Around the Bramble Patch III: Accumulated Songwriting Wisdom

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Featuring Merle Haggard, David Byrne, Townes Van Zandt, Tom Petty, Laura Nyro, Bob Dylan, Lindsey Buckingham, Dave Brubeck, Elvis Costello, Joe Henry, Rickie Lee Jones, Darryl Hall, Brian Wilson, Lamont Dozier & Randy Newman

In discussing the nature of truth, Pete Seeger shared some wisdom he learned from his father: “The truth is a rabbit in a bramble patch. And you can’t lay your hand on it. All you do is circle around and point, and say, ‘It’s in there somewhere.’” It’s the same with songwriting. There is no single truth about it. But there is a whole lot of wisdom about songwriting, and in that aggregate of ideas, this circling round the bramble patch, there is a greater truth to discover. 

See Previous Bramble Patches:
Bramble Patch I
Bramble Patch II

Townes Van Zandt: “The song was there.”

TOWNES VAN ZANDT: The subconscious must be writing songs all the time. I’ve heard a lot of songwriters express the same feeling, that the song came from elsewhere. It came through me. The song was there. I’ve had that feeling with certain other songs, Guy Clark songs or Bob Dylan songs. John Prine songs. I feel, “Man, why didn’t I write that? That song was out there and I didn’t get it.” You get that feeling the first time you hear it: “Man, that song was in me, too!”

LAURA NYRO: I think that in music there’s a oneness, there’s a sweetness. Or there can be.. If you look at the world, there’s so much separation. It’s all polarities, wars. But to sense a oneness and a sweetness, I mean, that was it. That was the ultimate. The best thing in life. And I did sense that in music. So that’s what is divine to me. 

VAN DYKE PARKS: To me, songwriting is like a hydra. You slay one beast and you end up with two more,. And it’s a defiance; and you have to stay on it until you get yourself out of the problem. You’re not satisfied until you’ve tied off the last suture. 

LINDSEY BUCKINGHAM: My whole process is like painting.  You may start off with a certain intent and you start putting strokes on the canvas, but because it’s so intuitive and one-on-one,  the colors will lead you in the direction that you didn’t expect to go. So you may have a preconception what the song is going to be melodically, or otherwise,  and you may end up in a totally different place.  You are allowing the unexpected to happen, basically. 

TOM PETTY: You’re dealing in magic. It’s this intangible thing that has got to happen. And to really seek it out might not be a good idea. Because, you know, it’s very shy, too. But once you’ve got it, you can work on songs and improve them. Once you’ve got the essence of them. You see if there’s a better word, or a better change.

DAVID BYRNE: I still think you have to wait for inspiration, but unless you’re there, waiting at the bus stop, you ain’t gonna get on the bus. If you’re doing other things all day, a song ain’t gonna tap you on the shoulder and go, “Pull the car over! I’ve got a song for you right now.” That can happen, but I think it’s pretty rare.

MERLE HAGGARD: Have you had that dream where you could fly? Writing a song is the conscious version of that dream. Every time you start to write a new song, there’s a chance that maybe you can fly with this damn thing. Maybe you can lift yourself out of obscurity. Maybe you can become somebody. Maybe you can become Ernest Hemingway.

Merle Haggard: “The good songs are done before I write them.”

DAVE BRUBECK: The secret of a melody is a secret.

TOM PETTY: What makes a melody strong is simple; can you hum it in your head? Does it do something to you when you hear it? Is it a friendly thing? Do you want to hear it again?I think the melody really defines the song. And the chords you find, and the rhythms you find, they’re really there to support that melody. They must support the melody. It’s very important.

RICKIE LEE JONES: I think melodies are our true language. You’re building something. You’re building a little sentence. If you draw the shape of it, you can see what it does.  I’ve been thinking that there are certain melodies,  certain series of tones, that invoke in us an emotion. And they’re picked up in every culture. Certain tunes are everywhere. You can find them in China. You can find them in Western music. It’s everywhere. Hank Williams in Japan. 

