Are You A Songwriter?

Are you a songwriter?  Do you dare say yes?  Some people think it’s a form of magic, some mystical gift you’re born with.  “Probably most successful songwriters have an innate songwriting ability,” said Barry Mann, who with Cynthia Weil wrote some of the biggest pop hits of the sixties.

How good, or successful, do you have to be at it in order to say you are a songwriter?  If you write songs but they are never heard on the radio, are you still a songwriter?   “You wind up creating from silence, like painting a picture on a blank canvas that could bring tears to somebody’s eyes,” says country singer  Rodney Atkins. “As songwriters, our blank canvas is silence. Then we write a song from an idea that can change somebody’s life. Songwriting is the closest thing to magic that we could ever experience. That’s why I love songwriting.”  Nothing is more satisfying than connecting with an audience with your own original song but perhaps a good song, like the tree that falls in the forest, is still a good song even if no one hears it.

Some songwriters never leave their bedroom, where they toil in secret to produce something original.  “There are quite a few honest songwriters out there writing about relationships and their own personality traits,” says Billy Bragg, “But for some reason, once they step out of the bedroom, their honesty doesn’t seem to come with them.”  Maybe that’s because in the cold light of day outside your bedroom commerce is king, and what constitutes a good song is confused with a hit song, not exactly the same thing.

Maybe it’s because they can’t sing.  “Traditionally, songwriters can’t sing. And that holds true in my case, also,” said John Phillips of The Mamas And The Papas, who had the good sense to surround himself with good singers.  Lyle Lovett said, “Songwriters aren’t always performers, and even performing songwriters aren’t always the kind of show-biz performers you think they’d be.”  And that holds true in his case.

How do you learn to be a songwriter?  “All we do as songwriters,” says Steve Earle, “is rewrite the songs that have impressed us till we find our own voice. It’s part of learning the craft.”  Tom Waits says, “For a songwriter, you don’t really go to songwriting school; you learn by listening to tunes. And you try to understand them and take them apart and see what they’re made of, and wonder if you can make one, too.”

Most songwriters agree that the secret of songwriting is to do it a lot.  “The songwriters whom we think of being the greatest songwriters usually write one hit and six or seven flops,” says Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records, “That includes the Irving Berlins and the Hoagy Carmichaels, the Harold Arlens, Cole Porter.”  Donovan Woods said, “I wrote probably 5,000 bad songs before I wrote my first good one”Steve Allen, comedian and original host of The Tonight Show, wrote over 8,500 songs, some of which were recorded by leading artists of the day.  In one famous stunt on The Tonight Show, he made a bet with singer-songwriter Frankie Laine that he could write 50 songs a day for a week. Composing on public display in the window of Wallachs Music City, a Hollywood music store, Allen met the quota, winning $1,000 from Laine. One of the songs, “Let’s Go to Church Next Sunday”, was recorded by both Perry Como and Margaret Whiting.  The lesson is do anything enough (one recording out of 350 songs? – and this is somebody who had connections!) and something good will come of it.

Sometimes a songwriter can excel at one aspect of songwriting but not the others.  “I think there are some songwriters who are just brilliant who can write and then I think there are some songwriters who can like me I have a problem writing chorus lyrics but I can write a song in a story like that.” says Charles King, snapping his fingers.  So does that make you half a songwriter?  Some of the best songs in the history of music have been collaborations.  “A lot of the great songwriters in history have been collaborators, with a separate lyricist,” says Mike Gordon of Phish . “I like to co-write as it gets you outside of your own patterns and instincts and moves you toward a sound you wouldn’t reach on your own,” says Donovan Woods, “Also, I like to chat, hang out and talk about songs and there’s lots of that.”

So if you’re a songwriter and you live in the Southern Georgian Bay area, what you need to do is to get out to the now bi-monthly events organized by the Georgian Shores Songwriters’ Circle.  It’s a chance for you to come out and play your songs for other song writers in a non-competitive, nurturing environment.  There is no audience to induce stage fright.  Instead you find constructive and respectful discussion of all aspects of songwriting.  You can try out new pieces, workshop songs in progress and get over blocks, or just throw something out there to see what happens. If you are a shy singer or a “half-songwriter” this is the place for you.  Here, with everyone in the circle a songwriter with their own challenges, you will find attentive ears and sympathetic criticisms, and leave the gathering inspired to create something new for the next meeting.

The songwriters’ circles have been going on for some time in Owen Sound but now they are spreading out to Meaford and Collingwood, held on the second Tuesday of the month at 7 p.m.   The next one is this coming Tuesday (Oct. 25) at the Marsh Street Centre in Thornbury.  A $3 admission is asked to help cover costs, but don’t let that be an impediment.  If you can’t swing it, it can be waived, that’s how supportive this group is.  The meetings are hosted by  Rico Sitoski and Dave Hawkins, and everyone is welcome, whatever your age or skill level.  If you are a songwriter, even in your dreams, this will help you get to where you want to go.

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One Response to Are You A Songwriter?

  1. Gillian says:

    Hi, Bill. About 9 years ago now I was in Nova Scotia listening to Bob Snider and a member of the audience asked if you could be a songwriter even if you can’t read music and he said, “Yes. It’s your birthright.” Loved this post and will be forwarding it to lots of people.

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