Rodney Crowell once told me that talking about songwriting is “like doing card trick on the radio.”
Everyone who’s ever sat down to write a song quickly discovers the challenge she faces in coming up with a subject about which to write, finding lyrics that tell the story or express the joy or sadness of a certain situation, finding a chorus to go with the verses, locating a melody that suits the mood and tone of the song, and discovering a hook that will draw in listeners. To boot, songwriters strive to do all of this all the while appealing to a wide range of listeners.
Some songwriters talk about being attentive and present so that when the song comes they can receive it; others say that they work on their songs, constantly reshaping and crafting until they feel satisfied with it.
Twenty-five years ago, in his now-iconic Songwriters on Songwriting (which artists often say is a book they return to over and over again), Paul Zollo interviewed songwriters, searching for clues about the enigmatic, puzzling, torturous, exhilarating, and joyous process called songwriting. Now, Zollo returns to his subject with a compendium of almost 50 interviews conducted over the past 15 years with songwriters ranging from Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, Herbie Hancock, Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson, and Elvis Costello to Daryl Hall, Chrissie Hynde, Randy Newman, Rob Zombie, and Joe Henry in More Songwriters on Songwriting (Da Capo).
In his felicitous introduction, Zollo recalls his own attempts at songwriting in his youth and reminisces on the greatest lesson he learned. Steve Goodman gave him his first songwriting lesson and to this day the most important thing he learnedis that “[Goodman] listened carefully, gentle smile in his eyes; when I was done, he waited a beat and said, 'Yeah, you know that was good. That was good. But I could have written that song in two lines.'”
Zollo’s hunger to be a good songwriter, to find out how songwriting works, to find out how the best songwriters do it, drives the interviews in both his first volume and this latest one. He asks these artists how and why they wrote certain songs, and teases out from them answers about how changes in key, for example, affected their own view of a song they’d written long ago, as well as simple responses to the ways that their process works.
When Zollo asks Jerry Leiber if he ever thought these rock and roll songs that he and Stoller were writing would ever become standards, Leiber tells him, “We thought our songs would just disappear after they were on the charts. We didn’t think that they had any staying power like the old standards. We didn’t think they were as good and specific. A lot of them were comic and not serious love songs. For a number of years we had trouble writing love songs. Then we fell out of love, and it was easy to write love songs."
Jeff Barry, who wrote “By My Baby,” with his wife Ellie Greenwich, says that, “The challenge of songwriting is how to try to find some angle on this stuff that hasn’t been covered, because that’s what songs are about. … I can’t teach songwriting. But I can inspire. You get an idea, something you want to say. You sit down and you write that verse, and it’s just great. And then you have a chorus, where also the title is. You write your chorus…The other advice is to learn the rules. Here comes the joke … there are no rules … all art, all creativity is about one thing. All art, all showbiz, is about one thing: creating emotion.”
Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff wrote many standards of Philly soul, and he tells Zollo about what makes a song good: “Putting your heart into it. And as far as the melody is concerned, it just has to be something very simple that people can actually sing along with. You have to have a great sing-along. And that’s what we always tried to do, was to have great hooks that would stay in a person’s mind for a long, long time.”
Loretta Lynn offers advice she would give songwriters on how to write a good song: “Write about the truth. If you write about the truth, somebody is living that. Not just somebody — there’s a lot of people.”
John Stewart, who wrote The Monkees’ big hit “Daydream Believer,” talks to Zollo about how to tap into the consciousness that is not the “real day-to-day walking-around consciousness”: “I think that just realizing it’s there and surrendering to it. And all I have to do is to be invited and get out of the way. Constant practice — there’s nothing better than you out there doing it. I think surrender is the ultimate trick. You have to hear it without trying to.”
In an interview conducted in 1991, Gene Clark tells Zollo that “writing is total sacrifice. People ask me what it takes to have the kind of reputation I have. I tell them total sacrifice…If you want to do it, you do it 100 percent. If you don’t do it that way, you’ll never get there. You have to give up a lot.”
Zollo asks Stephen Stills whether he feels like he’s just a receiver for idea for songs or whether he works consciously at writing them: “When you’re compelled to write, as I am, sometimes, when you are writing social commentary, it comes through you. It’s conscious and unconscious. … A lot of them [though] come from just keeping yourself open.”
With his characteristic sly humor, John Prine says: “I don’t write ten songs in two weeks and go into the studio. I just don’t do that. I’ll write three songs and love them, and I’ll go sing them for a year and then write the next three. I just know how I am. … I try to make a place for myself to write that I want to go to.”
Patti Smith sums up well what many songwriters feel about their art: “Talking about songwriting is complicated ‘cause there’s so many kinds of songs. … Songwriting to me has been such a mystery and still something I haven’t completely cracked.”
You’ll be richly repaid wherever you dip into this wide-ranging, informative, entertaining, and instructive collection of interviews. Zollo succeeds in having such lively and engaging conversation with these writers because he himself is a songwriter and can ask questions from the inside, so to speak. He calls a song a “triumph of the human spirit,” and these interviews provide a glimpse of the many and various ways that songs reach and reflect the corners and the surfaces of our spirits.