Folk music

“Folk music” is a dense, important, and contested concept. It doesn’t mean any one thing, so you may as well make it mean something that works for you and your songs.

The two best books I’ve read on the concept of folk music are The Old, Weird America by Greil Marcus and How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life by John Fahey. The Marcus book is pretty well known – it’s about Bob Dylan and the Band writing and recording the music that became the Basement Tapes, and tells a convincing story about exactly how certain themes and styles from obscure depression-era performers entered the pop music vernacular through Dylan and the Band.

The Fahey book is a collection of semi-autobiographical vignettes which, taken together, give a clear and complex picture of the guitarist’s relationship to folk music. Assembled from clues sprinkled throughout the book, Fahey’s history of folk music might start with the invention of folk music as an academic project of 19th century Germans and break apart with the ascendance of radio and television, which essentially dismantles the oral culture that the academic song collectors saw as the hallmark of the folk. By the time Fahey is working the folk festival circuit, very few of the performers can qualify as true members of the vaunted folk, attached to a pre-modern, oral culture.

Though Fahey is skeptical about the category of folk music, both as an abstraction borne out of academia and as a commodity marketed to a middle-class audience, he is clear that his own music is grounded in aesthetic concepts closely associated with folk music. One set of these concepts revolve around the guitar, around the importance of playing with a mix of open and fretted strings and, relatedly, the value of playing in a range of tunings to unlock the potential of the instrument. This approach to the guitar is not simply a matter of technique, a neutral way of achieving a pre-determined goal. Rather, it strongly favors certain approaches to harmony – choosing a tuning becomes the most critical step in composition or arrangement, and each tuning contains a certain unique set of possibilities and tendencies.

One implication of this approach is that guitar techniques, rather than being shared among all instrumentalists, are deeply personal – a player might guard his personal tunings and chord shapes jealously, or share them with a select few. For Fahey this secrecy introduces an enduring mystery around the music which shapes its aesthetic impact, and is only enhanced by other trappings of the genre, especially the improbable pseudonyms used to escape record contracts, or in Fahey’s case, to deliberately reproduce that mystery.

There are a lot of interesting things about John Fahey’s music, but to me one of the most interesting is this idiosyncratic relationship to folk music. Taking a step back and thinking about Fahey’s approach to genre in general, we see that this approach – at once self-aware and visceral – might be available in a wide variety of settings and genres. Moving past a superficial understanding of genre is like learning to play in a new tuning – it opens up a new world of creative possibilities.

Question your relationship to genre

Genre is critical to songwriting! To my ears, no songwriter is truly above genre – no songwriter I’ve heard is so unique that a critical listener can’t place the genre or genres that gives the songs context. Performers can transplant songs from one genre of music to another, but this is often an interesting move because the song retains the flavor of its original setting. Moving the song to another genre produces an interesting musical moment because of the tension between the song and its setting.

As a songwriter, genre is one of your most powerful tools, but harnessing that power will require a sophisticated view of the genres you work in. The ways genre works musically – the characteristic chord progressions, melodic turns, and rhythms that define musical genres – are often discussed. What is often left out are the ways that a song’s lyrics and lyrical themes are equally a part of its relationship to genre. Genres of music carry characteristic lyrical concerns. These are not rules – your country songs don’t have to be about trucks, and your ballads don’t have to be about love. One way to think of these characteristics is as audience expectations: if you start to play a certain type of song, listeners will immediately have their guesses as to what the song will be about. But you aren’t trapped by those expectations – understanding genre allows you to fake left and go right. You can do this gently, delighting your audience by tweaking their expectations, or take it a step further to really shake them up.

