At this year’s 30A Songwriters Festival in South Walton, Florida, Nashville-based singer-songwriter, ex-rock star wannabe and festival favorite Tommy Womack held a songwriting workshop at The Boathouse Sunday morning. The entire thing was highly quotable. Here’s some of the highlights.
1. “It’s Been A Nice Day”
You’ve got to burn from the first lyric. You’ve got to get them and you’ve got to keep them. All it takes is one line that’s bad and you’ve lost them. Because people’s brains . . . people are listening to you but the minute you give them a chance for their mind to wander, their minds are going to wander. Your responsibility is to grab them with the very first line and you’ve got to hold them. [My song] “Nice Day” does that because it just tells a story. A good story is a good story whether it’s on the page or through a sound speaker or acted out in a play.
When I wrote “Nice Day,” that changed my whole songwriting world. Once I wrote a song that was fully complete and absolutely diamond-hard finished, I knew what it felt like to do that. And once you know what it feels like to write a song that is fully complete like that, you can get there again and again.
2. Lyrics vs. Prose
Prose generally have to make sense. Line after line after line, sentence after sentence. Lyrics don’t have to do that. They just have to make sense in your soul as they are going down.
3. Being a Performer
You’ve got to have, pardon my language, balls. You’ve got to have balls to get up and do this. The biggest, ballsiest thing you can do is keep your eyes open and look at people. Now, Will Kimbrough and I have a trick that we have done in the past. We take our glasses off. It’s a lot easier to stare people down when they’re just amorphous ghosts. But, pat myself on the back, I’ve got my contacts in.
4. Get ‘Er Done
I used to leave songs unfinished all the time and I don’t play those songs a lot anymore. Sometimes you think a song is finished because when you write a song when it’s brand new, it’s like a baby. It’s adorable. It’s this cute, little, new baby song. I just love it. I just can’t wait to play it for you. Then a month later you hear the song with fresh ears and you go, “Damn, that third verse sucks.”
I’ve got songs on records that are hard for me to listen to. Any of my records it’s hard for me to listen to. I’m not supposed to like them. You’re supposed to like them. There are some songs from my first records where the first verse is great, the second verse is alright, the third verse I wrote quickly because I wanted to finish the song because I was so excited I wanted to play it for people. I rushed into the recording studio and I recorded it because I was so excited about it. A month later, I’m not excited about it anymore and I’m stuck with that song on the record for the rest of my life. Starts great and peeters out, I’ve got a lot of songs like that. I highly recommend that you buy my earlier records and listen for yourselves.
5. Jay-Z Style
I have a really good memory and I can remember a lot of words, generally. When I wrote “I Need A Cigarette,” I was working in an office. It was a hostile work environment this lady that I was working for hated me. She did everything that she could to make my life miserable and I was a really miserable guy. But I would take my lunch break, I’d go behind the building where I worked and I’d drink Diet Coke and smoke cigarettes and that would be my lunch. I wrote that song on my lunch break without a pen and paper, over several lunch breaks. I’d get one line and repeat that one line in my head until it would stick in my head. If I can remember each line in a row, from then on then I know it’s memorable. If I can’t remember line number seven between six and eight, it’s not a memorable line.
6. Words Vs. Melody
I generally have words first. I’m primarily a writer. I’ve written a couple of books, I’m working on one now and prose is what I get started with. I know some of my real strong influences like Bob Dylan, John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, they start with the words.
What determines the melody for me is really just how I try to treat the lyrics after I’ve written them. My melodies are very traditional, you’ve heard them in song after song after song your whole life. . . I do hear melodies in my head that, I find often the minute I lend my voice to it, it’ll change. I’ll instantly hear things in my voice that’ll surprise me. You’ve got to trust your instincts a lot of the time. The first thing that popped out when you sang, that’s probably worth listening to. That’s probably what I should go with.
7. Co-Writing Up
With co-writing, you want to write up the food chain. Find someone that’s had success and you get an appointment to write with them. First of all, an appointment to write a song? It’s a little clinical sounding already. It’s an appointment that at a certain time on a certain day you’ll get together with someone and say ‘let’s be creative!’ It’s lunacy. It’s stupid. To me, it is. A lot of people have made a lot of money proving me wrong, saying that. I do co-write with people. Its torture, I don’t like doing it. I spend the part of the day before in dread. You’re put so on the spot and you’re sitting there on your guitar and you’re supposed to come up with something captivating. It’s totally like a blind date. It’s nerve-racking.
Now it can yield quite good things. The more comfort you have with somebody… You’ll find that a lot of people co-write with the same people over and over again. Once you break the ice, it’s easier. It can be a tough, uphill climb to get to where you’re comfortable with writing with somebody.
8. Wanna Buy A Song?
It’s really tough to get a song cut. Usually half of it is just the luck of the draw. I had nothing to do with Jimmy Buffet cutting “Nobody From Nowhere,” I was just happy to be in on it. It was a matter of chance. It was a matter of chance that some other, smaller artists picked my tune. Todd Snider recorded one of my songs “Betty was Black (and Willy was White”). But if I had pitched it to him, hoping to get it covered it, wouldn’t have happened. He just happened to hear the song and like it. That million-to-one shot is how most songs get cut from an independent songwriter.