About Me

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Paul Zollo Interviews Billie Joe Armstrong at Bluerailroad: Why It Matters to the Writer of Fiction and Why It Matters to Me

I've discovered an insightful interview: Inside Green Day with Billie Joe Armstrong, by Paul Zollo, in an online magazine of the arts: Bluerailroad. Zollo sets the scene for his interviews, and discusses the background of each songwriter, so the reader imagines the conversation in real time.

Armstrong's interview took place soon after the 2000 release of the Green Day album, Warning, one of my personal favorites, at a time when some critics considered Green Day to be in a slump. You would never know it from Zollo's balanced article, and Armstrong's thoughtful responses to Zollo's questions.

Zollo, the author of the classic Songwriters on Songwriting (De Capo Press, 4th ed, c2003), and Bluerailroad's editor, is compiling a second collection of interviews with prominent songwriters, to be published as a Volume 2. Generously, Zollo is publishing a selection of the interviews at Bluerailroad, including the full text of an incredible interview with James Taylor, a Woody Guthrie tribute, Armstrong's interview, and a monthly question and answer column with Bob Dylan.

Within some of the interviews, Zollo, a photographer, as well as a singer, writer, and songwriter, intersperses his own photographs of the artists, and a selection of their songs. True to its name as an online magazine of the arts, Bluerailroad also offers original fiction and poetry.

You will also find classic interview excerpts from Songwriters on Songwriting on Paul Zollo's blog at American Songwriter. In her 1989 interview, Carole King discusses writer's block:

"Songwriters, both lyricists and melody writers, are often plagued with the thing most often known as writer’s block. All writers are, writers of prose as well. I have found that the key to not being blocked is to not worry about it. Ever... Trust that it will be there. If it ever was once and you’ve ever done it once, it will be back. It always comes back and the only thing that is a problem is when you get in your own way worrying about it." ~ Carole King

Here's a tiny sample from Billie Joe Armstrong's interview with Paul Zollo:

Zollo: "Where do you think the great songs come from?"

Armstrong: "I don’t know. I really don’t. It comes from somewhere deep down inside of you that you didn’t even know existed. It’s kind of like seeing a shrink or something. (Laughs) There can be a lot of anger, or sadness, or joy, that you had but you didn’t even know you really had – but it can all come out. You feel a connection with it, and so other people can, too. You strike a nerve." ~ Billie Joe Armstrong

Since that time, Billie Joe Armstrong has had a lot of time to think about his songwriting process and where his songs come from; but sometimes I think it's best, like he said it then, to say it plain. A fellow writer, Alisia Leavitt, recently posted on her blog about a cathartic experience she had writing a scene in her novel-in-progress. She titled the post: Becoming Emotionally Involved. The more I read about songwriters and their process, and writers and their process, the more I am convinced song= story= poem= narrative= art= life, and that creativity, in music, writing, or the visual arts, all comes from the same place; we just use different languages and the instrument of the individual to express it, and emotion is the key.

I'm planning to buy Zollo's book, Songwriters on Songwriting, appreciating the insight I can gain from each artist's view on the creative process, and I'm looking forward to the second volume. And now, I wonder, all along, have I been missing something? Should it have been obvious to me that song= story= poem= narrative= art= life? It has come to me as a revelation, why, I am drawn to music, beyond being a human, and why, Billie Joe Armstrong's songs have had such a profound effect on me, even though I cannot identify with their details. I always knew a song was a poem, but I didn't know it was a story, my story, rendered in the emotion it conveys.

When I was a little girl I heard a song on the radio in the dark in the middle of the night: Richard Harris singing Someone Left the Cake out in the Rain. I don't think that I can take it, cause it took so long to bake it, and I'll never find that recipe again. Oh, no. Oh, no.... I've barely heard that song again in my entire life, but I'll never forget those words and the melody, because of what combination? The unusual words (on the surface silly), the music, and the emotion in the voice, parts of it ruined for me by the hokey music, but the overriding emotion winning out, Richard Harris singing me his story. I was "arrested" by that song, and it made an "indelible mark." And somehow, that song relates- to Billie Joe Armstrong- and to every other song, and to every other novel, and to every other poem, and every other painting, and every other drawing I've ever loved or responded to- all parts of me, and who I am.


