Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 9

Hero_JacksonBrowneJackson Browne burst onto the pop-music scene in the early 70’s, a wunderkind of sorts compared to older artists with more-established pedigrees.  While generally not considered in the absolute top tier of singer-songwriters, his excellent oeuvre nevertheless represents an easier onramp than that of some of his more vaunted peers–less obscure than Joni Mitchell, less acerbic than Neil Young, less obviously stoned than David Crosby.   There’s lots to appreciate in the Browne canon, but neophytes might start here: “Doctor, My Eyes” was his first major success as a performer (dig the 70s feathered hair), “Running on Empty” hit the charts as part of a concept album describing life on the road, and “The Rebel Jesus” served as a Christmas carol of a different ilk.

Browne’s interview with Paul Zollo for the Songwriters on Songwriting is filled with gems.  Here are a few:

On a metaphor for the process of songwriting:

Songwriting is like building guitars.  You save wood for many years until it’s ready, until you want a piece of wood like that, and you make an instrument.  Or you may have the back and sides, but you don’t have the wood you want for the face of the guitar[, so you find more wood that will work and finish the project].  The metaphor is beautiful because a song is like an instrument in that it can be played by anyone else, and it can [lie] around for years and somebody can pick it up and play it again.

On the struggle not to repeat himself:

I have probably played the same stuff over and over again on the piano.  I was doing a concert, and I sat down at the piano and started playing a new song in D, and the crowd started clapping even though they’d never heard this song, because what I was playing in D [sounded like] what I always habitually play in D on the piano, and they thought it was a song they’d already heard.

I have to play for hours to try to go to new places and develop something different.  [To that end,] I think singing while playing is such a big part of writing for me.

On the appropriateness of his tendency to preach in a song, especially “Lives in the Balance,” a look at American covert military operations in Latin America:

There are times where you have to put aside your preference for being smooth or hip, and simply shout, “Fire!”  If it’s a matter of something like whether your country’s going to war, that’s important.  At the time [of “Lives in the Balance”], I just thought it would be worth it.  I value my career, of course, but I don’t value it so much as to preserve it at all costs.  Like to be quiet during a Holocaust.  I felt that I needed to say what I knew.

And I also believed–and I’m not sure that this is borne out by events at all–that if you told the American people what was going on, that they would do the right thing.  I’m not sure it’s as simple as that anymore.  I can’t say that I have the certainty that I had, at the time, that that was possible.  People have a huge capacity for self-delusion and it’s no longer a given that if you show them the truth, that they’ll do the right thing.

Interesting thoughts, these, especially given that they were offered almost 25 years ago.  On a lighter note, here are his thoughts on forsaking the at-all-costs quest for a song’s perfect rhyme:

I don’t think it’s important to rhyme perfectly.  I used to be pretty obsessed with it.  I didn’t even want to rhyme a singular with a plural. . . . I would go to great lengths to change the line so that it would be [perfect, so] that it would rhyme with “time” instead of “times.” . . .

[I became less obsessive when I began] appreciating a lot of songs that don’t necessarily rhyme at all–especially blues. [Rhyming is] just something we do.  It’s almost like a crutch.

A song will sound fine, if it rhymes, even though it [might not] say a thing.  That’s the thing about songs.  There’s a lot of forgiveness in the medium because people are used to hearing stuff that doesn’t necessarily mean anything or make a lot of sense. . . . 

You can open up a whole structure and form by choosing to rhyme less often.  Sometimes, when I’ve been writing a song and kind of aware that I [don’t know at all what I am writing about], I tend to rhyme way too much.  Sort of like a stepping stone–like you’re going from rhyme to rhyme trying to get something going.

Blessings to all the Church’s songwriters for your important work.  The Lord be with you!  

About Warren Anderson

Emmaus Road Worshipers is written by Dr. Warren Anderson, Director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University (Elgin, Ill.), where he also directs the Judson University Choir. A Judson alumnus, he has served his alma mater in a number of capacities over the past 30+ years, especially the chapel ministry, which he led for 22 years. From 1982-2016, Dr. Anderson served six different churches--American Baptist (X2), Converge, Evangelical Free Church of America, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist--as a "weekend warrior" worship musician/pastor. He is a former member of the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine. The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of Judson University.
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