Earlier this year I was invited, i.e. conned by Anna Rose Bev and Ron Daniels and company of The Tamworth Songwriters Association, into staging a workshop in Tamworth on the highly individual art of songwriting. Since any discussion of what makes a good, let alone a great, song involves extremely subjective judgments, it was with an instinct for self preservation that I prefaced my remarks at the time with the caution that I was not trying to tell other artists how to write, I was merely informing them of how and why I do so. For those of you who didn't make the workshop due to heavy nights the night before, Anna has asked me to put it all in writing. By way of introduction, and to give those of you who vehemently disagree with my approach, the chance to jettison early, let me start by telling you how I don't write .
I was once taken aside by Ron E. Sparx of 2MMM and given the radio airplay parameters for a hit single and urged to produce something along those lines. It was with best of intentions that he told me all songs should be three and a half minutes long; start with a fifteen second intro; reach the first chorus by thirty second mark; have two initial verses; and be broken up by a "different bit" in the middle. This latter used to be known as "the middle eight" but often made the song too long to fit between commercials so is now mainly that "bit" which breaks the beat up and adds "Interesting sonic textures" before sliding into the interminable choruses which complete the package.
While this approach may serve to create neat little formula songs that sell a million, it is not art . Not by a long shot. It's craft. Like a potter who sets out to create an ashtray or a vase with a defined use or a commercial consideration as it's primary parameter, these songs will always have a purpose more to do with final utility than the creative exploration of the medium. They are the auditory equivalent of mass produced paintings and while useful for a time, are essentially unimportant in the end.
I do not write formula hit records. Firstly because I can't, and secondly because I won't. I write because I have to; because in some way I don't fully understand, writing is the very powerful tool I use to make some limited sense out of the chaos of the universe. It is how I exorcise my own ghosts; how I deal with grief, joy, faith and fear, in fact the whole gamut of emotions we all share; even those of us who cannot articulate them. I must admit I was grateful to Anna for making me examine the actual process by which I bring these stories to life.For me there are five basic steps in the songwriting process and they are as follows-:
My good friend and long suffering producer, Alan Caswell once told me that, on one of his many visits to Nashville, he was shown an office block where erstwhile purveyors of country music present themselves each day. They sit from nine to five in little rooms and write 'authentic country music'. They think it's professional, I think it's laughable. It may also be part of the reason for country musics appalling reputation as trite and unintelligent; a reputation, I might add, to which I take extreme umbrage , since I consider Country and Folk Music (and perhaps Film scores) to be the last credible bastions of art left in the contemporary music industry. To succeed, however, the narrative form of this music requires that it actually connect with the authentic concerns and experience of ordinary people. It is precisely this which gives the music its power.
Consequently, the starting point must be the people themselves and if we, as writers, are not merely to retrace our own footsteps in ever decreasing and self indulgent circles, we must try to connect with as many of them, in as many different circumstances, as possible.This does not mean that you will ever agree with, or even fully understand, other people's experiences but, for me, it is the essential beginning for the process of inspiration.
To this end I have spent a great deal of time travelling the country in the last few years meeting people from all walks of life. To Hamilton Island with stockbroker Rene Rivkin and about a hunderd of the high flying paper shufflers that landed this country in such deep debt; to the Gove peninsula fishing with a battler in the process of establishing his own charter business, to the exercise yard of Long Bay Gaol with prisoners who would be killed if released into the general prison population; to middle class Quilting Exhibitions in suburban Beecroft, to the Handicapped Children's Home in Revesby; I try to seize any and all opportunities to interface with people I would not normally meet. This is the beginning of my songwriting.
