Thursday, May 24, 2012

Songwriting: Is Listening

Yesterday someone gave me the 1949 edition of The Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein, a nicely-printed hardbound book which will go on the shelf by the piano in the living room, next to the two volumes of collected lyrics by Oscar's most famous student, Stephen Sondheim. Oscar's presence is found woven throughout Sondheim's commentaries on his own lyrics. Skimming through the book I found many familiar song lyrics, but also many I didn't know so well, which I was able to read on the page as though they were poems, and appreciate them as such.

This was a pleasant, rare experience, for me, since songwriting is words-and-music, and the two are usually so inextricably twined that you can't separate them. Even though many poets are biased towards words alone, and even though many fans claim to enjoy reading songs by their favorite singers as poems (the Cults of Dylan and Cohen are particularly prone to this), in truth it's almost impossible to read song lyrics on a page without hearing the melody in your mind, especially with songs you know well. Songwriting is a synergistic artform, not a purely literary one: words-and-music together are a greater whole, most of the time, than they are separately; in truth, most song lyrics, if presented on the page purely as poetry, are often limp and banal.

So it was pleasant to encounter Oscar's more unfamiliar, to me, lyrics, and be able to in fact read them as poetry. And I have to say, everything good that people have said about Oscar's skill and craft in writing lyrics, held true in my casual reading through this book of collected lyrics.

As I look more deeply into songwriting as a means of artistic expression, as I embrace it more as a mode of music composition, as I accept the fact that I've always been writing songs even if I didn't label the activity as such, I find myself doing more and more listening, as a songwriter, to songs written by a wide range of others, in a diverse range of modes and styles. In my occasional browsing through local thrift stores, I allow myself to pick up CDs by singer-songwriters that I might have ignored before, to see what I can learn from them. I listen to a lot of these CDs in the truck, and I do make remix CDs and playlists in iTunes of newly-discovered favorite tracks, so I can listen more closely, again mostly while driving. I find myself giving a lot more attention to Nashville than I ever imagined I ever would, if only because Nashville as a recording haven is more diverse than most people think it is.

I have subscribed to American Songwriter magazine and so far have found it to be a wealth of useful information, reviewing, and especially thoughtful interviews. Within the past year they've done a special Country issue, an overview of contemporary country trends and artists that had a sense of history behind it; they've done a Bob Dylan 50th year career assessment and overview; and there's been a profound interview with Paul Simon. I like the magazine's iPad app, which adds multimedia layers to reading the articles, including lots of videos and audio tracks, extra sidebars to interviews, and so forth. So far, my experience of this magazine has been that it's an essential resource for any songwriter. It also makes me want to go back to reading classic folk/roots music periodicals like Sing Out!

I now listen to a lot of music that these days is labeled as Americana, which encompasses styles that are home-grown rural and regional in origin, often from here in the Heartlands that bicoastal urban types fly over and ignore. Music that actually has a pretty broad range to it, and can encompass styles ranging from folk, blues, classic country, introspective balladry, and bluegrass, to swamp rock, zydeco, Missouri jazz, Appalachian fiddling, and more. What these musics all have in common is sincerity of origin and history, depth and longevity of tradition, and an appreciation for honesty and authenticity. Many have stories to tell of ordinary people living life as best they can even when life is hardscrabble and unexalted. There is no "bling" here, no lapidary exaltation of the surface of life, no emphasis on the ephemeral at the expense of what has endured.

A lot of contemporary country music artists talk about "traditional values" and "family values," but the best of these artists, people like Willy Nelson, include a lot of diversity and acceptance under the banner of "tradition" and "family." Tradition means you are not ignorant of your own history, nor trying to rewrite it to your personal gain. Family means you love the people in your life, even if sometimes you think they're full of crap.

Some of this is music that I've always listened to and been involved in, although I haven't overtly tried to craft my own songs within its styles. Folk music, old-style country, roots music, singer-songwriter material, and some interesting hybridized music that years ago I had to come up with a name for, which I called new traditions music: music that is brand new yet rooted in tradition, syncretizing existing folk traditions with the exploratory spirit of the avant-garde.

There are certain record labels that I've long known were trustworthy for finding and presenting quality songwriting. I now find myself listening to many artists new to me, just because they're on these labels. Several of these labels, by no coincidence, have long been prominent in the folk music and songwriter recording worlds, and are well-known to anyone interested in that music: record labels that are too big to be dismissed as mere "niche" labels, but small enough to remain independent and not subject to the vagaries of pop music fashion. Rounder, Philo, Folk-Legacy, Flying Fish, Nonesuch.

