Where the songs come from

October 6, 2015

Sooner or later any songwriter will be asked what comes first: the tune or the words?


Elton John, for example, is a  melody songwriter.  The tune comes first. For me words nearly always come before the music andthe  idea comes before the words. I have written my fair share of songs drawn from experience - love songs outweigh heartbreak. Some come from the lives and experiences of people I know. But  the richest the seam has been the world of literature. The short story remains my favourite format. It is for good reason that the "The Open Secrets" are named after Alice Munro's collection of the same name. To take a story that is already lean and distil it until all that's left are the lyrics for the song is for me the greatest pleasure of all.


On 'Open Secrets', Zebulon is inspired by Jane Smiley's re-telling of King Lear 'A Thousand Acres'. I wrote Minimum Wage after reading an extended essay by British writer Jonathan Raban describing the history of Colorado since Woody Guthrie wrote "Pastures of Plenty". The idea for Outlaws came from Peter Carey's 'True History of the Kelly Gang'. Long after I had written the song I read Truman Capote's 'In Cold Blood' and how strange it then was to have the feeling of having written most of the song in advance of reading the book that inspired it.


A book not yet finished was the cause of Rhode Island Red. My friend Jon is engaged on a project to write a book that will cover at least one song that covers off each State in the U.S. When I asked how it was going he told me, as expected, most States offer up an abundance of material. Not so those small east coast states. It would have been churlish not to help out.


The inspiration for song writing can come from the unlikeliest places and can be written for so many reasons. I think that what comes first and last is narrative. The rest is detail. 


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