Note: Paul Zollo kindly contacted me and sent me a complimentary copy of Songwriters on Songwriting. Thank you, Paul.


  1. Great interview find...It's truly impressive that 13 year olds respond to Billie Joe's lyrics as much as 40++ year olds. He taps into something universal that makes me scratch my head in confusion and awe. I always wonder how much of Billie Joe Armstrong we know from his writing...

  2. That was wonderful! I've always been interested in how Billie Joe and the guys write songs. This was very informative and insightful, and inspiring as well. Thanks for finding it.

  3. Hi Abbey,

    Thank you for your comment! I like your statement: "I wonder how much of Billie Joe Armstrong we know from his writing..."

    One of my novels-in-progress concerns a band that is NOT Green Day, and a singer/ songwriter/ guitarist/ frontman who is NOT Billie Joe Armstrong. It is in no way "fan" fiction, but my inspiration for the novel is Armstrong and Green Day.

    Once I became aware of them, had seen them perform live, and became enamored of Billie Joe Armstrong's expressive face on the cover of Rolling Stone, I had read only a brief bio, but I had listened extensively, over and over, to Warning and American Idiot. I began to write.

    The characters and their situation are in no way Green Day or their families. They are made up characters, who interact with other characters who don't exist in real life. At the beginning, I purposely avoided reading any more about Armstrong or Green Day, so that "fact" would not interfere with my imagination.

    The point of all my rambling: What I find amazing is that I had written scenes and scenario and backstory, that when I did find out more facts about their lives, particularly Armstrong's, I realized there were eerie parallels, not in the specific details, but mostly the impact of certain events in Armstrong's life. I believe I gleaned those facts through the emotion and the words expressed in Billie Joe Armstrong's lyrics, and the way he sings his songs. I think we learn a lot about the man from his writing.

  4. Hi Delfina,

    I'm glad you enjoyed the interview. It would be great if Zollo would interview Billie Joe Armstrong again. Armstrong and Green Day are at such a different time and place in their lives now, with their music and their lyrics.

  5. Annie K,

    I truly like to think that we know a lot of Billie Joe Armstrong from his TWO DECADES of writing as you suggest but I will always wonder. I am not a writer so I dont have a sense of how much you glean about an individual thru their writing.

    GREEN DAY as a framework for a FICTIONAL story - so brilliant! Each one of their albums must represent a snapshot of Billie's life/feelings. I hear a lot of growing up that went on between Warning and AI. Have a listen (if you havent already) to their older music - it is a collective walk down memory lane even without the shared experience of Gilman/punk living and excessive dope.

    I would certainly dig out print and youtube interviews for your writing. Who really knows how much you read/see about them is fact - some of the pieces about them could be complete cr@p. I think there is a lot of inspiration from the relationships within the band - particularly between Billie Joe and Mike that you would find (although interviews never really flush that out all that well in my opinion.)

    I look forward to reading it!

  6. Hi Abbey,

    Thanks! It's interesting how my characters inspired by Billie Joe Armstrong, speak, move, and express themselves differently from the real man. So, my characters are not him; and, the contemporary stories and the one short play I've written are not based on anything specific in his real life. But, I think the stories evoke some of the same emotions that he expresses in his songs, and in his music; and some of the same uncertainties he expresses are addressed in my contemporary novel-in-progress, through several of the characters. I would not be surprised if a Green Day fan enjoyed them, even the two speculative fantasy novels-in-progress. So, I hope one day, you will read my novels- but as I've written in other posts, I have to find the time to finish writing them! (Maybe, if I'd just stop blogging!)

    About his music, I have listened to every song, I believe. My favorite albums are 1039 Smoothed..., when they were kids; International Super Hits, which includes some of his best songs, and the other couple of songs unique to that album, like Maria; American Idiot; and 21st Century Breakdown. I probably should go back again and listen to the rest. (We own them all.)