Tom Petty is less of a rock n’ roll star and more of an observational dude who believes his uncanny ability to write hit songs is, as he tells Billboard, just something he was born with.
The 2016 Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony is Thursday (June 9). This year’s honorees also include Elvis Costello, Marvin Gaye, Nick Jonas, Lionel Richie, Nile Rodgers & Bernard Edwards, Chip Taylor and Seymour Stein, who will receive the Howie Richmond Hitmaker award. The B-52’s, James Corden, Kenneth Gamble & Leon Huff, Jennifer Hudson, Marcus Mumford, Roger McGuinn, Rachel Platten, Sister Sledge, Jussie Smollett and Jon Voight are among presenter/performers.
Ahead of his induction, Petty shares the story behind his highest-charting Hot 100 solo single “Free Fallin'” (it peaked at No. 7; his Stevie Nicks duet “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” reached No. 3) the mysticism of a hit song, and a downright Buddha-esque analogy between songwriting and fishing.
“Free Fallin’”: “Jeff Lynne and I were sitting around with the idea of writing a song and I was playing the keyboard and I just happened to hit on that main riff, the intro of the song, and I think Jeff said something like, ‘That’s a really good riff but there’s one chord too many,’ so I think I cut it back a chord and then, really just to amuse Jeff, honestly, I just sang that first verse. Then he starts laughing. Honestly, I thought I was just amusing Jeff but then I got to the chorus of the song and he leaned over to me and said the word, ‘freefalling.’ And I went to sing that and he said, ‘No, take your voice up and see how that feels.’ So I took my voice up an octave or two, but I couldn’t get the whole word in. So I sang ‘freeee,’ then ‘free falling.’ And we both knew at that moment that I’d hit on something pretty good. It was that fast. He had to go somewhere, and I wrote the last verse and kind of just polished the rest of the song and when I saw him the next day I played him the song and he was like, ‘Wow, you did that last night?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And he said. ‘We’ve got to go cut this,’ and we just took off to Mike Campbell’s studio where we knew we could get in and get it done that day. So we went in and made the record that day.”
Living in Reseda: “I don’t know the girl in ‘Free Fallin’ is. I was having to make this drive every day. The studio was in the valley and I was driving from Beverly Hills to the valley and back every day and on that drive I just used to look at Ventura Boulevard, and just life’s great pageant was going in up and down that street. And I tried to grab a little bit of these characters on the road and it was kind of how I saw it. It’s pretty true of that time and that era, I remember…maybe it’s still that way, I don’t know. The skateboarders and the shoppers and the young kids in the trendiest possible clothes and the auto-tellers and the drive-thru banks. It’s a scene, it’s a never-ending scene. I thought, you could probably start at one end of this road and by the time you got to the end of it you could purchase everything you could ever need in your life. It was kind of like that.”
When you’re on a roll: “With ‘Free Fallin” I was very lucky because it came very quickly and we recorded that song in a day and we went very soon after that, maybe the next day or two, to another studio to mix the tracks — because I like to just finish the song, I don’t like songs to sit around not be mixed and all of that — and while they were working on some technical stuff in the mix room Jeff and I took our guitars into a little vocal booth they had off to the side and we wrote ‘I Won’t Back Down’ while they were mixing ‘Free Fallin’.’ So we came out of that saying, ‘We think we’ve got another one,’ and we went back and did that one in the next day or two.”
“The radio has so many rules, songs don’t”: “A good song should give you a lot of images, you should be able to make your own little movie in your head to a good song. But not everything gets offered up as a single. The radio has so many rules, and songs don’t. You don’t necessarily write to a rule book, unless you’re like just doing it professionally, which has never been my thing. I just like a lot of songs. ‘Southern Accents,’ I think that’s one of my best, really. That would have been 1984 and I wrote that on the piano in the studio at home, I had a studio and I just happened to be down there in the middle of the night, it was quite late, probably early morning, and I just started to play and a song just started to appear. I’d work on the first verse, and I’d get it, and then I’d just go bit by bit. But the breakthrough of that song was the middle eight, the bridge. When I got to the bridge I realized, ‘Now we’re talking, I’ve got something happening here.’ And when I was done with it I was extremely excited. There’s nothing like that feeling of having just written a song that you know is ‘the song’ and you know it’s really great and you can’t wait to share it with people, you can’t wait to record it.”
Mystical and magical: “To me, personally, a song is only as good as what kind of record I can make of it. I’m writing it to make a record, so it really is all about the record and then if they find life beyond that, great. ‘I Won’t Back Down,’ many people have done that, and I sometimes think maybe Johnny Cash did that better than me or whatever, but that’s where I was at the time with it. Songs are kind of mystical and magical, there’s not a formula that brings them around, I don’t have a concrete method of doing it. Sometimes I sit down and wonder if I’ve ever done it before. It’s just something I was born with, mostly. A lot of areas that are hard for somebody else are really quite simple for me. I don’t know why that is. Maybe because my mother read a lot of me when I was a young guy. When I was two and three years old, she read a lot of nursery rhymes and things that were poetry. And I’m told that I had a really good memory, that I could memorize them all very young. My mom had a lot to do with making me aware of words, so that’s never been that hard for me.”
On songwriting and fishing: “Sometimes songwriting is pretty lonely work. I don’t think a lot of people have the patience for it. You’re not necessarily going to get one every time you try. In fact most times you try you’re not going to get one. It’s like fishing. You’re fishing, and you either caught a fish or you didn’t. If you did, there’s one in the boat; if you didn’t, there’s not. But you’re going to go back and keep your pole in the water. That’s the only way you’re going to get a bite.”
Decisions, decisions: “It’s always a bit of an endeavor to figure out what you’re going to play. This tour I’m on now is Mudcrutch so that’s easy — we only have two albums. With the Heartbreakers there’s hundreds of songs but there’s 20 that everyone wants to hear so you have to balance that. You don’t want to make people feel ripped off, concerts are pretty expensive. When I go to see somebody, I want to hear the songs I love that brought me there, so I do some of them always. But I don’t want to spend all my time doing that because I still have a lot of offer as far as I’m concerned. It’s a great problem to have, really, it’s lots of fun.”