Learning Curve… and a Favor

As with many things in life, starting a new blog involves a bit of a learning curve. One thing I’ve learned (about blogging) is that WordPress (the blogging software I’m using) comes in two flavors: one is hosted on their wordpress.com website and the other runs on the blogger’s own ISP.

The self-hosted version of WordPress offers greater flexibility, more plug-ins, etc., so I registered “onsongwriting.com” as a URL through GoDaddy so I could run the groovier version. Probably more info than anyone but me should care about, except for one detail: the original RSS feeds set up on this site will not automatically transfer to the new domain.

ACTION REQUESTED:

So here’s the favor to ask… If you are an RSS subscriber to this site (onsongwriting.wordpress.com) and wish to continue being notified when I post new blogs and songwriter profiles, you will need to sign up for a brand new subscription at the new URL:

www.onsongwriting.com

Simply click on the link above and then choose your notification preference: RSS or email. Both options appear at the top of the right-hand column on the new site.

I appreciate your interest in On Songwriting and apologize for inconveniencing the dozens of early supporters who already took the time to set up an RSS feed once. So it goes with this particular learning curve (sigh), but I hope to see you at the new site — www.onsongwriting.com — real soon!

Rick Jamison

Advertisements

Whom Do You Inspire?

As songwriters, we are sometimes asked “Who inspires you?” “Who are some of your favorite composers?” “Who do you listen to?” “If you were stranded on a desert island and could only pick one…” but I digress.

The flip side of the who-inspires-you coin asks the inverse question: “Whom do you inspire?”

Not exactly something you typically wake up in the morning and say, “I think I’ll go out and inspire somebody today,” but when you notice it happening, it’s a feeling both humbling and deeply gratifying.

For example, I was back on the east coast a couple weeks ago visiting with family in the DC suburbs where I’m “Uncle Rick” to my neice and three nephews.

My youngest nephew, Wesley, recently expressed a tentative interest in learning to play the guitar. This was something of a first in his otherwise sports-focused household. (If I were one to brag, I might mention that the kids all swim and play soccer, baseball and such, and my niece has experienced some local fame in recent years by making it onto the Olympic prep team for luge. I mention this because, well, it’s timely and I’m more likely to get away with it here than in future postings.)

Wes’ mom, Lynda, went to a toy store and bought him a toy guitar but, when she got it home, nobody knew what to actually do with it. Uncle Rick lives in California and doesn’t visit too often, so not much help there. Soon the toy guitar was woefully out of tune and the D string broke while Wes and his brothers were monkeying around.

And so the guitar was cast aside to join a pile of miscellaneous Matchbox cars and video games.

On the last day of my visit, Lynda mentioned Wes’ new interest in music, of which I was previously unaware. I offered a few words of encouragement, and he went straight to the toy pile to bring me the guitar. I tuned it up sans the D string and began strumming and picking out a simple tune. The whole household got quiet as folks stopped their activities to congregate in the living room to listen.

As I looked over at Wes, I saw a light in his eyes that I recognized and remembered from my own childhood, when a fancy guitar lick could make me spontaneously laugh out loud. Since those early days, I’ve been influenced and inspired by too many musicians and songwriters to list.

But as the “circle be unbroken” it feels incredibly wonderful to be the source of a bit of precious inspiration… passed one to another… wherever that may lead.



Rob Lord On Songwriting

The summer solstice has just passed, and San Diego-based songwriter Rob Lord has already had quite a year. He started 2008 by writing 15 new songs in two months (more than he had written in the previous five years years) and then decided to invest in his first professionally produced CD (recorded by musical alchemist Dave Richardson). The result, entitled DREAM, is newly finished. What better time to chat with the artist…

Rick: Why do you write original music?

Rob: I’ve been writing songs since I was a young kid first on the piano and then guitar. Creating original music has always been an emotional release for self expression. I’ve primarily used my music as a form of therapy — I get melancholy or introspective and need to release. I’ve performed solo and in bands, but much more than performing, I get off on the creative process of songwriting. It’s just something I do.

Rick: Yep, I can sure relate to that. So give me an example of how you approach the songwriting process.

Rob: For me, it’s a very nebulous experience. I don’t think it’s the norm from what I’ve read. Kinda unorthodox. I never just sit down and say “I’m gonna write a song” and then write one. I don’t believe in formulaic song formats with hooks or bridges, and sometimes I don’t even believe in a chorus.