One reason this kind of writing can be difficult is that we are deeply invested in the genres we write in, and it can feel awkward or even painful to look at them with a critical eye – it’s a little like hearing your speaking voice recorded or seeing a candid photo of yourself. Take folk music – a genre I feel a certain commitment to. What does it mean, in 2015, for someone who lives in an urban setting to profess a commitment to folk music? What’s the connection between various related sub-genres, between coffee house singer-songwriter fare and ballads passed down through an oral tradition? Can I write the songs I want to within the expectations set by a specific genre, or do I need to bend and twist the boundaries to get where I need to go?

Chances are that, whatever genre of music you write, your relationship to that genre is complicated. To borrow a phrase, musical genres are often copies with no original. You might see a performer who deeply inhabits the persona and culture of a particular genre and say, “that’s the real deal, for sure,” only to have the illusion broken when you find out where the person grew up, or where he lives now, or what her politics are, or any detail that reminds you the performer is a whole person and not just a stage persona. But that is as real as it gets.

What this means for songwriting is that the most interesting and authentic moments may come when you break your own chosen genre’s rules of authenticity. In order to say the things you have to say, you may need to develop a deep and idiosyncratic relationship to the genres you write in.

Strategy – the first Hotel Universe record

This is an exciting record to put back online – the first Hotel Universe album. In 2004 my friend Grace Marlier sent a cassette tape of her writing in the mail to me and some other friends. I decided to make a record out of that tape, with the initial idea that it would be like a hip hop record but with talking instead of rapping. I cobbled the music together on a laptop from what I had available – guitar, drum machine, a Casio keyboard, some samples, parts of tracks from other records I was working on. The songs used loops, but the recording software I was using could only loop accurately at tempos that were divisible by 30 beats per minute, so the songs are mostly at either 120 or 150 BPM.

Grace’s vocals are straight from the cassette tape, complete with hiss and other tape artifacts, which are a big part of this record’s sound. The vocals aren’t intended to sync up with the music – the idea was something different, something that betrayed the way it was made. One of the tricks of records is to make it sound like the different tracks are part of a single synchronous performance, but this one makes the process a little more apparent.

There are three more Hotel Universe records, and the last one might be my favorite out of all the records I’ve made. Stay tuned!

Songwriting is writing

If I were teaching songwriting school, I would only have one punishment for naughty (or boring) students: write 100 times on the chalkboard, “songwriting is writing”.

Thinking of songwriting as a form of writing is an important and powerful idea that pushes and pulls our understanding of songs in two unfamiliar directions. First, if songwriting is writing than it deserves the respect that other forms of writing get. One sign of that respect is that we should care about the literary quality of a song, rather than only its commercial appeal. Another sign of respect for songwriting as writing is the amount of time we expect to spend on it – not on individual songs, necessarily, but on developing the skills needed to write interesting and original songs.

On the other hand, thinking of songwriting as writing may cause us to cast a more critical eye on songs. We may look at certain songs with a newfound disappointment, realizing that, while they may make nice sounding records, they don’t accomplish very much as writing. Maybe they rehash worn-out ideas, both musically and lyrically. Maybe they are embarrassing or off-putting when we listen to them critically.

Songwriting is different from other forms of writing, of course. It uses music. It is more compressed than many other forms, though there are poetic forms, like haiku, that are even more compressed. Like traditional poetry, it often relies on established forms.

Still, songwriting has the potential to treat as expansive a range of themes and topics as any other literary form. It can be narrative and lyric, sometimes in the same song. It can be fictional or non-fictional, personal or anthemic, political or introspective.

It can be a struggle to think of songwriting as writing. Your parents and friends probably won’t think of it as writing. Even the other songwriters you know might not really think of themselves as writers. But if you remind yourself that songwriting is writing, you may find that it opens up musical and lyrical possibilities for your songs that you had never considered.

If you’re still not convinced, I’ll offer this song as proof:

Along with this interview where Gillian Welch explains her process for writing this song and its companion, “Ruination Day, Part 2”.

Why do people write so many love songs?

