Saturday, August 26, 2006

Life stories - a tool for songwriting

I attended a workshop on Life Stories taught by Julie Portman during Song School. The basic concept is that everyone has a story and needs their story to be heard. The listener is as important as the story teller. One comment was that “the reason for evil in this world is that people can’t tell their stories.” Another is “what greater legacy can we leave our children than our stories.”

The basic process is; take one moment (or memory) in your life and describe it fully. Ask the following:
1) Make the memory it is happening now.
2) Enter the memory (you are there). Provide details, describe with vivid detail what you see, smell, feel, etc.
3) Walk through each action, how does your body feel? What emotions did you feel?
4) Ask, what does this remind you of ?

The moment you select can be anything. For example, what did I do yesterday, or last week? Another could be to describe a life changing moment. “Life happens, we just have to notice it.”

This is a valuable tool for songwriting. By drilling down into one memory, I have all the details for a song.

I even wrote a song about this process, which hopefully I will finish in the upcoming days.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Co-writing songs

Julie and I participated in a co-writing workshop offered by Steve Seskin. Steve compared co-writing to dating, sometimes it works other times not. Since Julie and I are beyond the dating stage, both in our relationship and in songwriting we wanted to hear more.

A couple of points that I took note of:

- You need to make your partner comfortable during the co-write
- You need to be yourself
- When co-writing, you don’t work on the song when the other is not around
- Both of you have to love every line. Either throw the line out or hold it for later inspiration.
- Define your strengths. For example are, you better at big ideas or individual verses, melody or chords …
- Like dating you need to:
-- First get to know each other
-- Set a time and parameters around the date (what time, for how long…)
-- Define your relationship

The last bullet, define your relationship, had the most meaning for us. We had been co-writing for years but had not defined our songwriting relationship. For example, in the majority of our efforts, I arranged some chords, Julie provided a melody and then I wrote the lyrics. We struggled with the song College Years, because we followed this process. I came to find out later that Julie felt strongly about the melody and wanted to have a part in the lyrics. However, by that time I was invested in the lyrics. As Steve pointed out, true co-writing means working on everything together. From now on, we'll define this relationship for each song we’re working on together.

Some artists compartmentalize these tasks. For example, Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics and Elton John developed the music. Rarely did Elton John ever change the lyrics.

Another partnership between Burt Bacharach and Hal Davis was recently described in Performing Songwriter. The partnership was founded with Hal Davis writing the lyrics and Burt Bacharach writing the music. However, on “Raindrops Keep Fallin on My Head,” Burt developed the opening line. Hal tired to change it, but couldn’t find anything better. What’s interesting was that the melody was composed to fit Bob Dylan. Luckily for B.J. Thomas, Dylan turned the song down.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Rhythm in songwriting

There was a mixture of skill levels on the open stage at Song School; students and teachers, professional musicians and beginners. For some I found myself moving my feet or wanting to dance. For others, my body didn’t react at all. For some I noticed a connection to what was being said and others my mind would wander. A big part of that connection, I later learned, came from the underlying rhythm (or groove).

Billy Jonas and Paul Reisler, described rhythm as the "pulse of the song." Audiences can feel this pulse even if they’re not aware of it. Vance Gilbert described this as “treating the audience as trained musicians.” Musicians need rhythm to know their part, same for the audience. Rhythm provides structure, melody provides the texture. Rhythm brings you along with the song.

As a songwriter and solo musician timing is one of the many things I need to think about. I’m also thinking about the lyrics, the great sound of a new lick, or that next chord change. I have been accused (rightly so) of speeding up when I play louder or slowing down in difficult parts. While not obvious to me, it’s painfully obvious to others.

Some tricks I learned for keeping the beat:

- Keep time by tapping your foot. Start the beat with your foot before starting to play the music.
- Practice with a metronome.
- Experiment with different beats. Drum machines are excellent for this. Look at what beats are stressed.
- Worry more about the rhythm than those difficult chord changes. I’m amazed at how many great songs only use simple chords.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Songwriters paradise

I just returned from my second year at the Lyons Song School. What a great four days. Just imagine the creative energy when there’s 150 songwriters in one place. The school offers top-notched classes, one-on-one mentoring, and the opportunity to interact with songwriters of all levels. This year was also special because Julie joined me for the first time (more on that later).

