Saturday, March 17, 2012

Songwriting: Touchstones

There is a small group of musicians, composers, lyricists, singers, and singer/songwriters, who have influenced me during the writing of Heartlands, rarely directly in terms of style or content, but in terms of their attitude and approach towards writing words and music.

The list of names here is partial and incomplete. These were the songwriters who I was listening to and learning from during the writing of Heartlands, but most of them were already favorites long before then. Coincident with the writing of the commission, Stephen Sondheim published his two books of collected lyrics; in fact, these two volumes bracketed the writing of the commission. During the middle of writing the commission, digging back into folk music for sources on a couple of the songs, folk music being one of my key musical roots, I took the Pete Seeger route towards discovering Bruce Springsteen, who frankly I had never given much attention to before; I had not been a fan before, but I am now, and have absorbed a great many of his albums in the past few months.

Stephen Sondheim.

When I was just beginning to write Heartlands, I acquired the first of Sondheim's two books of collected lyrics: Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981). Just after finishing the writing, I acquired Sondheim's second book: Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011). I can't say enough positive things about what it was like to read these books. I readily admit that I am not a huge Broadway fan, liking very few musicals among those available. Sondheim, however, holds place on my list with the largest body of work that I enjoy listening to repeatedly.

These two books of collected lyrics are amazing, because they are more than just that. Reading these books was like going to grad school in songwriting, not only for Broadway (which I still don't have much interest in) but in general. Sondheim still writes some of the freshest lyrics around, with very original takes on familiar life-situations.

This is like going to grad school on how to craft a lyric. The meat of the lessons are to be found in his commentaries, sidebars, and the several instances in which he gives multiple versions of the same song. Sondheim has a few basic prniciples which can be stated very simply, yet are very profound. I copied these into the front pages of my pocket notebook that I started many of my own song lyrics in, to remind me at all times. This is what Sondheim himself has to say in his Preface—and this should be etched into the hearts of all writers of song lyrics:

There are three principles for a lyric writer to follow, all of them familiar truisms. They were not immediately apparent to me when I started writing, but have come into clearer and clearer focus over the years through the combination of Oscar Hammerstein's tutoring, Strunk and White's huge little book "The Elements of Style" and my own practice of the craft. I have not always been skilled or diligent enough to follow them as faithfully as I would like, but the underlie everything I've ever written. In no particular order, and to be written in stone:

Less Is More

Content Dictates Form

God Is In the Details

all in the service of


without which nothing else matters.

If a lyric writer observes this mantra rigorously, he can turn out a respectable lyric. If he has a feeling for music and rhythm, a sense of theater and something to say, he can turn out an interesting one. If in addition he has such qualities as humor, style, imagination and the numerous other gifts every writer could use, he might even turn out a good one, and with an understanding composer and a stimulating book writer, the sky's the limit.

—Stephen Sondheim

I don't care if you write lyrics for Nashville or Broadway, if you write for solo voice with acoustic guitar in San Francisco or St. Louis, or if you write for a rock band in Los Angeles or Detroit: the lesson remains the same. Less Is More. Content Dictates Form. God Is In the Details.

Bruce Cockburn.

Bruce Cockburn is absolutely one of the great living singer/songwriters. I put him ahead of Dylan and Cohen both, ahead of Neil Young. His only real peer is Joni Mitchell.

Bruce has probably influenced my own lyric songwriting more than anyone else (again except maybe Joni Mitchell). The songs I'm writing right now owe what's good in them to what I've learned from Bruce, from Joni, and from Stephen Sondheim. That's the short list. I hope my songs are in my own voice, and my prior experience as a poet makes me tend to think that they are, but I can still hear resonances that I am happy to acknowledge.

His influence on me as a singer/songwriter is not literally in terms of content, but in terms of writing approach. Although I do very often agree with Cockburn's progressive politics as presented in his songs—which are stellar examples of how to do a political poem or song well—that's not my main subject matter. I'm not afraid to write a political song, but more often I am moved to write about the inner world of spirit and experience. I tend not to write in the abstract. What Cockburn often does, in his songs of social commentary, is take a very personal moment, a very concrete experience, and connect to the universal human experience that we all share. He makes the leap from personal to universal regularly and compellingly.

