Wednesday, November 25, 2015

It Doesn't Take That Much

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Halfway Through Tunesmith: Jimmy Webb's Most Excellent Craftwork

I'm halfway through Jimmy Webb''s Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting. It is simply the best book on the smithy aspects of songwriting I've had the good fortune to read. My thanks to Chuck Puckett for insisting I get and read it. It had been mentioned in other contexts but that was the sign of the symptom. Used copies from Amazon with shipping are less than ten bucks; so for the price of a latte and a doughnut, you can own a treasure trove explaining in detail how to craft a professionally written song. If you are a songwriter, getcha one.

I thought this would be a breezy book full of anecdotes of an unarguably spectacular career. Instead it is a densely packed master course in the craft of songwriting full of anecdotes of an unarguably spectacular career. The only place I might quibble is his distaste for home recording studios but when the book was written, the Nineties, he was right. As Terry Woodford at Wishbone Studios once warned me, "They get those fuckin' four tracks and turn into engineers and forget to write songs." Having experienced the four-track to eight-track to sixteen-track to sequencers to samplers and finally to digital workstations evolution and wasted hours and hours chasing a ground fault instead of recording, he was right. Complexity kills creativity. On the other hand, like the character on Night Court, it is much better now and a good home recording system that is easy to operate is within anyone's reach. That said, if you can't just step into the "magic circle" turn it on and start working, get rid of it and buy something simpler. Gear junkies are not the friends of songwriters or music in general. Really.

The chapters on writing lyrics are quite good. I don't know many songwriters who use the term metric foot but those who understand it write better lyrics from a musical standpoint. An irritation when listening to songwriters perform their songs is that they can't precisely understand why a lyric sounds forced or is awkward to sing, that is, getting vowels and consonants lined up with the beats is really not an inconvenience. Musicality and semantics (what do I want to say in this song) contend for dominance but it is a song and musicality or singability should win.

Now comes the part of the book I suspect many people skip: chord theory, progression, substitutions and functions. Here is where the good songwriters and the excellent songwriters part company usually in the snark of a Nashville attitude of chord policing. Webb talks a bit about that but disregards it and goes on to explain the aspects of voicing that make the difference between a guitar player and a guitar thinker, between someone who can sing a Crosby Stills and Nash harmony and someone who understands why Mozart is as good as it gets.

One can network and get a certain distance even a profitable one into the music business. One can study theory and find oneself shut out of certain networks or called "cerebral", but eventually triads run out of steam and writing about daisy dukes, whiskey, and screwing in the back of a pickup means the songs are interchangeable and forgettable, then success or a career is a matter of who you know or blow and not your skill and the elegance of your work. Pretty only goes so far or lasts so long and even cleverness loses to one prettier that day or more willing. Be appropriate to style but don't limit yourself to one. The ability to analyze and write in any style is the hallmark of a professional.

There are singers, songwriters, singer-songwriters and composers and if one wants to take the adventure of a lifetime that is music, it pays to keep at the study of music as much as the practice. And this is where too many who frequent the songwriter nights fall off the chuck wagon.

Life is a long song. If you want to thrive in the multiverse, cross the bridge.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Open Mic at The Bluebird

This article is mainly for my friends who are songwriters considering going to The Bluebird in Nashville for their Monday Open Mic Night. Open Mic Night is the opportunity to simply show up and play in a room that is arguably the Carnegie Hall of songwriter rooms. In other words you play there to play there. Songwriters don't get "discovered" or "make it" at The Bluebird. They get to play their songs to an appreciative audience. Full stop. Adjust expectations accordingly.
I've played at the Sunday Songwriters Night which is an audition-filtered event. That is a different show where songwriters who pass the audition can appear when scheduled in six month intervals and play a show with nine other writers one of whom will be the headliner and a professional. The open mic night is a "line up, sign up, get a number, go on when called". You wait in a long line outside because the seats inside are given to the paying customers who also wait in a long line for the privilege of getting a seat. Some pointers:

