By Chris Moore:
Regardless of which genre of rock music you listen to, chances are that you are a fan of songwriters. As recently as the fifties and even into the sixties, it was considered par for the course to have the songwriting separated from the performance. For instance, consider Lieber and Stoller’s contributions to Elvis Presley’s catalog. Johnny Cash wrote some of his songs, but he certainly covered more than he wrote. And this was an understandable system.
Somewhere along the line, the singer/songwriter became a closely watched and more appreciated commodity.
It really began in the sixties, predominantly with Dylan and the Beatles. Both acts began by playing traditional music and covers before they started writing their own music. Whatever it was, something struck them, and from that point forward, it only made sense to record their own material. This most likely contributed to the legendary heights that sixties rock music reached. Consider Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, Dylan’s groundbreaking records that truly sounded like nothing that had come before. Take Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles’ experimental and, in the case of the latter, concept albums that literally changed the texture of album making as we know it.
Meanwhile, don’t forget all the other singer/songwriters who emerged during that period and since. Brian Wilson went so far in the mid-sixties as to stop touring and devote his attentions one hundred percent to songwriting and arranging lush, complicated — and, of course, beautiful — background tracks, perhaps best showcased on Pet Sounds and the finally-released SMiLE (the latter of which literally drove him crazy).
Since then, some of my personal favorite bands and individual artists have been, first and foremost, songwriters. Take Warren Zevon’s unique brand of songwriting, particularly his dark humor and literary references. Or R.E.M. and their contributions to the genre now known as “alternative rock,” wherein Michael Stipe purposely cut out electric guitar solos and — at least in the band’s early work — muffled the lyrics so that there was no single set of understood words for each song. It was literally left up for interpretation.
Later acts have split off in a range of directions. For instance, acts like Ben Folds, the Barenaked Ladies, and the Wallflowers have clearly taken their lead from classic sixties songwriters and then added their own unique lyrical and instrumental twists. Other bands, such as Pearl Jam and Wilco (to name only a couple), continue to make music that stretches and redefines the boundaries that have previously been set for rock music and songwriting in general. (This is a painfully short list of five contemporary bands that I love, but they are enough to provide fodder for conversation…)
So, based on this, how does one become a songwriter?
If you’ve always wanted to be a songwriter but were never sure how, or even if you’ve just been curious, then this list is for you…
1) Rebel Against Something
This is a requisite coming-of-age process for all you prospective songwriters who hope to make it to the big time. Whether you have grown up in suburbia or on the streets, there are always reasons to rebel. For Bob Dylan, it was the dull realities of daily life in a dying mining town in Minnesota that caused him to see music as an escape. He has described his exhilaration as he tuned his radio in to whatever distant stations he could pick up. Others, such as Eddie Vedder, found music as a way to channel their emotional reactions to what they experienced and witnessed around them. Vedder reflected on such experiences from young adulthood as abusive relationships, dysfunctional people, and secrets being kept from him.
2) Show Your Distaste for Tradition and “The Man”
Once you’ve begun the process of rebelling (and perhaps even winning over the masses), it’s time to stick it to “the Man.” The Beatles’ history epitomizes this development. They certainly didn’t go from “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Happiness is a Warm Gun” overnight, but one thing is certain: the more they rebelled, the more fans flocked to Beatlemania. Bob Dylan brought a giant light bulb to a press conference, refused to communicate in a straightforward manner with any member of the press, and plugged in — full volume — at the Newport Folk Festival. The Moody Blues promised they would record a classical album, then turned around and used the studio time alotted to them to record their own original material for Days of Future Passed. Pearl Jam fought the good fight against the “convenience charges” implimented by Ticketmaster, and Eddie Vedder, after a fan threw a copy of Rolling Stone onstage during a concert, wiped his butt with the magazine, explaining to the crowd that RS printed a cover photo of him without the other members of his band in the shot. When Trent Reznor tired of record label interference and corporate nonsense, the Nine Inch Nails frontman began releasing his music online — including his 2008 album The Slip — for free.