Cockburn's lyrics are, unlike most songwriters' lyrics, able to be read and appreciated on the page as pure poetry. I'm very much of the opinion that most singer/songwriters who are declared by their fans to be Poets are not; I am not, as I've said a member of the Cult of Dylan or the Cult of Cohen. But Bruce Cockburn, like Joni Mitchell, actually is one of those rare songwriters who really cam be called a poet.

Bruce has a remarkable ear for metaphors and turns of phrase, and some of his lyrics are so stunningly perfect when you first hear them: something described so perfectly that you relive the experience in yourself, even if you've never put it into words before. His turns of phrase wake me up and catch my attention. A song like "Tibetan Side of Town" is so immediate, so surprising, that you feel like you're right there, in the experience, drawn in by the imagery as if into a film. Early in the song is the remarkable line, from when the leaps onto a motorcycle to drive through Kathmandu to go drinking in another part of town, "butterfly sparkle in my lasered eye." You know exactly what that means, you can see it, even though you've never heard it phrased that way before.

Through rutted winding streets of Kathmandu
Dodging crowded humans cows dogs rickshaws -
Storefronts constellated pools of bluewhite
Bright against darkening walls

The butterfly sparkle in my lasered eye still seems
To hold that last shot of red sun through haze over jumbled roofs
Everything moves like slow fluid in this atmosphere
Thick as dreams
With sewage, incense, dust and fever and the smoke of brick kilns and cremations -

Tom Kelly's bike rumbles down -
we're going drinking on the Tibetan side of town.

Joni Mitchell.

Joni is the songwriter who I have listened to longest in my life. Unlike many of her earliest fans, I applaud the truth that she is creatively restless and doesn't repeat herself. There are still fans who want her to stay in the flower-girl waif mode of her earliest albums, such as Blue, and complained when she overtly took up jazz, and playing with jazz players, as on Mingus and Shadows and Light. The complaints were not as fierce as when Bob Dylan "betrayed" his Woody Guthrie roots by taking up the electric guitar, but they were similar in tone. I've listened to some of Joni's albums so many times that I have them completely memorized, most notably Hejira and Turbulent Indigo.

In fact it was Joni's interest in jazz, and its increasing presence in her music, that introduced me to her. By that time in my own life, I had moved away from my roots in classical and the contemporary avant-garde to explore jazz. I had just finished college, finished my degree in music composition, and was very tired of music theory. I was creatively constipated with Western art music. I was also playing Javanese gamelan music at the time, which remains a music I love. Then I started to teach myself how to improvise on the piano. Not just in jazz standards, but more specifically in the open-ended free improvisational style that Keith jarrett was doing in his live concert recordings; that Charlie Haden and Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman were still doing; I saw a concert with Ronald Shannon Jackson & The Decoding Society that I can still remember knocked me out of my chair; I saw the Art Ensemble of Chicago several times; and so on. So my ears were being opened to jazz, to improvisation.

Then I heard Joni Mitchell's Mingus album, which I got into because it was a collaboration with Charles Mingues, the great jazz composer and bassist. Bass was my second instrument, after piano, and still is. (Although I recently had a moment in a music store where I surprised one of my best musical buddies by picking up an upright bass and playing it; he'd known me mostly as a Stick player throughout our friendship.) I mean, come on, this was the great Charles Mingus! Well, that album blew me away, and then I heard Hejira with its incredible songs, and I was hooked on Joni for life. Here's the first verse of "Amelia":

I was driving across the burning desert
When I spotted six jet planes
Leaving six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain
It was the hexagram of the heavens
it was the strings of my guitar
Amelia — it was just a false alarm

There's so much in there to unpack. Like you'd unpack a poem. The thing with joni, even when she was writing her autobiographical albums (from Blue through Hejira), she always makes the personal universal. She is able to take you from a detail of life and love and connect with you by showing you how your life is no different from the narrator in the song: we all have these same complex human feelings.

