The late, great Tom Petty poured ample amounts of heart and soul into Americana, making him the beating heart of the genre even after his death. After completing his glistening arrival in 1976 with his debut LP Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, over the next 40 years, he would carve out a niche for himself that is incomparable and entirely unique to Petty. While everyone wishes they could have been Tom Petty, there was only one original, but. not wishing to hoard all the good grace for himself, he once provided the secret to his mercurial songwriting methods.
Despite being recognised as one of the greatest American songwriters of all time, he always operated from the outside, looking in — expertly crafting mainstream hits from the periphery. Like many of his counterparts, Petty had a distinct sound, one he had honed to a tee and religiously stuck with over his career. Although Petty knew who he wanted to be, that didn’t mean that he worked in a strict formulaic manner and his secret to songwriting is advice that every musician should take on-board.
Petty spoke with CBC in 2014 and opened up in a wide-ranging hour-long interview that gifted fans with an eagle-eyed view into how he worked when it came to songwriting, which is a subject matter that few are as qualified to discuss.
The host veers the conversation towards the art of songwriting and whether hardship or turmoil is important to make a great song, which Petty expertly answers: “Well, something horrible might happen, but you don’t really write a song when you’re feeling horrible. It’s the last thing you’re gonna do.
“If I’m feeling horrible, then the last thing I’m going to do is look for a guitar to write a song,” Petty added. “Maybe later it’s cathartic when you’re happy again, maybe you can remember that and draw on it, but does it solve any problems? I don’t think so.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Petty poignantly spoke about the moment he feels like a song is good, and he wants to share it with his band. “When I hit something good, I feel like, ‘Okay, this is coming off’. I make a little recording of it myself, just playing the guitar,” with Petty adding that if it passed that test, he’d bring it to The Heartbreakers.
Another fascinating part of the interview arrives when Petty speaks about where a lyric starts for him, which provides a startling insight into how his brain worked. “It just comes out of the air,” Petty revealed. “It’s kind of a dangerous business looking really deeply into the germ that creates songs. I don’t like to stare in that light for very long y’know, I get a little superstitious about it.
“There’s some kind of actual magic going on there, and for some reason, I feel like I was born with some kind of conduit for this energy, force or whatever it is, and I can have that happen through me if I really try to do it or sometimes not when I’m just standing somewhere. At the funniest times, something can come into your head, and you think, that’s a good line or that’s a good couple of lines. Then it’s just trial and error,” Petty added.
The secrets to Petty’s success came from his innate ability to let these emotions take over him and that magic to soak his songs. That special ingredient wouldn’t always work, but Petty’s persistency to continuously allow himself to succumb to his mind not only allowed him to feel emotions that were buried away but also gifted the world an arsenal of songs few can compete with. While most of us don’t have that magic inside us like Petty, his dogged approach and aptitude to avoid over-thinking each step is something we can all take into our own lives, whether you’re a songwriter or not.