Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 11

dan-fogelbergI get to feature a Land-of-Lincoln homeboy in today’s post, Peoria-born Dan Fogelberg, who died far too young, 56, of prostate cancer back in 2007.  I’m partial to the singer-songwriters anyway, but I’m especially partial to Fogelberg, whose “Longer” my wife Lea and I had sung at our wedding.  I had played that song in a Crosby, Stills, and Nash-type country-rock trio back in my high-school days, along with other Fogelberg gems like “Part of the Plan” and “There’s a Place in the World for a Gambler.”  If you’re new to Fogelberg, you might know “Longer” and perhaps a couple of other classic songs in his canon, both of which resonate with me: “Leader of the Band” (his father, like mine, got his start in bandleading; enjoy the backstory at the beginning of the video and the outro) and the poignant “Same Auld Lang Syne.”

Fogelberg would not, I don’t think, have described himself as a born-again Christian, but he was a very spiritual person.  When asked by Paul Zollo, in the magnum opus Songwriters on Songwriting, how songs come to him, he put it this way:

I can’t sit down in a room and say, “Okay, I’m going to write a song now.”  Or make an appointment with another songwriter, which I find absolutely ludicrous.  But I know a lot of people in Nashville make their living doing that.  That’s not my style.  My stuff has to come from the Creator.  It has to come from an inspirational source.  And therefore I’ve gotten very patient and learned to wait.  And when I force myself, it usually doesn’t work.

Zollo asks about stylistic ruts all creatives find themselves in at some point in their lives.  Fogelberg was no exception:

[Y]ou try consciously to avoid [repeating yourself].  Every time you go back to one you say, “That’s too typical, try something else here.”  But I don’t have the chops to really be able to say I’m going to write a [jazz pianist] Dave Grusin piece because I’m a guitarist first.  So I think I have pretty decent technique so I can keep it from getting too trite, but there’s definitely a style to my playing.  Which I think most songwriters have, which is fairly simplistic.  If you’re a writer you don’t really have time to devote to being a really technical player.  So for me, piano is always a second instrument.

At the end of the interview, Fogelberg quotes Eagles’ bassist Timothy Schmit saying the best parts of songwriters are “the beginning and the end,” testifying to the real work involved in crafting an excellent song.  Zollo then asks if finishing a song releases a feeling of satisfaction for Fogelberg:

Absolutely.  Absolutely.  If I think it’s a good one.  In my criteria.  I’m pretty tough on myself.  A lot of stuff I’ll let go if I don’t think it’s worth the time.  When you do a good one and it’s finished, it still feels good.  It still feels great.  Songwriting to me is the ultimate reward, [the] ultimate thing I do.  It’s the most mystical thing I’ve ever experienced–and I don’t know what this is about–I do it and I don’t understand it and it’s just so amazingly unconscious.

Zollo follows up with a question as to whether Fogelberg gets a better handle on this mystery the longer he writes songs, and it gives the latter an opportunity to profess a belief in some Creative Being at work in his life:

No.  I sure don’t.  It’s given me a little more faith in a greater being, certainly.  But it’s still unexplainable.  And at some point you’ve got to make that leap from the intellectual process to blind faith, basically.  You’ve got to learn to trust those feelings.  You’ve got to use the Force, Luke.

I don’t know if Fogelberg put a Name to that Creator before he died (I hope so), but I’m grateful for his honest and spiritual music that takes me back to the soundtrack of my adolescence every time.

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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