The latter, Nonesuch, has been since the 1970s a label that has brought to the eager listener many folk and world music recordings not otherwise commercially available; the Nonesuch Explorer series was produced, recorded, and written by actual ethnographic scholars and ethnomusicologists; as I go through my old vinyl LPs in the basement I discover that I still have most of these releases. I've listened to some of those recordings so often that for me they are as indelible in my youthful memory as rock 'n roll is for others. I am as familiar with Paul Berliner's album of Shona mbira recordings, and Robert Brown's several recordings of Central Javanese gamelan, as some of my friends are with Led Zeppelin. The formative influences on the young musician were about the same, although the sources diverged radically. I can hear many subtle influences in my own composed music that others might not be aware of, that are rooted in the world music I listened to in my formative years; one example is that I felt I was given permission to not write linear-narrative tonal programmatic music, but in modes and cycles instead. A very different approach to using music theory in practice. I know a lot of musicians who began in garage bands, imitating the music they were listening to on the radio and on their LPs; in truth I did the same, only the LPs I listened to were quite different.

So I find myself picking up and listening to a lot of singer-songwriters in the thrift stores that I overlooked before. This is part of my education as a songwriter. I'm not learning by directly imitating what I hear—I have too much experience as a composer and poet now to absorb influence so blatantly anymore—but rather by immersion in subject matter, mood, performance style, tone of voice, and the subtleties of arranging. I am discovering songs and songwriters that are incredibly good, and learning from all of them. Again, the range is diverse.

New to me is Tab Benoit's swamp blues style, but it's fantastic and gutsy. New to me is songwriter's songwriter Ellis Paul. My sister introduced me last year to Shania Twain's great feminist anti-love songs, and more. I am rediscovering folk humorist Christine Lavin, having found a few of her live albums. Nickel Creek. Alison Krauss and her various groups and collaborators. Carrie Newcomer.

And of course I go back and listen to those songwriters and folk musicians who I have listened to for many years: Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash, Gordon Bok, Michael Smith, Lynn Miles, Carol Noonan, and more. There are many contemporary women songwriters who owe such a huge debt to Mitchell that, despite their various and divergent styles and means, I think can seriously be called The Daughters of Joni Mitchell. One of the best of these is Sarah Mclachlan, and she passes on the torch with the regular Lilith Fair women's music festivals that she organizes and headlines, including the live recording CDs that follow.

Michael Smith, from Chicago, is another songwriter's songwriter, who I've listened to for years: everybody knows or has done his songs, but he himself isn't that well known; Claudia Schmidt's recordings of "The Dutchman" and "Vampire" are still better known that his own versions. Yet his albums on Flying Fish are essential, as no one else writes or plays or sings quite the way he does. His song "Panther in Michigan," based on a true story of a live black panther than roamed free for an entire year in southeastern Michigan, which I remember because I was living in Ann Arbor at the time, is a particularly fine example of topical balladry that transcends the form and becomes timeless.

I also go back and listen to singers and songwriters who I knew about, but now look at more carefully and attentively, with deeper appreciation, and deepening respect. Kris Kristofferson, Patsy Cline, Greg Brown, k.d. lang, Jane Siberry, John Mellencamp. Essential blues artists like Bessie Smith. And I have a lot of vinyl LPs in my basement that I am going through and rediscovering, including many that I'm digitizing to be able to listen to again since as far as I know those albums never were re-released on CD.

There are also a number of roots and blues and soul/R&B and rock 'n roll artists that I've been going back and listening to as part of this cycle of absorbing and learning, appreciating them more as singers and songwriters, many of whom I overlooked back when they were very often in the Top 40, but when I still mostly listening to anything but the Top 40. Or who I knew one or two songs by, but now have been listening to their whole catalog, to learn from them regarding the craft of songwriting. My respect for Tom Petty has gone way up in the past few years, for example, although I thought all along that he was an innovator and explorer in several ways. Rediscovering Robert Palmer has been fun, because of his sheer joy in life and music. Bruce Springsteen I've written about at length, elsewhere, in regards to the folk-sourced aspects of his music.

The list, and the listening, goes on.

My appreciation for the craft of playing guitar while singing is also on the ascendant. I'm learning from listening to singer-songwriters who play and sing guitar at the same time. What I'm learning is tricks of performance and presentation, as well as the formal craft of how to write an effective song as simply and minimally as possible.

