Originally written for the Bluegrass Situation
Songwriting takes many forms. Sure, in the realm of Americana music, “songwriting” typically refers to the thing most people do with an acoustic guitar, a voice, and their sense of poetry. But, in many areas of traditional music – folk, bluegrass, classical, jazz – “songwriting” can be a process by which an artist pulls something out of the tradition and uses it as a building block for something all their own.
Take Casey Driessen, for example. The world-class Asheville-based fiddler has spent more of his time backing up other people on his five-string fiddle – folks like Bela Fleck, Steve Earle, the Duhks…even John Mayer. But, across a handful of solo albums (including The S1ngularity, which dropped last month), Driessen has asserted his very singular vision of musicality, marrying his freakishly solid fiddle chops with his sort-of-almost-alien ability to loop and layer songs like Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” into glorious oblivion.
If you ask him, as I did recently, about songwriting, though, he’ll quickly correct you and explain he’s more of a tunesmith than a songwriter. A songwriter, he says, is someone who works with lyrics and vocals. He comes from the bluegrass tradition, where jammers shout out, “Play a fiddle tune!” So, he identifies more with the idea of “tunes” than “songs.”
Casey Driessen: I try to find songs I can carry and not just replicate what the [original version did]. I try to bring my own stamp or personality to a song I can do something with. That’s the distinction to me.
Kim Ruehl: It’s different from calling yourself a “cover artist” though.
CD: Yeah, I’m not doing a whole album of cover songs. I do a combination of original instrumentals, sometimes I call them “derangements” – taking arrangements of other people’s tunes or public domain material, which may have lyrics and may be instrumental. I’m trying to arrange things that I didn’t write in a way that fits what I do, that’s convincing, that feels like me.
KR: So where does it start? Just messing around?
CD: I guess each tune is different, each song is different. The Tom Waits tune – “Murder in the Red Barn”…I like his writing, so I made a little playlist of his records and put it on random. I [heard that song and] thought, Is this is a song I can pull off? Is it in my vocal range, is it something I can lyrically make convincing? That one stuck with me because there’s a line in there about a violin, so I like that … There’s a tradition of murder songs in bluegrass and old time, and [I liked] the idea of adding to the family tree of murder songs, with one that comes from a place that’s unexpected, from a different genre. That was another check mark for me. [I also] wanted to do a piece for the looping concept that didn’t use the bow at all, on the violin. I wanted to make all sounds that were bow-less – pizzicato, hitting on the body of the instrument – so I started fooling around with that. He had a banjo plucking around in his original recording, as well. So there were a bunch of little things that felt familiar enough to me that I thought I’d give it a shot. That’s where that came from.
The Michael Jackson cover came from him actually passing away. I was at a fiddle camp and I was supposed to give a faculty performance the following day. I thought a tribute was appropriate. A friend of mine suggested – “Oh, you should do Billie Jean. It’s got a very identifiable string line.” I thought that was great, so I worked that one up. I just try to be open to suggestions wherever they might come from.
KR: When did you realize you could do that? I mean, as a child, learning music, you learn songs that have been written and you have to play them just so. A lot of people take that to a point of writing their own entirely new songs. But at what point did you start to deviate?
CD: I’ve never been drawn to lyric writing. I’ve been drawn to composing, but never lyric writing. I don’t feel like a storyteller that way. So, writing lyrics was not an obvious jump for me. In the bluegrass world there’s a lot of covering of material that happens. That’s how I grew up. I never really paid attention to where songs came from. I just heard them on a record. You get into jam sessions in bluegrass, it’s such a part of the learning process in that world. You’re trying to find common ground to play music with other people. Playing your own original tunes is not a common ground for a jam session – that’s a jam buster, if you’re going to pull out your own material. So I was used to trying to sing or play other people’s tunes. That was a natural for me.
[Also,] I was a big fan of Tony Rice. Still am. I think of him, really, as a singer. He’s a guitar player certainly, but he was a major voice in bluegrass that I grew up listening to. He hardly wrote any of that material yet he owned all of that material. You learned that from listening to Tony Rice. He seemed like he owned those songs. That gave me confidence. I might not be a songwriter, but let me find some material that I feel confident with and go with that, and put my own stamp on it.
KR: So, what is the perfect tune?