MERLE HAGGARD: [Writing songs] is something that is necessary for me to do to release anger and express love, and it probably keeps me from going down to McDonald’s and shooting all the hamburgers.

JAMES TAYLOR:  [In songwriting] I think there’s a phase that’s unconscious, and there’s a phase where you have to button it up, l finish it, and pull it into a form that’s presentable. There are stages in it that are very conscious. But it all starts with a lightning strike of some sort, an unconscious emergence. And to me it happens most when I’m sitting down and playing the guitar. 

BOB DYLAN: My sense of rhyme used to be more involved in my songwriting than it is. Still staying in the unconscious frame of mind, you can pull yourself out and throw up two rhymes first and work it back. You get the rhymes first and work it back and then see if you can make it make sense in another kind of way. You can still stay in the unconscious frame of mind to pull it off, which is the state of mind you have to be in anyway.

ELVIS COSTELLO: You can travel as a songwriter, like novelists can. Crime writers kill people all the time,  willy-nilly, but they never go to jail. I learned something valuable, that you can tell a three-dimensional story and it doesn’t have to obey any of the structural rules of any of the songs I’ve written over the last 40 years. There’s something very refreshing there. It’s good not to be so self-satisfied that you know all the ways that you can tell a story. 

JOE HENRY: [Being a songwriter] is a bit like being an acrobat, in that, yes, hard work and endless repetition are essential to progress and fluency. But you also have to arrive with a certain innate sense of balance and courage, and as well a singular vision on behalf of your own artistry, for your work and time to add up to something of true value.

Joe Henry: “You have to arrive with a certain innate sense of balance and courage.”

MERLE HAGGARD: Songs don’t take me a long time for me to write, because I don’t force-write. The good songs are done before I write them. All I have to do is learn them. Like my song “Mama Tried” The song was there. I had to write it down.

DARRYL HALL: The songs are already there. You know, everything has always been there and these different personalities, different situations, can cause a song  to come into reality at that moment in time, and who knows why it comes? It’s these strange factors. You never can tell. It’s  a spiritual thing. It really does come from the heart. It’s bringing this energy, coalescing this energy into an emotion, channeling through that emotion and making it come out of my mouth.

ELVIS COSTELLO:  There are times [in songwriting] when you’re letting yourself be guided. Perhaps by an enigmatic phrase that has been intriguing to the imagination – or just the mind, not necessarily the imagination = and what the implications of that phrase is. Sometimes it’s the opening line of the song; sometimes it’s the title. I have notebooks in which there are lists of titles. There’s a whole story you can paint in that title.

RANDY NEWMAN: Starting [a new song] can be difficult. The real secret to that, like so much else, is stamina. Hanging in there, and showing up every day.It takes stamina to go in there and sit, and work at it, unless you’re optimistic about a final result. Which I haven’t learned. I’ll start and it will sound terrible to me, absolutely terrible. I never think I’m gonna get anywhere with what I’m playing, where things are taking me. No plan. So it makes you want to quit, and do something else.

LAMONT DOZIER: Writing songs is a 24-hour job. You dream it, you eat it. You’re having a conversation with somebody, and you’re working. You find yourself listening for a certain thing that might strike a chord for a song. It’s a constant work thing for me. It’s my relaxation, my fun, my everything. 

ELVIS COSTELLO: Songs are like mysteries that you can go back to. And they can change on you. They can turn around and bite you, even, while you’re holding them. And that’s a great thing to have that, as well as songs that are very clear. To have songs which are mysterious even to the person who wrote them is exciting. There are songs  that transform themselves as you are performing them. I have a few songs which are like mysteries to ponder for all time. And that’s a comforting thing. 

BRIAN WILSON:  You get upset sometimes. People let you down sometimes. You go through all these trips, you know. But it’s worth it. My God, man, it’s worth it, You kick it around. Kick it around. Get off your ass! Do something! That’s all I can say to you.

All quotations from interviews by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter.

See previous Bramble Patches:
Bramble Patch I
Bramble Patch II

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