Paul Williams,
The TVD Interview

I was brushing my teeth the other night when I had a “GREAT IDEA” about how to intro this interview. Writers: you already know how this went down. 

I had been spending a lot of time with these hazy childhood memories of Paul Williams on The Muppet Show, his most famous songs running through my head. Something clicked. YES! I finished brushing my teeth, washed my face, got a drink of water, sat down at my desk and it was… gone! It was like someone had wiped that area of my pre-frontal lobe clean.

I racked my brain. Was it something about his unlikely stardom? No… What about how he champions aspiring songwriters as President and Chairman of the Board of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP)? No, that wasn’t it either. Was it something about that guy who made that documentary about how he thought Paul Williams was dead? Nah, but that’s a great story. Okay, it had to be something about him winning the 2014 Album of the Year Grammy with Daft Punk. No, I couldn’t find a thread. I was furious with myself. The “GREAT IDEA” was gone.

Then I remembered something from talking with Paul. I put my head back and I drifted down into that region of near-sleep where dream thoughts percolate and vanish when you hear a noise and you come to. My dog barked, and I opened my eyes. 

Paul Williams would say that this is the most important part of the creative process: letting go and being optimistic that the right thing will come, even if it’s not the thing you thought you wanted. Even if what you end up with is nothing like what you pictured (and then spaced out on) while brushing your teeth, sometimes it works out all right.

My germ of a “GREAT IDEA” wasn’t meant to be. And that’s okay, because Paul Williams says so. Williams had so much more to say, of course; we talked about his fascinating life, his love of helping people (he’s a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor as well), and his passion for showing a digital generation the true value of music. 

You’ve said that you started writing music as a way to “journal” your experiences from very early on. Do you remember what first inspired you to express yourself in that way?

You know, I’ve always said that songwriting is a gift. I started out wanting to be an actor. But I was [also] one of these tiny little kids who sang “Danny Boy” for his dad. Well, when I was thirteen, my dad was killed in a car wreck. At that point, it’s like music disappeared out of my life. I quit singing, and all I wanted to do was be an actor. At the time, my mother shipped me off to live with an aunt and an uncle that I didn’t know in Long Beach. My mother was told she couldn’t afford both of us, so she kept my little brother and so I was shipped off. At that point, I wanted to be an actor. Obviously, I wanted to be somebody other than myself at that time.

But when the acting career fizzled when I was around twenty-seven… I’d done a couple of movies I did—I did one called The Loved One with John Gielgud. It’s a very interesting picture about the funeral business. Then I did a movie called The Chase, and I thought that was going to be a big break for me; I had a few lines in it. But when it was released, I saw that my part in the movie was cut out! So, there I was with no money, depressed, and no career; the phone stopped ringing, then they came and took the phone out…

All of a sudden, this little guitar I had became the cheapest therapy in the world. As soon as I picked it up, I started writing. I guess there was some piece of me that felt like I’d done it before. I didn’t think that at the time, but looking back I do. And then, of course, the first time you play a song for somebody—especially a young lady that maybe said that didn’t want to go out with you—and suddenly her head tilts to the side and she says, “Oh, that’s really nice!” And you think, “Okay, something major just changed!”

Beyond the joking, the fact is that when I started writing songs, I finally felt like I was home. It was absolutely home.

This is really interesting to me. In all of the interviews I’ve watched and read, I hadn’t realized just how profoundly therapeutic music was for you.

All of a sudden I had a voice. Whether there was anyone there to hear it or not… For example, the first song that I really worked at that I remember writing—a song I really spent time on—was a song called, “The Hunter.” When I was about nineteen or twenty, I went hunting with a friend of the family and I shot a deer… and I hated it. There was this endless guilt deeply imbedded in me somewhere; I had never even thought about it before.

When I picked up a guitar after the fact, the first thing that came out of me was this song called “The Hunter.”

The deed is done, he cannot change it
if he could, he would arrange it
give the beast his wind and will and have him run again
God, that he could run again.

When your father died, it was like everything was shut off inside of you, musically. Then, for whatever reason, this moment when you went hunting turned everything back on again, and it all came gushing out—like it has been building up all that time.

Exactly. That’s a perfect image, because it literally poured out of me. I’m a huge believer in the power of our own process, and the ability of our unconscious to collect information so creatively… And it’s funny because that doesn’t sound like a first song! It doesn’t sound like a first effort; obviously it had been percolating in my unconscious for a while. As soon as I started writing it I thought, “Oh my God… this is what I do. This is why I’m here.”

