The Somerville Songwriter Sessions series has a tumblr (https://somervillesongwriters.tumblr.com) on which they post interviews with upcoming artists, as part of their publicity effort. Here is an interview with me to promote my Jan 5, 2019 show.
You started songwriting relative late in life; what made you start doing it seriously?
I was encouraged by a playwright friend who, after hearing me say, “I tried writing songs as a teenager and I wasn’t very good at it.” responded with, “Not very many teenagers are good at songwriting. And besides, it doesn’t matter if you’re good at it! We all have a voice that deserves to be heard!”.
A few days later, I saw a short video about a young soldier who had been sent home from Iraq and was on a waiting list for PTSD treatment. I was moved by her story and wrote a song about her. That was the beginning! I loved the process….the research, the deep dive into a subject, mining for gems that would help tell a story and trying to match a melody to the emotions of that story.
Do you think there’s anything you’ve done differently because of taking it up in midlife?
By the time I started writing songs, I had been playing covers of songwriters I love for decades — traditional folk and bluegrass songs and more contemporary songwriters like Ferron, Dylan, Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, The Indigo Girls, Kris Delmhorst, Leonard Cohen and too many more to mention. Learning to play songs that you love is a great way to study songwriting. You learn song structures, chord progressions, rhyming patterns, the way the melody and the intensity (dynamics) of a song rises and falls with the meaning and the emotion of the song. When I started writing songs again in my late 40’s, I found that I had more to say, more life experience to draw from. There are many teenagers and young adults who are fabulous songwriters! I don’t think I was one of them. For me it took some time, I needed to grow up a bit, gain some skills and confidence.
You’ve garnered win in some impressive music contests recently; what do you think makes for a successful song-contest song?
I wish I knew the answer to that. The response I got from the Great American Song Contest judges was, “powerfully original story, poetic imagery and perfectly designed melodic structure”. So, I think to win a contest, a song needs to be well structured and needs to have a compelling message and it needs to make the listener feel something. By well structured, I mean it needs to be made up of separate parts…verses, choruses, maybe a bridge, an intro, an outro, and each of those parts needs to have a distinct feel and sound that sets it apart from the others and helps to convey the song’s message. That said, I also firmly believe that winning a song contest is not only about having a well-crafted song, but there’s also an element of luck. Who is judging the contest? Do they tend to favor one type of song over another? Does your message resonate with them?
What has participating in these contests done for you?
Entering these contests and winning has certainly boosted my confidence as a songwriter. It lets me know I’m on the right track. My craft is improving. It looks good on a resume and I think it has probably opened a few doors. I have also entered songs into contests where I have gotten absolutely no response. I think the challenge is to realize that not winning doesn’t mean your song isn’t any good. For me, a better indicator of a song’s effectiveness is by how an audience responds to it. Are they engaged? Do they start squirming in their chair at the beginning of the 3rd verse? Do they come up and talk to me about it at the end of the show? Does it make them laugh or cry? I have a songwriting friend and mentor who has won many songwriting contests and has been a judge for several others. He once said to me, “I can write clever songs that win contests. But, they don’t always resonate with an audience.” I am much more interested in writing music that connects with the listener than I am in winning contests. Luckily, there is a lot of overlap.
You’ve studied songwriting with some of this moment’s best singer-songwriters. Can you tell us a few of the most useful things you’ve learned in that process?
There are some common themes that run through all of the songwriting classes and workshops that I have attended. Mostly that it’s hard work. Every songwriter I’ve worked with, no matter how successful, feels a certain amount of uncertainty that they will be able to do it again. It gets easier in a sense because they’ve learned to trust the process, but the process doesn’t magically get easier. You just have to keep showing up and writing. Another common theme is learning to trust your own voice, shut off your critic during the writing process, write everything no matter how stupid it sounds. Just generate material…the critic’s job will come later. I’ve learned more about song structure, how to generate musical and lyrical expectations through repetition, and how to create tension through chord progressions, the importance of sensory details and of using cultural clues to set your story in a time or place, and perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned that my job as a songwriter is to connect with people, to make sure every word I sing feels true, at least emotionally true. If I don’t feel the truth of what I’m saying, nobody else will.