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Björk, Nas, George Harrison: 10 Songwriters Who Inspire
Before James Bay and Skrillex became household names, they were just kids finding the musical heroes who would shape their sound. Having been fortunate enough to talk to many musicians over the years, we’ve noticed that certain songwriting heroes are mentioned repeatedly as being inspirational and influential, having shaped generations of music with their individuality, their artistry and in the case of each of these inspirational songwriters, their profound, insightful and very human songwriting.
Connectors between artists of all genres, these prolific, prophet-like songwriters have touched the lives and creative minds of some of today’s greatest artists. “Those real artists are the ones that make the popular artists go,” producer John Feldmann says.
We were careful, when making this list, not to make it a “greatest-of-all-time” list, but to honor artists and songwriters who have transformed music, in smooth and soulful to grand and audacious ways; songwriters who have been mentioned again and again in our interviews as inspirations to some of music’s top contemporary artists.
From My Morning Jacket’s Jim James to Skrillex, the many musicians who love Björk cite her incredible individuality and uncompromising integrity to her art as reasons why. Skrillex says, “Björk’s always been someone that I loved since I’ve been a vocalist.” Sometimes her grand artistic vision overshadows the fact she is also a tremendous songwriter, something the members of Grouplove recognize. “The funny thing about her productions is she spaces things out so much, but at the core of it, even if it is crazy and hard for your brain to wrap around as maybe a radio song, if it was put into that format, at the end of the day the songs are still so good.”
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, “The Mercy Seat” (written by Nick Cave & Mick Harvey)
A great songwriter who can tell a long-form narrative like “Dig, Lazarus, Dig” or write an achingly beautiful love song such as “Into Your Arms,” Cave has been named an influence by Garbage, Miike Snow and Cold War Kids, among many others. “He’s still one of the last great living potent and dangerous men on stage," Garbage's Shirley Manson says. "When you watch him play you have no idea what he’s gonna do and he’s older than what you expect him to be, but he still feels very vigorous and dangerous and exciting. He is the greatest living rock and roll god.” As for the secret of Cave’s songwriting prowess, Manson says, “He’s a lover of words and a lover of communication, and a lover of connection.”
John Coltrane, “Giant Steps”
The iconic jazz saxophonist’s scope is so massive that he has been cited in song dozens of times, by acts as wide-ranging as Elvis Costello, U2, Common, Gang Starr, Rick Ross, the Roots and Damon Albran. That is clearly an “artist’s artist.” Of course he’s known for being one of the great jazz musicians, but he was also a gifted composer whose influence spreads far and wide. “I think that the radical departures of John Coltrane’s solos are as kind of reorienting as an N.W.A. song,” Tom Morello once told us. Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan also cites the truth and passion of Coltrane’s music. “Who are people we look to that get it right?” Corgan asks. “We look to people like John Coltrane, who seems to say it in everything he does.”
George Harrison, “What Is Life?”
Time has deservedly been very kind to the legacy of the “quiet Beatle,” with many acts citing Harrison as an influence. Breakout star James Bay often turns to Harrison’s music. “I love George Harrison’s music because it’s a wonderful balance of the sort of nonsense lyrics that were popular in the ‘60s, and I don’t mean nonsense in a harmful word, I mean it in a playful way, it’s a perfect balance of that and something very heartfelt,” he says. “’My Sweet Lord’ always comes back because, I know it’s a relatively religious moment there, but ‘Wah Wah,’ off All Things Must Pass, in the context of the music it’s the most euphoric piece of songwriting. So a lot of his music does come back around.”