I’m twenty-five years sober, but when I got sober twenty-five years ago, I felt incredibly disconnected from the musical side of me. Of course, one of the first things I got asked to do right after I got sober was write songs for The Muppet Christmas Carol. And it’s a perfect first project for me in sobriety, because I had a spiritual awakening. All of a sudden, I had a certain set of principles to live by that were tools for living I never had before.

So, I’m writing these songs for a story where a man is having a spiritual awakening—Scrooge! I read the original Dickens novel and I read the script that Jerry Juhl wrote. When I sat down to write the first song for Scrooge, [in the beginning of the movie] I saw Michael Caine’s feet as he’s walking down a muddy road—you don’t see the rest of him—and has he goes by these little creatures, they seem to get colder. I literally went out into a park with a piece of paper and my little tape recorder and a Lawrence Block novel and I basically said to my conscience, or to my higher power – or wherever this stuff comes from – “Okay, you know what this song needs to be about; let me know when you’ve got an idea.” I put the tape recorder and the pen and paper down, and picked up the Lawrence Block novel and I started reading.

Probably five pages into it, and without conscious thought, I set the book down and picked up the pencil and I wrote:

When a cold wind blows it chills you
Chills you to the bone
But there’s nothing in nature that freezes your heart
Like years of bein’ alone

I thought, hey that’s not bad, guys. That’s pretty good! And it poured out of me. It was if I had literally picked up something and was reading it. And all of a sudden I realized there was a HUGE piece of information there: you don’t work at this, you play at it.

I recently saw a lecture about the creative process, and the speaker emphasized that what we confuse as procrastination—what we label as procrastination—and Jen, I bet you money you’ve experienced this! You’ve got a project due, and it’s due in ten days, and you don’t do it, you don’t do it, you don’t do it. Then you sit down to do it, and it pours out of you at the last minute. Was that procrastination? He says no, and I say no. What we really believe is that your unconscious, all of that time, is working on the project.

I really need to start thinking of procrastination like that.

It’s a gift, because first of all it relieves you of all the guilt around it. That time of postponing the actual conscious work is one of the great tools to get the work done properly. If you give your creative unconscious a chance to do it… it’s your discipline, it’s your ideas, it’s your work—as much as we can tell—and it’s my work, as much as I can tell. But the fact is that procrastination is an amazing creative tool that is absolutely necessary. If it wasn’t necessary, you’d just sit down at your computer, you’d drag your sketchpad out—whatever it is—you’d slap it out, and it’d be done.

Instead, why do we put it off? Because we need that time to do the work.

The headwaters of the thought were twenty-five years ago. The basis of the realization is this, and it’s something that everybody can understand: we try to remember so many things. You can’t remember the name of the movie you saw last month, you can’t remember the name of your friend in high school, or you can’t remember the name of the song you heard on the radio. You try and try and try, and you think you’re losing your mind, but you just can’t remember—whatever it is. So, you go off and do something else; you’re washing your car, or you’re doing the dishes and BOOM, it pops into your head. What happened?

Well, somewhere up there amongst the wires in your brain, there’s a team looking through index cards saying, “Let us just get that for you. We’ll find it, we’ll find it—wait, here it is,” and they give it to you. You have an unconscious team of coworkers that are participating in your daily life, so it makes sense that they would also be major participants in your creative process. In fact that, I believe, is the key to the creative process—not claiming it, but allowing yourself to be an interpreter to your own inner creative self.

Have you felt, then, particularly discouraged or blocked or stuck in the last twenty-five years?

[Laughs] No, I got really, really blocked to the point that… When I got sober, and after I finished songs for The Muppet Christmas Carol—and I thought I did really good work—and it developed a really nice following; people really loved the songs. Yet at the time when it came out, Variety said the songs were “pedestrian.” I remember that. And my passion was gone for writing.

I went to UCLA and got my certification as a drug and alcohol counselor. I went from forty-eight Tonight Shows—forty-eight times sitting on Johnny Carson’s couch—I always joked I could remember, like, six of those times. I went from that to, in the ‘80s, hiding in my bedroom doing cocaine and looking out the venetian blinds for the tree police, because I knew they were out there.

So, I was in early recovery from a life-threatening disease and I felt so connected to the recovery world. I had been given my life back, and that’s all I wanted—that’s what I was passionate about. People would ask me if I was writing and I’d say, “Nope, not now!” And I would say it guilt-free. If I fell in love with it again, I’d do it again, but right now I’ve got something else; I’m workin’ on me. I worked as a volunteer; I worked at a musician’s assistance program… I know of one life I saved for sure, and it was mine.

