More Songwriters On Songwriting
By Paul Zollo
Capo Press 2016, $22.99, £15.99, ppxiv-657
first glance, what is entailed by the expression "Songwriters On
Songwriting" could appear as nothing much - after all, what's so special
about having those who write songs, words and music, discuss in depth the nuts
and bolts of those artifacts they've created?
the point is that - even putting all issues of professional competence aside -
what is considered as a proper discourse about the process of creation and
those objects of creation is often nothing more than vague reasoning about
things that don't have a lot to do with music itself. So, the quite banal
intention of investigating music can sometimes turn into a groundbreaking
activity, as it puts under the spotlight, at centre stage, something that can
be discussed in rational terms while looking at its elements: chords, melodies,
rhyming schemes, performance, arrangement, influences (in both directions), and
by chance, about twenty years ago, I happened to buy the second edition of
Songwriters On Songwriting, a book that I still regard as required reading. A
fourth edition, which added more material and which was published in 2003 is
the most recent I know.
"cast of characters" featured on that volume of Songwriters On
Songwriting is really something else. A partial (!) list reads: Pete Seeger,
Willie Dixon, Sammy Cahn, Mose Allison, Tom Lehrer, Bob Dylan, Pail Simon,
Brian Wilson, Carole King, Jimmy Webb, Donovan, Burt Bacharach, Laura Nyro,
Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks, Frank Zappa, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Graham
Nash, David Crosby, Todd Rundgren, Walter Becker, Rickie Lee Jones, David
Byrne, Tom Petty, Richard Thompson, Los Lobos, Suzanne Vega, Bruce Hornsby.
it's only logical that upon reading about this new volume - which is not an
"updated edition", but something made of entirely new material -
before spending one's hard-earned money, one could wonder if this new book is
as good as its illustrious predecessor. The new book is "thinner" -
well, maybe that's not the right word for a volume that's 657 pages long -
while the font size is definitely larger, something maybe best explained by the
declining eyesight of an audience that's supposedly made for the most part of
it comes to the condition of "music of quality" and its chances of
survival (an issue that can be seen as made of two different aspects, or
considered as a whole) one could regard the time elapsed since 2003 as "a
period of crisis". But let's not forget that very often what is considered
as "a period of crisis" appears as such only in the present tense. A
few years later, that same period will maybe be regarded as having been
"not too bad, after all", especially when compared to this new
"real period of crisis we're experiencing right now". And so on.
for a moment or two about who's not featured in the new volume - in a minute,
I'll talk about those who are, it's an impressive list - these are the names
that came to my mind: Ani DiFranco (lotsa brilliant albums that can be
discussed in a variety of ways); Ben Folds and Regina Spektor (two original
concepts of music-making, a piano-driven composing style that's definitely not
common nowadays); Fiona Apple (not many albums released, true, but still an
original, forceful artist), who's briefly discussed in this volume in the Elvis
Costello interview; while among the "new faces" I'll single out Diane
Birch (an artist of brilliant complexity).
the problem remains, and has to be confronted. Are "The Golden Age of
Songwriting" and "The Age Of Melody" definitely behind us? (It
has to be noticed that according to my formulation those questions are
practically the same, but nowadays a lot of people don't share my outlook and
is a value judgment that was explicitly formulated by Paul Simon in an
interview that appeared in the first volume of Songwriters On Songwriting. A
parallel line of reasoning was espoused by Randy Newman in various print
outlets, with the increasing importance attributed to rhythm compared to melody
and harmony as an important vehicle of change.
about a "Golden Age" implies by necessity knowing what is released
today (something which should be obvious, but often isn't). The next step
being, having a closer look at those factors that can act as an obstacle for
the birth and well-being of "quality music". Many of these factors
can be said to be similar to those present in other fields of human life, while
others are specific to the music environment.
one could talk about decreasing attention spans, those changes that took place
in the music industry in the last thirty years, the increasing role of sight
for the appreciation of music since the days of MTV, the "Internet
Revolution", the change of the concept of "individual property"
after Napster and free downloading, the "information overload" that's
so common today, and nowadays multitasking as practically the norm.
