Sing a (Not So) Simple Song

A roundtable with five Twin Cities songwriters

           Matt: Sometimes I write on my 4-track for 36 hours straight and then sleep for 2 days. I like to become so exhausted that I can't really think anymore. Then what's coming out of me is less thought about. I like to think that there's your gut, your ears, and your brain, and that's what reacts to music. The more tired I get the more I can tap into the flow of things.

           Wendy: I write a lot in the car. I found I need to have my mind half-occupied by driving, walking, cleaning, and then I have this dictaphone with me. I use it when I'm nowhere near a "songwriting situation."

           Matt: I never write lyrics until I do the vocal. I do a few run-throughs and say whatever comes out of my mouth. I get into a mode of what that sound feels like. Then I will write the lyrics. I like rhythmic things with words more than actual direct statements.

           Stuart: It's strange for me to hear about processes like that. For me it's like I come up with the musical structure of something, the melody, chord structure--that will all be taken care of in a half-hour, or an hour. You write the chorus, bridge, verse. The body of my time is for the lyrics: 98 percent of my time. I get a sense of dread sometimes when I feel it coming on, 'cause I know I'll be sitting on the couch for maybe 30 hours or more. I might get a verse quickly, then I'll have to sit for five hours to get three words I'm looking for. The most disgusting part of the process is that for a song that took maybe 30 to 60 hours to write, they're not going to go, "Man, that's a 60-hour song right there!"

           A lot of it involves cutting away at things. I'll end up with three songs worth of lyrics. I listen to a lot of artists who work in abstractions and cloudy metaphors. I just cannot set myself in that arena at all. Most of my drive has been put towards manipulating the language in a way that is totally precise and explicit. My mission is precision in lyrics.

           Matt: Well, you obviously have something to say, and I don't! [general laughter] I want to communicate vibes to people. I assume I have nothing new to say to anyone. It's not that I'm addressing something that's happened to me.

           Stuart: Sometimes the music for me is incidental... I focus enough on my music to make sure there's a platform in place for the lyrics. The melody structure is subjugated to the lyrics at all times. Watching your bands, there's an interplay going on between word and melody that just doesn't exist in mine.

           Dylan: I'm always interested in hearing about other songwriting processes. I really enjoy reading Performing Songwriter magazine; I just devour that kind of stuff. But I never labored over a successful song ever. I've labored over songs but they're terrible! I don't have any work ethic at all.

           CP: Does anyone write songs in a way that you just sit down and decide to write a song, and it comes out?

           Dylan: I guess I pick up the guitar and start playing. My favorite is to just walk or drive around and remember it by singing it over and over in my head. I guess if I remember it, it's probably good enough for someone else to remember it. If I write something down, I might get too busy or clever.

           Barbara: My process probably isn't very similar to anyone's here. Because I manage the band and do everything for them, I have both the business and creative sides to deal with. So work-wise I'm split down the middle. When I'm on the business side, it's really hard for me to write music. When I'm writing, I tend to write around midnight to 4 a.m. when it's really quiet and there's no one around. I live by myself in an apartment with thick floors. So I can scream really loud.

           I usually come up with the melody lines on the guitar or mandolin. I don't think of it as this verse-chorus-verse thing. I try to get away from simplistic musical structure. I still write some things in a simple folk vein, but I'm starting to get in this space where I'm like, "screw it." There are so many ways to explore music. Maybe I can just play the chorus once. When I heard Jeff Buckley's hit on the radio, the chorus is once and that's it. And I was like, "YES!"

           CP: Let's talk about songwriting models? What makes a perfect song?

           Dylan: I could name some things now, but they probably wouldn't be the same tomorrow. There are different things... There are mediocre songs that are made into great records, sometimes it's hard to distinguish. But like Etta James "I'd Rather Go Blind"--I can't remember who wrote that song. Some professional who got paid a flat fee for it, probably (laughter). It's just a great record, probably because of her voice. It's a simple breakup song, but the whole concept: I'd rather go blind than see you with somebody else. There's not really very many words but it tells you what you need to know. I like a lot of the Randy Newman songs for the same reason. He doesn't reveal everything.

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