But somewhere along the line, I fell in love with songwriting again. I went to Nashville… again, here’s another interesting moment in my life that no one could’ve predicted: I was cast in a movie called The Frighteners with Michael J. Fox in New Zealand. There were contracts ready to be signed, I had my plane ticket, I was going down there to do it. I’d gotten to the point in my career—this was probably around ’97 and so I was seven years sober at the time—when I was becoming able to identify the fact that when I don’t get something that I want, I usually get something I really need.

What happened was I got a phone call from my agent who said, “You know, they really wanted John Astin for the role and he couldn’t do it, but the project he was working on fell through, and they want him to do it instead of you.” I had the immediate thought, “Wow, I wonder what’s coming yet? Something good is coming yet.” Literally not a moment of disappointment. The next day I got a phone call from a group from the NSAI—the National Songwriters Association International—they asked if I’d come to Nashville for the Tin Pan South Songwriters Festival. I went and I fell in love with songwriting all over again. I heard the songs of John Vezner and a couple of other people that I really love and I decided I wanted to do this again.

I spent a several years in Nashville learning how to write sober. The first thing I wrote with John Vezner was a song called “You’re Gone.” For years after we wrote it, it became a number one record for [country group] Diamond Rio. It took going back to that community, sitting in kitchens with a bunch of guys I didn’t know, writing songs and being treated with such respect, and learning to play at songwriting again. That’s what brought me back to it. I don’t know if that’s a good story to tell or not, but I think the theme to the conversation—maybe the theme to my life—maybe the gift in all this is for me to realize that my life rolls on and my creativity rolls through my life with its own energy as well.

If I try to grab onto it… I use the expression, “Don’t squeeze the kitty.” I have two cats; they love my wife, but they treat me like staff. I think the reason they treat me like staff is because I’m too clingy! I want to pick them up and hold them. And we know what happens; you squeeze the kitty and it just jumps out of your arms. It has to be the kitty’s idea.

So, in my life—whether it’s a personal goal or my creative process—I try to do it in a really tranquil fashion and stay in the moment, observe the moment; observe myself observing the moment is what the Buddhists would advise… and just don’t try too hard. Give the universe a chance to catch up.

You do a lot of charity work in support of music education and artist development. Do any of the insights you had during your recovery come into play when you work with aspiring songwriters through the ASCAP Foundation?

Well, I think that I get fairly philosophical about the entire songwriting process. You have to be disciplined, you have to be aggressive, you have to work for change. We’re at a point right now where, for example, in the digital world… the system is so broken. It is so bad that I can sit down with a congressman or a senator and say, “Senator, in a multi-billion-dollar business, Pandora is paying $90 for a million streams.” It makes no sense. Music is so totally devalued and it has to change.

It’s so bad that I think it’s going to. But back to the songwriters I work with, it’s understanding that life is a process. When I talk about the creative process with these young songwriters I always talk to them about, first of all, authenticity. I tried to be David Bowie and I couldn’t do it because it was already taken.

One of the first songs I ever had recorded was a song called “Fill Your Heart” that I wrote with Biff Rose—he started it, and we sort of finished it together. See, I was trying to write rock and roll! Then Tiny Tim recorded it. Tiny was so sweet and it was a great record, but I wanted rock and roll: white lights, black leather—I thought I was an edgy street dude. That’s nonsense, of course, I wasn’t.

But years later, David Bowie either heard my recording or Tiny Tim’s recording and the first outside song he ever recorded was this song—on his Hunky Dory album. By being authentic, by being who I am, thereby allowing what I do to go to the person that loved it at that time, it wound up where I would have wanted it in the first place.

Again, it’s back to that “don’t squeeze the kitty” thing. I always tell young writers to be authentic. We don’t need your version of somebody else; we need your life story. What’s amazing about this whole process, I think, the reason a piece of art resonates isn’t because of something unique and different about the artist—his perspective may be unique or different—but the emotion, the pain, the heartache, the joy involved… it’s something we all share. It’s what we have in common. It’s makes a piece of music or a painting something that can be transmitted emotionally, I think.

So, what do you think about the fact that there is no A&R anymore, that the norm is that an act better be absolutely perfect before they’re even considered for a contract? What do you think can be done about this—to change the mindset back to treating music as something valuable to society?

Well, it’s a daunting challenge. But my comment about being authentic is the headwaters of the creative process… what you’re talking about is the practicality of dealing with a society that has so devalued music, as you mentioned, at the source of instruction and learning. The fact that it’s not taught in schools anymore… you take music out of schools, it reflects in mathematics and every element of somebody’s life. Every aspect of a person’s life is affected when you remove music from the education process.

As President and Chairman of the Board of the ASCAP Foundation, one of the best parts of the job is that we’re able to help, through grants to schools, in funding music education. My wife and I have a program through the ASCAP Foundation that we’re really proud about that presents an award to a rising young music student in recovery. We are active in music education and in recovery, so we combined both and try to help young musicians with a cash award and recognition.

