Some Thoughts on Songwriting

Posted on July 17, 2017

I was asked recently to offer a younger songwriter some advice and responded as follows.

I very much like your song but would just tentatively suggest that it might improve by presenting a less romanticised version of auld Ireland.  I find it hard to advise anyone about songwriting as it seems such a personal and mysterious process. The fact is, some of us just have to do it – for better or for worse. (A  bit like marriage). Often it will most probably be for the worse, but I can no longer imagine not trying to write songs; failed poet that I am. However, in fishing terms, most of us are casting our lines into the ripples, way downstream of Robert Zimmerman – the bard of Hibbing Minnesota. But then again we might just occasionally pluck from the depths a sizeable rainbow trout that he has missed – or chucked back in!

‘Twas Dylan who said that the best songs were “confessional rather than professional”. It has been claimed that he writes songs relatively fast. Leonard Cohen, on the other hand, claims to spend a much longer time on perfecting material. And what masterpieces he delivers – still, at a cool and sprightly 81 years of age.  At a London concert a few years ago he said that he had last played the venue when he was 65. “Just a wild and crazy kid back then!” And, people like Tom Russell are writing some of their best material late in their careers.

You will find what works best for you. Some of my own better songs came more or less instantly and others took prolonged re-drafting and brutal assassination of ex-darlings to “perfect”. But sure, as James Joyce said, “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”

My major  influences included  Jimmy Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, Howlin Wolf;  Lightnin Hopkins; Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, John Lennon; Bob Dylan, The Band, Leonard Cohen, Captain Beefheart, Love/Arthur Lee; Joni Mitchell; Neil Young,  Morrisons Jim and Van; Nina Simone, Little Feat, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Roland Kirk; Tom Waits Waylon, Willie and the boys – and The Beats of course. They all bubble away somewhere in the subconscious. But that is just me and my Americana inclinations.  Others have their own lights to fly by.

Read the news and poetry and listen to the best wordsmiths in your genre and others. Dylan is steeped in the Bible; Shakespeare; the Blues and old time Country and Traditional Folk music, including both English and Irish. Then keep your eyes and ears open for inspiring notions. Travel far and wide. Push yourself that bit further. Walk long distances in new places, even through the night.  Listen to Tom Traubert’s Blues and I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. Listen, listen, listen. Then tell it like it is. Don’t preach; there is enough of that already in Ireland and in your country.  Give a voice to the marginalised, dispossessed and strung out ones where you can. Put a word in for me if you make it big!

Then the song really must sound like it has always been waiting to be written and the writer must find ways of getting right inside it and coming out again to make the listener care. And he/she must try to cultivate a credible voice, having mercilessly wielded a razor sharp  Cliche Remover. Leaven it all with a shot of humour from time to time. God knows there are enough tortured souls charting the murky depths of Gothic introspection.  (“The Bedwetter School “as my old friend film-maker and musician John T. Davis puts it).

Stick at it and don’t let the know-all critics and cynics deflect you. For as Frank Zappa said, “Most Rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t speak, for people who can’t read”. Soon you will be able to hear my own album Seeking the Assassin and judge for yourself how far downstream of Dylan I have been angling!

All the best.

Sam.