Grammy-winning singer-songwriter discusses creative writing process

Rosanne Cash at a Morse College tea on on Feb. 26.
Rosanne Cash at a Morse College tea on on Feb. 26. (Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash reflected on her music career and creative process during her Poynter Fellowship talk, “Heart and Brain in Equal Parts: A Conversation about Writing and the Creative Process” on Feb. 26. The Morse College House was packed with Yale community members and local fans alike for her discussion of her songwriting experiences. For Cash, Johnny Cash’s eldest daughter, music and songwriting have always been at the center of her identity and a lifelong vocation, she said.

Cash, who is also an activist and author of four books including a memoir titled “Composed,” emphasized the intersection of music, art, and activism as a way to bring people together. She described music’s ability to change people, to encourage them to “speak their convictions [and] access their own feelings.”

All art and music is political because it changes people, and when people change inside themselves, then they change society [and] culture,” Cash said. “We are so connected on a cellular, DNA, spiritual, energetic level…. Music that changes you, it’s going to change other people [too]. I can’t not believe that, because I’ve seen it happen too much.”

Several members of the audience, aspiring songwriters and creatives themselves, asked Cash for her thoughts and advice on the art of songwriting. For her, songwriting is “not a predictable process” — some songs take 10 years to complete while others spring into existence in one day, Cash said, adding that the creative process is “half discipline, half inspiration.” She claimed that artists’ refinement of their skills over time is just as important as the divine, a source of inspiration and creativity.  

Sometimes [songwriting] is magic, sometimes it’s work,” Cash said. “There’s mystery at the center of creative acts.”

Sharing a personal anecdote, Cash detailed the writing process of “Everyone but Me,” a song about mortality, escaping trauma, and “a contained type of rage that turns into self-love.” She wrote the lyrics in a burst of those feelings, but felt that it was too raw to share with the world. Though Cash originally intended to keep the lyrics for herself, her husband convinced her to turn it into a song while they were working together in the studio.

It’s beautiful the way it was created, the way it yearns and keens,” Cash recalled. “It was the only time in 25 years of recording together that we both wept in the studio, so that was a kind of mystical experience writing a song.”

Cash shared other memories, thoughts, and songwriting inspirations, ranging from her “old-fashioned” belief in listening to albums sequentially to her love for Shakespeare. She reminisced about artists who have influenced her own musical style, citing among these Joni Mitchell and her 1971 album “Blue,” which she said changed her life because it was the first time she realized that a woman could be a songwriter.

Cash also described the impact of one of her 14 studio albums, “Black Cadillac.” Because Cash wrote the album about “death and a landscape of loss and mourning,” it helped listeners cope with and better understand their own experiences of loss. Many fans personally reached out to Cash to thank her, she said.

That was the greatest honor, to know that it had provided sustenance to people who were really hurting, because to create it gave sustenance to me,” Cash said. “It’s a cliché to say that artists have to suffer, but the truth is that we all suffer. It’s a matter of what you do with it. Is it the raw material for something beautiful that you’re going to create or something disturbing or profound?”

The talk was part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas’ Visionary Leadership Award programming, and was moderated by Morse Head of College Catherine Panter-Brick.

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