Thursday, November 15, 2012

Songwriting: Influences

When you list your influences as a songwriter, everyone who reads such lists has certain expectations, expectations which have become clichéd. Even defying the usual expectations has become clichéd; for example, when a songwriter cites as influence "a flowery meadow," or plays a game of reversals.

Never having myself been a member of the Cult of Dylan or the Cult of Cohen, you won't find their names on my songwriting influences list. That's not to deny giving Bob his due as an occasionally unique and brilliant songwriter, with a knack for a turn of phrase both memorable and fresh. But he's not an influence on my songwriting.

There are a lot of songwriters you learn from, that you can learn craft from by looking at their material, learning their songs, analyzing the scores, just listening. I learn a great deal about songwriting by looking at songs. That's just going to school. But that doesn't mean those songwriters become your influences.

No, your influences are those songs and songwriters that get under your skin, that get at your guts, where you go, "I want to do that!" Not imitate, though imitation is often where we learn to start to write, but incorporate. Some sensibility, or mood, or way of looking at the world you never experienced or imagined before. Songwriters who have influenced me have all had a moment for me, or many moments, where I got lost inside the worlds they created, inhabited those worlds, and started writing about those worlds myself, using my own words and music to respond from inside those worlds.

It's about being haunted. Haunting worlds created inside a song, and being yourself haunted by what you found there. That's the stuff that gets inside your bones and blood, and even though the new songs you write may be nothing like those ones the influenced you musically or lyrically, there's a ghost in there that took up lodging in your chest and still sings through your lungs, using your body as its shell to sing its songs.

It's a hungry host kind of haunting, that won't leave you in peace, but requires you to keep on singing. Eventually you learn that music is the alchemy of survival, just as art is the alchemy of life, transforming suffering into something that can be endured. Just.

One of my influences, by this definition, as a songwriter is John Dowland, the great Elizabethan composer and lutenist and songwriter.

In the alchemical transaction that is music, doing the blues, singing and playing about the worst things in life, makes you feel better. Making music about despair, death, horror, suffering, love lost, loneliness,violation, pain, all that paradoxically helps you feel less alone, feel better. Some days the blues are the only thing that keeps you going. They give you a reason to get through the night, when there isn't any other.

John Dowland wrote the Elizabethan blues. They still help us keep going.

Here are the lyrics to what is still one of the greatest songs by one of the greatest songwriters ever: "Flow, My Tears," by John Dowland:

Flow, my tears, fall from your springs!
Exiled for ever, let me mourn;
Where night's black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.

Down vain lights, shine you no more!
No nights are dark enough for those
That in despair their lost fortunes deplore.
Light doth but shame disclose.

Never may my woes be relieved,
Since pity is fled;
And tears and sighs and groans my weary days
Of all joys have deprived.

From the highest spire of contentment
My fortune is thrown;
And fear and grief and pain for my deserts
Are my hopes, since hope is gone.

Hark! you shadows that in darkness dwell,
Learn to contemn light
Happy, happy they that in hell
Feel not the world's despite.

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