So you always knew you were going to be a songwriter. Did you have that inherent sense of “I am a writer”?
It’s funny you ask that, because I was thinking about it yesterday. I wrote songs really early on, when I was 14, 15. My band back then did a few of them — we didn’t do that many of them, but we did a few. And they were pretty good. When I think back on the songs of the day, they were pretty good songs. And I didn’t think just anyone could do that — write songs. I always liked reading — I read whatever I could get my hands on, even though I didn’t have a lot of access to that much stuff — but the music came from another place. It just appeared. And I had listened to records at that point for years. I did nothing but listen to records.
Both Bob Dylan and Keith Richards have said that sometimes they get inspiration “off of the wave,” that they channel their songs and don’t necessarily “create” them, per se. They receive information, and then they let it out. Do you believe that?
Very much so. I firmly believe that. It just comes. You have to set yourself up to receive the signal. You’ve got to help it along. I have to believe that, because there are too many times something’s just gone WALLOP — there it is, and I don’t really know why. But I don’t like thinking about it. I don’t want to analyze it too much, or then it’ll be gone.
Do you remember the very first record you bought with your own money?
Well, I inherited a lot of records from a neighbor. I had quite a few 45s. I think the first one I actually bought myself was the Four Seasons, “Walk Like a Man” [which spent 12 weeks on the charts, was No. 1 for 3 weeks, and peaked January 23, 1963]. I paid, like, 98 cents for it. [chuckles] The good old days. Wait, it wasn’t the Four Seasons — it was “Playboy,” by the Marvelettes [which spent 11 weeks on the charts and peaked at No. 7 on May 26, 1962].
Those are two great examples of songs driven by melody. To me, there are three key elements that make Tom Petty songs work: tone, texture, and melody. Do you agree?
I always liked melody. I kinda feel like I haven’t really written a song unless there’s some kind of tune to it. You want something that you can sing that delivers the words in the right way. Melody is very important. The blues has a lot of melody to it; I don’t know if people notice that. The best blues singers, their material has a lot of melody. That can relate to the key they're singing in, too. Key is important to a lot of things, yes. We tend to work from the guitar a lot, so I always move the key around to fi t the voice. I’ll say, “You know, I’ll have to push my voice up to that key because it doesn’t sound right if I bring it down low.” Sometimes you gotta compromise a little bit because the guitar is unforgiving with the open strings.
So most of what we did was based around the sounds we were getting on the guitar. I did move the keys around a bit quite a lot when we were starting out. We really got into the idea of “Hey, we know we’ve got something here, so let’s make it work.”
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