Often, when I hear a bunch of songwriters play their songs, I am struck by the near-total dominance of songs about love, sex, relationships, and other romantic entanglements. It’s not that I don’t like those songs, or that I consciously avoid writing about those topics. But to me there is something out of proportion about an entire evening of songs devoted to love.

Why are love songs so popular with songwriters? They seem to be popular with listeners, but other types of songs are popular as well. More than just the market, I think the main reason for the ubiquity of love songs is what I tend to think of as the honest song trap, a mindset where the best songs are honest evocations of the songwriter’s own emotional life. A songwriter caught in this trap is forced to mine his or her own emotional life for material. But something about the trap leads the writer away from writing about mundane emotional experiences. So, instead of getting a thousand songs about how it feels to go to the supermarket or visit the in-laws or watch the seasons change, which might actually be interesting and varied, we get a million songs about the pursuit and loss of love.

The honest song trap doesn’t just favor songs based on emotional experience – it favors songs based on strong, unequivocal emotions, the type of emotions that a singer can really let loose on. Unrequited love, in all if its shades from hopeful to desperate, becomes the prototypical emotional experience. It is one nearly all of us can relate to, one that implies familiar narratives and allows the writer to easily create an appropriate level of drama and tension in the song. In a love song, the stakes are clear from the outset.

The ubiquity of the love song affects other types of song as well. I am often aware that, for many listeners, all songs are love songs until proven otherwise. Some genres of music are so dominated by romantic themes that listeners may barely listen to the lyrics of a song, since their concerns don’t vary much from one song to the next.

While it can be an obstacle to the ambitious songwriter, this set of expectations carries its own possibilities. Literature is dotted with poets who used the idioms of romance to write in a nuanced and sophisticated way about other topics. There is a great power to working within an established form in a self-aware way. Common’s “I Used to Love HER” is a good example of this technique, and of some of its pitfalls. The song is a simple allegory in which the speaker describes his romance with a woman who represents Hip Hop. This framework raises the stakes of the speaker’s relationship to Hip Hop, taking advantage of the established palette of emotional states associated with romance – elation, obsession, betrayal, jealousy – to communicate the speaker’s close personal association with a commercial genre of music. Even if we haven’t experienced either love or obsessive music fandom, we know, as part of our basic cultural literacy, the significance of these states. More than relating, we understand the emotional language of the song.

On the other hand, in this song the use of romance as a metaphor imposes surprising limitations. One structural feature of most love songs is that we hear the perspective of one party in a romantic situation, while the experience(s) of the other person or people involved are hinted at or more often ignored. If you are interested in venting your own emotions, this makes sense, but if you are more interested in telling stories, it is worth reconsidering. Here, the fact that Common’s feminized Hip Hop is seen from a distance, animated but not quite personified, introduces complicated resonances around gender which probably enrich the song for some listeners while alienating others.

This is an important lesson to take back to our love songs. When we write about love we inherit a set of ideas, images, clichés, and myths, which listeners will apply to our songs. If what you want to express is not already contained within this mythology, it will take a lot of additional work to communicate it. It is often not enough to simply tell your story, for whatever you say will only be seen through the frame of thousands of previous love songs. If you want to say something different, you may first need to loosen the listener’s grip on received ideas and familiar stories. This is why it takes more than honesty to write a really new or interesting song, one that does more than add a drop to the flow of familiar, comfortable narratives. It takes more than honesty to write a song that is original and moving. It takes, among other things, awareness of your audience’s biases and assumptions, as well as your own. Self-awareness, rather than simple honesty, may be the key to moving your songs forward.

Honest songs, true songs, and other fictions

Truth is the most overrated and dubious virtue that a song can posses. You can read a hundred articles arguing that truth and honesty are the keys to great songwriting, but none of those articles will tell you what a true song is, how to make your songs more honest, or how to tell whether someone else’s songs are true or not. That is because these are questions with no answers.

