music · Songwriting

Thoughts On Constructing A Building

Well, not a building actually, more a song. I was listening to apodcast the other day that features songwriters being interviewed. So far I have listened to Dan Penn and more recently Jimmy Webb. They were both fascinating in their different ways.

One of the stories Dan Penn tells goes back to when he was around 16, and out with a group of friends. Someone would ask a question like – Do you like fried chicken, and his friend would answer ‘Is a blue bird blue ?’
(It’s like ‘Is the Pope a catholic ?’). As the evening went on, this became a running joke, and somewhere in his brain, Dan stored up that line, and it emerged in one of his first lyrics, which became a hit for Conway Twitty in 1960.

Well, me and my girl went out the other night,
Down lovers lane we were walkin
She said, Honey child, do you love me?
Right away I started talkin.

Is a bluebird blue?
Has a cat got a tail?
Hmm, is a blue bird blue?
Well honey, I love you.

So to Jimmy Webb. In 1998 or so, Jimmy Webb wrote a book – Tunesmith – about the art of songwriting, which of course, as an amateur songwriter I had to have. I’ve just started reading it, and it’s reassuring to see that some of the things I have been doing instinctively are part of the songwriters craft.
I want to quote a section from the book where he likens writing a song to building a structure of some sort – a house, a barn, a block of flats or whatever.

Firstly you have to have an idea of what it is you’re building. In other words, to start with, you need to know what the song is about. You need the big idea. And, in the same way that a building uses a variety of materials, you song will use a variety of words.

Here’s the quote: ‘In the dictionary, he finds oaken words, words of stone and paper, plywood words and words like steel beams, words of ironwood and ash, rich resonant words of mahogany and cherry, rococo words that swirl like burled walnut, simple pungent pine words, heavy words of dark ebony, ephemeral, silly words of balsa, everlasting words of marble and granite, and translucent words like coloured glass, along with blunt, pragmatic words, made of lead and cement.’

Jimmy Webb talks about the importance of having a good dictionary and thesaurus to hand – which almost felt to me like cheating, but actually isn’t. Although his book is called Tunesmith, a songwriter must also be a wordsmith, which means having a love for words themselves, for the way they sound, for the innate rhythm that a word has, for rhyme and texture, for the way one word can sit comfortably next to another, or not, depending on how you need to use it. For a sense of whether a word is soft or hard, and the skill to make a hard word do something soft, or a soft word do something hard.

So I’ve just finished a novel called ‘Nothing but grass’ by Will Cohu. I think I’ve got an idea sparked off by the book, and some words and phrases … but, heeding Jimmy Webb’s advice, I’m not going to think aloud any more about the process … it feels like this is essentially a very private enterprise until the work is finished – that is, if it ever is.

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