A great example of how this school works was preparing for my performance. I was planning to sing College Years, with Julie backing me up on violin. We played it around camp and got polite comments, but no one saying it was great. In a class with Issa (formerly known as Jane Siberry), she asked the questions, “How authentic is your song? What percentage of you is in the song?” Steve Seskin in his class, made the comment, “do you love every line of your song.” With these comments ringing in my head, I woke up one morning and realized I needed to perform a different song.

So at this point I was in quandary. I was performing the next night and had no song to sing. I returned to camp and a group of friends offered to help. I went through about 5 songs before I got to “Here I Am.” From their response, the choice was obvious.

I knew I still had work to do, so I brought the song to Vance Gilbert’s performance class. Vance and the others in the class immediately honed in on my weakness, keeping time (more on this later). With the performance in three hours, I had a lot of work to do. Julie and another songwriter Mary Gerwin became my percussion section and eventually got the beat into my head.

I showed up at the performance tent, went to the bathroom (three times), tuned my guitar (twice) and then started pacing. I had a number of people come by with words of encouragement. Finally, my name was called and I walked onto stage. I started tapping my foot like Vance showed me, and launched into the song. By the end of the first verse, I heard people laughing (which was a good thing). I even adlibbed a comment. I missed some chords in the bridge, but it didn’t matter, I could feel the crowd with me. Vance started the crowd clapping (probably to help me keep time). When I finished I got a standing ovation (my first). I walked off stage to a line of hugs from Julie Portman (who inspired this song), Vance and whole line of other songwriters. The best comment was from someone who I hadn’t met before, “your song could have been written about me.”

None of this could have been done without the amazing energy of this place. Thanks to all.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be talking more about what I learned.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

College Years

I just updated my website with the song College Years. We spent the last few days arranging it in preparation for the upcoming week. If you're violin fan, check it out. If you have comments on our arrangement, let me know.

We're heading to Lyons on Sunday for Song School, so I won't be posting any new items for a week. When I return, I should have all sorts of new information.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Music Theory

I just posted on my website, “just enough theory.” In this songwriting tip, I tried to provide the minimum amount of theory needed to write a song. For years, I had written songs by the trial and error method, trying different chords until I found the ones that I liked. When I learned how the chords were related to a major scale, my ability to express myself went way up. No longer did I spend weeks searching for that next chord. For example, the chords you can use in the key of C are; C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim. To many musicians, this is basic beyond belief. To a self taught person, it was unlocking one of the great mysteries.

My tips section is designed to be really basic. There are many sites on the web that provide much more detail. The one I like best on theory is Music Theory for Songwriters.

Knowledge is power!

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Lyons Song School

On Sunday we're heading to the Song School associated with the Lyons Folk Festival. This is a great event that I had the fortune to attend last year. Over four days, there will be a variety of classes and workshop put on by performers from the Festival. The best part for me last year, however, was walking through camp and listening to the many talented songwriters that haven't made it to the festival stage, yet. Seeing all this talent explains why it's so hard to make it as a songwriter.

Julie will be attending for the first time and I can only imagine how popular she will be, being one of the few violinists in camp. I predict that she'll be on stage at least four times accompanying other artists (see laughs at this, but we'll see next week).

In preparing for the school we've starting practicing hard. One thing that we noticed is that we've worked on a large number of songs, but except for songs that we've played on stage, we haven't clearly worked out all our timing issues. Getting a song performance quality takes another level of work.

We're are looking forward to Steve Seskin's workshop on collaboration. We've done really well at co-writing lyrics on political songs. For our other joint efforts, one or the other wrote the lyrics, with the other's contribution coming through the music. It would be great to expand our co-writing efforts.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Writer's block

Over the years I've written about been a two song per month person. However, the past four months the muse just hasn't flowed. The melodies have come, but lyrics ...

Today I was looking at the discussion on Jeff Mallett's site about writers block. There were many comments, but the ones that struck a chord in me are:

1. Writer's block comes from the absence of mood.
2. To be a good songwriter you have to have full life.

Both of these tips remind me that the times away from music usually provide me with the material from which to write about. When try to be a songwriter, then the words don't flow. When I live the songs appear.