  • 1. The sign up time is 5:30PM prompt. At that time a fellow will come out and put people in the right group. Songwriters are in one line. Audience are in the others. It is a first come first seated and it fills up quickly. If you want a good seat, get there early. If you want to be sure you are going to perform, get there early. Some folks were lining up at 3PM. I got there at 5:35 after a short jaunt into the country side and my number was 22. Songwriters and audience were still arriving after six and were being told by security to come later but that they might not be seated.
  • 2. There is security now. That didn't used to be the case but the crowds post-Nashville series have made the Bluebird a very popular tourist destination even on a Monday night. Send Callie Khouri a note of congratulations for turning the most famous songwriter room into a Hollywood icon. The black-shirted security fellows aren't obnoxious but parking is limited and people can get upset. So they are a good thing.
  • 3. The Bluebird is a very small room. It is a converted sewing shop in a small strip mall on Hillsboro Pike. The Bluebird you see on the show Nashville is a Hollywood set and is larger than the real Bluebird. If you don't know precisely where it is you will breeze right past it as I did and I have been there multiple times. Go early, find it, then go have lunch. Get back early.
  • 4. The songwriters stand outside while the paying audience is seated. The room has been through multiple owners since Amy Kurland founded it years ago and it is now a profitable room and no one should object to that. But the comfort of the songwriters is no longer the concern it once was. This isn't to say that the staff is not gracious. If anything they are now more gracious than when I played there some years ago after it taken over by different owners. The staff is working hard and the crowds are large. The implication is don't take your entourage, family, mistresses whatever to open mic night. If you insist, make sure you get there early enough to get a seat because otherwise they are going to stand outside while you perform one song. Some of the people in the line have driven or flown hundreds of miles to be there. Let that humble you. Be courteous, professional and go solo. You can take a playing partner if you need that but leave the band at home. It is a songwriter night, not a band gig.
  • 5. You are standing in line with a lot of other songwriters and audience waiting for someone to leave so they can get a seat. This is a good time to network as they say. Take your business card. Listen. Some are sitting on the sidewalk playing songs for the others and they tend to be the young. Most of them are very young. You will hear good and bad songs, see smiling faces and brand new guitars. You may be asked to loan someone a guitar who flew in that day for this open mic or a capo for someone who forgot one. An amazing number of these people are staying at a local motel in hopes that in the time they are there they will be "discovered". Some are very intense focused people determined to be heard and make their mark. A few are locals who come regularly to play at the open mic. Some are songwriters who have come to promote their new indie album. Everyone has a story and they are worth listening to. Make friends. A fellow next to me said the last time he played the open mic it was with a young girl named Taylor Swift. In other words, while performers aren't necessarily discovered there, almost everyone who is played there. Take your best manners and listen. You never know.
  • 6. After you sign the slip of paper with your name outside, a fellow will come give you your number. If you are in the high teens or twenties, you have time to go get a meal. Remember you aren't going inside until your name is called and there is no easy access to a bathroom. Tune your guitar before you go inside (a keyboard is provided if you are a keyboard player but I didn't look at it so have no idea what it is). The reason to do this is "this is a tiny room". You will be called as the songwriter before you is going on. So one on, one waits just inside the door. It is a narrow space and the room is packed wall to wall. So best to prepare outside. It is a cold walk on. If you need to warm up, do that on the sidewalk or in your car, van, whatever.
  • 7. It is very quiet. Unlike local rooms, people don't talk or kibitz while the songwriter is singing. You get to sing one song. Plug in, tell them your name and the name of your song, then sing it, enjoy the applause (people are very nice about that), then unplug and go back outside. This isn't the time for stories, apologies and restarts. I didn't see any music stands so learn the song by memory. Pick a song you play and sing well and can do when you are terrified. You will see people go in with a swagger and come out a bit pasty. It's called adrenalin and it's healthy. Everyone is scared and if they aren't check their pulse. Do enjoy the moment because if you are there you are among those who have the confidence to be there and the people really do appreciate it. They do this every Monday and you can come back.
  • 8. Most of the songwriters are singing country songs and some of them are decidedly un-country people. They have a speaker outside that lets others hear you. The number of really awful faux country accented singers is really awful if like me you really are a southerner and not a Canadian come to show us how it is done. That's Nashville. In my opinion, fake country accents don't help but opinions vary. Mine is it's your song. Be yourself. Play the music you play best.
  • 9. You are in and out quickly. This is a performance production line because it has to be. Again, they are going to put around thirty acts in and out in a few hours and then a late show that may be say an album release party. So the clock is running. All systems are ready, the guitar cord is usually on the mic stand or on the floor at your feet. Most people sing standing and that is a good idea but if you sit as I do there are chairs. This is an "intimate room" meaning the audience is right there in your face. On the other hand the room is very dark and the lights are such that you really can't see them. They are very polite, very quiet and you will be heard. The mics are dry so if not having reverb bothers you, it will bother you. But it is a professional room, well-eq'd and the sound is warm. It is a good sound. (Hint: did you check the batteries in your axe?)
  • 10. There was a young lady giving out the directions to another room, Daisy Dukes (no kidding) that you can go to and perform after you finish at the Bluebird. I needed to get back to Huntsville so I didn't go but some of the other folks in line did. I may check it out next time when I can stay overnight.

