American Icons: Inside Songwriters On Songwriting, Part I

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“If I knew where the great songs came from,” Leonard Cohen told me, “I’d go there more often.” It’s the same answer I received, though worded differently, from many of the legendary songwriters I interviewed for my book Songwriters On Songwriting. The guiding idea of the book was to gather together the wisdom of many of the world’s great songwriters – songwriters of all genres and generations, artists who had written songs which have already stood the test of time – to see if there was any kind of consensus about how people write great songs. There was and there wasn’t. Although none of them can offer an easy method of writing a good song, they all share their thoughts about the process, about what to do as well as what not to do. (As Lou Reed said, “I don’t know how to write songs. But I know what not to do. So I just cut out everything that sucks.”) And in the amalgamation of all of the thoughts, there’s much to be gained. As Van Dyke Parks said about these interviews, “What is transferable is this sense of courage, of derring-do. This is infectious. This is highly contagious. And confirmational. It’s as helpful as belonging to some religious sect. Hearing someone say ‘Amen.’” So for my next few columns, I am going to share some of this assorted wisdom culled from this collection of conversations.

“It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun,” Cohen continued. “You’re married to a mystery.” Everyone agreed that there is no simple or easy method to write a classic song, no repeatable pattern. And they also agreed that this unknowable quality – this mystery at the center of the process – is something all songwriters come to embrace. Many acknowledged a kind of zen acceptance of the many unanswerable aspects of the craft. Van Dyke Parks said, “The highest praise for the form is that there is no one correct approach. That’s why I like it. I have never learned a repeatable approach pattern to songwriting. There’s no right way of writing songs.” Bob Dylan echoed this exact sentiment. “There’s no rhyme or reason to it,” he said. “There’s no rule. That’s what makes it so attractive.” As Dave Brubeck said, “The secret of a great melody is a secret.”

Dylan also spoke about learning how to do consciously what he’d done unconsciously for years, and it’s a transition every serious songwriter has to make, from artistic instinct to artistic intelligence. Songwriting becomes a conscious attempt to delve into the unconscious. Even those writers who scoff at the concept of a spiritual source for their songs admit that the phenomenon of having them simply arrive feels magical. Paul Simon said that both the words and music for the phrase “Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down” all came at once. And he knew it was good. But he emphasized that was an extreme exception, and that “mainly it’s just waiting. Waiting for the show to begin.” Yet while waiting, Simon doesn’t impose himself on a song. Asked if he actively thinks about what he wants his song to say before writing, he said, “No, not anymore. I consciously try not to think about what a song should say. Because I am interested in what I find as opposed to what I’m planting … I like to discover it rather than plot it out… As soon as your mind knows that it’s on and it’s supposed to produce some lines, either it doesn’t or it produces things that are very predictable … I’m interested in discovering where my mind wants to go, or what object it wants to pick up. It always picks up on something true.”

Van Dyke Parks agreed that in songwriting, it’s truth that is the ultimate goal. “It is always the truth that matters,” he said. “In any song, there is a central truth. And you either find it, or allude to it. It’s the truth that everyone wants … Songwriting is a matter of self-discovery … I want that moment of contemplation or meditation when you’re moving with this thing, you’re not in a lotus position, you’re working like a hornet out of hell; all of that work is supportive of the original revelation. Something is revealed to you.”

Randy Newman also emphasized that one must remain receptive while writing, and not impose too much conscious intention while in its midst. “Don’t let the critic become bigger than the creator,” he said. “Don’t let it strangle you.” “It is a spirit being born,” said Rickie Lee Jones. “It’s a living spirit. When people hear it, a spirit happens to them. And you have to be quiet and careful when it is being born, and you can’t tell it it’s wrong, ‘cause it will just die.” Tom Petty agreed: “You’ve got to just let them arrive. You can’t question what you’re doing or that’ll get in the way.” We’d been talking about the way you can work on a song and get nowhere for months, and then suddenly a great one – like his song “Wildflowers” – just arrives. It’s not a job in which work always equals achievement. “It’s because you’re dealing in magic,” Petty said. “It’s this intangible thing that has got to happen. And to seek it out too much might not be a good idea. Because, you know, it’s very shy, too.”

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