My songs are born of free-flowing inspiration and not forced structure. There are no “music theory” limitations. Anything goes. Lately I have no idea what chords I’m even playing as I use frets beyond the 4th. If the chords I’m playing fit, remember them… and use ’em!

Where do I receive the creative energy? I have no idea. What I do know is that the ability to create anything is quite possibly the most powerful force we’ll ever know.

The energy does not come from me, it comes through me. I call my songwriting process “Nebulocity.” As with everything in life, songs initially come from nothing. Nebulocity is the combination of an urge, inspiration, ideas, images, thoughts, experiences and emotions all culminating together, swirling around and around. Once put into action they ultimately form something tangible, in this case, a song.

Rick: I get it, the concept of opening yourself to the muse. There’s a song on your new CD project called Artist Soul. What was going on for you when you wrote that piece?

Rob: Over 90% of my songs are written within an hour or two max. I wrote Artist Soul as a tribute to Heath Ledger the night I found out he suddenly passed away. I was very moved by his passing and could relate to his inner turmoil as an artist. I respected him as one of the best actors of his generation. Heath is my James Dean. I didn’t sit down to write a tribute song per se. I just needed somewhere to put my sadness and shock. I naturally went to my guitar… and out it came. See Slide Tribute on YouTube.

Rick: That really comes through in the song. So, what would you say is the most gratifying aspect of songwriting, now that you’ve written over 100 originals?

Rob: The most gratifying aspect of songwriting is channeling the creative energy and bearing witness to what flows out of me. First, I try to capture, or translate, that energy musically through playing chords or picking strings. Sometimes there’s a melody going through my head first and then I try to match it on guitar. As I do this, primal lyrics take shape and I begin to feel, hear and see a theme develop.

I have to admit… using a rhyming dictionary and a thesaurus at online speeds is a huge blast too! They have enabled me to really capture the exact essence of the theme I’m trying to convey. There are, literally, a fireworks of words, meanings and rhymes exploding in my head.

Rick: And on the Web apparently. I never thought of looking for a rhyming dictionary online, but here are links to a couple: Rhyme Zone, Rhymer.



web statistics

Inspiration

Why write a song?

If your answer is some variation of “I had to” or “There was something I really wanted to say” or “I was moved by (fill in the blank) and wanted to express it,” there’s a good chance that the song will resonate with others.

If, as a songwriter, you can manage to keep your original source of inspiration alive and intact through the ups and downs of the creative process, the song can actually come alive and go on to transmit that inspiration to others like a direct current.

When a song brings tears to someone’s eyes or a smile to their face or makes their heart beat just a little faster, there’s something more going on than just a pleasant melody or a relevant topic. There’s a shared knowing, an authenticity, a mood — or a hundred other forms of emotional electricity — that’s connecting.

One of the songs I’ve written that has connected with many listeners, albeit in a sad way, is Where Peaceful Waters Flow. The song is about the human face of the seafaring tragedy described in “A Perfect Storm.” While reading the book, I kept tapping into how it might personally feel to be too far at sea to be able to make it back to dry land as an ominous storm grows in intensity and ever closer in proximity.

By the time I finished reading the book, I had to find some way to express the thoughts churning in my head, and I started writing…

Three days from home
Three miles below
A ship and crew went down
To darkness they were bound…

The idea of being so far out in the ocean that even if you “made a run for it” there was simply no way to outpace destiny, weighed heavily as I was writing.

Three long days from home, a ship sailed all alone
When a raging storm descended on the sea
Too far to make it in, to home and worried friends
They rode the waters to their destiny

Those words and the others that followed brought forward a melody in D minor that suited the mood, and the resulting tribute to the men who fought and died aboard the Andrea Gail.

Not that it needed it, but I gave the song a twist of irony in the chorus. I wanted to juxtapose the sentiment of “rest in peace” with the terrifying turbulence on the surface of the water, and wrote…

A ship and crew went down
To darkness they were bound
Where peaceful waters flow without a sound

…and finally…

Clear skies returned again, no trace of what had been
The ocean looked just like it did before
No sign of ship or crew, no witness left who knew
Their tragic journey to the ocean floor

Do you have a story of your own to share?
Comments and songwriting experiences welcome!

