Metallica frontman James Hetfield names his favourite songwriters

In the 1980s, Metallica planted a bright flag in the heart of the musical map with their pioneering works of thrash metal. The fact that Metallica attracted a broad global following with their contributions to the relatively esoteric heavy metal genre is a testament to the songwriting talent of frontman James Hetfield and the band’s collective musicianship.

Hetflield’s rhythm guitar compositions lay the groundwork for most of Metallica’s catalogue and are invariably adorned with insightful, moody lyrics. Although Metallica’s most apparent influences, including AC/DC and Black Sabbath, hail from hard rock and metal backgrounds, Hetfield’s artistry is informed by music of many genres.

During a symposium hosted by Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich in 2016, Hetfield was asked how he seeks inspiration for his lyrics. “Uh… I listen to Hair Metal, that makes me angry, so… [laughs],” he began. “It comes from anywhere, a line from a movie, listening to talk radio, its kind of anywhere really, reading stuff. As far as lyricists go, I mean, there are some that I really admire and like to tap into.”

“I just wish that I could be as good as Tom Waits, Phil Lynott, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, a lot of great lyricists,” he added, revealing some of his favourite songwriters. “It is really cool to read up on them and hear how they come up with their stuff.”

Hetfield also mentioned Waits and Cave while speaking to Guitar World in 1996. “I’ve been really focusing on lyricists — as opposed to people who just sit down and crank out some words for a song — who write fucking poems and then put music to them,” he said.

Adding: “I wanted to understand other people’s ideas about how to write lyrics. Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads are the coolest, and I dig all the Tom Waits stuff. I‘ve even listened to some Leonard Cohen. I mean, I hate the fucking music. But his lyrics are very cool. You do a lot more ‘acting’ with your singing.”

Speaking to the Irish Times in 1998, Hetfield explained why Metallica recorded a cover of Cave’s song ‘Loverman’ for their covers album, Garage Inc. “We’re big fans,” he said. “I think we pulled it off with that song; we managed to retain the spark of the original whilst still adding our own identity and our own little touch to it”.

The most tangible of Hetfield’s favourite songwriters is Lynott. The Metallica frontman has revealed his love for the late Thin Lizzy bassist and vocalist on several occasions over the years. During an interview with Hot Press in 2011, Hetfield recalled Lynott’s tragic death in 1986. “It was one of those moments that was so sad,” he said. “You just wondered, ‘Why did God take such a creative person?’. But I think there was a purpose to it all. Because the struggles that he wrote about: with drugs, drink, ethnicity, all of those things. They almost speak louder now he has passed.”

“For me, going through the struggle with alchohol and addiction in general, just going back and listening to his lyrics it’s like, ‘Wow, I know what he’s talking about now’. So I love that.”

James Hetfield’s favourite songwriters:
Leonard Cohen
Phil Lynott
Nick Cave
Tom Waits
Watch Metallica perform their cover of the Thin Lizzy classic ‘Whisky in the Jar’ below.

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