Something To Burn
Q: Do you begin writing a song with a specific theme or idea in mind, almost like a goal or objective (such as “Today I am going to write a break up song about XXX”, or “I am going to write about what if was like growing up in South Berwick”), or is it entirely based on a more organic flow, responding to what comes to you naturally, whichever life experience seems to be asking to be written about? Or does this just vary, depend on where you are creatively at any given time in your life?
A: This is a great question because it gets at the central question of what is it that drives a writer to write. For me it’s sort of a combination of things.
I walk around with my writing antennae up most of the time. I’m always aware of things people say and ideas that might have rich veins to mine. One of the most difficult things as a songwriter is finding a theme that is strong enough to hang an entire song on. You might say, “I’m going to write about growing up in South Berwick Maine” but that concept isn’t really strong enough to hold up a song on it’s own. Most great songs have what I call a pivot where all the subtext lives and the depth of the lyric ferments.
One of the songs on the next cd is a song I wrote with a wonderful songwriter from N.J. named George Wirth. The song is called, “Where No One Knows My Name.” It’s a song about growing up in South Berwick Maine. The initial version was sort of a laundry list of things I remember about growing up there. I had characters in there and places. There were a few lines about the Stop and Go we used to steal beer from when we were kids and a line about hitchhiking which I did a fair bit of, and that sort of thing. As I started rewriting there was one line that kept feeling a little bit stronger than the others. Not because it was well written but because it had some weight somehow that the others didn’t. The line “someday I’ll go where no one knows my name” carries with it subtext. It says more and speaks to something bigger than the line contains if you see what I mean. So this became the pivot of the song. It’s a song about where I grew up, but the power of the song comes from this concept “someday I’ll go where no one knows my name”.
Before we hung the song on this line, we had a good song about the frustration and claustrophobia of growing up in a small town, but it lacked depth somehow. When we found our pivot we gave the song more power. It even made me sing the song differently.
There are many ways to approach songwriting. A lot of brilliant songwriters sit down at the desk at the same time every day like they are punching a clock. It really just depends on how it works for you. For me it’s sort of a hunting and gathering expedition that never ends. When I got home today I remembered something great I heard on the last tour in Ireland. Before I could get to the desk I had two verses written. They’re not great but it’s a skeleton to work from. For me it feels a bit like I’m working on things without being aware of it at times. I don’t usually sit down and think to myself ” what would I like to write about today?” it’s more like “which color do I feel like using?” I always have a lot of pans on the songwriting stove so I can always find something to burn.