People mean different things when they talk about honest songs. For some, an honest song is a song that is both biographical and accurate, like a memoir. This is the worst version of the honest song trap – the idea that, rather than exploring the full range of narrative and lyrical modes available to them, songwriters should focus on the details of their own lives, and in particular the details of their own emotional lives.

While the main problem with this way of thinking about writing is that it is limiting, it also takes a narrow and, I would argue, inaccurate view of what honesty really is. Focusing on the writer’s own perspective on and reaction to real-life situations is not a reliable way to learn the truth of those situations. We are all unreliable narrators, and writers who rely unselfconsciously on their own reactions to events are likely to misrepresent those events and to make themselves look foolish in the process. A popular recent example of this phenomenon is Drake’s painfully catchy “Hotline Bling”. As many have pointed out, the narrator of this song has moved away from a city, and wonders why a woman he had a relationship with in that city has since moved on to see other men. He belittles and insults the woman and wallows in his own loneliness. The song makes no indication that it is aware that its narrator may come off as less than heroic, and so my guess is that this is a true and honest song, in which Drake draws on his own experience in a similar situation. The problem is that even the casual listener begins to suspect that Drake’s perspective on this situation is neither accurate, complete, or the most interesting one.

Of course “Hotline Bling” is a huge hit – I can’t argue that confessional songwriting isn’t popular, especially right now. But I can say that it’s boring, and that the most popular confessional songs often rely on using a celebrity’s well-known biographical details for context, a technique you and I can’t necessarily emulate.

Drake’s music – confessional, vulnerable, but ghost-written and about as authentic as a Hollywood movie – is also strong evidence that we can’t actually tell when a song is an honest outpouring of the writer’s emotions, and when it is a carefully orchestrated performance.

Another definition of the honest song is a song that uses or resonates with the writer’s own emotional experience. This definition doesn’t limit the writer in the same way – it’s perfectly possible to write about fictional or historic events, for example, in a way that expresses one’s own experience or views. I find it much easier to write when I start from a small kernel of experience or emotional memory. But I think it’s a mistake to let faithfulness to that original inspiration become an end in itself. A song develops its own internal logic during the writing process, and it is important to listen to and follow that logic, rather than impose an external concept of truth or honesty on a song.

When songs aren’t held to exaggerated standards of truth and honesty, they are free to be other things: funny, informative, sexy, erudite, profane, political, and anything else that other forms of writing can be. Even if you have a brooding and serious side, like a lot of us do, it might not be your best side – you might be surprised what you’re able to do when you stop trying to express your emotions.

If you want to change your songs, change your process

Once you understand the process you use to write songs, you can start to think about how making changes to that process might change the songs you write. Those changes could be anything. You could write on a different instrument or with different collaborators. You could introduce limitations, or prompts, or outside inspiration from something you have read or seen.

Stepping back, it’s worth thinking about the reasons you might want to change the way you write songs. It’s probably smart to figure out what it is you want to change about your songs – that way you can start to think about what you can change in your process to achieve your new goals. Some scenarios I can imagine or relate to:

  • You need to write songs to be performed in a different genre than you normally write for, or for a new band
  • You have ideas that you are finding difficult to express in a song
  • You keep writing about the same things and want to introduce new types of themes, narratives, or characters to your songs
  • You feel stuck or aren’t able to write as much as you normally do
  • You heard new music and want to try to incorporate some aspect of it into your own songs
  • If you understand your process, it is easier to make minor adjustments and incorporate new elements without getting disoriented while writing, or worrying that your own voice will somehow be lost. 

Making changes to your process can be an important way of growing as a songwriter and of pushing your songs in new directions. You may find that you develop multiple, parallel processes, each or which tends to produce a different type of song. Experimenting with process can help to demystify the process of writing songs and open up new possibilities for your songs.

Know and respect your process

Most of the time, songs don’t just appear – you have to write them. Even if you are so lucky/brilliant that they emerge fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, you might worry that it won’t always be so.