have to consider that - though it's true that starting from day one all
"rock" artists, from Beatles to Stones to Dylan, have always had an
"image" - today any successful artist is also a "persona"
whose identity sees music as just an element among many when not just an
accessory, and whose financial survival depends on a multitude of sponsorships
and endorsements of an extra-musical nature.
see now that, my attention fully dedicated to those heavy problems, I haven't
mentioned the book's author, Paul Zollo, not even once. As in the previous
volume, his great understanding of all things "music" - Zollo is also
a musician and writer - and his laudable scrupulousness when investigating an
artist's outcome are the precondition for high-quality, profound, lively
interviews. When things are not so brilliant - a few interviews that on paper
show great potential in the end read like a wasted opportunity - this appears
to be due to matters of time/effort/whatever on the side of the artist, but
this is a rare occurrence.
just a hint of what the volume offers.
previous volume opened a beautiful window on the past, from Pete Seeger to
Livingston and Evans to Sammy Cahn. Given that the concept of "past"
can be given many meanings, here we find:
Guthrie, an unpublished interview from 1981 about her husband Woody Guthrie.
Leiber and Mike Stoller, "the first independent record producers",
writers of rock'n'roll classics such as Hound Dog, Stand By Me, Jailhouse Rock,
Spanish Harlem, Ruby Baby.
Sherman, who together with his brother Robert penned a multitude of songs for
Disney, from Mary Poppins to The Jungle Book.
Harmick, who wrote countless Broadway shows, starting with Fiddler On The Roof.
Barry, who in the 60s wrote such smash hits as River Deep, Mountain High.
Gamble, a great interview with the guy who alongside Leon Huff created the
Paul and Mary, and their influential "folk" music.
Hancock, in a long conversation about Jazz, Joni Mitchell, and "The New
Sebastian, talking about those hits he recorded with the Lovin' Spoonful, a
great occasion for getting to know many great songs that are almost forgotten
Stills (the only member of the "fab four" not interviewed in the
previous volume), an interview that's surprisingly clear and full of precious
Simon in a conversation from 2011, as analytical and profound as always.
Wilson from '95, a music writer one always enjoys reading.
Costello, who was interviewed in 2015, at the time his memoir Unfaithful Music
& Disappearing Ink was published. Funny to remember that at the time of his
first album a musician possessing such a various and rich background was
introduced by the music press as a "wild man" (it was the "punk
Jackson interviewed in 2015, in a conversation that deals with what at the time
was his current work, dedicated to the music of Duke Ellington, and with his
"evergreens". Sure, "Steely Dan was one of my big influences, I
think, as a teenager" would have been a surprise for music readers during
the "punk era", when Jackson didn't often talk about his studies in
Lee Jones in a long interview that combines one from 2011 and one from 2015.
Smith, in a pleasant, varied conversation.
Hynde, in a long conversation that is the most alive and heartfelt in the book.
Mann, shown in all her analytical glory at the time of her great album, Lost In
Taylor in the year 2007, a long, varied, and deep conversation, from chord
voicing to matters of death and memory.
Newman from 2007, from orchestra to lyrics, a great interview.
Calderon, talking at great length about his collaboration with the late Warren
Thompson in 2009, with his usual great talking about guitar scales and chords,
rhyme schemes, and everything.
reading the book, one can't help but wonder whether a new volume of Songwriters
On Songwriting will ever see the light. Sure, I'm usually inclined to a dark
outlook on such things (to tell the truth I'd never hoped to see this new
volume appear), but by now I don't expect to see the third volume of Behind The
Glass by Howard Massey anytime soon.
of the problem deals with the future of what by now I've learnt to call the
"paper book", an aspect for which proper solutions can still be
found: those interviews with Jeff Barry and Joe Henry featured here were taped
live in the web series called Songwriters On Songwriting Live at the
Songwriting School of Los Angeles.
side of the matter - appearing at the top of the charts - is the deep change at
the heart of the very idea of what constitutes songwriting, from a song born on
a guitar or on a piano to a technical dimension that's more similar to what
used to be called "musique concrète" than to what we usually call
"songwriting", with the idea of collective work, including sampling,
and the sometime presence of nine writers, in order to give birth to a
Beppe Colli 2018
| Jan. 1, 2018