Phil Cornish On Songwriting

Phil is the only person I’ve collaborated with to write, and actually finish, an original song. It’s an instrumental called “Snowfall on Cedar” and we recorded it on the Copper Canyon CD Tales from the Canyon along with Megan Lynch, Pat Ickes and Jerry Logan.

Although that’s the current extent of my own co-authoring experience, Phil has written songs with a variety of other songwriters in recent years, including Megan, Paul Lee, Eric Guest and others. That makes Phil something of an expert on the subject, so I was curious about his thoughts on the process.

Rick: How is co-authoring a song different from writing one by yourself?

Phil: There’s someone there to reel you in when you stray or push you forward when you’re on the right track. It can be exciting and fun, or very formal and remote. In any case, it’s usually easier because you don’t have to do 100% of the work. On the other hand, you might have to compromise some of your ideas, which can be frustrating (but don’t worry, you can save those ideas for another song later!). No matter what, you’ll always have to share the glory — but you can also share the criticism if bad reviews abound.

Rick: Mmmm… Less work. Compromise. Glory/blame sharing. Sounds a bit like a relationship. What do you like best about that kind of collaboration?

Phil: I think there’s a special satisfaction gained due to the fact you can get along with someone well enough to pull it off. I think it allows you to sell the song better if you’re the type of person who is not 100% into self-promotion. Most of the time when I’m introducing a song to a crowd on stage, I’m more comfortable telling them I co-wrote a song because I feel less boastful and it also gives me a little wiggle room in case they don’t like it.

Rick: In your experience, how do you begin the process of co-writing a song?

Phil: Sometimes you pop open some beers and show the other person an idea… maybe some words or chords or melody and it just goes from there whether planned or not. Other times someone dumps two verses in your email in-box and says “You do the rest” or “What do you think of this… want to use it for something?” It can depend on whose idea it is to start something, or what sort of projects are on the horizon. In a specific case, a friend told me an interesting story about a failed marriage that seemed like great fodder for a song and it went from there. Another time, a co-author and I had each written incomplete songs that seemed to fit together after a little tweaking.

Rick: Are two heads really better than one, or does one of the writers tend to make most of the contributions?

Phil: I think there’s a cut-off point. I’m not sure where it is but, for example, if someone is showing you a new song and you make one suggestion that locks the song into place, that doesn’t make you a co-author. Maybe you’d need to write a whole verse or section or premise to be granted that title. I would wager it is not usually 50-50, and I would also like to suggest that it is in the eye of the originator. If the originator wrote 99% of a song but someone came along with just the right word to change the song from a mediocre tune to masterpiece — and the originator feels so strongly that the contributor deserves credit — then it can instantly become a co-authored song.

Rick: What advice can you offer to other songwriters who might have an interest in co-writing original music?

Phil: Leave room for the brainstorming period where there are no bad ideas. Have patience with the other person. If you get stuck, take a break of 5 minutes, 5 hours, 5 days or 5 months. Show your progress to a third party, or even invite a third person to contribute. Be open to the idea that if things do not work out, one of you can take the body of work and revert it to single author status.

Rick: One more question: How do you know when the song is finished?

Phil: It’s not like compost, in that there’s no scientific definition you can refer to in answering this question. In fact, I would say a song is never finished because even after you’ve saved the Word document, recorded, mixed, mastered, printed, declared a copyright and shipped the CD, you still might change a word here or there when performing it on stage. And if someone else comes along and wants to borrow it, they’ll do it differently as well.

Rick: Very cool, the idea that songs — like languages — continue to evolve through time. Thanks, Phil, for your time… and for that snowy afternoon in Twain Harte when Cedar the Wonder Poodle inspired us to co-write a melody that evokes the pure joy of watching a puppy play in the snow.

Oh No… Not an Original!

Have you ever been in the following situation?

You’re in a jam where the other musicians don’t know you very well. It’s an equal opportunity jam where lead solos pass from player to player in an orderly clockwise manner. Nobody’s talking much, except for the predictable banjo quip that everybody predictably groans at.

Not only do solos pass around the circle clockwise, so does the right (obligation?) to call the next song when it’s your turn. All of the previous players have called familiar cover tunes, and as long as their choice wasn’t “Rocky Top” or “Fox on the Run,” everybody nodded in agreement and so began the song.

