Conversations With Tom Petty

Conversations With Tom Petty



The Pequod Review:

Conversations with Tom Petty is a very good book about the songwriting process, a series of interviews that Paul Zollo conducted with Petty in the early 2000s. The book's structure — mostly unedited interview transcripts — is a good one since it lets Petty's charismatic voice shine through, and his responses are honest and informative. As an example, here Petty describes the chords that formed the basis of his 1991 song "Too Good To Be True": 

Petty: I like that song. I don’t know if people know it, but that was another, in our last gig, where we were purposely looking for the odd things to do, and that one came out, and we played it for a bit. And I really like it. It’s kind of modal sounding. It’s all around these one or two chords that kind of repeat a lot. I just like the imagery of the girl, and things she was thinking. And I think it’s an uplifting thing, in the end. At the end of the song she’s sitting in traffic, and she thinks, “You don’t know what it means to be free/ it’s too good to be true.” I was lucky with that one. [Laughs] That came out good. I liked it.

Zollo: It has a false ending on a cool chord, which I can’t even figure out. And then it picks up again, and has a really nice solo.

Yeah, that’s one of my mystery chords, of which Jeff says, ‘I didn’t even know that chord existed.’ [Laughs] And if I was a good musician, I probably wouldn’t have used it. But I just hit things, and if it sounds good, I use it. I use a lot of variations on chords on the guitar. I’ve got my own way of doing it and playing it and voicing the chords. Which is very important, if you’re going to do our stuff. People play my songs, but they don’t get the voicings of the chords right. And the voicings are what it’s all about.

I think I just hit that chord. And it’s probably not a proper chord, but it made the right sound. Somebody could probably sit down and go, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s a diminished 11th or something,’ but it just made the right sound, so I kept it in. If it makes the right noise, that’s what I’m looking for. I honestly don’t know the names of all those chords. I don’t know exactly what a ninth is. I’m learning it, and I’m getting better at it. I know 7ths and 6ths. But once I get into 11ths or diminished chords, I don’t know the names. I know where my fingers should go to make the right sound, and I go with that.

The same on the keyboard. Sometimes I make these accidental chords that were just a mistake in the first place, but it sounded so good, I put it in. That’s the fun thing about music: Wherever your hands drop, you’re gonna create something. Sometimes there are really happy accidents. I’m sure that’s what that chord was, just a happy accident.

Zollo: Can Benmont figure out what those chords are?

Petty: Oh yeah. There’s nothing he couldn’t figure out.

Zollo: You wrote “You And I Will Meet Again” alone, which is a song about faith. And it has some beautiful imagery: “A red-winged hawk is circling/ The blacktop stretches out for days…”

Petty: Yeah. In Encino we lived on this wooded hill. There were a lot of big oak trees. To be in the middle of L.A., it was kind of a rural setting. You’d see these hawks all the time. I’d actually watch them dive, and come back up. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s where the reference to the hawks came from. You find yourself drawing on things that you never would have expected. Like a simple thing like watching a hawk circle. Later on it enters your mind, and you use it as a metaphor.

That’s a lot of the fun of writing songs, or being a writer at all, is that you’ve got the luxury of grabbing anything around you. It’s all floating around, and your job is to get as much of it in your net as you can. So when someone says, ‘I’m blocked up, and I can’t write,’ the truth is that if you take a deep breath and look around, there’s probably something really close that you could write about. It’s just having the confidence, sometimes, to go after it.

He also talks about songs that came to him immediately:

Zollo: Next comes Wildflowers in 1994. The title song, “Wildflowers,” is such a gentle, acoustic number, and such a sweet opening song for the album.

Petty: I swear to God it’s an absolute ad-lib from the word, “go.” I turned on my tape deck, picked up my acoustic guitar, took a breath, and played that from start to finish. And then sat back and went, ‘Wow, what did I just do?’ And I listened to it. I didn’t change a word. Everything was just right there, off the top of my head. The production of it is so nice. It has no drums and is very tender.

It’s a very sweet song. It's got really good intentions. It clears my head. That’s why I like that music in that album. It’s got a purity to it that clears your mind when you hear it. The production of that record intimidates me. It’s so well done that I find myself in competition with it all the time. Trying to do something that’s on that level.

Fans of Tom Petty's music will really enjoy this book.