I think that this is a perfect storm of music being devalued individually and the education system minimizing the amount of music that is taught. I think part of the change has to be legislative and part of it has to be public awareness. Part of it is you asking that question; part of it is you writing about it. I don’t have all the answers… well, I do too! It’s one answer, one word: advocacy. We have the capacity to change the world we live in when we become actively involved and allow our voices to be heard.

Somebody starting out in the world of music, doing it to make a living and for the love of making music… you’ve got to find out what’s going on in the music business these days, music laws, and the laws that we all operate under. That’s one of the things that we’re most aggressive about right now at ASCAP.

I have to wonder, given whom I write for, whether this devaluation of music has been a catalyst in the revival of vinyl records. It’s kind of taking music back from the ether and putting it into people’s hands.

I have to tell you from a totally selfish point of view: do you know what it’s like to go into your office and sit there and hold an Elvis record? You zip through the shrink wrap; you look at it, and you slide that little 33 1/3 LP out of its paper cover. You flip it over and look for the title, and then you find it—there it is! Where do I go from here? It’s got this huge “Elvis” written on it in sliver on the black label. But then you look down and the tiniest little thing you see, in a block that is almost unreadable, “Words and music: P. Williams.” It’s the most amazing feeling for a songwriter!

You can look at the liner notes and see that Joe Osborn played bass and Hal Blaine played drums and it was arranged by whoever… all of the names and faces of the brilliant people who make the music are not a part of the process anymore, and I think it dehumanizes music.

The artist performing the music today is the totality. It’s a marketing presence. No matter how much she loves the songwriters who wrote the song and the other people singing, their names aren’t out there. We’re not getting paid a decent living for it.

Going back to vinyl, another draw is the sound. I think there is a conscious… there’s something about hearing an uninterrupted stream of music as it’s played on a record player. There’s warmth, there’s comfort… the only thing I would say is don’t do what I did, because I would take my speakers, turn them facing each other, put on The Beatles’ Revolver, lie down loaded out of my brains, turn it up to major volume, and listen to the sound of a guitar pass through my head from right to left with the creative mixing that George Martin did! [Laughs]

You brought up a very interesting point that songwriters and musicians are just not visibly getting credit for their contributions. I’m sure you could find the information somewhere, but that further acknowledgement of what it takes to make a song today is just… gone.

Yeah, exactly. My point is… things are going to change. There was a really remarkable event that happened in the ‘70s. With a single commercial, they showed an actor playing an American Indian shedding a single tear while looking out over litter everywhere around him. The message was, “Don’t litter,” and it worked. It changed an entire nation. All of a sudden, “Keep America Beautiful” totally changed people’s habits. Everyone stopped littering—and it was a major, major national habit. It just disappeared.

I think amongst the creative hearts and minds that are working today… somewhere amongst that talent is a message that will make a point to the world that we need to start valuing music, we need to start putting it back in schools, we need to be willing to invest in music. In the meantime, there are two messages that I have—we’re not trying to stop the flow of music, but the people who are building their businesses—multi-billion dollar business on the back of the single product they offer—which is our songs, our music… those people need to give us fair compensation.

But I think that there’s a cultural shift that has to come, and I think that what you’re doing right now increases the possibility of that happening. We all need to participate; it’s one of the things I think is going to make a difference. The second message is advocacy. Advocacy!  

You’re right that a change has to come, but it’s becoming clear that music no longer drives the culture. I wonder what the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign will be for the music industry?

Good question. I don’t know. But I get very Jiminy Cricket about this whole thing; I remain optimistic! It’s probably questionable. People have asked me why I’m optimistic, and I tell them it’s because I’m seeing a change… slowly. I think one of the things that’s most interesting… the Daft Punk album did really well on vinyl! The last thing I expected was to be on an Album of the Year at age seventy-four! To be able to stand up on stage with those guys and say thanks for the recognition for the award…

I was going to ask you what discipline you felt like it was most important for songwriters to keep, and I’m guessing you’d probably say “optimism.”

Yeah, I think it’s key. Part of my religion is that thoughts become things. My belief is that what we dwell on, we create. If we tell ourselves, “Why should I bother? I’m not going to get that gig.” That becomes like a prayer. I think the universe thinks, “Hey, I guess he really doesn’t want it.” Without outlining the specific direction you want it go, just remain positive.

There is the capacity to help direct your life in a positive fashion by remaining positive in thought. It sounds like either a brilliant approach to living, or the ramblings of a crazy man! [Laughs] Either way, I’ll take it!

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