Songwriting: The Art and Service To Others
[This transcript is excerpted from the Songwriters’ TeleSummit.]
Viv: So craft is what we use in service of our service.
Mary: Craft is what we use in service of our art. I think the craft is how we communicate our inspiration. When Vincent Van Gogh looked out and saw a starry, starry night, he needed to have those little bitty brushstrokes and that swirling way that he painted to show you, to show me, to show us the beautiful night that he saw. And so that was a craft that he developed. He developed that technique of painting that way to show us what he says. “Look, look, look, isn’t that beautiful? Look what I saw!” And you look at it and you cry and you go, “Oh my god, the artist sees the world that way? I just saw sky. I didn’t see all that beautiful, beautiful light and he saw that.” And so if there’s a craft he showed us his inspiration. We were able to see a little bit of what he saw. And that’s what we do as songwriters with the craft is we use the craft to have our audience feel a little bit of what we felt when we were inspired to write this song.
Viv: Fantastic. Over the decades in which the songwriting craft has been developed, hundreds of years, there are tried and true methods for carrying the message of a song in a powerful way that we could use.
Mary: Right and those can be listed and taught. I cannot teach you inspiration. I cannot teach you emotional involvement in the world around you and a passion to put that into song. But songwriting classes can teach you that the third line of the first verse has got to have something to do with the first line of the chorus or you’re going to loose your audience. There’s things that are teachable and things that aren’t and the craft is, indeed, teachable.
Viv: I think it’s really interesting that you said to be emotionally connected to the world, that that’s where inspiration comes. And that emotional connection and that ability to be passionate about the world that is reflecting through you into your songs is really key for the inspiration part.
Mary: Absolutely. You’ve got to feel it to write it. And if you’re going to want to make people feel it when it goes by then you have to feel it when you’re writing it. If I want to bring tears to your eyes then I have to bring tears to my eyes writing it. It’s that simple.
Viv: Great. Well, we’re closing in on the last couple minutes and, again, time just sort of flies by in these conversations. It’s been such a great pleasure. Any final thoughts for us about what we really should be focusing on in that journey toward our own voice? Or the journey with our own voice?
Mary: I think that the important thing is to know that it’s a process and that people are always trying to find their voice. I think Bob Dylan has lost and found his voice hundreds if not thousands of times in his career. The voice is not a constant. The person that I was yesterday, got affected by the events of yesterday, and is no longer the person that I am today. It’s not the person that I was yesterday. Because I’ve changed. And so the voice is not something that is constant. It evolves and changes with the life experiences. So we’re always searching for it and it’s always just out of reach. And we can just get a little bit of grasp around it and then it flips away again. So it’s always a reaching for. And a reaching towards. And that’s what keeps me interested and passionate about it is because you never get to hold it for very long. It just slips out of your hand like a fish in water. You got it and then it’s gone. It’s an always in-process process. And you nail it down sometimes in a song and you go, “Listen to that. Isn’t that something?” And everybody can hear it and then you go and try to write another one and you can’t find it, and you can’t find it, and you can’t find it. So it’s not a given or a constant. I think that writers should be told that because I think that there’s an illusion that once you find your voice like a Joni Mitchell type person or a Neil Young or Woody Guthrie then you always have it. But it’s just not true. You are always trying to find it. It’s a search. It’s a lifelong quest.
Viv: Brilliant, Mary Gauthier, thank you so much for joining us today and talking about this incredible topic. And voicing it so beautifully in a way that we can actually grasp it because it seems like it’s elusive. It’s a mysterious topic.
Mary: It is a mysterious topic and it’s such an important topic that it’s hard to talk about but without your voice, your songs aren’t going to resonate with people I don’t think. Until you find it, you’re songs are going to go by and nothing’s going to happen yet. So you’ve got to keep searching for it and it takes courage, and it takes persistence, and it takes a willingness to do a lot of really hard work, but the payoff is tremendous when you find it. There’s nothing quite as satisfying in my whole life as writing a song in my own voice and realizing that I finally did it again. So I encourage all the people listening to be patient and kind with themself and, if you’ve got to sit in a chair for fourteen hours a day for three weeks then that’s what you got to do. But in the end you have a piece of work that will last for the rest of your life. And you will always smile when you play that song, because it will always be your voice.