I am a great believer in the power of the subconscious and I also trust my emotions a great deal. In the course of my work I find many stories which should, by all accounts be important, but do not touch me. I discard them. Then there are stories seemingly superficial which haunt me though I may not understand why. So I write down everything I know about the character and the story and wait. I give my head and my heart the chance to react. Generally this approach works because I know that if a story has touched me, emotionally, it has been for a range of very good reasons, many of which may not been apparent at the time of the "interview". By waiting I allow myself time for what journalists call 'the angle' to come to me. It is the angle that makes the individuals story important. Stories without an angle may well be entertaining but they are without the essential interface to make them important and understandable to listeners. Inevitably being able to articulate this 'angle' is the end of second stage of writing for me , and the beginning of the third. Some one once said that I was a great writer of last verses. The truth is that my last verses are inevitably my first thoughts. They are the carefully considered nub of what touched me about a person or a situation to begin with; that which makes sense of the story when extrapolated from the specific experience of a given individual to the general experience of a listening audience.
The actual act of getting the song finished is the next step for me . This ranges from a six minute flash of genius, to several days of bumbling ineptitude; constantly going over the same passages looking for just the right combinations.
I was told once by an Art teacher at college that the act of creation is essentially a solitary one. This notion must have stuck with me because, solitude is a big factor in the process for me. I spend at least three hours a day driving. I now use this as the bulk of my writing time. I can actually spend days in the truck singing the same pieces over and over again and I find that there is no substitute in the end for dogged persistence, especially in songs involving long lyrical passages. This drives the Road Crew crazy so I normally drive alone, while the crew take a second vehicle. I normally attack the words and music together and to the task I bring a number of formidable tools.
First of all is the English Language itself . It's capacity for rhythm through the standard practices of alliteration, rhymes, vowel or half Rhymes, soft and hard consonant sounds, give it the capacity for an almost infinite range of expression. There is an intrinsic rythmn to every spoken syllable, word, sentence and paragraph. I try to sensitise myself to them; to be aware of them when I speak.
As an exercise I allow myself to play with words. To let unrelated or nonsense verses run off my tongue. I listen to their cadences and make up rhymes about people, things or places I come across. I try to be uncritical at this stage. This type of word play is about having fun. An example I gave at the Tamworth workshop involved three small towns that we went through on a tour near Dungog, Wallaringa and Wallarobba and Wallaroo. An simple exercise using W's And R's produced
By the Wallarobba railway, up the Wallarobba Ridge
On the Road to Wallaringa, that's where Wal the Robber Lives.
Now Wal, who's robbed the railway since the the railway first began
says,"I always rob The Wallarobba Railway when I can!"
Now when word of Wally's robberies was wired into Wallaroo,
Will the Walloper said "Really! There is little we can do.
When that wallet robbin' Wally on the railway rattled through,
we were reading reams of robbery reports returned by you."
So always watch your wallets on the Wallarobba rail,
With Wal's wallet robber's watching, Wal The Robber will not fail.
Will the Walloper wants Wally; he's a really wanted man
f or Wal always robs the Wallarobba railway when he can."
This kind of exercise may never be for public consumption but it does increase our sensitivity to the inherent musicality of language, and it is a lot of fun. For those of you who wish to write for children it's probably indespensible. Listen to the work of Don Spencer and Allan Caswell. Here are people having tremendous fun by being exuberant in the use of word play.
Since you are all writers I realize that the use of rhymes, half rhymes, similie and metaphor will be already familiar to you. I wont go into these in any detail except to say, we should not be reticent about using a word or an expression you have never heard in a song before . Don't simply use the same trite turns of phrase because it "sounds right" "Sounding right", in many cases, simply means that someone else has already said it, and probably better.
Another trap for writers is to work from a single instrument. Melodies are often suggested by the chordal inversions of the instrument you play, so if your playing is limited your writing may well become stereo-typed very quickly. Try to write in different keys; on different instruments (even very simple ones; stylaphones, ocarinas, pianos, harmonicas, ukeleles, will all suggest different melodic structures). Try writing without any instruments; to rhythmn tracks; to the rhythmn of your car wipers. Listen to the world around you.
I don't allow myself at this stage to be plagued by the "This Blues sounds sounds like some other Blues, Blues". Evaluation is important certainly, but it comes later in the process. I realise that there is a finite number of songs that can be written.
