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Neil Young once told Patti Smith his key ingredient to songwriting


Neil Young and Patti Smith both share a preternatural skill that blends poetry with music. Both artists are sculpted with the power to caress the human brain with words and catapult the mind into a million differing directions, and, upon hearing them in conversation with one another, we’re handed a slice of unequivocal joy that provides a snapshot into their creative processes.

Granted, the two artists don’t sit adjacent to one another on the rock ‘n’ roll spectrum, but the treasured duo still share a number of qualities that align their retrospective creative visions. Their artistic spirit has continued to burn bright despite horrifying incidents faced in their personal lives. Music has continued to be the vessel to outpour their emotions. However, even for Neil Young, the art of songwriting still isn’t something that comes to him immediately, but he’s ready to pounce when that opportunity does arrive.

In 2012, Young and Smith teamed up for a stimulating discussion about their respective books, and at the start of the chat, Young revealed why he sees Smith as a kindred spirit. “I’m the highway and landscapes. You are cities,” he told the audience. “We’re on similar paths, but in different geographic places. Our [books] represent that.”

Later in the conversation, Smith pressed him on his songwriting technique, which Young beautifully likens to ‘trying to catch a rabbit’ as he describes his creative process in a rivetingly illuminating manner. “I don’t try to think of them,” he says. “I wait till they come. A metaphor may be that if you’re trying to catch a rabbit, you don’t wait right by the hole… And then the rabbit comes out of the hole, he looks around.”

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Adding: “You start talking to the rabbit, but you’re not looking at it. Ultimately the rabbit is friendly and the song is born. The idea is, he’s free to come, free to go. Who would want to intimidate or disrespect the source of the rabbit? And in that way if the song happens, it happens. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. It doesn’t matter.”

Elsewhere in the talk, Young discusses how he can wait endlessly without a grain of inspiration hitting him: “If it doesn’t come to me, I don’t want to have anything to do with it. I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look for it. I really hate things that people work on. There’s nothing about music that should be ‘working on it.’ There’s no good reason to be something you’re not, or trying to be somebody that you think is good.”

Young sits in the pantheon of songwriting greats, and the fact that even he struggles from time to time should be a lesson to any aspiring musician. ‘Shakey’ didn’t just sit down one day and write ‘Heart of Gold’ or ‘Old Man’ by chance. He’s a brutally honest songwriter who writes from the heart, which translates onto everything he touches.

For others, sometimes you have to dig rather than wait for it to arrive like Young, and eventually, you’ll uncover something worthwhile. However, there’s no guarantee that everybody is capable of producing a ‘Harvest Moon’ from within themself from drive or work ethic alone.

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