I was invited to speak to Nancy Apple's songwriting class at the University of Memphis. This started as bullet speaking points and turned into what you see here. I spoke extemporaneously, joined by my musical amigo Cecil Yancy. These were my notes.
First I would like to congratulate you on being brave enough to undertake a class in songwriting. I'm assuming you are writing songs and turning them in or presenting them. Most people would rather cook bacon naked than to put themselves out there like that. I was in a songwriting group once where about 10 of us got a word every week and had to write a song, complete with demo and lyric sheet. If you couldn’t, you were out. The first thing I did when I got the word would invariably be to write something so filthy I prayed I came up with something more respectable by the due date. Sometimes I turned in some absolute turds. We all did. To make it worse, these were people I saw at songwriter nights, and sometimes at the grocery store. Its like turning a corner and running into a person you walked in on in the bathroom. You have my admiration.
I consider myself a storyteller first and a songwriter second. Or more accurately, I am a storyteller and song is my medium.
To get the question out of the way, the words come first, for me its always the words. I am mostly interested in a particular songwriting style. I am interested in telling the human stories. The stories we will pass down. What we did and how we felt. Its a vanity to be sure, but I want to leave my interpretation of the events, real or imagined, that are the only traces that will be left of our lives. I want to capture the essence of things that can not be captured in photographs or videos. I want to conduct the feelings that make us all the same to the listener, so they know they are not alone. I’m not a songwriter in the commercial sense. I mostly write songs that I mean to sing myself, or occasionally one for a friend. I don’t knock writing commercially, nor would I turn down that opportunity, but for me, for now, it is a personal quest more than anything. Here is how I got started. I spent years playing guitar in bands, working in recording studios and later TV stations, raising kids and thinking songwriting was some magic I didn’t have. I had been musically inactive for awhile save playing Hank and Haggard on my porch, when my friend Harry asked me to play guitar in his band for a road weekend, on account of the guitar player’s pregnant girlfriend wasn’t to keen on his being gone that much. I got home and I wrote a song about our adventure in Tuscaloosa Alabama. A few weeks later I was in the same friend’s studio tracking some guitar parts and I got the courage up to play him my song. He laughed at the funny parts and I thought “shit, I could do this”
I don’t write with the intention of being “discovered”. I’m not against it, I’ll take Disney money in a minute, but its not what drives me. I am interested in the oral tradition. Preserving stories like the bards of old. I guess it sounds lofty but its important. History will tell what happened, we will tell how it happened to us.
Path to enlightenment:
This is the disclaimer. The Buddhist say there are as many paths to enlightenment as there are people. To put it another way, there are many doors that may or may not be yours. This is what works for me, now. My door might change, yours might too, but we have to keep trying handles. What else can we do?
I rarely write in a quiet room at a table at an appointed time. Mostly I’m writing all the time, in the way that I react to the world around me. A turn of phrase catches my ear. Hopefully I remember it. Maybe I had a chance to make a note of it in my phone. I keep a “hook book” of random lines and couplets in Evernote. It syncs across my phone and computer. This was one purpose, to make it more likely that I would note these things as they come. People will tell you they have terrible handwriting. I have the most terrible handwriting. I can’t read it. The effort it takes to make it legible takes up too much of my brain to pay attention to anything else, so I’m stuck memorizing things. With the advent of computers I was able to hold on to things. You would think I would be some kind of typist. You would be mistaken. Back to discipline. I tend to do the most traditional writing activity in the morning. I’m usually the first awake at my house. I put on the coffee and pick up a guitar while it brews. I noodle around, maybe run through the chords of something I’m working on. I try to be sure not to check social media before I do this. My fear is I will be distracted by whatever nonsense is going around and I will lose access to whatever by subconscious left at the doorstep while I was sleeping. When the coffee’s ready I might look through my Evernote and see whats in the hook book that could either fill a hole in something I’m working on or turn into something on its own. I might pick the guitar back up and work through some turn around or phrase that was giving me trouble. I tend to jump around until I find a trail that looks promising, and I stay on it until I realize I should have started getting ready for work half an hour ago. On weekend days when there is not much I have to do, I splash an adult beverage in my coffee, go sit in the 64 Cadillac in my backyard and make a live Facebook video with some unsolicited opinion and a song. I do these live so I don’t overthink it and talk myself out of it. If a song seems like its shaping up to have legs, I might record a demo of it or add it to the rotation of songs I’m playing out. I find performing to be a good indicator of whenever or not I should keep refining a song. Its better than playing them for family or friends because they have a certain picture of you and a certain set of tastes. Just because my wife does not react to a song doesn't mean its bad, it just means it didn't hit her in the feelings (or the funny bone). Perhaps it doesn’t relate to any of her experiences, perhaps she asked me a question before I played it for her and is still waiting on an answer.
