Winner of American Songwriter Magazine’s Santa Cruz Guitar Giveaway, Barak Hill, on Songwriter’s Showcase
Barak Hill is an indie/folk rock musician from Springfield, Missouri, who recently won the American Songwriter Magazine’s Santa Cruz Guitar giveaway. The competition required that each artist upload a video of an original song to youtube, and whoever got the most “likes,” won. Barak’s winning song is entitled, “Building the Tin Man,” and comes from his most recent album, This Life I Love. I recently caught up with him to discuss his songwriting process. Enjoy this week’s edition of Songwriter’s Showcase.
Songbirds & Seagulls: What was the first original song you started performing?
Barak Hill: I had written several by the time I started performing as a singer, so there were probably three or four original songs that made it into my early sets. One of the first songs I wrote without a co-writer and then started performing was called “All Over You”. It was a pretty straightforward break-up song. It has a couple of lines I’m still very proud of, so it’ll still pop up in a set from time to time.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Please tell us about your songwriting process. Does the melody come first? The lyrics? Do they come at the same time? If not, how and when do you decide to combine the two?
Barak Hill: Usually the melody and lyrics come together. I might have a line or two floating around in my head, but I need to hear them with a melody to move ahead with the song. So I almost always write lyrics with a guitar in my lap. I’ll sing nonsense around the lines I’m working on just to get the feel for what the melody feels like with words and sounds, and slowly I’ll keep filling in the blanks until I have a song.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Do you think your songwriting improves over time in a linear fashion, or do you think that some songs are just randomly better than others because of your inspiration or some other factor?
Barak Hill: I hope my songwriting has improved over time. Writing is definitely a skill that gets better with practice. Having said that, there are songs that do feel more inspired. They come along and seem to almost write themselves. So there’s an element of inspiration and randomness to songwriting. One of the things we all try to get better at is finding where that comes from and tapping into it more easily.
Songbirds & Seagulls: What are the triggers that inspire you to write songs?
Barak Hill: I think emotion is the biggest trigger, but it can come in different shapes. I’ve written more than my share of sad love songs. But there are a few songs on my last album, “Building the Tin Man”, “The Lion Tamer’s Plan”, and “Kerosene (An Arsonist’s Lament)” that were very consciously triggered by stories I’d either read or written. Josh Ritter does that really well, songs that unfold like stories. I love that.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Do you ever get that sense about a song that “this is a good one?” Have you published every song you’ve ever written, and, if not, how do you decide which ones are keepers? If one isn’t a keeper, do you ever revise it over time or do you just scrap it?
Barak Hill: I’m lucky enough to have some really talented friends that I bounce songs off of as I finish them. That first round of “hey give this a listen and tell me what you think” is a pretty good way to gauge a song. But you have to have friends that you can trust to be honest. It doesn’t do any good if they just blow smoke. I definitely don’t keep every song I write. I’ve got notebooks full of scrapped songs. Now and then, if I’m stuck and haven’t written anything in awhile, I’ll go through the scrap pile and see if there’s anything worth salvaging.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Who are some of your favorite songwriters?
Barak Hill: Townes Van Zant. No one writes like Townes. His songs sound so easy, but his heart is in them. I feel like I’m faking all this when I listen to Townes. Josh Ritter. I think Josh Ritter is the best songwriter of my generation. His songs play out like short films or little three minutes novels. And he’s one of these guys that just gets better and more interesting with every album. Kris Kristofferson. Steve Earle. James Taylor. Tom Petty. This could be a huge list. Of course Lennon and McCartney. My teenage years were like a decade long “all Beatles all the time” radio show.
Songbirds & Seagulls: What advice would you give to beginner songwriters? Do you have any tips that you’ve found helpful over time? I know there isn’t a formula for writing a great song, but surely you could impart some knowledge to folks who are just getting started.
Barak Hill: I think to tell a good story you have to know how a good story is put together. So read. As songwriters we can learn something from the way Ernest Hemingway chooses his words in “The Old Man and the Sea” or the emotions Dave Eggers evokes describing two brothers playing on the beach in “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”. Those are the same things we’re trying to do. And listen. I’m amazed at the people who never go back and listen to the artists that influenced the people they like today. I discovered Townes Van Zant after reading an interview with Steve Earle ten or twelve years ago. I can’t imagine having never heard Townes sing “If I Needed You”. Stuff like that can change the way you approach music.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Did you have any mentors in your early career? If so, who were they and how did they help you?
Barak Hill: I’m fortunate enough to have a father who is a fantastic songwriter. He taught me to play guitar and co-wrote my first songs with me. And he’s still one of the first people I go to for approval with new songs.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Have you been writing any songs recently? If so, do you have plans to record again soon?
Barak Hill: I released a full length album just a little over a year ago. I’ve got a new batch of songs that I’m getting ready to record over the next few weeks. It’s probably not enough for another full length, but I’d like to get them out there as an EP by April or May.
Buy Barak Hill’s music here: http://barakhill.bandcamp.com
© clementine cox, april 9, 2012 (oh your darlin’ productions, vol. 4) Follow @songbirdseagull