And the list goes on…
Perhaps the best example of the importance of this step in the successful songwriter’s career is found in the Beach Boys’ decision not to play at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival. For the late 1960s and well into the 1970s, they were labeled as “them” instead of “us” by many music fans. It is arguable that the Beach Boys’ clean cut image that skyrocketed them to success in the early sixties ultimately led to the band’s decline in popularity. Ah, the irony…
3) Go Through Rehab
This sounds like a terrible and heartless suggestion to make to you. Yet, while there are some artists who have not gone through rehab, there are indeed many great musicians and songwriters who have had to face their addictions and other demons at some point in their careers. Recently, Jeff Tweedy underwent rehabilitation to deal with an addiction to painkillers. He, like many other artists in the past, was asked what the effect would be on his music. (I was delighted with his reply — essentially, he said he was feeling better than ever and that his state of mind can only have a positive effect on Wilco’s music.)
Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle crash was asserted by many to be his way of stepping back from the spotlight after a wild tour overseas where he was known to take downers before the acoustic half of his show and then take uppers during the intermission before coming out with the Band. He was quickly setting a precedent that no individual could survive. Brian Wilson, of course, withdrew from music and life in general for decades after failing to release SMiLE; it is apparent to anyone who has seen him recently that he still battles with those personal demons.
If not rehab, then every songwriter certainly needs to undergo a period of reflection after a fall from grace. Take the case of the Barenaked Ladies’ Steven Page, who recently left the band in the aftermath of his cocaine bust. To read many so-called fans’ scathing rants against him online, you would think you had stepped back into Puritan times.
(Still, I can imagine that he will only be stronger for the experience, and I can’t wait to hear what his next album will be like…)
4) Have a Family Period
As a songwriter, you may lead the life of a rock star for a matter of years, but eventually everyone has to bring it all back home. This is the point at which you must find a wife, have one or more kids, and attempt (probably unsuccessfully) to live an ordinary, anonymous life for a while. The most notable example of this truth is Paul McCartney whose utter failure to accomplish domestic normalcy has been given a name. It’s called Wings, his band for much of the seventies. The lineup, much to the chagrin of his earlier fans, included his wife, Linda. The lyrical content was often nonsensical enough to make even the most gullible, innocent three year old ask, “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” And yet this is a rite of passage for all music fans, as well. We’ve all gone through a Wings phase. Go on, you can admit it…
The Barenaked Ladies have been in a family phase for years, evidenced most recently by the masterful Snacktime. Ben Folds briefly indulged in the “normalcy” of family life, recording such simple, touching songs as “Gracie,” but his 2008 album Way to Normal strongly suggests that he’ll be a bachelor for some time to come. Dylan’s so-called family period lasted from the aforementioned motorcycle crash until about 1974 when he apparently got the itch to tour and record music again. As he sings in the Planet Waves deep track “Something There Is About You,” “I can say that I’ll be faithful. I can say it in one sweet, easy breath. But to you that would be cruelty, and to me, it surely would be death.”
Pretty much speaks for itself…
5) Um… Continue to Write Songs!
So, after all these steps, phases, and experiences, what’s a songwriter to do?
Continue to write songs, of course!
At this point, you can pretty much choose career paths from a plethora of options. For instance, you could “find religion” and record a series of records devoted to expressing your spirituality. You could get more personal and vulnerable by going acoustic for an album, or for that matter, turn to harder rock and roll to showcase your newfound rage over a breakup. Why not record music for a different genre? (I would recommend country music, as that seems to be the going trend these days.) Oh, and don’t forget to release an album exclusively through Wal-Mart, although that’s probably best reserved for a planned reunion or comeback album. In the meantime, you can always record four non-album tracks per release and split them up, offering one exclusively at iTunes, Target, Best Buy, and Wal-Mart respectively. It may seem like you’re screwing the fans at the time, but don’t worry; you’ll eventually release a rarities CD that will contain all the non-album tracks. Put your heart into those non-album tracks now, as there’s nothing more disappointing — and perhaps more predictable — than a sub-par rarities compilation. Consider it an investment in the future… a future in which you may be writing songs more slowly than ever and yet still be in need of a record to satisfy your contract.
If none of that works, you can take a break from writing for a while to work on covers. Record a traditional album? Contribute to a compilation of covers for a famous artist? Join a supergroup?
The opportunities and options are endless…
Whatever you do, don’t stop caring about what you’re writing and recording, because you’ll always have a fanbase out there that will buy whatever you put out, be it a masterpiece or a recording unworthy of serving even as a paperweight.
So, good luck, and we’re all counting on you!