There are many, many ways of writing songs. For example, the process that comes naturally to me is to write a song, music and lyrics, in a single sitting on guitar. This usually takes me one to two hours and works best first thing in the morning or late at night. Others may find a different process most effective: writing lyrics first, or music first, or writing music and lyrics over a beat, or co-writing with a collaborator, or writing with a band, or collaging bits and pieces of songs on a computer, or improvising into a live mike, or any one of dozens of other options.

I really don’t think any one process is better than another, though I do think that different processes tend to produce different types of songs (more on that in the next post). I do think that finding your process and coming to understand and accept it is an important step in becoming a songwriter, and especially in continuing to write songs. The more you know about how and when you are able to write songs, the easier it will be to fit songwriting into your life. Take a very simple example – if I set aside two hours on Saturday mornings, I can write songs in that time. If I substitute four hours on Sunday afternoons, I might write half as many songs in twice as much time. But in order to save that time, I have to know when I am more likely to be able to write.

It’s also important to respect, and even have some pride in your process. If you are happy with your songs, your process is working for you. One thing I have seen in others and experienced myself is insecurity around songwriting processes. A writer who writes more slowly might feel intimidated by a more prolific songwriter. But there’s always a flipside – I write a lot of songs, and I often feel jealous of writers who seem to write more deliberately and focus more energy into a single song. I end up with throw-away songs and songs that are different versions of the same idea. It may be impossible to avoid a little process-envy, but in the end it’s important to value and respect the process that works for you.

Songwriting Advice

Songwriting advice is no different from other advice: most of it is simplistic, a lot of it is ungenerous, and the worst of it is discouraging and just plain mean. Still, I can’t resist reading it, and now that I’m 35 and feeling a little bit of momentary confidence in my own writing, I can’t resist giving my own advice. Hopefully, though, this advice is going to be a little different.

If your goal is to write songs that sound like the ones you hear on the radio, this advice may not help you that much. If your goal is to write songs that are more interesting, more powerful, more true to life – songs that do more than the songs on the radio – then, hopefully, you’ll be able to relate to this advice. So that’s the first songwriting tip: songs can do more.

Just a quick example – a recent song that floored me when I first heard it is Vince Staples’ “Blue Suede”:

Staples blue suede sneakers are more than just an allusion to Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” – Staples’ song is a thorough rewrite of the rock and roll hit. The speaker of “Blue Suede Shoes” is a swaggering nihilist, unconcerned for his own physical safety, except as it affects his exceptional shoe game. Perkins plays this character for laughs, but this combination of themes – the cheapness of life, in contrast to the high cost of fashion – is also the subject of the many versions of “Stagger Lee”, where Billy Lyons gets killed for a five-dollar Stetson hat.

In Staples’ reimagining of “Blue Suede Shoes” the violence is no longer cartoonish, and the consequences are outlined in the song’s second line; here “young graves get the bouquets”. The verses outline a laundry list of hip hop clichés, complete with frequent allusions which make it clear that Staples, like Perkins, is constructing a character. Unlike the happy-go-lucky speaker of “Blue Suede Shoes”, Staples’ alter ego fears for his own life, and his bravado feels empty, undercut with a deep ambivalence.

In addition to creating a compelling and complex character in two verses and a chorus, “Blue Suede” convincingly connects the “killed for Jordans” motif to older song traditions that dealt with the same stories and themes. It’s a packed three minutes, but it’s not unique. Lots of songs do this much, even if they do it in more subtle ways.

Snow in the Desert – reissued from 2003

Another new/old record. This one is from 2003, and it is kind of a strange one. Most of the songs are live takes of guitar and singing, and the main overdubs are solos on a toy piano I bought at a flea market in Nashville. The record starts with a recording of the Pope, and has a dance break at the midpoint which is cobbled together from various samples. Not sure what I thought it all meant in 2003, but I do like the way this one holds together as a set of songs.