John M. on his Five Favorite Songwriters

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Long beloved as a great songwriter and performer on the L.A. circuit, John M. is also the host of the acclaimed web series, “Sunday Morning with John M.” on Facebook. His book “Performance Matters,” a great compendium of acquired wisdom on the art and science of performing music live, was published last year, and is available on Amazon and elsewhere. Links for these and his many albums follow.

But first we get Mr. M. holding forth on his feelings about the five songwriters that have impacted him most.

JOHN M: These are among my personal favorite songwriters of all time. My favorites. And why. There are many others I also love and would be inclined to list here. (Ask me and I’ll tell you.) But in the interest of brevity I chose these five. One of them not your cup of tea? That’s fine. Different strokes. But these are songwriters and artists whose music I have always loved, and I have learned from each of them in ways that have helped to shape my own art.

1. Paul Simon   Great melodies and memorable hooks? Sure. Great lyrics? Generally speaking, yes. Gorgeous heartwarming harmonies (w/ Simon & Garfunkel?) Absolutely. Interesting use of rhythms and drums & percussion? Absolutely. But there’s something else that makes Paul Simon a standout for me, both as a songwriter and a performer.

Generally speaking, I tend to lean toward song lyrics that are very direct and straightforward. They say what they mean, plainly and unmistakably. I tend to lean away from writing that tries to be poetic and flowery or overly descriptive. Paul Simon is the exception. He manages to bridge the gap. He tends to paint vivid visual pictures and he does use words that are more poetic and ethereal. And yet, when he sings them, it comes across as plainly stated, direct, right to the heart of it.

A good example is the song, “The Sound of Silence.”  “My eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light, it split the night….”   Nobody ever talks like that in the day-to-day real-world in which we live. Most would simply say, “There was a bright light.” And yet when he sings it, you seem to know what he’s saying, and you feel it. Just hearing the line almost makes you want to squint.

2. Richard Thompson.  I first fell in love with Richard Thompson, as many did, for his guitar playing. I appreciated that first, before the songwriting, the lyrics, the harmonies or any of that. That all came later. At first it was just a uniquely clean and distinct guitar sound in which every single note was crystal clear, not buried under a lot of distortion or other effects. Sometimes beautiful and melodically soothing, sometimes harsh and dissonant, but always with purpose. Whichever he chose, it seemed he had a clear reason for choosing it.

But the more I listened, the more I appreciated his other qualities. I think the next thing was his harmonies with Richard & Linda Thompson. Not just that they were pretty – but that his voice was raw and raspy and earthy, and it created a stark but captivating contrast against Linda’s lovely, pure, almost angelic tone.

But eventually I did come to appreciate the songwriting. Widely diverse, from gentle, comfortable acoustic ballads to electric garage-band rock, with an occasional touch of jazz, and of course blues. He covers it all. And always with a biting vocal delivery which sometimes stings but is often tempered with a slight sarcastic humor that makes even the most tragic lyrics go down a little easier.  A truly brilliant songwriter.  And guitar player.

3. Jackson Browne   A songwriter’s songwriter.  For me, he’s on the other side of the fence from Paul Simon. Straight. Direct. Sometimes in your face.  Poetic? Sure. But it’s different.

Jackson sometime comes across as being a bit wordy – but he says so much with his words. There is an economy of words in every line.  “Don’t confront me with my failures… I’m aware of them.” Who doesn’t know exactly what he’s saying, and who doesn’t feel the pain, because they are aware of their failures too? Ten words. They say all that needs to be said.

There are many such examples. “There was a hole left in the wall, From some ancient fight, About the size of a fist…” Each of us hears that line and whether we’ve ever actually punched a hole in a wall or not, the visual recognition and the emotional connection to that line are instant.

John M. Photo by Paul Zollo.

Some of his songs are wordier. “Lives in the Balance” comes to mind. And some do lean more toward the poetic, like “Fountain of Sorrow.” But all paint clear, vivid, visual and emotional pictures that are unmistakable.  Even one of his most blatantly pop / commercial, (and one of my least favorite) songs accomplishes this. “Doctor, my eyes Cannot see the sky, Is this the prize, for having learned how not to cry?”

A brilliant and immortal songwriter.

4. Pete Townshend.  Okay, I know. When we think of Pete Townshend we don’t usually think, “What a great songwriter!”  We think of leaps and kicks and windmill strumming and smashed guitars and extremely loud volume coming from stacks of Hi-Watt amplifiers which he also destroys. (Or used to.)

All true. But there is songwriting genius here too. Perhaps not as obvious or as deep as the previous three, (or perhaps it’s been overshadowed by all those wild theatrics), but Mr. Townshend also knows something about economy of lyrics. Consider almost any of the songs from Tommy. “Christmas,” “Did you ever see the faces of the children they get so excited.  Waking up on Christmas morning hours before the winter sun’s ignited…” 

Or “The Acid Queen.”  “Your boy won’t be a boy no more. Young, but not a child!” 

His lyrical brilliance can be found elsewhere in his catalog too, lest you think Tommy was an exception because it was an opera. Go all the way back to the album, The Who Sell Out.”  Songs like, “I Can’t Reach You,” “Sunrise,” “Tattoo,” and the immortal “I Can See for Miles” all show Townshend’s keen focus on both lyrics and melody.

And yes, of course, I love the music of Townshend and The Who for its hit-you-like-a-freight-train power. Other bands have been louder, raunchier, angrier, nastier, but The Who’s music stands the test of time for its perfect balance of lyrical genius, powerful and wide-ranging dynamics, and sheer energy. And unlike some of the other raunchier, louder, nastier bands, The Who’s music is fun.

5. Lennon & McCartney.  Do I really need to say anything here? “In My Life.”  “Yesterday.” “Get Back.” “Penny Lane.” “The Ballad of John & Yoko.” “Revolution.”  I could list a hundred songs here, and I’d probably hear from a hundred people telling me which classic, brilliant, immortal songs I’d left out.

Several of the best songwriting instructors I’ve ever known routinely use Lennon & McCartney songs as examples of how to do it “right.”  If there has ever been a better catalog of songs, I’m not aware of it.

John M is a performing singer/songwriter, recording artist, author and performance coach and occasional actor. He’s performing live this coming Tuesday, March 3rd, at the Songwriter Serenade show at Matt Denny’s Alehouse in Arcadia, California.

He’s also the host of the acclaimed web-series, “Sunday Morning Live with John M., on Facebook. He has self-produced six albums and is currently working on a seventh. He also produced and starred in a feature length documentary film on House Concerts, called, “House Concerts, The Home Invasion Tour.” 

His current album “M-VI” available at CD Baby.  (See link below.) 

John is also the author of the book, “Performance Matters,” a guide through all aspects of successful live performance, available at Amazon.com  (See link.) 

As a performing songwriter John has toured the country numerous times and is currently based in Los Angeles, CA.

The official John M. Website:  www.johnm.com 

John M CDs at CD Baby – https://store.cdbaby.com/Search/Sm9obiBNLg%3d%3d/0 

Facebook:  www.facebook.com/johnmmusic

Youtube:  www.youtube.com/johnmmusic 

John M’s book, Performance Matters, is available at Amazon.com:  https://www.amazon.com/Performance-Matters-John-M-ebook/dp/B07JMWNZ5R/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Performance+matters+by+John+M.&qid=1582400388&sr=8-1 

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