The other time I seem to write a lot is traveling. It could be the forced isolation of an airplane or a long drive. It might be the stimulation of new surroundings that makes me extra observant. Whatever it is, changing my location seems to jog the words loose.
I find inspiration in stories people tell. The story tells you as much about the teller as it does the subject, if you know how to listen. One of the biggest treats for me is when someone who is good at telling a story tells me one that means something to them. The cadence of how they speak, The words they choose to put emphasis on, the rich subtext that is left for interpretation. I love the rhythms of how people speak. I find the best examples of this are when speaking with people older than me. Maybe they are from a generation that still knows how to have face to face conversations. Maybe they story got richer as it aged. Maybe they have just had longer to tighten it up.
I have a theory about why so many great writers come from the South. We have a way of poetically speaking around things. We soften harsh words. We don’t say someone is pregnant or knocked up (we do but not around Grandma) we say she is “in a family way.” I detest small talk, but every so often the southern custom of being polite and making conversation has offered up some real gems. I love the particular turns of phrase or rhythms of various regions and times. Pay attention to how these can paint a picture of place. I write a lot about specific places. I really think there is some magic to it. In his book Mississippi: An American Journey, Anthony Walton referred to Mississippi as "perhaps the most loaded proper noun in American English.” I spent a lot of time in Mississippi growing up and it makes frequent appearances in my writing.
I tend to use a lot of humor. I was treated to a pearl of wisdom by a Memphis songwriter BB Cunningham during a listening party for a Memphis Songwriters Association. After a particularly morose tear jerking drone of a song the judges were commenting on how heart felt and powerful the song was and BB spoke up “Yeah, but nobody’s gonna pay $5 for a bad trip.” He was right, nobody ever wanted to hear that song again. Its one thing to be true to your feelings, but if you want to do a service to the listener you have to give them something, hope, a way out. I think its a working class reaction, a coping mechanism. I would encourage you to google African American folktales (look for John the Conqueror) of the slave period. You often find humor and hope to be central to dealing with an intolerable situation with relatively no power. We learn to laugh, even when it hurts.
I mentioned before the bardic tradition. Kings and Knights actually payed people to write songs about how noble, or brave or just bad-assed they were. These songs reached the next village before Sir Lanceaposer ever did, if he ever did. These oral histories shaped what we know and how we feel about these people and the events of their times. I don’t know if my story of buying a car from a dead man with my Father will ever sit beside the epic of Gilgamesh, but so what? I have this song that I’m asked to play often at shows or just family gatherings, maybe it isn’t immortality but its a sniff of it and it makes me smile. I don’t just write personal stories, but every story I write that has ever resonated with anyone resonated with me first. This goes for personal histories as well as made up or historical stories. I have no interest in writing ear worms, this is why I consider myself first a story teller.
What’s in it for the listener?
While all the personal meaning is important, what’s in it for the listener? Can they relate this to their own experience. Maybe not in actual events, but in feelings? Does this validate them? I heard an experienced elementary school art teacher talking to a new teacher in a bar one night. The young teacher was complaining about how her students wouldn’t listen to her. The senior teacher quickly and forcefully replied “Have you given an 8 year old a reason to listen to you?” It stuck with me, never forget, why should someone spend 3 minutes that they’ll never get back listening to my song? Does it spark their imagination? Does it stir feelings? Does it make them feel less alone?
It’s lonely, It’s Messy
No getting around it. If you are listening to too many voices, you won’t hear the one in your head. It requires some isolation. It requires thinking about things you don’t necessarily want to think about. It comes with a ton of doubt, It requires just enough confidence to get past the doubt, but enough humility to know most are base hits at best, and sometimes you are gonna drop a stinker and worse you may temporarily be in love with it. You need to learn to take feedback. You need to learn to recognize and appreciate real feedback. You also have to know when to listen to yourself. You will often get it wrong, so don’t be too hard on yourself in this regard. Another nugget of wisdom I was treated to was from the producer David Foster at a talk he gave here at the University, “We mustn’t be too precious about any of this.” You have to know when to change something, or when to let something go when it doesn’t work. In the novel writers world they say “Kill your darlings.” It sucks.
It’s messy too. Your song is your truth, but it might not be the way somebody else sees it. Especially those close to you. They have an image of you, and when something alters that image it upsets the balance of power in the relationship. We are hard wired to maintain these power balances. Going against this is not without pain. Growth is not without pain. Truth is not without pain.