Recently I had the pleasure of catching up with Jill Andrews to discuss something that has always fascinated me: songwriting.
The Songwriter's Showcase is something I've just begun over at my blog, Songbirds & Seagulls. I've been a writer since I was 6 years old, and while I find it extremely easy to write prose or poetry, the thought of writing a song is completely foreign to me. I have tried to sit down and force myself to write a song, wrestling to find a melody, but the melody never comes. Try as I might, I just can't do it. Trust me, if it were just a matter of a strong will or a stubborn mind, I'd be the next lady Bob Dylan. But alas, I am not.
Of course this has created an obsession. I am completely fascinated by songwriters. I want to ask them ever so politely to lie down on a slide so I might examine them through a microscope. I want to get them drunk and coax from them all their secrets, because I am convinced that if the right person's mouth were to whisper the right words, I could join their elite ranks and wrap myself in the term songwriter as though it were a flag around my flesh.
Until that day comes, we have Songwriter's Showcase. I hope you enjoy my time with Jill Andrews.
Songbirds & Seagulls: What was the first song you wrote that you began performing?
Jill Andrews: It was a song entitled "Chaos." It was about a relationship that had gone badly and the overwhelming feeling of being totally out of control. Looking back, I probably just named it that because the song from start to finish was pure and utter chaos.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Please describe your songwriting process. Does the melody come first? The lyrics? How and when do you decide to combine the two?
Jill Andrews: Melodies usually come first for me. I sing all of the time. Sometimes it will just be a tune and other times I will come out with some words right away to accompany the melody. Normally when I have a general idea of what the melody will be, the words come as a stream of consciousness. It's often when I'm over-thinking a song that it becomes difficult to write.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Do you feel that your songwriting improves over time in a linear fashion, or do you think some songs are just randomly better than others because of your inspiration or some other factor?
Jill Andrews: I think that my songwriting has improved over time. I was only 19 years old when I first started writing and I hadn't gone through many life experiences that people would be interested in hearing about. So, I was writing songs about subjects that I wasn't very familiar with. Now I feel as if I've lived several lifetimes and as a result, I have years of subject matter in my songwriting bank. I always write better songs when I'm writing about what I know.
Songbirds & Seagulls: What is your favorite song you've written? When did you write it, and where were you?
Jill Andrews: There are a lot of qualities in "Blue Sky" that I'm really proud of. I wrote it in the back of my car in the parking lot of a radio station. I had a couple of hours to kill before my show in Chattanooga that night. It was the perfect day to write that song, so sunny and hot.
Songbirds & Seagulls: What are the triggers that inspire you to write songs?
Jill Andrews: It can really be anything. Sometimes a memory, or something that someone said, a familiar smell, the sun hitting just right, or a melody floating around in my head can give me the inspiration to write a song. I think the most challenging part for me is just being open and ready for when it happens. And for me it normally happens when I"m driving. Though this tends to be a pretty bad time to write a song because inevitably there's never a pen or pencil when you need one, paper is really hard to come by (and when you do find it it's usually in the form of a gum wrapper which usually has already chewed gum stuck inside of it), and utilizing a recording device while driving is about as safe as texting a long winded message to your boyfriend while behind the wheel. Sometimes it's best to just pull off onto the shoulder and plan to be late to wherever you were headed.
Songbirds & Seagulls: I am very familiar with your body of work, so I gather that relationships are a large source of inspiration for many of your songs, like the material from The Mirror, the EP, and the everybodyfields Nothing is Okay Album, though it seems that Plague of Dreams and Halfway There had songs that were possibly more fictitious in nature. Is that the result of an intentional decision to depart from fictitious songs? (I'm thinking of The Only King, Baby Please, Pairlee, In Your Boots, etc.) Those songs, while great, have a much less personal feel to them, at least for me as a listener. What created this change in Jill Andrews, the songwriter?
Jill Andrews: The songs that you mentioned were some of my earliest songwriting efforts. I was really finding my way as a musician. Other people's stories have always been so interesting and inspiring to me. And like I said earlier, I didn't feel like I had very many personal experiences that would have been interesting for the listening audience, so I focused on other people's lives until I inevitably did have those experiences myself. Over time my writing went through an unconscious shift and became much more personal.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Do you ever get that sense about a song that tells you "this is a good one?" Have you published every song you've 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?
Jill Andrews: I always know if a song is good or not. The songs that I don't like never take their first breath.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Have you ever regretted a song? Like, were there ever any of them that you just look back on and think, "That was too personal."? If so, which one(s)?
Jill Andrews: I've never regretted writing a song. But sometimes when I'm performing I think to myself, "Oh my god, they know everything. There's no hiding now."
Songbirds & Seagulls: Who are some of your favorite songwriters?
Jill Andrews: At the moment I would say Scott and Seth Avett, Blake Mills, Leslie Feist, Brooke Waggoner, and Lucinda Williams.
Songbirds & Seagulls: What are some of your favorite songs by other artists?
Jill Andrews: "A Girl in the War" by Josh Ritter, "Hard Times" by Gillian Welch, "Wee Bird" by Mandolin Orange, "Love the Way You Walk Away" by Blitzen Trapper, "History of My Life" by Blake Mills, "Million Dollar Bill" by Dawes and a billion more.
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 you are one of the best, and could surely impart some knowledge to folks who are just getting started.
Jill Andrews: It's really easy to feel bad about yourself as a songwriter. You sit down with your instrument and work for a couple of hours and sometimes you just know you can't write a song that won't be a waste of sound waves and brain power for both you and anyone listening. Some songs don't get written as easily as some houses get built. I think it's important to know that you can't write a good song whenever you want. I also think it's important to trust that If you've written one song that you are really proud of, there will be more to come. It just takes a lot of patience.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Have you ever co-written with anyone? If yes, what was that like? Who contributed what parts?
Jill Andrews: Yes, I have gotten to write with many super talented folks. I've written with people that I've never met and with long time buddies. It can be kind of scary or uncomfortable, but for the most part, I've really enjoyed working with others and sharing ideas in order to create something together.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Did you have any mentors in your early career? If so, who were they and how did they help you?
Jill Andrews: I have had so many mentors along the way. When I was growing up, I was in church choir. My choir director was a wonderful lady named Judith Robertson. She encouraged all of us to sing for the fun of music and that was all.
In high school my friend Ben Jones had a band called "Uncle Boogie." They played out a lot and he would always ask me to come and sing harmony with him. I remember how nervous and excited I was the first couple of times that I got on stage. I was so thankful to have been given that opportunity.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Have you been writing any new songs recently? If so, do you have any plans to record again soon?
Jill Andrews: I'm working on some stuff at the moment. There are some months ahead before I get into the studio again, but I'm looking forward to making another album soon.
clementine cox, march 19, 2012
© clementine cox 2012 (oh your darlin' publications, vol. 3)
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