On tour with Peter Frampton in 2003, we went to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. There, his works were displayed in chronological order, including letters from his brother Theo. The earliest works were unrecognizable to me. I asked, “Is this a Van Gogh? This one looks like ‘Dogs Playing Poker!’” Next, there would be a letter from Theo encouraging Vincent to keep going, keep painting. A few more varying, non-descript works when suddenly… there it was… a Van Gogh! My knees buckled. From there forward, the works were stunning and unmistakably him. When asked about a person, living or dead, with whom I would like to have a meal with, Van Gogh comes to mind. I want to ask him what happened in that space in the museum, between the last uninspired work, and the one where he found it? Were the early works examples of his trying to do what was popular at the time? More commercial?
I equate his life with that of the songwriter. He painted over 700 works and never, while he was alive, sold the first one.
My question to songwriters is this, “Do you want to paint ‘Dogs Playing Poker?’ It certainly hangs in many locations and has surly been a commercial success. Or, do you want to paint a “Starry Night”, even if nobody sees it in your lifetime?”
Whichever choice you make, you still want to be a good songwriter. “Who Let The Dogs Out” certainly works. So does “Vincent” by Don McLean. Two vastly different approaches. Songwriting, to me, is a two-part equation:
- Have something to say (everybody does).
- Learn how to say it in a way that somebody else would want to hear it (this is the nebulous part).
You wouldn’t want to hear the first 50 or so songs I wrote. I was a guitar player who would come up with a cool riff that I wanted to play and thought, “I can just sling a song around this riff and tah dah…” No.
It wasn’t until I started writing with my dear friend, Wayne Kirkpatrick, that I became a serious songwriter. Much in the same way Dann Huff pushed me to be a better guitar player in our high school years, Wayne made me focus, labor, be a writer, be a re-writer… until before I realized it, the bar was suddenly much higher than it had ever been before. There is something innate now, that knows better when a song in the works is working or not. Finding that proper collaborator is a critical thing, even if it’s for just having an immediate critic… one you trust.
There is no formula.
Do you want to write and be literal? More abstract? Some of the best songs to me are the ones people debate the most over the meaning; because it can have a different meaning to each listener. Where there’s a communication, there’s an interpretation. And when pressed for the answer, some writers reveal that there was no meaning. Ever find yourself drawn to looking at a painting and you’re not sure what it is? Are we still listening to and finding fascination in “I Am The Walrus?”
A lot of the body of work I have done can’t help but draw from the steady diet of music I grew up on. My father would bring home reel-to-reel tapes of what he’d done in the studio that day with Roger Miller, who was a genius songwriter. Dad also brought me my first Beatles album. These are the bookends for me. I couldn’t help but grow up knowing that the song is the thing.
It’s taken years to learn that I am always writing songs. Whether I am sitting across the table from Wayne, driving my car, talking to people, trying out a guitar, dreaming… it’s like standing by a river that is moving. You can put a toe in it, or jump in and be carried away with it. There is something in the air around you too. Don’t believe it? Turn on a radio. The writer has to have the antenna listening all the time. That’s why my iPhone is full of riffs, melodies, spoken phrases. It’s there. Make sure you are paying attention and have a way to capture it all. It’s there.