1 Oct 2016

Songwriting is not a competitive sport

From RNZ Music, 4:03 pm on 1 October 2016

There’s been lots of talk this week about songwriting, about what makes it good or bad, what is and isn’t a good song, what has merit and what does not. To me, songwriting is like a mystical process that involves distilling unnameable, abstract feelings and ideas into music, almost like a form of alchemy – making something tangible out of the intangible.

Bob Dylan

Dylan's 'Like A Rolling Stone' a more exciting record than song. Photo: Wikicommons

It doesn’t need to be great poetry, and it doesn’t need to re-invent the wheel on a musical level. Sometimes you like things that, objectively, are not good, and do not like things that you know do have merit. I think a really great melody should always triumph over any literal lyric meaning, or what is musically correct.

Great songs can land fully formed, like a vivid dream, or they can be laboured over endlessly, chipped away at like a giant block of granite.

I really love bands, too. I love the energy that a group of people brings to performing a song, and when it is really descriptive of a time and place and a shared experience. I love how perfect The Beatles, or The Smiths, or Hüsker Dü were, and how they couldn’t ever really last (and neither should they have to).

I no longer think that a song has to be able to be played just on acoustic guitar or piano to be a good song. Something like ‘How Soon Is Now?’ is clearly a much more exciting record than it is a song (I feel the same way about ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ – in some ways that opening snare crack is the most exciting thing about it). Lots of people have made bad records out of great songs, and vice versa – “you can’t varnish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter”.

I used to think that you couldn’t take someone seriously if they didn’t write their own songs, but then, consider Glen Campbell singing Jimmy Webb songs, or Scott Walker singing Jacques Brel. Great songs can either be timeless, out of time, or entirely redolent of a time and place.

Really great songs seem to describe a universality of human experience, and maybe that is why many of the very best songs are love songs. Consider these lyrics:

“And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time” (Wichita Lineman, Glen Campbell, written by Jimmy Webb)
“I don’t pretend to know what you want, but I offer love” (Distant Sun, Crowded House, Neil Finn)
“I’m checking your pulse, cos you’re so quiet, I’m kissing you, but you don’t feel it” (Why Won’t You Stay?, American Music Club, Mark Eitzel)
“I’d have been the shadow of your shadow, if I’d thought it might have kept me by your side” (If You Go Away, Glen Campbell, written by Jacques Brel)
“The girl I want to marry, upon the high trapeze, the day she fell and hurt her knee” (Mid-Air, Paul Buchanan)

A really killer line seems to stop time.

I have been really lucky to have met a bunch of my musical and song-writing heroes, and am grateful to have played and heard and enjoyed music with some incredible people and musicians, and for them to become friends. It really does forge indelible bonds.

If you are smart and talented enough to be any good at writing songs, you are probably smart and talented enough to realise there are easier ways of becoming rich and/or famous. You should only do it if you absolutely HAVE to. And you should find a way to make enough money doing something else that your life isn't completely awful – certainly, the only people I know who make a living from music are those who will turn their hand to ads, film, TV, or entertaining in whatever fashion. And - I am very proud of the people I know who make music selflessly because that is just what they do. I love the connection that music makes between people, and the thread it weaves through our lives.

And sometimes I think there are just so many brilliant songs in the world that we really don’t need to write any more - but then someone goes and writes a really great one, and all bets are off again.

Jeremy Taylor

Jeremy Taylor Photo: Penny Pender

Jeremy Taylor is a music reviewer for Nine To Noon, a songwriter himself, and runs the good ship Slow Boat Records.