Writer’s Room: How Shakespeare Influenced My Songwriting

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Written by John DeNicola

A few years back, my son was in a teen production with the Shakespeare in the Valley Workshop at the West Kortright Centre in upstate New York. At that time, I was still writing pop songs for submission to whatever artist might be looking for their next record. I also volunteered to write songs for WKC Productions, which were cast, rehearsed, a stage built, and put on for two nights, all within four weeks with a cast of 12-19 year-olds. These plays were in different settings and times. Different WKC productions included the New Orleans Romeo and Juliet (1930), Post-Apocalyptic Cymbeline, Woodstock Much Ado About Nothing, etc., and we had specific cues where the songs would go amidst the dialogue. 

I wrote songs for these plays for 12 summers. We were given the directive the week we started, so in essence, we had to write about six to eight songs in a week or two and teach them to the young actors and musicians. I enlisted my friend Patti Maloney to help with the lyrics and making the music. The exercise, for Patti and me, proved to be a game-changer even outside of the Shakespeare program. Getting outside of our comfort zone and having to write songs in such a short period and diverse settings opened my ability to think on my feet and made me more fearless. The different locations helped me write in other genres which were helpful when carried over into my pop songwriting. It freed up my stream of consciousness by putting me in new and unknown situations. The various writing styles and trying to distill, from Shakespeare’s words, a song that fits the scene in such a short time sharpened both me and my lyricist’s ability to adapt quickly, which carried over to my vocational songwriting. I had to rely on my first instinct given the time constraints and not always question whether it was good enough. Just let my “flow” flow unimpeded.

After many years of session playing, producing, and writing for other artists like John Waite, Eddie Money, and for the movie Dirty Dancing, I decided to record an album of songs I had written for others to sing as an artist myself. The album was titled The Why Because, and it also included my versions of my songs “Hungry Eyes” and “Time Of My Life.” It was able to chart in the Billboard Top 20 Adult Contemporary Chart. In 2019, I decided to follow it up with all new songs written specifically with myself as the artist in mind. The album is titled She Said. I locked myself in my studio and just let the stream of consciousness ideas flow, tapping deep into my psyche and revealing to myself and others, who I am as an artist. I could plug in a keyboard or guitar and let the music flow through me as unimpeded as I could. That would sometimes lead me to key changes that I didn’t realize until I analyzed it after the song was written. This was something I might not consciously have thought about doing; I might have squashed that idea or thought I couldn’t do that. It’s musically unwise. 

While trying to keep the music sounding modern, I also found that a deep-seated love of ’70s soul melodies came pouring out, which was a surprise to me. To be fearless and allow all those years of listening to your favorite writers and artists to flow through without censoring or judging too quickly was something that I think got honed by the Shakespeare experience. I just started by getting a sound that stirred something in me and put down some chord progressions for a verse, then followed with what I thought would work as a chorus. As I built these tracks with some guitar and bass parts, a melody would pour out, again, very stream of consciousness, and usually, the first melody that came out was what ended up in the final recording. I find, especially as I have more experience and muscle memory, that my first instinct on melody ends up being the best. That can be said of even guitar solos. The vast storage of songs I’ve listened to through the years ends up being a database to draw from. Not that I use anyone else’s melody, but the confluence of songs and melodies are all stirred up and come out in a new way. 

The experience of writing for Shakespeare plays allowed for some grand and universal themes but being under the gun to produce ideas and songs quickly definitely helped me hone in on my inner psyche and trust my first instincts. That’s not to say that sometimes you can have an idea that has to be reworked and reworked until it’s right because that also happens, and sometimes it turns out great, but, in my experience, the best songs come quickly and instinctually. The music for “Hungry Eyes” flowed out within 10 minutes, including various melodic keyboard parts that became integral to the song. Sometimes you have to wonder, “Where did that come from?” Don’t question it. It came from you. So, it’s best to trust your first instincts and just let the music flow. Trust that every experience or challenge, no matter how out of your comfort zone, can enhance and build your unique voice and let you trust that within you.

Photo by Casey Steffans.

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