  • Take your best song, a guitar with fresh strings and your humility. This is fun, it is good for your confidence and it is The Bluebird. It won't make you famous. It will make you better. As a songwriter AND a musician, get up every day and get better.

    A postscript: as I was leaving town, I went into a Burger King to find a bathroom and get a burger. The restaurant manager behind the counter was looking at a rap video a customer was showing him and telling him how to best market his song. This is Nashville: Wall to Wall.

    Thursday, May 07, 2015


    I find myself thinking about the realities and unrealities of songwriting as a business. As a creative process, it isn't difficult but as a business it seems to be more warped these days by the industry that while saying "it's all about the song" hides the reality that it is all about the deal, the image and the trite repetition of cliches about country life or rock life or folk life or blues life that bear little resemblance to how people actually live while dumbing music itself down. Harlan Howard was the songwriter who made the famous statement that country music is "three chords and the truth".

    The music mills have the three chords part down but the truth slipped away. The brilliance of the American songbook has been steadily going down the drain of spreadsheet analyses of what will sell and how to sell it. As the desperation to be part of the market machine in hopes of wealth or fame or a good time reaches out into the C-lists of wannabe songwriters who are told how to "cooperate and network" but little about how to recognize a good song I am struck by a remark by Joni Mitchell passed on by an interviewer:

    “Somewhere after 2007, around that time, I think,” she says she heard, on the radio, a record executive “saying quite confidently, ‘We’re no longer looking for talent. We’re looking for a look and a willingness to cooperate.’ ”

    To those who claim it was ever thus, I say bullshit. There was a time when creativity combined with a deep knowledge of music counted for more and if one believes what Howard said, we have to admit that a list of Grammy wins and co-writer credits may only testify to one's willingness to accept that reality, put it over and go along for the ride. One reads blog after blog about what it takes to be "commercial" and nothing about what it means to honestly observe the world as it is and write songs one will be satisfied to sing.

    The epitaph of this generation of songwriters and songs may be a single word: "Forgettable."

    Sunday, April 26, 2015

    Is Diversity In Music An Insult to the Audience?

    It was an intriguing question after our gig last night: can this town or any other audience these days embrace groups that choose to play diverse styles and sounds or are we forced by the narrowing tastes of the loudest in the audience and the curators of local culture to play only one, to take on that image and to rise and fall with the popularity of one style? Labeling for the sake of marketing and clique formation plays a role in selling but when the market controls dominate the creative processes the results are predictable both on the product and the producers.

    The explosion of the Sixties was not fueled by one style or lit by the domination of blues, folk, so called roots music, jazz or any other single form but the fusion of them by eclectic songwriters and arrangers who understood their connections and how to create background/foreground compositions both original and enticing. Ever since that time as musicians and writers have been forced into the labeled molds, music has declined in brilliance, intensity and originality.

    The Beatles never stopped learning new things. The Beach Boys were the product of a group of jazz players who understood technique and how to fuse different styles. The hits of Glen Campbell were the outcome of the eclectic chordal and melodic reach of Jimmy Webb in defiance of the so-called Nashville Sound whose Chord Police would have strangled them had Campbell not been a member of the legendary Wrecking Crew with access to the best players in the world at that time. Yet just as post after post in social media yearns for those times and celebrates that music, the audience driven by social agendas and self-serving curators keep wrapping steel ribbons of This But Not That around the creative classes as if to say they cannot fly because to allow that is to admit wings are not common among ground walkers.

    "Where shall we go now, where shall we go
    To hear the sweet voices of liberty?
    How shall we come again come to the flaming torch
    The light that shines in our memory?
    The shattered hopes of happiness
    Are lost in foam and splinters
    Of men like wooden ships
    Broken on the reefs of contentment.
    " The Reefs of Contentment - Ground Level Sound (1991) "

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