There are many reasons to write music. Some songwriters work alone, others are at their best in collaboration. Sometimes lyrics pop into one’s head like a rhythmic mantra, other times the song floats in on a seemingly familiar melody. The place where songs come from is elusive and subjective. Like Harry Potter’s Room of Requirement, it can be a different space each time you enter. What’s more, it’s not always the space the songwriter thought they were seeking when they set out.
The same way a joke stops being funny when a comedian is asked to justify it, something about a song is lost as soon as a reporter asks the artist for an explanation. Granted, I’m a recovering songwriter, but to me there’s always something innately frustrating about an artist interview aimed at pushing an album or product more than it is at discovering how the artist approaches the music-making itself. Everything you need to know about the album should be on the album. But how does the artist experience the music, and its creation?
To that end, I've decided to talk with some great songwriters about the experience of songwriting itself. When I designated this column, I thought it would be a discussion about craft. But, as my first subject – Darrell Scott – pointed out, craft is an entirely different thing than artistry. Before we could get very far into the discussion, he pointed out that there’s something far more deliberate about craftsmanship, as opposed to the mysterious and inspirational pull of art:
Kim Ruehl: That makes sense, certainly in terms of Nashville songwriting, where people are writing songs toward profit…
Darrell Scott: Yeah, toward the marketplace. They hear somebody’s making a new record so they try to write for that record, in that vernacular, that style. Craft is more like that. [Meanwhile,] you have someone else writing, across the same town. They’re just open and the opening shows up in a song. Do you see what I mean?
KR: Yes. Well, I’d much rather talk about the art of songwriting, in that case.
DS: [laughs] Yeah, me too.
KR: So what do you think is a song – of all the music you’ve ever heard – that gets everything right?
DS: John Lennon’s “Imagine” is a perfect song. “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” by Kristofferson, is a perfect song. “That Old Time Feeling,” by Guy Clark, is a perfect song.
DS: Why are they perfect? They just exemplify what they set out to do as a song. I don’t know a better song than “Imagine,” for example. I know other songs that work at something else, to get across [the same thing], but sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on why one song works that way and another one doesn’t. It’s more that you feel it rather than it being a cognitive, brain exploration. It’s more of a feeling. The difference between art and craft [is that] song craft has the brain attached to the process. The art part, it’s not that it doesn’t have the brain, but it’s more led by the spirit or inspiration, or heart, or emotion.
When I hear “Imagine,” it feels like a very simple, almost childlike song, except with a message that is childlike but [it’s] also red letter edition New Testament Jesus… or Buddha. It feels like a different place – an old place, an ancient place, and a future place all at one time. Timeless is a word I’d use for a great song. Timeless. They don’t have one single place in time that they stand in. “Blowing in the Wind” was perfect for Dylan in the time it was written, but it’s also perfect today or [it would have been perfect] during the Civil War. There’s a timeless quality to great songs.
KR: Yes, but you can’t really sit down to write a song and intend for it to be timeless, can you?
DS: That’s right. If you try to do a song about anything, you [get into] the craft side. You don’t sit down to write a timeless song. The timeless song comes along and sits you down. It takes you to its place, as opposed to the songwriter sitting down and saying, “I’m gonna write me a song today.” That’s… the craft.
KR: Is it possible to only write songs when, as you said, they “sit you down”? Or do you have to maintain the ability to write songs by making yourself write and hoping the timeless songs come?
DS: I think actually more of us are capable of timeless stuff than we might think that we are. The ability to write the timeless song… we have what it takes anywhere along the line. For example, that’s not the only timeless song that Lennon wrote. That’s not the only timeless song Kris Kristofferson wrote. So they can do it again. Kristofferson is a good example – the last couple of his records have been really strong, regular, great Kristofferson songwriting that have some of the same quality he had in the 1960s. So, to me, that says it can happen again. If it can happen at all, it can happen more than once.
KR: How is the experience of a song different in a studio versus a live setting?
DS: Sometimes it can be similar. Some aspects of recording that I like the best are when there’s a live aspect to the recording. By “live,” I mean that in addition to playing at the same time, in some cases, the musicians are leaking the sound of their instrument or their voice into the next musician’s mic. Something’s wafting into each other’s recording, [and] you aren’t able to “fix it later.” Me and Tim O’Brien’s work together is exactly that. Then there’s recording where you sequester each musician away from each other and build it up one track at a time. That’s a certain kind of production, a certain kind of sound and vibe. But I think the things that happen live with musicians, are the things that are worth capturing in a recording. That’s what I’m looking for. Even though I’m in a studio, there’s still something about recording live… [the music is] at its best.
KR: A lot of your songs, the really great ones, there’s nothing you could add or take away that would make it better. It’s something a lot of newer songwriters have a hard time with – knowing when to stop and knowing when to back off. Why is restraint in songwriting so difficult? Is it difficult for you?
