This interview is from the 1978 book

How to Be A Successful Songwriter

Paul Williams: "If there are people who would listen to what I have to say who could be talked out of their careers, then they shouldn't be in it. If they're writing at all, they're already winners"

The building at 9255 Sunset Boulevard is "home" for a lot of people in the entertainment industry, for it is here that many managers and agents maintain their offices. Just beyond this building are the posh homes of Beverly Hills, and this building is the last reminder of the business part of the show world on Sunset Boulevard.

This building provided the setting for a talk with Paul Williams for it's here that Paul's manager, Denny Bond, has his office. We met Paul there on a Wednesday afternoon just after he had returned from an engagement in Las Vegas.

Williams seemed to have a light-hearted attitude about the success he has achieved with such songs as "Rainy Days and Mondays," "We've Only Just Begun," Both co-written with Roger Nichols, "Just An Old Fashioned Love Song", and with his major contribution to the film Phantom of the Paradise as an actor, singer and composer.

Paul's attitude might be the result of his becoming a songwriter almost by accident as he outlined to us; or it might be that there are many sides to him. Indeed, when Paul said at one point, "You can't have too much beauty in your life," we began to feel that being funny was just one facet of his character.

Paul was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and his father, one of the architects for Boys' Town, kept the family on the move during most of Paul's boyhood. "I was always the new kid in town and made a living getting beaten up." Williams has found a more socially acceptable way of making a living since his high school days of fighting, for he has become one of the hottest entertainment packages in the industry today and is realizing his first goal of becoming an actor by going through the back door.

Interviewers: Long before we heard any of your music, we saw you in a couple of movies-The Chase with Marlon Brando and Robert Redford, and The Loved One with Jonathan Winters and Robert Morse. How did you go from acting to songwriting?

Paul: I went into songwriting because I failed in what I set out to do, which was to become an actore. I started writing songs for pure mental health reasons, for my own amusement, for something to do. It was wither that or hang myself, you know.

Interviewers: You said you "started writing songs." Did you have any background or play an instrument?

Paul: I had no training and didn't play anything. I worked on a picture called The Chase for five months and spent almost all the five months in my dressing room hiding. I knew as soon as they found out I was on the picture, they would fire me because my part was so tiny. It was probably a computer mistake that I was there. There were a lot of us hiding. Marlon Brando and Robert Redford were out expounding and I was hiding-taking home my $350 a week-and I was very happy about it.

One of the fellows there had a guitar, and I had discovered a few chords, which I was going to patent-C, F, and G. I didn't know other people knew about them. About two years later, I picked up a little guitar for $25 and I couldn't play other people's songs so I started "doodling". I've been a chronic doodler since then.

Interviewers: So you started "doodling" creatively then?

Paul: I started doodling creatively. I wrote about a half a dozen songs and was taken by the hand down to a publisher, and I thought, "Nobody's going to want to hear these. This is ridiculous." Much to my amazement, people started recording my songs. I had a natural feel for lyrics, and although I had no musical training, I had the good sense to realize that my music was really boring at that stage, so I sought out collaborators.

When I was working on the Mort Sahl show as a comedy sketch writer, I met a guy named Biff Rose, who was writing comedy songs, and he'd written a melody that he hadn't written any lyrics to. He said, "Here's something that's really funny." I said, "That's not funny, it's pretty," and I wrote the lyric to it. It was called "Fill Your Heart." It was one of the first dozen songs that I'd written, and Tiny Tim recorded it. It was the flip side of "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," so all of a sudden I was making this good solid living.

Songwriting paid off before I ever played the songs for anybody because it helped me to understand myself better. It was great therapy. So, for therapeutic reasons, I was already ahead of the game, and it never occurred to me that people would want to record them or that I could make a living at them. It was beyond my wildest dreams that I would make a good living at writing or become known for it or develop a career as an entertainer based on it.

Interviewers: You simply began to write to help you relax and feel better?

Paul: Sure. There's a great comfort in writing something. You're giving vent to your feelings and if somebody else relates to them, there is a great comfort in that. It's like, "I'm not as strange as I thought I was; somebody else can relate to that too." It was really an accident, and that's probably responsible for a large part of my attitude.

After I recorded an album, I agreed to do one concert and one Tonight Show because I though I should probably try to promote it. That was like 200 television shows and I don't know how many concerts ago. Obviously, I really enjoy it, but I have a very light attitude about it because it's all an accident. I wanted to be an actor and they wouldn't give me a job. Now, totally through the back door, I'm getting acting gigs and film things.

Interviewers: With all of these activities involving movies and other things, how do you respond to pressure in terms of writing? You certainly must be under pressure now. How does it affect your writing?

Paul: It helps me. For instance, when I go to Las Vegas I get into a very regimented and disciplined kind of life while I'm there. I do my two shows. I go to bed early and get up in the morning and write all day. I rent a house and get the hell out of the hotel and write my songs, because the blue heron and butterfly glasses will get you, you know. I wrote most of the last album on gigs. The one thing that people will generally respond to is my writing. They leave me along if I'm writing because they have a basic respect for that. It's always been a great escape for me. I could live in the Sahara as long as I had a piano.

Interviewers: Now that you've had several hits, do you find that writing comes easier for you?

Paul: There's certainly as much personal satisfaction as there was before, but it's just as difficult. Sometimes it's easy. Those are great days, when you sit down and it just flows. It took about 20 minutes to write, "Old fashioned Love Song." "Rainy Days and Mondays: must have taken four months. I copuldn't figure out why they get me down, and what am I going to do about it? I don't know! I don't care! I'm not going to finish it! I'm getting out of town.

