Songwriting Tips: Know Your Truth
[This transcript is excerpted from the Songwriters’ TeleSummit.]
Viv: I was just struck about what you were saying about developing strong intuition and what struck me about that is that a strong intuition about a song would also, I think, lead to strong performance. A real committed, deep knowledge, of the song and a deep performance and thereby makes it a very compelling listening experience for someone, do you agree?
Gretchen: I absolutely do. In fact I think, and this probably is informed by my upbringing as I feel like I was taught by the singer/songwriters that I listened to, as I said at the beginning I didn’t have any formal training but I listened and learned how to write songs from famous songwriters like Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell, and one of the hallmarks of that sort of genre is that you really can’t, I don’t think, separate the song from the singer from the performance with those people. It was all part of a whole really. And so I absolutely find that the same process is at work when you’re performing a song. There’s knowledge, there’s a deep, deep knowledge of the emotional truth that you have to be in touch with. You probably won’t be able to verbalize it exactly but you know it in your bones and that deep knowledge is the thing that allows you to bring deep emotions to the delivery of a song and it’s also the very, very same process that allows you to bring deep emotion to the writing of the song. They’re really, to me, not separate processes. It’s basically the same idea of going within yourself to the place where something is said and you know it’s the truth. And you know it’s authentic. And you know that it resonates. And a lot of times this process can be scary. If you’re writing autobiographically and you hit on something that you know to be true in your bones, a lot of times you may have reservations about saying it out loud. That’s part of the process too. The only thing I can say about that is I’ve run into that process, I’ve run into the phenomenon quite a few times in writing and much more lately because I’ve been pretty much writing much more autobiographically. All I can say about that is that the rewards are a hundred fold because if you say those things in song they’re going to be true for a lot of other people. We all have basically the same human experience and if you hit on something like that you’re really hitting on gold. Emotional gold. Because you are not, no matter what you’re life experiences, you’re not that different from anyone else. If you can tell those truths with your details and your story but truthfully, it’s going to resonate for a lot of other people and that’s what I call a real and a great song.
Gretchen: I just want to read one thing.
Viv: Yeah please do.
Gretchen: I love this. This kind of goes to all the things that we’ve talked about that first very, very tender phase, you could almost liken it to falling in love, the first phase of a relationship. That first very tender phase of writing where you’re with the muse and also goes to the idea of having a place to do it. This is a wonderful poem that I found called ‘How to be a poet’ by Wendell Berry. And it goes like this: “Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet. You must depend on affection, reading, knowledge, skill. More of each than you have. Inspiration, work, growing older, patience. For patience joins time to eternity. Any readers who like your work doubt their judgment. Breathe with unconditional breath. The unconditioned air. Shun electric wire. Communicate slowly. Live a three-dimensioned life. Stay away from screens. Stay away from anything that obscures the place that it is in. There are no unsacred places. There are only sacred places and desecrated places. Accept what comes from silence. Make the best you can of it. The little words that come out of the silence like prayers pray back to the one who prays. Make a poem that does not disturb the silence from which it came.” Really all I need to do is read that poem and I would have been done. I think it says it all. Anyway, I’m ready to answer questions I hope.