Other tips that I took note of are more active ways to get past writer's block.

3. Get a collaborator
4. Just write trash songs that you throw away. Get into the habit of writing.
5. Don't focus on capturing the perfect line, just write...
6. Rework old songs. You most likely have improved your craft since they were originally written.
7. Record all melodies and how you played them. Do this before going to bed so you don't lose them.
8. Turn on a recorder and make up a song for 30 minutes, with no judgment. When you're done, write down the lyrics. Step 3 is to edit. Save the editing for the final step.
9. "A good song is 95% perspiration and 5% inspiration."

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Great music - but the performance?

Our NJ trip provided another great surprise, twin 19 year old sisters playing in a small coffee house in Pt. Pleasant, NJ. The two sisters, going by the band name HelenaMaria were quite good, both taking turns with the guitar or piano. Their music was tight, their voices interesting and their harmonies excellent (twins, don't figure). I actually enjoyed listening more to them then the Dixie Chicks two days before.

We listened for quite a while and one of my cousins said, "they sound really good, but let's go. It's all sounding the same." I thought about this comment after we left. They had good music, but their performance didn't captivate you. So what was missing?

I thought about two of my favorite performers, John McCutcheon and Cheryl Wheeler. The thing that makes them so interesting is their banter between songs. Their song introductions draw you in so that you can't wait to hear the song that describes their story. They used humor and also serious comments. I wonder how much time they spend developing their song intros? Bottom line, you could relate to them as well as their music.

Watch for these two girls in the future. They have talent!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Dixie Chicks Live

Last night we saw the Dixie Chicks at Madison Square Garden. I wasn't very familiar with their music, so it was a great introduction. All taken in account, it was a good show.

The sound was a little disappointing with the poor acoustics of an indoor arena. I've been spoiled by small venues and Red Rocks Amphitheatre. The ambient noise in an indoor arena made it impossible to understand the lyrics of their songs. It also sounded like their goal was power rather than sound quality.

A couple of things I noticed, during the show.

- All their songs were short. Even being live with solos, I doubt any of their songs ran over four minutes. Most seemed three or less.
- They used lead instruments really well. The violin was used for accent in the songs and was rarely played at the same time as the vocals. The banjo was used well for intro's to a few songs.
- The crowd went wild with the violin, banjo and cello. My guess is they are more interesting after thousands of guitar solos. This bodes well for Julie, who was impressed with the violinist.
- They changed tempo a lot, with high energy songs followed by slower songs. The tempo changes were between songs as opposed to within songs.
- They performed "Landslide." A great song, continued to work really well.
- They did very little in the way of song introductions, at most a few seconds of unimpressive dialogue. They let their music do the talking, which was in its own way was good.
- The warm up band (I never caught their name) did a good job of using pauses in the songs. In one case, then paused after hitting a chord that was dying to be resolved - they made you wait for about 2o seconds for the next chord. To me, it worked, not sure about the rest of the crowd.

My overall impression was a concert of high energy, with a good mix of vocals and instruments. However, not knowing the words or stories behind the songs left me feeling a little empty about their songs. I now need to pick up one of their CD's to listen more closely to their lyrics (maybe that was their point).

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Crazy love - concentrate on the first few lines

In my weekly lesson with Ben Senterfit, we discussed what I need to do to take my songwriting to the next level. In front of us we had an example of a great song, Crazy Love, by Van Morrison. The first verse goes,

"I can hear her heartbeat, from a thousand miles
And the heavens open every time she smiles
And when I com to her, that's where I belong
And I run into her, like a river swan"

The first two lines paints the picture and provides the imagery. For my girlfriend, it's of great love. For me, an obsessed man. The third and forth lines, can be of him showing up at the door with roses, or them doing the wild thing. The artistry of this song is to create imagery, yet allowing individual interpretation. Even the chorus allows interpretation with the word crazy having multiple interpretations. For example, if it said beautiful love or obsessed love it would be spelled out.

The next two verse and bridge are OK, but its the first verse through the chorus that people remember. The rest is basically filler.

So what does this mean to songwriting? Concentrate your efforts on the first verse. If you don't hook them with the first few lines, you've lost them.