Not that I have any interest in learning to play guitar as well as many songwriters do. (Bruce Cockburn and Bonnie Raitt continue to be underrated as guitarists, which surprises me, although it must be admitted that their often elegant guitar work is always in the service of the song, and not shown off for its own sake.) I do have an adequate guitar now, and have been teaching myself to play it, but in truth I've avoided guitar for most of my life precisely because it's the instrument everyone and their grandmother plays. I started at age 6 on piano, and also play many other instruments, but guitar I avoided out of an almost perverse desire to be different. No, that's not quite accurate. To be completely honest, and more accurate in retrospect, deep down inside I always knew that I was different, anyway, and no amount of trying to conform to the norm was going to change that; I tired and failed throughout my youth to "fit in" and I never did. So I gave up trying to fit in musically and socially while still relatively young (although in terms of career and finance I gave up trying to fit in much later in life). For one thing, the stereotypical teenage male notion of joining a band to "get some girls" that I saw many young kids take up guitar to get into did not appeal to me at all—since I was more into getting boys than girls. Yes, we're talking about knowing about that difference about yourself, and it did indeed affect some musical decisions as well as other life-choices.

Anyway, now I have an adequate guitar, and I am learning how to make musical sounds on it, but mostly for studio recording rather than performance. I also don't tune my guitar in any standard way, but use open tunings that ring out sonorously. Something I learned from musicians as diverse as John Renbourne, Robert Fripp, and (again) Joni Mitchell, all of whom have championed non-standard tunings. (And again another way in which I was attracted to music-making that was different, in part because of my other differences.)

Meanwhile, I've crossed off the checklist the songwriter's inevitable first time playing and singing live in front of a coffeehouse crowd: I sang a new song I wrote at a cabaret event a few months ago, while also playing Stick. So, we're making progress.

My point in this discursive ramble has been simple, however: To be a songwriter, you need to listen to a lot of songwriting, and that's what I've been doing. It's the same reason that writers need to read, read, read, and read some more; poets especially, perhaps, although novelists are not excused from the task of reading. You learn much more by example and observation, and then trying things out for yourself, than you ever do in the classroom. There's a reason most authentic singer-songwriters are still mostly self-taught—which is not to say that they are ignorant of music theory or craft or technique—and that's because learning by doing is a richer way to learn than sitting and listening to a lecturer expound. And that's why I'm listening to so much music that is relatively new to me—new folk, Americana, roots, and the all the rest: I am educating myself to become a better songwriter. This is journeyman work, and I relish it.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

The odd thing about me—and I have no explanation why this is the case—is my lack of interest in lyrics. Yes, I’ve written a few songs over the years and even set them to music myself or let others do it but when I think about most of the classic songs I would list in my Top Ten unless the song is playing I usually can’t remember many of the lyrics. This includes albums that I have played so often I’ve had to replace like Dark Side of the Moon; I can do not bad there, maybe three or four whole lines before I get stuck. It really doesn’t matter who. I have four of five albums by Sarah McLachlan which I have listened to many times although not so much of late since I tend to keep away from vocal music while I write (or at least try to) and I couldn't sing a single line of any song, not a one. I like folk music in much the same way as I like jazz. I don’t know enough about it to tell you what I like but I know what I like when I hear it. There was a documentary on about Joni Mitchell while Carrie was in the States. I meant to watch it because I don’t know much of her work, certainly not her later work; Carrie has some of her albums but I’ve no idea which ones. I did tape the Annie Lennox interview which I’ll get round to probably the next time she goes. Very fond of her as a singer; don’t know much about her as a person; she’s very private.

6:16 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Actually, I find that refreshing.

The biggest problem I've seen, when poets come to songwriting, is a tendency to pull out all the stops and show off what they can do. It leads to over-written lyrics. Lyrics I think are supposed to be simple and clear, since after all it's the synergy with the music that makes a song, not just the lyrics alone.

I do find it interesting when the vocal part of a mix is considered as an equal voice, rather than the foreground voice. Even when the lyrics matter, placing the voice in the mix as an equal partner, rather than as the dominant thread accompanied by the instruments, is quite interesting.

Sometimes this becomes a real litmus test: If there are more words than music, if there is more voice in the mix than anything else, if the proportional amount of time the voice is singing and if there are no instrumental breaks, well, we probably have one of those poet-songwriters who is too attached to writing a Poem rather than a song lyric.

9:18 AM  

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