Since the beginning of this century, particularly, thousands of writers, professional and amateur, have been churning out millions of songs. The vast bulk of these have never been widely heard. The increasing number of lawsuits against major artists by unknowns, shows just how possible it is for two people to separately pen an identical melody. If at this stage of our writing we are over zealous about plagiarism, we will probably never write anything at all. Leave Evaluation until later, during the Perspiration stage, allow yourself the essential freedom to create. And remember also that it is a legitimate songwriting technique to allow yourself to be influenced by any and all of the cultural baggage you have ever experienced. This is not a new idea. Many of the great classical composers lifted whole folk melodies as the basic themes of their major works. If it was good enough for Beethoven it's probably good enough for you.
Having said all of that however this next stage requires an almost complete turnaruond, from artist to critic. Here you must be concerned with the value, quality and originality of what you have produced. It must be said also that the difference between a great writer and a patchy one is not what they produce. Rather it is what they do not release for exposition. This is a matter for critical artistic Evaluation, something sadly lacking in most writers. What songs to release or to axe is an artistic judgement as important as what notes to play or to omit for a writer. Country music in particular has the uncanny ability to produce the very worst pap that has ever been recorded and this is another reason for it's historically unpopular image with mainstream audiences.
In the hands of a good writer the form has the capacity to touch a listener in a way no other genre can hope for but it's a long way from Dan Fogelberg's "The Leader of the Band" or Brenda Lees "Losin You" to the saccharine excesses of "Teddy Bear" and "The Drunken Driver". I firmly believe that every aspiring country writer should have a cringe meter installed in the back of their heads set to ring very loudly if ever they start to produce something like these last two. The trouble for most people is that when the artist turns critic, the critic is liable to be less than impartial, so it's probably very important to have some external input into the evaluation process. Develop a number of people whose opinion you trust to help you in this. However, don't just ask your Mum or your girlfriend or your husband. If they have no expertise, they'll just say "very nice dear" for reasons more to do with your relationship than the pursuit of excellence. Make sure you are asking someone who will tell tell you if they think it stinks. Someone who likes what you do but is prepared to say so, when they think you haven't done as well as you could have. I am lucky I suppose in that I have the constant input of my manager ,Tim Kirkland, my publisher, John Boughtwood, and my brother Geoff, a fellow writer; all of whom can be savage if they have to be. It may help in the evaluation process if you ask yourself what it is you hope to achieve by your writing. Make up a list of criteria to evaluate your work in terms of these aims. Mine, for example, might look like this.
* Is it too close to someone else's work?
* Is the work too long or short for it's purpose?
* Does it capture the subject? How honest is it?
* How cliched is it?
* Am I aimlessly repeating myself?
* Are the hooks strong enough?
* Is the subject and treatment appropiate enough to touch people without being overly sentimental?
* Is it suitable for me or should it be presented to someone else?
* Will it earn me a million dollars so that I can retire in the style to which I would like to become accustomed?
Be ruthless! Some writers actually establish non de plumes to release material they think may well be commercial but essentially unimportant or out of character with the work they try to produce.
I believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that no work is completely mature until it is performed. Without an audience, music is a dead art . Like a sunset when no one is watching. Or a smile unacknowledged. It is essentially a very sad phenomenon. Even if it's just your mates, your mum or your dog, it is important to present your work to an audience.
I realise that many people do not have a ready forum for exposition but there are Country Music associations and Folk clubs right across Australia. Be prepared to get involved.A word of warning though. Don't just treat them as places where people come to listen to your work. Remember that associations like these are are a two-way street. Too many of these associations are dominated by one or two people with completely swollen egos . Be ready to listen to others. To offer an opinion. It will help you understand what you value about your own music
Go and see other country or folk acts when they tour. By sharing we make the whole scene stronger. Well that's it. I hope it was of some use to you. Come along and say G'day when I bring my completely swollen ego to your town.
Pat Drummond Records for Shoestring Records; is Published by Control and is Managed by Shoestring Productions PTY LTD 02 4788 1157