This Lost Shark is extremely happy to welcome aboard April Pin-Up Poet, Andy White who is packing his neverending tour bag and heading back to Brisbane this April. While in this fine city, Andy will officially launch his second poetry collection, Stolen Moments at Riverbend Books and run a songwriting workshop. To get the ball rolling, I took the opportunity to discuss the songwriting process and how it intersects with poetry.
April brings you back to Brisbane, a self-described place of poetry for you, but let’s start off talking songwriting. One of the first engagements you have when you arrive is a songwriting workshop. What comes first for you, words or music?
I’ve often asked myself this when I hear a great song. Words or music.
How do you tell a great song? One yardstick for the songwriter is the sinking feeling of wishing you had written it yourself. That you’d had the idea, or even managed one of the lines.
All songwriters know this feeling, especiallly those who have attended a Ron Sexsmith concert or got hold of the latest Elvis Costello album.
The ideal scenario for the songwriter is that the words and music of a finished song are so co-dependent, they fit together so beautifully, the prosody is so perfect, that it’s impossible for the listener to tell which came first. If the words are complex and earth-shatteringly poetic then it’s easy to assume that they came first – but I wouldn’t bet on it. One of the most common ways of writing for musicians is to find a melody and chord sequence (or, more usually, only one of these), and repeating it endlessly whilst finding the words which fit.
Or perhaps one line sparks off a chord sequence, and that in turn sets off an idea for a whole verse, chorus, or melody line, and this sequence becomes the model to follow or repeat for the rest of the song.
The correct answer to the words or music question is probably that there are as many ways of writing songs as songs themselves. Each time I’ve finished a song, record it and listen back, I end up with feeling that each song is a unique experience. Sure, some can be in line with others you have written before, in terms of style or subject matter, but really every songwriter is in a sense rewriting the same song over and over.
(James Joyce may have been being flippant with an interviewer, as he was so many times, but I often find inspiration in the fact that he said he spent his life rewriting the same book. There’s a lot to be said for unity of purpose and inspiration).
And I should note in passing that playing and replaying a song while you’re writing and rewriting it – which you do constantly – and listening to it when it’s finished, written and recorded, is an entirely different experience. The more times you can listen back to your work-in-progress the better.
I start writing either with the words, or with the chords/melody line – or a combination of both. Whatever happens next, the lyrics and the music have a fluid interdependence. One will guide the other, and the other will take over and do the same when required.
For me the initial inspiration for a song is usually thought-free and based in real-life experience. I rarely sit down and write songs as fiction. And this includes the rule that If you think it happened, it probably did.
It either comes in a flash – as quickly as you can write it down or record it – or, as with most songwriters, I have a little black book stuffed with scribbled-on pieces of paper ranging from napkins to boarding cards and books of matches. I also have a computer full of roughly-recorded melodic and chordal ideas.
(In the old days you’d call your own answering machine, and return from tour to microcassettes of drunken and/or garbled answering machine messages. Tough to work through them – unless of course you find that your flatmate has erased the lot while you were away).
Some other ‘methods’ of mine, written for some strange reason in the second person (although I have tried not to formulate as such, fearing it won’t happen again if I do).
As well as a sharpened pencil, the little black book and the computer full of ideas are your most trusted writing friends. Between them they already contain a distillation of your life as it is lived. Now you have to sort through the ideas, musical and lyrical, find or make them into the songs or poems they always wanted to be.
(The words themselves will probably sort out by themselves which form they’ll take).
Force yourself to go through everything. The great ideas will shine out, and you probably can remember them anyway without having to look them up (the act of writing them down/recording them has committed them to memory). Make sure you go back and check to get the exact wording or phrasing. That could be where the magic lies.
You may find a verse and chorus or one of either. You might need a middle section. You’ll most likely have to write more, or rewrite what you have. Remember, Leonard Cohen originally had 82 verses for ‘The Future’. As I said, it’s all about distillation.
It’s also good to remember that you have to make your experience real for the listener. Connecting with him or her – though this can be through the music, while you keep the lyrics as obscure as you like.
An also remember that, as in most aspects of rock’n’roll life, the opposite to all of this is also true.
I think of Leonard Cohen, I think of Keith Richards.
Leonard can rewrite forever, polishing and perfecting – this method really works. It’s always worth rewriting – you’ll be doing this live on stage every time you play it anyway. You can regard the recording as a snapshot of that song at a particular time, it’s always a work in progress.
Or the opposite – the recorded version is perfection itself and everything else feeds off it, or is an approximation of it. This is equally valid (think ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’) but perhaps less satisfying for the performing songwriter.
You can write a song straight off. It’ll come out of you from who knows where. Keith spends a lot of his book trying to explain this, ending up saying angels give the songs to him (Bob Dylan talks of some kind of pipe though as with Joyce, half the time he’s probably pulling your leg).
You might find the answer to Keith’s technique in the rest of the book where he immerses himself in the blues and guitar techniques. Devotes himself to the Rolling Stones. Gram Parsons, the open G tuning and massive amounts of marijuana. As with Bob, there’s a massive amount of learning, musical talent and reading goes into being able to write and record ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ or ‘Tangled Up In Blue.’
The automatic way is the most fun way of writing, where instinct takes over, and looking at all my songs I have to say that some of the best-known ones and my particular favourites have been written in their entirety in less than ten minutes. ‘The Colour Of Love’, ‘Lisa’, ‘James Joyce’s Grave’, ‘Letter To T’ come to mind. Though, again, it took a lot of reading and searching to get anywhere near James Joyce’s Grave, Lisa or putting pen to paper to T.
Despite this preference for the instinctual method (but of course – it’s the easiest one!) I have found that for me a certain process does stand out as a successful way of working out a song after you’ve got the iniital idea.This might be a line, a title, or a melody or chord sequence.
I often know what I want to say before starting – with a title, a hook line or simply the theme of what I want to express. I find a chord sequence I can play for a long time (easy – I don’t know too many chords). Then while jamming this, I sing whatever I’ve got, trying to start up a verse setting the song up or a chorus which sums it up. Then I see where this leads me and I take it from there.
It’s good to start off with something true. And something which leaves options open and is mysterious. Draws the listener in and attracts them.
After this initial burst, it’s down to writing and rewriting as much as possible till you’re ready to record.
Words & Music with Andy White
Join award-winning Irish songwriter Andy White for a day’s intensive workshopping of songwriting technique and ideas. Andy will show you ways to start you off or to move your songwriting forward. There is face-to-face time with Andy and the group. You’ll be encouraged to start new work and collaborate.
Whether you’ve got finished songs you’d like to workshop in front of like-minded people, half-finished songs looking for a collaborator, advice or guidance, or if you’ve simple always wanted to write songs but need a push to get started, this course is for you.
Andy White has fifteen internationally released albums and has published three volumes of poetry and prose. He has co-written with the like of Peter Gabriel and Neil and Tim Finn, worked with the great names of Irish music – Van Morrison, Sinead O’Conner – and won Ireland’s top songwriting award. He has also toured the world many times over. Andy is in Brisbane for the April 24 launch of his new book of poetry Stolen Moments (Another Lost Shark Press) at Riverbend Books. His latest album is Songwriter (Floating World). You can visit him at http://www.andywhite.com.
Where: Queensland Writers Centre, Level 2, State Library of Queensland, South Brisbane 4101
When: Saturday 21 April 2012
Time: 12pm – 6pm
Cost: $75 / $65 (concession)
For further details visit the QPF website, or to enroll email firstname.lastname@example.org