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On Songwriting: What’s the Purpose of Writing Songs?

For a long time I never considered this question since making up tunes and singing along to them – relying totally on serendipity – was a childish habit I developed as soon as I was big enough to hold a guitar. This was long before I asked why anyone did anything. Only later in my early teens did I slowly become aware that writing songs could be a medium for something called “self-expression” – but I think I saw it as equivalent to others who might choose sport or some other recreation or hobby. Only much later, when writing and playing became my sole source of income, did I concern myself with the purpose of the songs – the “why?” of the songs. I no longer wrote songs for their own sake – songwriting became a means to an end. Then later again, when I quit touring and playing for a living, I wondered what purpose there would be in continuing to write songs since the means no longer had an end.  Habit? That wasn’t enough. So I decided to stop.

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Songwriters and guitar players: have you moved with the times or are you frozen in time?

I’m talking about the currency of your original musical output. Some of us, I’m sure, are now writing and playing stuff more or less indistinguishable style-wise from the days when we first strutted our stuff. Others will, I’m equally sure, have adjusted their style – either sub-consciously or deliberately – to the “market” as it has evolved through the years.

Do you think it matters? Do you think about it? Or do you just do what you do?

Anyway, it’s a mystery to me how someone who plays solo fingerstyle acoustic guitar (like us) could ever be on the bleeding edge of modernity. Ha! Prove me wrong?

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Songwriting: Sometimes There Is Fear

Not everything about the act of songwriting is all cuddly and cosy. There are times when the topic of a song is such that the act of considering it deeply enough to write several verses about it makes me feel distinctly out of sorts. This feeling is usually reinforced by whatever tune accompanies it which, if I’m doing it right, increases the unease. That’s not to say that the lyrics need be so overtly direct about a subject – on the contrary: a lot of the work is concerned with couching the lyrics in such a way that most is unsaid and merely inferred or implied. But that again means that what is unwritten still has be fully formed and chewed over in the head before writing it down in a more “artistic” way. The net result is that I can feel quite drained as if I have experienced the events described in the songs again (if they recount personal experiences, present or past) or by proxy (if they do not).

When I was younger I used to enter the fray with bravado being concerned only with the end product – the song – and how an audience might take to it. But in recent years, I’ve noticed, I’ll hover around certain proto-songs, putting off that act of actually sitting down to compose the final music and lyrics until I feel my frame of mind – or mood – is robust enough for it not to be a too enervating an experience.

So when it’s done and dusted, what’s it like to perform or record? Well, it’s OK because by the time it’s all written up and practiced and revised, I will have become inured and distanced from it and can treat it like a piece of “art”. I can try to conjure up a performance hoping to stir up some empathetic response from the audience while leaving me pretty well unscathed…