By JOHN LEHNDORFF
This year’s Folks Festival is Aug. 19–21 in Lyons has sets set for Mavis Staples and a host of singer-songwriters (bluegrass.com/folks). I love talking to songwriters about how they came to write songs. The following is from the printed program from the 23rd Annual Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, August 16-18, 2013, in Lyons, CO.
When you’ve never written a song before, the prospect of rhyming that initial lyric and finding a catchy melody to match is mighty intimidating.
Everything you come up with seems to sound trite or weird and totally devoid of memorable hooks.
Well, the secret is that even the polished and poised artists you’ll sing along with this weekend had to endure the same scary process.
We asked a diverse group of songwriters to tell us about that first song and how they learned their craft. That first baby step often turns out to be less than memorable.
“The first song I ever wrote was actually about dinosaurs,” said Canadian singersongwriter Ariana Gillis. “I was probably four years old. It made absolutely no lyrical sense.”
“I began seriously writing when I taught myself how to play guitar at age 12. I’ve been guided by listening to songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Conor Oberst, Patty Griffin and Josh Ritter.”
Richard Rodgers had Oscar Hammerstein and Carole King matched her words
to Gerry Goffin’s melodies, but for these singer-songwriters at least, the words and music don’t exist separately.
“When I write songs everything usually comes all at once,” said Gillis. “It’s like a feeling that flows through me. If I ever tried to actually write a song without this type of inspiration it just wouldn’t work.”
For Gillis there is an undeniable reward waiting once she sweats through the songwriting process. “I’m not even sure what feeling I get after I finish them. They are basically emotions; you explore your deepest feelings and try to get them out. It feels good after you finish, like everything you have kept inside has finally been released.”
As has been the case with songsmiths since the ancient Greeks, Robby Hecht was driven to write by unrequited love. He penned his first song, “Stephanie’s Rose,” soon after he graduated from high school in Tennessee.
“There was this girl who I liked and couldn’t be with, so writing the song helped me deal with my frustration,” Hecht said. “It represented the possibility of making something unique out of a sad situation.”
Unfortunately, Hecht also noted that “it had two chords in it and no chorus, and I cringe a little when I think about I. But I couldn’t wait to write another song.”
The point veteran songwriters make is that good or bad, you need to write that first song and many, many more until it starts to sound like “you.”
Louisiana-raised Mary Gauthier (pronounced “go shay”) says she can’t remember her very first song, “but I do remember the first song I wrote in my own voice,” she said. Gauthier was 35 when she wrote “GD HIV” which was inspired, by “the AIDS crisis, in full swing.” She admitted that performing it for the first time was “terrifying. I had no idea at the time that great songs are scary.” She still performs that first real song onstage.
Writing your first song …
“Take whatever chords you know, choose a topic and sing some words over the chords to a made-up melody. Then slowly replace your first draft words with words that actually express what you mean to say. Then keep writing more songs!” – Robby Hecht
“Be honest, be vulnerable, and if you’re not scared you’re not doing it right.” –Mary Gauthier
“I write songs for myself and try to not get influenced by the current trends in pop music. Sometimes that’s easier said than done.” – Ariana Gillis
More about Folks: https://johnlehndorff.wordpress.com/2016/08/12/folks-16-a-festival-for-we-who-listen-to-the-words/
Horrible self portrait with Lake Street Dive at the FolksFestival.