Then it’s your turn. You’re a songwriter. You would much rather introduce the group to one of your own songs than play yet another cover.

After all, these are fellow musicians, right? If anybody can relate to the creative process, it’s other musicians. Right? Sometimes yes, but not always.

There are plenty of times when folks automatically associate the word “original” with “complex” in the context of songwriting. That’s because they’ve been in other jams where an original song turns out to be a total jam buster. Too many chord changes. Too hard to follow.

To be sure, sometimes we can reach too far to be original by composing unlikely chord changes or odd melodic structures. Hey, I’ll bet nobody’s thought of that sequence before!

But the beauty of an original song is seldom an “original” chord change or contrived melody. Simpler is almost always better, and it’s usually the story, the hook or the overall balance of the song that makes it memorable.

Next time you’re in a jam, best to save the science experiment that includes every chord change known to mankind in favor of an easy-to-follow original song that has good words and a logical structure.

When the song’s over, if you’re lucky, you might get beyond a “Whew, that wasn’t so bad” to a “Wow, who wrote that song?”

Dave Richardson On Songwriting

What makes a good song good? Where do ideas for original songs come from? How do you know when the song is finished?

I recently chatted with San Gabriel-based composer, musician and recording engineer Dave Richardson about these philosophical aspects of songwriting. Dave picked some sparkling banjo, sang baritone vocals and mixed/mastered my most recent CD, The Magic Hour. These days, he still wakes up before dawn to rip through a bunch of amazingly fast scales while most of the West Coast is catching a final hour of sleep, happily unaware of the cacophony of notes bursting from his Gibson.

Rick: In your opinion, what makes a song particularly memorable or special?

Dave: A good song must bring about an emotion. Whether it’s laughter, sadness, anger or contemplation, a good one will elicit some kind of response from most people in your audience. Some, of course, will float right through it, and a meaningful message to one person might mean nothing to the next.

Rick: Yep, that’s probably why it feels like certain songs are actually telling your own story. When you sit down to write a new song, is that what you’re thinking about?

Dave: The songs that I have written come from real life experiences. I am really prolific when things are not going well! I really don’t know the reason for this. I know that when things are going well, it is very difficult for me to wake up and say, “I am going to write something today!” and then actually follow through. The creative process just comes to me at the moment, and I write it down. Recently, I wrote an instrumental for a friend who passed away unexpectedly. I suppose words could be written to it, but I wanted to play it for the loved ones left behind and let them imagine their own words to the melody.

Rick: When you’re writing a new piece of music, how do you know when to put a © on it, lay down your pen and call it done?

Dave: It’s hard to say when a song is finished. Sometimes, when your song is performed live for the first time, you realize that the words are hard to sing, or the meaning of your words is too obscure and need to be modified. I think that there must be a time, however, when you must stop working on it. Perhaps if you record it, and listen to it a month later, you will hear things that you didn’t hear when the song was closer to you.

Rick: One of my favorite Dave Richardson originals is a barn burner you call The JackRabbit at Kennywood Park. What’s the story behind that tune, and where did the quirky name come from?

Dave: My sister took me to Kennywood Park, a very old amusement park near Pittsburgh, when I was 9-years old. She told me that she wanted to take me on a “scenic railway” ride. That sounded tame enough to me. Well it wasn’t. It was the JackRabbit! It still runs today, and is one of the few wooden ravine roller coasters still in existence. There’s only a single leather strap holding you in, and there is a double-dip near the end of the ride where you become weightless! I didn’t write this tune until a few years ago, when I got to thinking about the experience. The B part of the song is supposed to imitate the roller coaster. I am going to re-record it this year at a more reasonable speed. It’s really too fast.

Rick: You mentioned earlier the importance of tapping into emotion with a song. You wrote a song called When Love Turns Blue that must have been hard to sing when you first wrote it.

Dave: This is a fairly simple song about a man who is intensely in love with a woman, but probably will never be with this person forever due to circumstances. I originally had a verse in the song that hinted at these circumstances, but removed it later. I thought it gave away too much. The song comes from personal experience.

Rick: Send me a link to an MP3 of that song, and we’ll spread the tears to a few new ears.