I happen to turn the television channel to Bravo this morning, and found myself mesmerized by Jewel's show, a show about songwriters competing for the best song. It was the final show, the winner chosen from three songwriters. Although the songs were more hit pop songs, I was amazed at the talent of these three young singer/songwriters. The songs were all built on the typical pop song, hooks, the bridge, soaring melodies, and concept. It was really cool to watch a show utilizing the language of songwriting. I thought the judges were spot on in their responses, and it had me thinking about the dozens of songs that I have written, and the dozens of new songs I have heard from friends and colleagues in the music biz. I couldn't help make the comparison with theatre, new plays, and the ensuing struggle of both to be heard and sung. As I said in the previous post, a song only has to hold for two or three minutes, but a play has to hold for 120 to 140 minutes. However, the concept is similar, each 'beat' or section has to keep the audience's attention, moving the song or play forward.
I do find that some of the same difficulties exist in song writing as it does in theatre. If the audience knows its going to see/hear The Sound of Music, as opposed to 'The Man in the Black Pajamas', (the play I'm directing) the audience will always choose the familiarity of The Sound of Music. When I play cover songs in a bar or restaurant, I'm always going to make more money because the audience is familiar with the songs. However, as I've mentioned on several occasions, John Lahr's book, 'Astonish Me' could also be a standard idea in music as well as theatre. Unless a new song or play can astonish an audience immediately, then it may be able to do so only if it is fully developed. In this regard, a song may take years of development and polish to eventually astonish.
Jackson Browne's song, 'These Days' was written when he was sixteen years old. I can just imagine the astonishment of those who heard that song when he was that age. It's certainly why he became Jackson Browne, as the song is much older and astonishing than he could have been at sixteen. Its evident when you hear him play the song now, it still astonishes. I find most of his songs are amazing in almost every way, but especially musically and lyrically.
This summer, I decided to begin to conceptually guide The Boulder Heritage Festival, which includes eighteen hours of music. First, each of the bands or artists were asked to cover a Hank Williams song. That part of the concept was fairly easy, as Hank is pretty well known, and his songs easy to find and learn. The second part of the concept was much tougher. I asked the artists to cover another singer/songwriter that would be playing at the festival. This was a very different animal, for various reasons. First, most singer/songwriters are generally more interested in either doing an existing cover in a different way, or their own work. It's also easy to assume that in order for that to happen, there has to be communication between the community of artists. Many of the songs are not even recorded, so I think it was difficult in that respect, it was much harder to acquire and learn the song. I think, however, this is a very sound concept that I will keep working on, because I think it's important. I think certain artists given a specific song of someone else, could turn up something astonishing. I do think it's very hard for singer/songwriters to buy into this, however, but if I can eventually convince them, I think the results will be what I thought they could be. I think most singer/songwriters are influenced by their favorite songs and artists as well as the muse, but I also think it would be very powerful to be influenced by each other. We don't often get to have personal relationships with our favorite singers, but we can develop relationships by those we are playing with and know from our communities. I also think that this process could take years to develop, but so does a song. I have songs that I wrote twenty years ago that I'm finally growing into. Its always interesting to listen to some of the great singer songwriters of our time covering the songs that they wrote twenty years ago. Of course, Bob Dylan, who most of us know, was well known for changing the way he sang his songs on a daily basis. I love to listen to Townes Van Zandt in his later years, with the gravitas of experience.
My cousin's songs, (I won't mention her name) are each one astonishing. I really think she understands that each song she writes is not just another song. I'm continually amazed at the songs. It would be equally amazing if she was able to generously give the songs to other artists to cover. I think amongst musicians, especially in rural areas, a song can gain legendary status as other artists are allowed to find and sing it. I don't necessarily think it has to be pushed to gain this kind of momentum, I just think there has to be a generosity and relationship building in order for this to happen. I continually send songs to other people. I have a pretty good understanding of what's in the song. I love to study other musicians and their songs. If I have something that I think is a good fit, I'll send it. I am finding, however, that there is a polite response that I would send, but very little happens. That doesn't stop me, however, I think it’s the same in sending a play. Most theatres have 'literary managers', and if your play does not fit in with their experience or the genre they like, it's really a shot in the dark that your play will get done no matter how good it may be. Many literary managers are also playwrights, so they have a particular play they keep looking for. I can usually tell this by the response, (when they do respond) that this is not the play they are looking for. I've recently begun to ask the question: Why is another singer/songwriter going to stop their own work to do my song? Even though I think it's another 'chop building' experience, I can honestly say that I would rather be working on my own songs than someone else's. However, a good song is a good song. I worked for a full three hours the other day on 'Wish You Were Here' because it is a great song. I think, though, I also worked on it because the music, the lyrics, and the way to play it—was right at my finger-tips. I think it's another discipline that can be acquired, but not easily.
Years ago, I found a cover band in a bar called the Bucking Chute. They did all covers, and no one amongst the group had any aspirations of songwriting. I started to give them songs and little recordings of the melody. After a couple of weeks, I went into the bar and they were playing both of my songs in their set. I should have seized the moment at the time, but perhaps I was just as astonished as they were. As I think back, and have since found the songs in old notebooks, they hold up pretty well, but sound far different now with me singing them than they did when 'Black Mountain' was singing them. My conclusion is that like theatre, getting your songs recorded by someone else is so much about years spent cultivating relationships. Eventually, all the stakes get raised, and hopefully, grace takes the stage with a song that used to be yours…