Songwriting Questions… from a decade ago.

songwriter questions file icon

So I found this 2008 Word .doc on an external dump drive while hunting for a scan of an old, never-finished song. The file is dated May 17, 2008. I have no memory of which writer or publication even asked these questions–no hint in the file either–but never mind. I have a feeling this probably never even made it off my desktop.

In hindsight, I certainly take back my natterings about Lou Reed, though. The callousness of youth and all that. (R.I.P. Lou, may you find the rest you were denied here.) And I’ve certainly made my peace with I-IV-II-V, so long as there’s a solid supporting argument for it.

SONGWRITER QUESTIONS FOR DAN BRYK

What comes first; lyrics or melodies?

It depends. Melodies, if I’m sitting at the piano “trying to write a song.”  Words generally come any time a pen and notepad aren’t handy: falling asleep… driving in the car… in a meeting at work… post-coitus or worse, during. Awkward!

Are there any times in particular more fertile to the process? A couple of artists have told me that long solo drives tend to be particularly fertile….

I used to write a lot while driving, but I burned out the compact flash card in my old-school Olympus portacorder and I’ve been too lazy to hunt down a 16MB CF card. I’m really not good at writing while driving. I guess I could just buy a new note recorder (which might even have Mac OS X-friendly USB), but it was one of the first things I bought after moving to the Triangle (yaay Capital Pawn) and besides it’s the principle of the thing. We accept enough planned obsolescence as it is.

Influences – crib from them, or try to ignore them?

Wherever possible. Pop songwriting is a magpie’s art. I remember Nick Lowe saying something to the effect of “good artists borrow, great artists steal.” Or maybe it was “I steal, but I steal from the best.”  Hopefully the overall effect is more like Rauschenberg than say, Puff Daddy looping 8 bars of “Every Breath You Take” over and over and calling it your own.

First song you ever wrote – title? Theme?

“Please Please Please Lord.”  I believe it had something to do with asking God for a girlfriend. This was even before I got sent to the principal’s office for playing the White Album on the art room cassette player. It’s hard to believe that even in 1982 Pentacostals still had a problem with that “bigger than Jesus” bit. It was someone’s birthday.

Influential songwriters (3-5) – what about them in particular?

Randy Newman – American Genius. No one skates between pop song and art with such finesse.

Aimee Mann – huge influence on my album “Lovers Leap”. She hasn’t done shit for me lately, but “I’m With Stupid” is still my Nevermind.

Leslie “Sam” Phillips – one of the smartest, deepest thinkers ever to wield a sharp pop hook. I’ve been a fan for 20 years, even when she was still considered a “Contemporary Christian” artist, and her last three albums are her best. She is so underrated, especially in indie music circles, it’s just stupid.

R.D. Burman – the late Bollywood composer. I have been devouring everything I can find of his since I bought a box set on a trip to India three years ago. An incredibly versatile composer, syncretic in the extreme, he mixes up Indian classical music and ragas and bollywood pop with all kinds of western sounds in brilliantly idiosyncratic arrangements—I hear everything from Bacharach to John Barry to ABBA in his music, but it’s still unmistakably his, and he wrote for all the great playback singers. Young Indian composers refer to him as L.O.R.D. for a reason.

Elliptical narratives, opaque imagery, or specificity?

Whatever works.  I’m not very good with descriptive detail, but I’ve been working on that. Some people find my lyrics hyper-specific, but those people probably hate Douglas Coupland too. I’ve tried to cut back on name-dropping consumer products when it’s clear they’re not going to underwrite my work. No-one told me about that Taco Bell “Feed the Band” contest, and that hurt.

Do you write for an album, or is each song an island?

I try and write good songs and hopefully I write enough of them to fill an album every year or two. I consider myself lazy if I can’t write 10 good songs a year, but then again inspiration’s for the lazy. Pretty soon I’m going to have to give up using immigration as an excuse for not finishing up my records. I’m fortunate in that Pop Psychology sort of has a grand theme, but it’s failure. People will only put up with one or two albums about failure in a row. Ask Mark Eitzel.

When do you know if you’re in a rut?

Dust on the piano.

Is it easier to take a personal event and tweak it to make more universal, or to take something completely fabricated and personalize it?

Dude, that’s a ten-point essay question! Unfortunately I, uh, tend to write from actual life experiences. I always sucked at creative writing in school, I was more into The New Journalism. Also I find unhappy or tense situations to provide more compelling narrative than when things are going smoothly. And I never tweak to make shit more universal. Put them all together = I still have a day job.

Artists from other writing mediums impress/affect? Poets, novelists, Raymond Carver?

Love me some Copywriters: Mary Wells, Bill Bernbach, Edward Graham, Ron Rosenfeld, Phyllis Robinson, Shirley Polykoff, David Ogilvy, (mmmm) George Lois. They made art out of the art of suggestion. Probably explains a lot.

What’s the longest you’ve ever tinkered with a song?

17 years. It’s called “Lowering The Standards” and it’s been almost done for maybe 5 years now. I just need to get the lyrics right in the bridge… it’ll be worth it, I swear.

What’s one thing that will turn you off instantly to a song on the radio (or the computer-ish equivalent)?

A I-IV-II-V chorus.  It’s like the “hit” algorithm. Every lame-ass pop punk song, every formulaic song the Matrix shits out… my ex-girlfriend referred to that chord progression as the “money chords.”

Also, auto-tuned lead vocals. Well, maybe I’ll make an exception for movie soundtracks when the actor is supposed to be singing. I’d rather hear Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman sing “Come What May” with a little help from Melodyne than some ringers with perfect pitch.

Dylan or Lennon?

Costello. It’s like the best of both worlds, without all that irritating myth and hagiography.

Lennon or McCartney?

There’s no point in choosing, no choice really. Their genius… it’s so ubiquitous you just have to accept it and try to work around it. It’s like picking between air and water.  It’s like… Falkner or Brion?

Lou Reed or Tom Waits?

I am so fucking sick of Lou Reed coasting on his laurels.  New York was his last good album (not counting ‘Drella, but that was half Cale anyhow) and I was in Grade 11 when that came out. GRADE 11.  Tom Waits still writes great songs, cuts great albums, plays great shows. Plus, Tom never shilled for Honda.

Stipe or Malkmus?

Pollard.

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