DS: I don’t know, in terms of songwriting. I think that’s one of those things – on one level you’re talking about songs and on another you’re talking about recording. I’m hearing two different things [in the question], but as far as restraint… I think maybe to cut to the chase of what I think you’re asking, [the song] only needs to work in its essentials, so that’s guitar and voice or piano and voice. How was it when the person wrote the song? What was the general essence that was going on when it worked, when it did what it was supposed to do? That element, whatever it is, needs to be there even if there’s a full orchestra, a full rock band, a blues band, electric or acoustic, live or in the studio. If you’re getting the essence that was there when you wrote the song, then it’s working. It’s working because you drew from the essence of the song, up.
Some songs don’t need much production. “Imagine” is basically John Lennon on the piano, and it’s an upright piano. It doesn’t need to sound like a grand piano. It’s a simple upright piano. Then there’s a light rhythm section that comes to support it. You just get out of the way of the song. Anything more than that would be producing a song, as opposed to playing a song, supporting a song.
KR: I guess it was more of a performance question, then, maybe. I think it happens more with guitar solos, where people go too far. Do you know what I’m saying?
DS: I think I do, yeah. But sometimes guitar solos that go on can be a great carrier of the song, too. You can be the jam section of a song, or [mark] passage of time. If there’s a song that just goes on for a couple of verses and then there’s a guitar solo, you can let the listener know that was a passage of time so that, after the solo, [they’ll know] you needed to have that time passage.
Solos themselves aren’t a detriment; it’s how they support that song. I’m guilty of playing plenty of guitar solos in my songs, especially live. But what I’m hopefully doing is carrying the essence of the song through the solo, so that it’s not like I slipped out the back door for a while and now I’ve come back to the song, and I hope you’re all with me. I think it’s one of those [paths] that the song was supposed to take in the first place.
KR: How is co-writing different from writing solo, for you?
DS: You get the input of someone else whose work you respect, if that’s who you’re writing with. If I’m co-writing with someone whose work I respect, when they say we should do something different with the second verse, I’m all ears because I know their work, I trust their work, and we’re both working toward the same thing. Also, the other writer might hear something I don’t. Sometimes I’ve been stuck in songs I started on my own and I don’t know how to get out of it. I’ll take it to another songwriter that I respect and they’ll have an inkling of how to get out of this thing. They’ll break it open when I’m stuck. The reverse is true too. I’ve done that for folks, on their songs.
The other good thing about co-writing is that you can come out of it with the song neither of you would have written on your own. That can be stylistically, it can be language, or subject matter. Co-writing is not a curse word. I know for some people it can be and, at times in my life, it has been, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s nothing of the idea of working with somebody on a piece of music that says “this is going to suck”. As a matter of fact, it can be better than if you’d done it on your own, but you have to choose your co-writer carefully.
KR: In light of that, what have you learned from Tim O’Brien?
DS: Tim has a real familiarity with the Appalachian roots and, for that matter, Irish roots, mountain roots. He’s been a part of that all along, whether it was with bluegrass or some of his albums that went into old timey stuff or even some that were just singer-songwriter [albums]. He’s very familiar with his Appalachian roots. I’ve spent time in my life where I was trying to run from my Appalachian roots, hiding the fact that I’m from Kentucky. When you’re in your 20s, you’re more prone to run from where you’ve been and where you come from. But Tim has always been embracing of his West Virginia everything. When I’m around Tim in that way, writing or singing harmony, playing solos, bluegrass, mountain music… he makes it very easy for me to bring my roots right up there next to his.
KR: When you write, are you thinking about tradition? Or does that just come out naturally because it’s in your bones?
DS: Well, it’s in there. It is in the bones, it’s in the genes. A better way to say that is that I follow the song wherever it wants to go. So if the song is a roots or mountain or Appalachian song, then that’s absolutely where I’m going. If it’s a blues song, I bring all the blues I know, stylistically, to it. If it’s a gospel song, a confessional song, if it’s a piano ballad…whatever the song is trying to be, I’m trying to be in support of that. Sometimes it’s the mountains, sometimes its pop sensibility, sometimes it’s a jazzy chord. It’d be stupid to bring a jazzy chord into a Carter Family-style mountain ballad. The song tells me what tricks to bring to it, what sensibility. I don’t tell the song what to do, it tells me what to do.
KR: Is there anything else you want to say about songwriting? Any advice for other songwriters?
DS: I think it’s what Guy Clark says, which is: “Write what scares you.” You know you’re onto something when you’re frightened by it. You’re frightened by how it feels to you, when you’re alone in the room with it. So I guess I’ll just copy Guy and say write what scares you.