Though he’d dabbled in music since his early teens, Arkansas native and National Park Radio frontman Stefan Szabo didn’t start writing seriously until his mid-20s, when he left his IT job to pursue his dream of being a songwriter. In light of that dream, National Park Radio was born, and along with it the band’s debut The Great Divide, a solid Americana/folk album reminiscent of the Avett Brothers. We chat with Szabo about Ben Gibbard, the importance of keeping an open mind and his decision to finally take the plunge into the music industry.
What’s your typical songwriting process?
Typically, it starts with some sort of improvisation of chord progressions on the acoustic guitar, along with humming or singing a melody to the music. I rarely have any lyrics before that, but sometimes a line or two will come spontaneously during that stage. I’ll just continue to jam, for hours at times, and hone in on something that I feel could turn into a compelling hook. I’ll make sure to quickly record the ideas as they come, usually with my phone, so I don’t forget them, and either continue working on an idea, or move on to another one. Many times, one idea will lead to another, to another, and I could end up with several different song ideas from one session. From there, I usually let the idea sit, and I’ll come back to it later. Sometimes I’ll come back to it and realize it’s not as good as I thought it was and trash it, but other times, I might realize the idea has potential. When something gets stuck in my head and haunts me, and I end up coming back to it over and over again, it’s usually a sign that I need to set aside time to develop it into a real song. This leads to a more intense, frustrating stage of the process for me. Hashing out a verse to compliment a chorus, or vice versa is one of the most difficult parts of the process for me. I feel like once I’ve have chord progressions and vocal melodies for a verse and a chorus, and they’ve been vetted, revised, deconstructed, and reconstructed, 2/3 of the work is done. All that’s left is to write some compelling lyrics… Easy, right? Actually, I wouldn’t say it’s easy for me to write a bunch of great lyrics, but I do think that lyrics are easier for me to write than the music and melody. Maybe it’s because I have a higher standard in my mind to make the musical part of the song catchy and compelling, while many times, my goal with lyrics is to just write something that works with the music. Most of the time though, writing lyrics turns into much more than just that, and I end up writing with purpose.
If I end up feeling strongly about a song, I want to make sure I’m treating it right both lyrically and musically, and just as much – or more – time is put into developing the lyrics. I can’t tell you how much time and thought is put into this process, and it’s very much different with each song I write. Most songs take weeks to months to complete from start to finish, although some have taken less than a day and some have taken over a year. But at the core of any successful song is a hook, something that grabs the listeners’ ears and doesn’t let go, and that’s what I’m always in search of. At any given point, I probably have a couple hundred song ideas waiting to be developed or trashed, and upwards of 10-20 songs that are in the serious lyrics writing stage. How often I complete a song usually depends on how much stress I’m feeling – more stress equals less songs – and how much free or alone time I have.
Your bio says you started writing songs at age 27. What inspired you to start writing music at that time?
I wouldn’t necessarily say that I began writing songs at 27. It’d be more accurate to say that I started taking it seriously around that age, and I finally developed the confidence it takes to write and share a serious song. I believe so much about songwriting has to do with having the confidence to play your songs for others, and learning to be proud, not embarrassed of your work. I was also getting close to 30, and I felt my dreams of playing music would slip away if I didn’t get started soon, so I pushed myself hard and decided to give it a try. One after another, songs started to come out and I began to understand what it took to write music that people actually enjoyed listening to. I can tell you that if I didn’t get such positive reinforcement from family and friends who heard what I was doing, I would not have continued to create music. It’s so important to encourage young creative minds… even if what they’re creating isn’t amazingly well-refined, or is full of flaws.
As someone who didn’t grow up in a musical family or participate in your local music scene when you were younger, what’s been the most interesting thing you’ve learned about the music world so far?
I’d say the most interesting thing I’ve learned so far, from the short time that I’ve been involved in the scene, is that there is such a huge amount of talented musicians and songwriters out there, so many of them putting everything they have into their craft and most of them going largely unnoticed by the masses. This is not a fair business. I see so many musicians and songwriters that deserve success, even more so than myself, and the sheer amount of musical and lyrical talent out there is overwhelming. The most important thing that I think I’ve realized, though, is that hard work and tenacity seem to be the the keys to success, no matter how talented you are.
Who are your favorite songwriters?
Oh gosh… there are so many amazing writers, and I find new favorites all the time. I could probably name a hundred, but off the top of my head, aside from obvious classic songwriters, there’s Sufjan Stevens, Robin Pecknold [of Fleet Foxes], Ben Gibbard [of Death Cab For Cutie] and The Avett Brothers.
Whose writing would you say has influenced you the most?
Geez… that’s difficult to say because it’s not something I ever think about or consciously decide. I could probably point towards Ben Gibbard’s vocal melodies as a big influence, but the positive messages and straight forward lyrics of the Avett Brothers probably affect me even more.
Do you think writing songs gets easier or harder, the more you write?
I would say it gets easier. It’s a learned skill in a lot of ways, and like most skills, songwriting is something that can be developed with careful thought and analysis, research, experience, and repetition. Like I mentioned before though, gaining some confidence in your own songwriting is the first major hurdle to get past, and it definitely gets easier once you’re convinced that you’re capable of producing compelling songs.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about songwriting so far?
That’s easy. Just because you have a reaction – or lack of reaction – to a song, it doesn’t mean others will feel the same way. I’ve written songs that I thought were trash, that I literally thought about throwing away, but my buddy heard it and had a positive reaction, and that song ended up turning into many peoples’ favorite song. It’s hard for us to be the judge of our own work. Sometimes we get too deep into it to have a fair perspective, and sometimes we might write a song that doesn’t necessarily fit our own musical taste, but it may turn out to be gold for someone else’s taste. Keeping an open mind and [open] ears is very important when writing songs.
What’s a song on The Great Divide that you’re particularly proud of and why?
From a songwriting standpoint, I’m extremely proud of most of those songs. So much time and thought was put into each and every one of them. I’d say “Rise Above” is one that really gets to me, as it speaks about the struggles and pains that we all have to go through, but counters in the chorus with the positive message of choosing to overcome and rise above. Playing it live, long before it was recorded, it had such an amazing, positive, triumphant, high energy that none of my other songs had at the time, and I think that has stuck with me.
What’s the best song ever written and why?
That’s not a fair question… I could try to answer it, but I’d never be satisfied with any answer I gave you. My mind doesn’t work that way. To me, there is no best song. Or they’re all the best. At least to someone. There are so many great songs that mean so much to me, it would be easier to pick my favorite child.