Wednesday, November 25, 2015
Tuesday, June 02, 2015
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
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:
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
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) "