Name: Terry Lee Hale
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Nationality: American
Recent release: Terry Lee Hale's The Gristle & Bone Affair is out via Glitterhouse.

If you enjoyed this interview with Terry Lee Hale and would like to find out more about his work, visit his official website. He is also also on Facebook.

Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc. play?

I think I always wanted to be a songwriter. From the first time I picked up a guitar I ‘knew’ it was what I was supposed to do.

Lucky for me I could never figure out how to play other writers songs, so I naturally gravitated to writing my own.

I got my first guitar at about 15 so that was relatively late.

For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualization' of the finished work?

About 50% of my lyrics come ‘inside’ the unformed music itself.

As I strum-strum away, the guitar music itself often elicits ‘sound pictures or tones. I capture those ‘pictures’ with my minidisc player and voila, I’m (sometimes) on my way to a new song. I can also sing along nonsense words (or noises) and come back later and find the ‘secret’ of that tune in these subconscious processes.

The key of course is in the recording. The music itself isn’t always ‘loaded’ with hidden meanings or lyrics either. Sometimes songwriting is just simply hard, hard work.

What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?

Just playing or practicing, whatever you want to call it. New songs (both instrumentals and lyrical) are inside the music and that is where I go to find them.

I practice guitar(s) most days, pen nearby, often with no goal in mind but the enjoyment of the moment. With a watchful and eye open of course but, after so many years of doing this, I’ve learned not to push too hard. Sometimes you just have to play the layers away to get to the sweet core.

It takes time and that’s why it’s called practice.

When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music, or can they emerge from a place of their own?

Lyrics are a different beast than the music generally I’d say. I have a few different ways of dealing with them.

  • I am constantly filling my loose-leaf notebooks with scribbles, lists, drivel, unfinished and finished material. I tend to write everything down as you never know what might be useful later.
  • Don’t be too precious about the process. Let it flow out and onto the paper. Face the fact that you might not be the best songwriter in the world. Still, you can be the best version of yourself. Utterly unique, unassailable, and special.
  • I find that writing lyrics out long hand with ink is a good test of if the words are good or not. Follow up with reading, speaking and of course singing are all great ways to check lyrical validity. Plus, it makes it easy to return too later. Don’t forget that sometimes you might have to live longer to get a song finished.
  • Sometimes lyrics are just there, ready to wear. Those are the lucky days. Most songs, for me anyway, require a lot of “roll up your sleeves” kind of work.

Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?

As mentioned above, most often with hard work. I’ve been doing this so long now I can relax a little and trust that the process will work.

One important point that needs to be made it the importance having good music to “sister” with the lyrics. The foundation if you will. No matter the subject matter, no matter if the song is light of dark, serious, or fluffy I think you should get into the habit at the start to give each song your best effort.

It’s here that the rhyming dictionary might make an appearance. Upgrading a ball – tall (cheap and boring) rhyme to dancehall – bugle call might not only make for a better song but might even back you out of a corner. Especially those of you where English is a second language. Sometimes you find nothing in the search but looking from up the written page can provide a needed interlude that can get you closer to high quality song.

There are lots of help books out there but my favorite has always been “Capricorn Rhyming Dictionary” by Bessie Redfield. Super easy to use and I like the layout. For a different format I use “The Complete Rhyming Dictionary” by Clement Wood. You should do your own search though and find the dictionary that is most comfortable.

Remember when I wrote we shouldn’t be too precious about the process of songwriting? I don’t think I’ve opened either of these dictionary’s while writing The Gristle & Boone Affair but for sure all my albums were made with handy tools parked close by.

There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?

I love being in the songwriter ‘zone” although I’m not sure spiritualty is the word I’d use. But it is a place of heightened awareness and honesty. Time stretches for me there, but I suspect it’s different for every songwriter.

Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?

I generally write the song out one last time and if I like that version then I’ll sign and date the page and that’s it’.

What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?

I certainly am involved in the whole thing from beginning to end.

For The Gristle & Bone Affair I did something very out of character. I forced myself to trust everyone! Instead of trying to micromanage every detail I trusted the process. All the musicians are excellent players. Why muddy the waters with directions?

Matt Emerson Brown (mixing engineer) I’d worked with on my last record (Bound, Chained, Fettered - 2016) so there was strong bond there already. And friend, partner, recordist, and Producer of the record from its first inception was Chris Eckman. He was the rock and cornerstone. With such a strong team it was really the best choice for me to just relax and trust.

I learned a lot and, at the end, was totally pleased and satisfied what we all created together.

After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?

I’m pretty much always looking forward to the next batch of songs and the rest. My song cycles overlap each other and that is as it should be in my world. Album projects are the cherry on top of the cake reward.

The real work and world of songwriters is lived in the trenches of day to day putting pen to paper. I am that songwriter.