THE READING ROOM: Dar Williams Offers Songwriting Insight Step by Step
Dar Williams (photo by Ebru Yildiz)
Over the past few years, a number of songwriters have shared their insights, their struggles, their tricks, and their process for writing songs. None has ever claimed that their approach will work for everyone, but they provide a glimpse into their own creative processes. In How to Write One Song, for example, Jeff Tweedy shares his own daily “schedule” for writing, which includes stockpiling words and pairing words and music. In Saved by a Song, Mary Gauthier acknowledges “the art and healing power of songwriting” in the subtitle of her book. She admits that she’s not really sure where songs come from: “I learned how to write songs by writing them,” she explains.
Singer-songwriter Dar Williams contributes to the growing stack of guidebooks and reflections on songwriting in her new book, How to Write a Song That Matters (Hachette). For almost a decade, Williams has been leading songwriting retreats in which she and fellow writers have shared their experiences of writing songs. Williams draws on these retreats and the many lessons she and the participants have learned to provide a structure for her book. In seven chapters, she carries the readers through the steps of writing a song that matters, naming each section of her book after these individual steps: “Inspiration,” “Narrative,” “Words,” “Music (in Other Words…),” “Crossroads and Endings,” “Bringing Our Songs Into the World,” “The Songwriter (You and Me).” As she acknowledges in her introduction: “I noticed that we weren’t just discovering the stages of a song; we were defining the steps that a songwriter takes in transforming a first inspiration into a finished song. This book distills a process that’s shared by me, my colleagues, and hundreds of songwriters from the ever-evolving exploration of how we write our songs.”
In very short chapters within each section, Williams explores in great detail the elements of building songs and their relationship to one another. For example, she opens the section on narration by reflecting on how the narrative can build upon a songwriter’s original inspiration, providing direction and structure. “Once we have followed an inspiration into the first recognizable form of a song,” she writes, “we can also recognize an emerging point of view … There is an unfolding, a narration, musically and lyrically. And to guide that narration, we can follow the environmental cues of whatever we have created so far. I call that accumulated song environment the Voice of the song.”
Once songwriters build the narrative of a song, they can begin to consider words and phrases and the language they’ll use to tell their story. In this section she examines cliches, rhyme, and colorful language. She also observes that “we have a dazzling range of word choices to support the overall form and message of a song … A precise, beautiful, and interesting word can wake up the whole stanza or even a song … Just remembering that we have a range of language opportunities can be freeing and expanding. We’ve come to a place where the Voice has given us the general color and sound palette, the feel, the environment. Now we can go into that song world and find the smorgasbord of words that enhance the mood, focus the narration, and keep the listener engaged with all the pops of vibrant, well-chosen words.”
Even though Williams offers some guidance introduction to songwriters who do not play instruments — and she encourages songwriters to write even if they do not play an instrument other than voice — she includes a section on chords and musical structure in her book. While Williams admits that as a guitarist she’s come to learn and appreciate chord charts, she encourages free play and musical exploration and experimentation, as that’s how she’s often discovered the sounds that she finds intriguing or that complement her lyrics.
“Every chord we make will have a name. We don’t have to know the names, but imagine how interesting it was to discover, at fifteen, that I had made a Cmaj7 (C major seventh), when all I knew was that I had replicated ‘the chord that sounded like Joni Mitchell’s ‘Chelsea Morning.’”… This is a book about writing a song that matters to you. There are a million charts that show you how to make the different chords, and you can even find this information for free online. I’m hoping to show that we can make chords both by trial and error and by learning them (with or without charts) from friends and teachers.”
Looking back to her first song, Williams recognizes that she has written not for commercial success but to honor what mattered to her. “‘When I Was a Boy’ launched my career. I didn’t know, in the mid-1990s, that conversations about feminism and sexual orientation were becoming deeper inquiries about what it was to be male and female … I just knew the song was true for me and that it mattered to me to write it. This was the song that strengthened my resolve to pursue all my songs on their own terms, with all the whimsy and curiosity I had learned to apply to the process, but also with some personal courage. This song and its success reinforced a sense that listening for cues and clues of what really happened for my narrator, not just what I thought should happen, was important. Writing about what mattered to me had a purpose.”
How to Write a Song That Matters takes its place next to Tweedy’s, Gauthier’s, and other books from respected roots musicians as yet another approach to songwriting. Williams invites readers into her reflections on songwriting and her own practices, and she offers encouragement for taking risks with writing and with exploring the many suggestions she makes for opening up the mysteries of songwriting.