CD: I define a good song by one that can stand the test of time and genre. One that is malleable to different instruments and different vocalists. There’s some sort of universal quality about it. It seems that way to me when I’m picking them. There’s one called “Working on a Building” that I’ve played for years and years. It’s public domain. Who knows where it started but it works in so many different instrumentations. Stevie Wonder’s songwriting is something I really like. Lots of his tunes are still as applicable today as the day they were written. That’s a hard question to answer – the perfect song. I don’t know… Certainly there’s amazing music that only the songwriter can pull off convincingly and that is just as perfect. Are you talking about the type of song I like to listen to? Or the perfect song for me to pull off in a live show? Because, there are different qualifications, for me.
KR: I don’t know … It’s hard to imagine another fiddler coming along and picking up your arrangements, though, and doing them exactly the way you would do them.
CD: I don’t know that it’s supposed to be done that way, unless you’re a cover band and you’re trying to replicate what was recorded to please the wedding crowd you’re playing for… then it’s good to try to be as true to possible to the original recording. That’s what people [in that context] are expecting to hear. But if you’re an artist, you’re trying to say something new with the song. I’ve changed time signatures and chord changes. I think some of that might be illegal to do, copyright wise, but I don’t think the songs have stopped being themselves. They just give themselves over to the ability [for me] to play with them.
KR: How do you not go overboard when you’re layering things and looping things?
CD: It’s with conscious effort. I feel like I’m always trying to pare something back, trying to say more with less. I know I say a lot, I play a lot. My arrangements can be really dense, but believe me I pull it back.
With the looping, you have to think about how the parts fit together not just how one part sounds by itself. If you’re going to play one part by itself, and not have anything else going on, you want to fill in the extra spaces. But you have to hear and plan for what’s coming up and what’s going to interweave and interlock with that. It’s trial and error, really, with the looping. Sometimes [it comes from] learning the arrangements. Like, for “Billy Jean,” I learned the bass part, I learned what’s essentially the drum part; I learned the string part, the vocal part. By themselves, they may not be that interesting, but when you get them all together it’s like filling in the blanks.
KR: So it’s sort of like playing with other players. It’s about listening closely.
CD: Yeah, you have to imagine what it’s going to be. You have to have some sort of plan in mind, but yes you definitely have to listen as well. If I’m playing with other musicians, I’m probably not going to play the same rhythm part that the drummer is playing because then you just blend into each other. You’re not going to enhance the situation if you’re playing the same thing. You want to find what other people aren’t playing, but you also want to leave room for other people to play. So, yeah… Not going overboard with the looping can be tricky.
Another part of it is that I’m only playing one instrument. Some people will loop – they’ll pick up the bass or the bells, the guitar, the drums… they’ll switch between instruments to layer. I’m playing one instrument so I have to be mindful of the range that each one of the parts is in, and also the tone. I’ll change the tone of the fiddle if I’m going to lay the fiddle back on the top of [something] so that there’s some sort of distinguishing quality between the two layers, so it’s not just one sound that keeps getting more crowded.
KR: It’s interesting to think of trying to, basically, create a whole band using one instrument, which is essentially what you’re doing.
CD: You know, I’ve gotten to this point by studying other instruments as they apply to mine. I’m doing a lot of percussive stuff on the fiddle, so I’ve listened to a lot of drummers and tried to emulate what they’re doing. I’m trying to learn how to play the drums but do it on the fiddle. I played a little bass for a while and that helped me tune in, with my ears, to what bass players are doing. So, I’ve learned to think how a bass player would think. I’ve tried to learn how to strum either with the fingers or with the bow by listening to guitar players. So I’m trying to learn all these instruments, but I’m learning them all essentially on the fiddle.
KR: A lot of the classical composers were using the string sections for rhythm. They weren’t utilizing drum kits, so this is kind of like you’re getting back to the classical intention for strings.
CD: I guess so. I don’t really have a classical background so I don’t have any expertise to speak to that. I played in public school orchestras. That’s my only classical experience. But you know the percussive stuff that’s happening on the fiddle now, to my knowledge, in the long history of the violin, has never happened before. This percussive chopping has been around for the last 50 or 60 years, which in the history of the violin is not a very long time. I don’t think it’s a passing fad because it’s spreading to classical violinists. People are starting to compose for it. It’s jumped genres. It’s not just a bluegrass thing. People are doing it in Irish and Scottish music, I have a buddy who’s putting it in flamenco music. It’s a new thing that’s happening on the instrument. Talk about songwriting – there are new tools and textures [waiting] to be used.