What is a Songwriter?
What is a songwriter? I know, there are as many definitions as there are songwriters themselves. The term evokes images of the ‘Greats’ of course. The heroes of Tin Pan Alley, Lennon & McCartney, Jagger & Richards, Harry Nilsson, Neil Young, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash…I could go on forever and still not name them all! These are the leading edge of the international collection of artists who have risen to the pinnacle of their craft. The Fantastics, The Immortals.
In the niche just below these artists are those who manage to make their living at the craft but somehow, either by choice, blind luck or by blind fate, have not achieved the recognition that the immortals have grasped. They too are to be revered and not forgotten by history, although far too many will be.
But, what of the unknown songwriter? The never to be heralded wordsmith who never the less continues to write, to sing, to play and will never find a seat at the head table of song? To forever tend the gardens outside the walls of the Tower? Are these to be considered not songwriters? To be cast out as merely charlatans and scowled upon by the lofty? Simply because they do not fill the world with incredible sound and fury, because they don’t generate vast fortunes, because they do not make their living at songwriting…I say nay, for a songwriter is always going to be a songwriter. One cannot choose whether or not to be a songwriter any more than one can choose the colour of one’s skin or the strands of one’s DNA. It’s in the blood.
For the time being let’s establish some terms of reference. The words ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ have no place in this discussion. History has shown that many artists who have never made a dime have influenced the greatest money makers of all time (One only has to think of Van Gogh!). A songwriter is a songwriter regardless, albeit some more accomplished than others, either because they have dedicated their entire lives to it, or have had the opportunities to progress further than others, or yet, have had the incredible good fortune to be touched by genius.
Before we can discuss songwriters we must also determine the nature of a song. To me the essence of a song is that it must tell a story, plain and simple. This story could well be hidden in ambiguity or disguised in any manner of prose trickery, or even buried under layer upon layer of musical composition, but at its core, to exist it must tell a story. If it cannot do this it is not a song.
What then characterizes a person as a songwriter? I choose to speak only from a personal point of view. As early as I can remember I have been interested in words. For the most part all of humanity is! We developed language and language is nothing more than a multitude of words. But, and this is the key, the manner in which these words are arranged, the context in which they are presented and the intent of the composer is what relates to our intellect. So, to me a songwriter is a storyteller.
As a child I loved to read stories and listen to music. My preference was for music with words although instrumental music was wonderful as well. Poetry intrigued me, how a simple arrangement of words could evoke emotions was amazing to me. I began to think in these ‘little stories’. This was not a conscious effort. It just happened.
Nothing has changed.
When I’m involved in a day to day grind of work and activities a thought will come to me out of the blue, as though a window opens in my mind and a phrase or an image in words flows through. I have no control over this process. I will start to rattle this idea in my mind perhaps for days, months or seconds! There is no rule. I am a medium simply channeling the idea from…where? I suppose this is what is referred to as the ‘Muse’. It’s not important. What is important is that this idea grows into a story.
While I’m walking or running or just lazing around this story takes shape. I’ll hum or sing the words out in my breathing until eventually I’ve got something to work with. Usually I like to accompany myself on the guitar. I love all instruments but I’m not driven to be a virtuoso, not even on the guitar. It’s an instrument that meets my needs, incredibly versatile, portable and easy enough to learn to beat out a tune and a rhythm of sorts. Also, it’s fun to play at parties!
At first my songs evolved with no structure at all, just chopped ideas but my interest lay in rhymes and rhythms inside the phrasing. I listened closely to what other songwriters were doing and gradually absorbed more and more. Learning as I go, I try to add verse structure, a chorus, a bridge here and there and so on. I’m not saying that I have mastered or even grasp the theories underlying all of this (because that would be lying), just that it’s the way my writing is coming out. Sure, I try to improve things but the goal I’m chasing is how to tell the story better, how to put pictures of a drama of sorts in the listener’s head. Sometimes I get closer than other times. That’s unavoidable.
Am I making a living at this songwriting, no, I am not. Am I stopping the world in its tracks with my insights, again, of course not. Nor, do I ever expect to do so, however, can I stop writing songs? No. Not likely. I have no control over the thoughts and ideas. My life simply squeezes them out and I enjoy the process, when I’m doing nothing I’m writing songs. I guess that makes it my hobby, but really it’s not even that, it’s me, I can’t not do it. That is the heart of the matter…I can’t not do it.
I have recorded a number of my efforts (again, I am not a virtuoso recording engineer either, nor do I have the equipment to fake it). Check out the efforts on this link, an annual fun challenge to make a record in the month of February.
As luck would have it there’s also been a few nice words written about my work as well. I'm written up as Alive Underground (band name), also as a Lone Rider and as a storyteller! Go figure!
I’m no Bob Dylan but I am a songwriter.