, which means that we argue a lot about what a song can be, should be, and what it'll be if you do this to it,” Waits says. “We discuss all these facets. She's Amelia Earhart and Jane Goodall and Joan Jett all rolled into one. She's really great to work with and amazing.”

Although an accomplished multi instrumentalist, Waits says he usually writes a cappella, preferring the freedom of it; unbound by the technical aspects of playing an instrument and the limitations of routine. “With instruments, usually your fingers just wanna go back to what they did the last time,” Waits says in a 2004 interview with Stephen Walker on “Triple-R,” an Australian radio show. “I try different tricks to kinda free myself and, you know, pick up an instrument that I've never played before, just to have the thrill of unfamiliarity and that feeling of discovery.”

When he does write with an instrument, Waits often finds it interesting to write on instruments he doesn’t quite understand how to play. Sometimes this is a Mellotron, or a Chamberlin Music Master 600, according to his web page “Tom Waits, Wit & Wisdom.” Sometimes he’ll also bang around on his “conundrum” drum kit, which is made up of metal objects he’s found in junk yards or on the side of the road, with a hammer, or have his band switch instruments because surprising things can sometimes happen.

I try different tricks to kinda free myself and, you know, pick up an instrument that I've never played before, just to have the thrill of unfamiliarity and that feeling of discovery."

It’s helpful to know many song forms and structures, Waits has said. “The form itself is like a Jello-O mold,” Waits said in a 2002 interview with Keith Phipps of A.V. Club, and so it pays to listen to a variety of interesting songs from different genres and time periods. Using these ‘Jell-O molds’ for structure, Waits says he can become different characters and find that these different characters actually already exist within him. If he populates them in a setting; by naming towns, naming streets, mentioning the weather, or mentioning something to eat, Waits says he can create an enticing world for a listener to enter.

“Songs are really simple,” Waits said in a 1992 interview with Peter Silverton of Observer. “You hold them in your hand. I can make one right now and finish it. But because they’re so simple, it’s like bird-watching, you know. You gotta know something about birds or you won’t see anything: just you and your binoculars and a stupid look on your face.”

Nick Cave

For Nick Cave, singer, songwriter and frontman of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, songwriting is a deeply personal, private process and one he doesn’t undertake in the company of others.

In an interview with The Guardian, Cave says that he works in an office, and that he keeps his imagination in shape by writing in a variety forms, including novels, scripts and scores. “I wake, I write, I eat, I write, I watch TV,” Nick Cave says in the pseudo-documentary “20,000 Days on Earth,” a process he confirms in multiple interviews.

Despite being recognized as an accomplished songwriter, Cave says in a 2009 interview with The New Yorker that he finds the process difficult. “The artistic process is just hard labor,” he says. “And it doesn’t get easier. You have to sit down and think about what you want and find a song.” In other interviews, he says the search to find something to write about causes him anxiety. However, he finds that if he prepares himself and sits down to work every day, ideas generally come. When they do, they feel like epiphanies.

In a 2013 interview with WFUV Public Radio, Cave says a great song is one that offers the listener the sense that the song is theirs as well as a sense of discovery. “I don’t write in a more abstract way, like rock and roll is generally written, which are these expressions of the heart. You know, ‘whoah baby, I love you’ and all that sort of stuff. I find it very difficult to write like that,” Cave says.

Instead Cave’s songs frequently are driven by narrative, though he says that he also finds that approach sometimes limiting. “It has been a problem for me that these songs are narrative … Every time they listen to a song they have to follow this story. I’ve been for a long time trying to get away from that … They’re much more about entering into a world, and an atmospheric world,” he says in a 2013 interview by WFUV Public Radio.

Cave also tends to write long. “Every song I write is ten verses long and I have to lose half of it,” Cave says in a 2009 interview with Thessaly La Force in New Yorker. “I used to find it quite painful … now I incorporate that into the way I write; the editing can change the lyrics. Often, I’ll leave the guts of the narrative out and concentrate on peripheral stuff and this ends up making the songs mysterious and open to interpretation.”

The artistic process is just hard labor,” he says. “And it doesn’t get easier. You have to sit down and think about what you want and find a song."

Cave also includes opposing images in his work. “It’s really what my writing has increasingly become about, really, is counterpoint, and what one line can do to another line,” Cave says. "You write one line and then you put another line against it and you see what happens. And very often a kind of violent juxtaposition between two images that just don’t belong together can create a lot of tension, and be quite pleasing, you know.” He’s said this is like “letting a small child in the same room as, I don’t know, a Mongolian psychopath or something. And just sitting back and seeing what happens. Then you send in a clown, say on a tricycle. And again you wait, and you watch. And if that doesn’t do it you shoot the clown.”

Cave and the band will spend days recording arrangements live while Cave refines his melodies and edits his lyrics, and come back later to listen. So how does Cave come up with a song’s melody and chord changes? By experimenting with lyrics at the piano. Most often, he’ll compose chord changes and melody before bringing it to the Bad Seeds for arrangement. “Generally the way is to learn the song and get it sounding as accomplished as possible,” Cave said in a 2014 interview with NPR. “The Bad Seeds have never really been that interested in that, but rather to find something where there's still a spark of discovery within the song.”

"Songwriting Approaches of the Masters” draws from and references a number of text-based interviews, listed here for your further study and enjoyment. All research by Brandon Seyferth.

  • “Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews,” by Jonathan Cott, ed., (New York: Wenner Media LLC, 2006)
  • Waits, Tom. Interview by Terry Gross. Fresh Air. NPR, WBEZ. Published October 8, 2004. | Link
  • Waits, Tom. Interview by Terry Gross. Fresh Air. NPR, WBEZ. Published March 4, 2011. | Link
  • “Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits,” by Barney Hoskyns (New York: Crown Publishing, Random House, 2009)
  • Waits, Tom. Interview by Terry Gross. Fresh Air. NPR, WBEZ. Published October 31, 2011 | Link
  • "Wit & Wisdom,” a webpage at | Link
  • “The Exchange: Nick Cave,” by Thessaly La Force, New Yorker, September 16, 2009 | Link
  • “The Sick Bag Song Interview,” by Tim Lewis, The Guardian, June 7, 2015 | Link
  • Cave, Nick. Interview by Audie Cornish, Morning Edition. NPR, WBEZ. Published September 16, 2014 | Link
  • “Nick Cave Talks New Album, Songwriting Process,” by Jim Harrington, San Jose Mercury News, April 2013 | Link

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