During the summer, just before the surgery—which interrupted my creative process for a month, albeit surprisingly only a month—I found a copy of the first book-length literary biography written about Joni Mitchell, with the artist's cooperation: Michelle mercer, Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period (New York: Free Press, 2009). This is the first time that Joni has let herself be extensively interviewed for this kind of writing. The book is a study of Joni's autobiographical albums, from her earliest through Hejira, but it also is a history of songwriting, a biography of the prairie girl who grew up to become a songwriter, and much more. Many aspects of the songs are connected to events in life—but that on;y goes to underline how Joni is able to take personal details and transform them into universal stories and poems.

There are a million quotations I could include here, as I found this book, like Sondheim's two volumes, to be like going to songwriting graduate school: I learned a lot about the process, the sources, how to use your inspirations, how to write a lyric that has a long unrhymed line that is still musical. One thing I learned from Joni Mitchell is to not be afraid of complex jazz chords in your accompaniment; in other words, don't oversimplify the music in favor of the words. As Sondheim says, "Content Dictates Form," and any Joni Mitchell song is a demonstration of that principle.

Another thing I learned, from reading this book, was how to make the personal universal; how to take your own story, and make it one that many others will be able to relate to. I did this with one of the last songs I wrote for Heartlands, which of all 19 movements in the piece, is the one story that's most mine. It's called "Wheatfields," and is in fact a revision of a poem I wrote back circa 1994, about a childhood spiritual experience of mine—as a two-spirited boy who would grow up to be a two-spirited gay men, this spiritual aspect of my life has always been very foregrounded—when it first became clear to me that I was not destined to follow a traditional religious path. The story in the song is very much as it happened to me—and I have already received comments from singers in the Chorus that they too can relate to the song. So, the personal becomes universal. This is how art does that: by helping us connect with each other's stories, through the telling, the singing, the music.

There are some other singers an songwriters I want to credit as touchstones, who I will write about at another time. I've covered here the most important touchstones: Sondheim, Mitchell, Cockburn. Listening to this other list of artists was important to my writing process during the creation of Heartlands, and I've written before about how folk music came to be an important aspect of the overall work. For now, here's the list of names, and I'll come to writing more about them later, when I get a chance:

Michael Smith

Carol Noonan.

Lynn Miles.

Bruce Springsteen.

Pete Seeger.

Sarah McLachlan.

Since I've become a songwriter, through this process of the commission and the handful of songs I've been writing since completing it, I've been listening to lots of music from singer/songwriters both old and new to me. There are avenues I know I still need to explore. I received a great compliment following a recent performance of a song I wrote after Heatlands: a couple came up to me after the show and told me that when I was thinking they thought of Neil Young. I take that as high praise; I also take it as needing to fill the gaps in my knowledge of Neil Young. So that's on my to-be-listened-to list now.

I've been listening to a lot of what is now known as Americana music: something with folk and country roots that tells stories of life in the rooted heartlands of America. In browsing through the stacks of used CDs at thrift stores, I encounter songwriters and bands I don't know, but who intrigue me, and I take them home. I continue to discover new songs and writers that interest me.

I notice that there are a lot of Canadians on my list. I'm not sure that's accidental. I'm from the northernmost parts of the USA, right up there living next to Canada, and when I was a kid in Michigan, we got Canadian radio and TV as well as Detroit. We had Motown, but we also had CBC. It's also true that when I was a young boy in India, we were the only American family among the Lutheran mission folk there; the rest were Canadians or Brits. So I grew up with the Empire all around me, and the Commonwealth as well. I'm comfortable with Canada, just as in some ways I'm more Asian than North American. I'm comfortable with the open prairies of Manitoba because they're not unlike the same open prairies of the Dakotas and Nebraska. Maybe there's something to all this, or maybe I'm just looking for patterns where they aren't any. It doesn't really matter. The truth is that we have a lot of Canadians in the music and entertainment business in the USA; some of their best and brightest come south to make their fortunes, and we're the better for it.

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