The Songwriter

Songwriting is a craft that combines the intuition with the intellect. I’ve been a long time student of music-theory, but I maintain that it’s not enough to simply know your stuff. Though I’ve always applied my theoretical knowledge as arranger/improviser for bands, and though I constantly sneak harmonic tricks into my own songs, still the best advice I ever got was this: you learn it to forget it! No matter how many tritone substitutions and modal borrowings you learn to utilize, the dormant song demands only your most relaxed and instinctual mind to receive it and bring it to life. 

One supplementary idea I work by is this: let the melody be your guide. Songs comes from a mysterious place. That melody that just popped into your head wants to be realized, and it’s up to you to follow it through to a cadence. When this role is held in reverence, when the silent human becomes the vessel for channeling the muse’s breath, a magic confluence occurs! Suddenly these two forces of will merge together and, if in genuine congress, create a song with an undeniable core of truth. (How to access that truth after it has been realized is the constant struggle of every good performer. As you reopen the melody that so subtly approached you in your silent still state, how deep will you go in search of that core?) 

I keep the same philosophy when it comes to the words of a song. Study your meters if you will. Read the greats and read your friends; learn whatever rules you like, but just make sure you bend them. Let the words flow naturally, and if they come out pat and the rhymes are poor and the meter stutters, well then you have a choice. Play with the structure, redefine an old cliché, make up a word. Or tighten it up, write a sonnet, hone it in. It doesn’t matter. As long as you fully engage with whichever words emerge, and as long as you infuse them with the melody that guides you, you’re going to find (or be found by) a beautiful song. Believe it, baby! (Seriously, you have to believe it, or it won’t be any good.)  

All this is to say that I really have no idea what a song is and how you go about writing one. I’ve been doing it since I was thirteen years old. I’ve followed hundreds of songs to their completion, and there are hundreds more I’ve been unable to finish. I listened to George Harrison and the other Fab Four, studied the hell out of Bob Dylan’s work; I still love John Denver’s earnest style, and I can’t get over the masterful simplicity of Ernest Tubb’s stuff. Fats Waller definitely had something right, and all that early jazz stuff and even the crooner classics make me shiver sometimes. I don’t know where all these songs come from or how they were shepherded into the sonic world. But I’ve known from the start that I have no choice in the matter. Music is a living thing, and I am grateful to allow that life to breathe through me – when I’m lucky enough, when I’m humble enough.


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