Songwriting Tips: Mary Gauthier Talks About Filling Your Songwriting Tool Box
[This transcript is excerpted from the Songwriters’ TeleSummit.]
Viv: It’s Viv again and I have a question about those folks who do both. They write from this intense personal voice and yet are also commercially successful. I must be getting tired, because all I could think of to say after that was, what’s up with that? When I listen to your music, Mary, quite honestly I think, everybody should be listening to this, this is perfectly commercially viable. There’s that meaning thing that comes up that the songs that you are producing have such intense meaning for many people, for all of us really. Do you have to change something to make them commercial or to make money with it or is it just a choice of how you choose to…
Mary: When you say commercial, what you’re saying is radio. And radio runs on hits. And hits have a certain structure and a certain sound to them. Generally, a hit is a song that resonates with people immediately and slices through a lot of different things that would distract a person so it just gets in there and stays. And there’s certain rules of how that’s done and certain ways of doing that. Generally, people who write hits, have a way of expressing themselves naturally that just comes out as a hit. That’s not the way my songs lay out. There are writers who, of course, intentionally are trying to write hits, tens of thousands of them, and they find it incredibly elusive. Oftentimes, great great songs are not hits. But they’re still a great song. Commerciality has to do with repetition, radio, and an ability to cut through the noise of everyday life and get into that place that people need to hear it again and again and again and again. There’s people who study that and try to understand the formula of how it works and there’s people who just seem to write hits naturally. That’s the way that they write song lyrics. I think we overvalue the hits and undervalue the great songs that don’t have that hit quality. But that’s just commerce. It’s the collision of art and commerce that’s always going to be in an antagonistic relationship because they’re very different things. But my friends who are able to write hits and write incredibly personal, beautiful, great songs that don’t have the radio appeal, I think that they understand that in order to stay in business, you’ve got to come up with some hits every now and then. Oftentimes it’s a matter of smoothing out some of the edges and going for the hit in order to keep yourself afloat as an artist.
Viv: When you say smoothing out the edges, is that so that it will look more palatable? Or maybe less raw?
Mary: Less raw, more palatable, more mainstream. The current status, the way the radio is now, generally people don’t say much. You can’t really take positions or offend anybody. It’s always good just to write a happy upbeat song about being in love. And do a lot of repetition with the soaring message so the singer can wrap his or her voice around it. And that’s almost always going to be a winner. That’s just a natural way of writing for some people. For other people like me, I wouldn’t even begin to know how to write like that. You could say, “Here’s a million dollars, write me one of those” and I would go, “I don’t know how! That’s just not how I write”. But there’s enough people who write that way to keep it going. I guess my purpose, and my point of the whole workshop on voice, is if you don’t write that way, don’t think that it’s a problem. It’s actually not a problem. Your voice is every bit as important as those people who are writing hits if not more important. We have to learn how to accept the value of what we do and understand that value does not equal cash. There’s other things that are valuable in this life other than money and that is what I try to teach people. There’s intrinsic value in writing from your voice.
Viv: So there’s value in the process of writing.
Mary: Yeah, there’s intrinsic value in looking at the world and seeing something beautiful and writing a song in order to show it to people, “Look what I just saw.” Or seeing something incredibly sad and writing a song and saying, “Look isn’t that sad?” And having people go, “Yes, yes that’s sad. I’m with you”. It’s a connection; it’s a connectivity, human-to-human, human heart to human heart. There’s a value to that and it’s an important role that the artist must embrace and doesn’t have to be done through hits. Beauty doesn’t equal hit. And hit doesn’t equal hit.
Ernie. I was just curious, Mary, you probably already answered it, but I’ve been thinking, is it worthwhile, if you’re not really interested in writing a commercial hit, is it worthwhile taking those kinds of classes and reading those kinds of books? I take it that you probably didn’t and it’s one of those things that people say you have to know the rules before you break them, do you really think that’s true in this case?
Mary: I think so. I think the more you can learn about your craft, the better music writer you’re going to be. The songs that you’re going to write at your highest level from your voice are going to have half art/inspiration and half craft. And the craft part is something that you learn in the classes. You learn why you need to change your rhyme scheme between the verse and the chorus. You learn why you need to have a very powerful first line. You learn why the line leading into the first chorus is a vital part of the song and has to be exactly right. You learn these craft techniques and these craft rules. Which, there’s not really any rules, there’s only tools. Any rule you could tell me I could name five or ten instances where that rule has been broken and is not necessarily a rule and it works. The more you know about how to write a song, the better you are going to be at using your voice. When I take classes with hit writers and they’re trying to get me to write for the radio, I just ignore that crap. But I listen to, ok the guy just said, “When you’re working on a melody and you find the biggest note in that melody line ends on the word ‘the’, you’re wasting a good melody.” You don’t want to sing and the song ends “thhhhhhe sun was hot”. You want to sing ‘hot’ as the big word because that’s the verb and that’s the big word in the line. So you learn the craft to become better at executing your voice, but for me I don’t use it for purposes of commerce but for purposes of communication. Now, yeah, there’s commerce behind it because I get a career, the better songs I write the more people come to the shows and the more people buy the records, and the more likely I am to be able to continue doing it. So there is a commerce element but it’s not about writing for country radio or writing for country artists as much as it is for me being able to communicate more effectively the things that I feel as though I need to be saying. So you want your tool kit to be full of tools so that you could pull them out at a moment’s notice and say what you need to say in a way that’s most effective and lands on people’s ears in a way that they hear it clearly. And that’s the craft stuff. But if you get too carried away with craft and don’t have enough art then you get these contrived little songs that the radio is just full of them right now, country radio stations in particular, that don’t have any heart. No art, no heart. So it’s a balance. If you have too much art, and not enough craft, then you’re not communicating well. And so the song goes by and people didn’t understand what you were saying. If you have too much craft and not enough art, people understand what you’re saying but they don’t give a damn because it didn’t have any heart and you didn’t make them feel anything. So you’re trying to strike that balance, not looking too crafty or too arty. But a nice balance of both so that people go, “Oh my god, yeah, I know exactly what you mean and I’ve been through that too.”
Ernie: Right, so if you know what you’re doing it’s easier to have that balance.
Mary: Yes, and you’re more of a vehicle for service and change and a vehicle for co-creating the universe if you have a tool kit full of tools that you know you ought to use. Unfortunately there is no songwriters guild or union for it, but if there were a union, you’d have to be ten years or more in to be a journeyman. You have a set of skills that you start with and you grow them and the tool kit expands and you become better at it over time and learn these powerful skills as a writer and eventually become as good of a writer as you can be but it’s a process of becoming. And I always want to remain teachable because I feel like I could always be a better writer. No matter how good I’ve gotten I feel like I could be better. And so I try to stay open to writing books and classes and, if a teacher appeals to me, I will take that class. I’m taking classes on writing literature. I try to be always be teachable and never think that because I teach, I’m a teacher and not a student. I’m very much a student as well. There’s always more to be learned.