There have been times when I was convinced that there was no way in the world that I could finish something. Sometimes I have been so confident that I could write a lyric to something that I didn't do it until the last minute. John Williams wanted me to write some lyrics to a couple of songs for the movie Cinderella Liberty. One of them was "Nice to be Around," which was nominated for an Academy Award last year. I wen to Mexico and took my wife, and we had this groovy house up in Acapulco, and all I played all day, over and over again, was that melody because I loved it so much. The night before we left, I sat down and wrote the lyrics to it. I didn't even try before, because I knew it was there. Sometimes it's really hard though.

Interviewers: Does it bother you sometimes when it doesn't come easily?

Paul: Yeah. I never met anybody who wasn't convinced at some point that that was the last song they were ever going to write. I know that I will always write songs, but I'm not sure whether they'll be hits. I've known so many writers who have written one hit. They were terrified that they were going to be a one-hot songwriter. I was very lucky because I had two hits at the same time, so I was terrified that I would be a two-hit songwriter. After my third hit, I was terrified that I would be a three-hit songwriter. Now I'm terrified that the last hit I wrote might be the last one I'll ever write.'

I've been lucky in two areas. A few songs like "Family of Man," recorded by Three Dog Night, and "Cried Like a Baby," the Bobby Sherman thing, were in a sense "one-time" hits-not copyright songs. Something like "I Won't Last a Day Without You" was on album after album. It was the B-side of "Touch Me in the Morning" before it was ever a hit, and it sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

Interviewers: Paul, you have such a unique way of communicating ideas about love and relationships. We were wondering what influenced you to write the way that you do?

Paul: Family, friends, people, ladies-mainly ladies-you know, fantasies. Fantasy is the most accurate-fantasy is usually so much more accurate in describing an emotion than reality. For example, when I was really happily settled down with a lady, I could usually write with much greater accuracy about loneliness than I could when I was along. When I was along, I found that I could write endless songs about the perfect love affair.

I write about love a lot. Now, our feelings about love over hundreds of years have not changed, so I must say the same thing differently, in a way that everyone can understand. I think my songs are gut level-what I call "street Language." To me, they're street language poetry. I don't write what I call "canyon of the mind" lyrics. Not the esoteric lyrics are not sometimes great. Bob Dylan has written some things that Iím sure mean different things to everybody, and he's a brilliant poet. T.S. Eliot's works have probably been interpreted a hundred different ways by a hundred different scholars, and they still are brilliant; however, I usually state things pretty simply.

Interviewers: Are there some writers who influenced you more than others?

Paul: I was influenced by John Sebastian, the Loving' Spoonfull, the Beatles, of course, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon. To me, Paul Simon is a Cole Porter of the Sixties and the Seventies in the sense that his music is very cerebral. There's such great intellect to his writing. He's so clever. He's so incredibly clever and yet moving at the same time.

Interviewers: You mentioned the Beatles as having an influence on you, and of course, they wrote many of their songs in collaboration. How do you feel about writing with someone else?

Paul: It's been great for me working with people like Roger Nichols, Johnny Williams and Kenny Ascher. That's really been my education, my musical education. I continue to write by myself and collaborate at the same time, learning more and more about music from the people that I write with. I write in spurts, sometimes with people and sometimes by myself. I think lyrically the best songs I've ever written, I've written alone. They may not be the best songs; they're certainly not the most commercial. When Roger and I wrote together, he would write the music, and I would listen to it. If I heard lyrics in it, I'd write it down.

Kenny and I write in a very unusual fashion. He and I write like I write alone. In other words, we just sit down and start writing-the words and music come at the same time. Another thing that's been great for me is working with good studio musicians. Unfortunately, they don't get nearly the credit they deserve because they contribute so much to the production on my records. For instance, the guitar player will play a line, and we'll double it or triple it, you know, with the strings. They give so much, and so seldom get credit for it. Thank God that you can surround yourself with really good people like that because they can really make things better or give style to something that lacks it.

Interviewers: What about writing by yourself? Is there a pattern? Does one come before the other?

Paul: Usually, I get words and music at the same time. Perhaps the first verse will come, and then I will pursue it and finish the musical format so I have something to work from as a structure. Then it's easier to complete. In other words, I'll sit there, and I'll write a verse, go back into a second verse situation, and then realize I'm going to need a bridge and develop that next. A lot of times it will just be an idea that will get written down, and I'll live with it for a while before it comes out.

Interviewers: You've talked about your association with different people and how beneficial it was for you in your career. Do you think this is something that writers should keep in mind?

Paul: I think If they want to pursue professional songwriting, they should go to a reputable publisher. The easiest way to do that is to go to one affiliated with a record company-Warner Brothers, A&M, Screen Gems-Columbia, Twentieth Century Fox-because they can't afford to be dishonest. They spend thousands of dollars every year insuring their own honesty, and they can't afford to spend the time in court. I would say, go see a Twentieth Century Fox or an A&M or a Warner Brothers, but don't mail in an ad in the back of a girlie magazine. Send me the girlie magazine; send the song to a reputable publisher.

Interviewers: What else is important to people just starting out?

Paul: Well, first of all, if they're writing at all, they're already a winner. They're already that much closer to living with themselves or expressing themselves or understanding themselves better. I mean, they're that much closer to being a winner just by virtue of the fact that they're writing. If anybody wants advice from me on how to become a successful songwriter in commercial terms, there is no formula. I don't think you can discourage somebody who believes in what he's doing. If there's anybody who would listen to what I have to say or read what I have to say who could be talked out of pursuing his career, then she shouldn't be in it. There's enough competition as it is. Finally, it takes great craftsmanship. A great songwriter is both and artist and an artisian.
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