A reflection on songs and songwriting
We’ve done quite a few gigs this Summer, not as many as we’d like, but as many as demanding jobs, families and our rather haphazard way of getting gigs, will allow. It’s been wonderful, and now we have a set we can play comfortably and with confidence. All of the songs in it we like enough to live with for a long time, and some of them we love enough to go on singing until we drop off our zimmer frames. But arriving at that set has been a lengthy process, of trial and error, of loving and then losing. We are always suggesting new songs to each other (even when we’ve sworn to close the list of ‘new things to learn) but some songs that we loved at first listen, have ended up being dropped. Sometimes that's because no matter how much we like them, we can’t add anything to them or make them our own. And sometimes that’s because the song itself just isn’t strong enough to stand up to being practiced and performed time and time again. Sometimes songs that didn't seem that promising blossom into something new and wonderful. Just singing a song over and over can allow it to reveal itself to you. 'Dancing in the Dark' did that for me - I had always been very rude about 'The Boss' until i learnt - really learnt- that song, and now understand how good he is, and how great that song is. It’s like shoes - some look pretty but then they rub as soon as you’ve walked down the street in, but other pairs you dance, walk, run in for years and they still feel and look great. Only the best songs stand up to being sung over and over, only the ones you really love are the ones you can sing a thousand times and never fail to tell the story they contain.
So what makes ‘the best songs’ the ones that you really love? For me it’s structure. I like something with a good strong framework. ‘Leaving Eden’ by the Carolina Chocolate Drops has got that structure: the halting waltz timing, the tough story of the verses and the lyrical lament of the refrain. The marriage between words and music, between the imagery in the words and the emotion in the music is perfect. There isn’t a line or a note I would change. My connection to that song has only got stronger with every time I’ve sung it. I want to be a better singer so I can do it justice, and every time we do it it’s my chance to be better at it! There are others in our set like that - Gillian Welch’s ‘Hard Times’, Rosanne Cash’s wonderful ‘Roses and Thorns’ (I drove off the road and cried in a layby for half an hour the first time I heard that on the radio) and probably every single song that is dipped in folk tradition - from Scarborough Fare which is neck deep, to ‘Santiago’ by Show of Hands, that’s only up to its knees.
Paring our set down to the things we can do and do, with the same heart every time has made me really think about the process of song writing and about how that marriage of words and music is made. I hadn’t articulated my vague thoughts to myself until I went to see Rosanne Cash play at St Georges in Bristol a few weeks back. I’d booked the ticket as soon as the gig was listed, so I was right in the middle of the front row. It was one of the most wonderful live performances I’ve ever been to for all sorts of reasons - the quality of the musicianship, the depth of the feeling between Rosanne and her musical partner and husband John Leventhal- but it crystalized something about song writing in my head. Most of the evening was devoted to the album ‘The River and the Thread’ which is as Rosanne said “that old fashioned thing, a concept album”. It’s about the South and the stories of Rosanne’s family roots. It is in fact, narrative non fiction.
Now in my day job I write, and a lot of what I write is narrative non fiction, for kids. So I’m always having to package up the world in small, digestible parcels, richly seasoned with emotion and imagery. And I have to think about marrying my words with an illustrator’s pictures. Hearing Rosanne Cash talk about the process of writing the songs for her album sounded just like what I do when I’m writing picture books. I almost jumped up on stage and hugged her because it felt to great to find another person thinking in the way I do.
I came away from the gig with something inside me turned over like a leaf, a realisation that maybe writing songs wasn’t as impossibly difficult as I’d thought it was. Mike and I have written one song together and performed it, but somehow we ran into the sand after that - I wrote words, he wrote music but they didn’t seem to get together. But last week for the first time in more than a year we tried to put them together...and it started to work. Suddenly I could see how words I’d written would fit to the some of the string of lovely melodies and riffs Mike's invented.
So our big new task between now and the end of the year is to work on a new set. New songs by other people, (several from The River and The Thread, a couple of Karine Polwart, more Kirsty MacColl, a few bonkers acoustic covers...Kid Creole and the Coconuts maybe?) that we can love and sing time and time again. And new songs that we’ve created that maybe will have some of the characteristics required to live with us for a long time.