Loretta Lynn, “Portland, Oregon”
Loretta Lynn’s comeback album, Van Lear Rose, was produced by Jack White, one of the country legend’s biggest fans. “God, this woman is brilliant,” White told us at the time. “And she’s just throwing me a bone … She tells it like it is, and she’ll tell you anything if you ask. There’s a real brilliance to her that comes out as, to this day, as it did when she started, this kind of hillbilly aw-shucks-ness that people take for granted, and thought was a gimmick when she started. They thought this hillbilly gimmick wasn’t gonna last, and it has, because after you get past the novelty forefront of it, you realize there is a brilliance to it and sort of universal thoughts that everybody has. ‘Your Squaw Is On The Warpath’ may sound funny. It may be novelty to bring people in, but the phrasing and the writing of that song … she really is so brilliant.”
Joni Mitchell, “A Case Of You”
“I could tell that Joni was a painter by the way she wrote lyrics,” singer/songwriter Jewel once said of this “artist’s artist.” The epitome of artistry, the complex and utterly imaginative works of Joni Mitchell have influenced creatives of all types, including Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Connelly, who once told us, “The soundtrack for Waking the Dead is great. It made me rediscover Joni Mitchell, Blue was sort of my big album on that film. ‘Case of You,’ I think, is one of the best songs of all-time.” Countless artists have either covered or sampled Mitchell’s work and the light that she has shed on the creative process prevails for many of our music icons still today.
Nas, “The World Is Yours” (written by Nas & Peter Phillips)
This poet/musician and provocative storyteller has inspired artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Common and Jay Z with lyricism that uncannily puts words and rhythm to feelings that can otherwise be difficult to explain. Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park once told us, “When I was growing up, I loved listening to music that I felt was speaking directly to me. Nas’ Illmatic was that way, where you go, ‘Hey, that’s me, too.’ That is so exciting, to find that connection. A lot of hip-hop that I listened to was from more of an outsider’s point of view, like I always just loved to hear those stories. They’re telling me what’s going on, so I feel like I know more about what’s going on in the world, because that shit’s not going to be on the news.”
Smokey Robinson & The Miracles “Tears Of A Clown” (written by Stevie Wonder, Hank Cosby & Smokey Robinson)
You know someone is a music giant when he or she has shaped the legacy of other legends. “The King of Motown” — as he is known for his incredible track record of writing hits for both his band, the Miracles, and countless other Motown acts like the Temptations and Mary Wells — is also partially responsible for giving the world Led Zeppelin. Asked about the first record that made a big impact on him, Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant once told us, “’Shop Around’ by the Miracles, 1960. Smokey Robinson’s voice and the whole production, I just had no idea something could be so smooth and yet so sensual and evocative, it was great.”
Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddam”
Even before last year’s hit documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, the widespread influence of Nina Simone’s legacy was felt far and wide by musicians as diverse as Sade, Peter Gabriel and Avicii. While Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson cites Simone as a great protest writer for her work on “Mississippi Goddam,” “Revolution” and more, Rufus Wainwright once told us it’s Simone’s work as a performer that made her a legend. “Nobody has ever quite mastered, to the degree she has, the sense of kind of drama in between the music she has and her sense of timing. So I would say she’s probably the high priestess of that concept.”
Tom Waits, “Take It With Me” (written by Tom Waits, Kathleen Brennan)
It’s a very short list of artists who have earned a place in the debate over greatest living songwriter. However, anyone whose music has been covered by everyone from Bruce Springsteen and the Eagles to the Ramones and Norah Jones is immediately in the conversation. “He’s by far my favorite musician. His storytelling is really phenomenal,” Thrice frontman Dustin Kensrue says. “I think that’s the great thing about his songs, you feel like you are living in them when you are listening to them, like you’re in that crappy car on the highway and you see the little Jesus on the dashboard.”
(Steve Baltin is a music journalist in Southern California. He is a contributor to Rolling Stone, Billboard, Forbes, and many other publications, host of Hulu’s “Riffing With” series, and music journalism instructor at the GRAMMY Museum’s GRAMMY Camp.)
(Monica Molinaro is a freelance music journalist and marketing professional in Los Angeles. She has written for Billboard and the Hollywood Reporter.)