We are blessed to have so much amazing recorded material instantly available to us. On our smart phones and tablets we can listen to music recorded anywhere in the world since that dog first looked down the trumpet speaker of the first record player. As songwriters we stand within and on the shoulders of this astonishing heritage. How do we approach this best?
I love music of the southern states of the USA. We’re talking of a great cauldron into which African music, Native American Music, the distinctive voices of central Europe, English ballads, the soaring bravado and pathos of Scottish and Irish music, Latin rhythms all the music of the whole damn world got poured into a song. And the songs were: RnB, country, bluegrass, jazz, honky tonk, rock’n’roll and more and more.
To me, as someone who writes songs the question how to I relate to this incredible richness is a great one. Do I revisit the songs of those who have gone before - mirroring their chord structures, melodies and subjects? Or so I try and take the gifts of these songs and try and reinvent them – even to the point of creating a new genre as others such as Bill Monroe (Bluegrass)?
The first - revisting – is an honourable and well-trodden approach. Staying in with the tight structures ( the 3 or 4 chords of country music for instance ) and remaining creative and fresh is a real challenge to be relished. I am not so good at that. As I keep telling myself ‘this is hard – there are so many great songs written already !
Reinventing is for musical genius. Not me. Perhaps only a few of us can redefine music this way.
I have been exploring the idea of reimagining in my songwriting. Re-imagining is a very personal thing. It’s about connecting your own emotional reaction to direct experience and seeing where it leads you through the vocabulary of the music that surrounds you. Direct experience like walking through the Appalachian Forests. As spiders fell onto my face; it was so humid I felt I couldn’t breathe; looking our for bears and rattlesnakes and sleeping surrounded by the mysterious noises of the night; I couldn’t help me think about the Native Americans and the settlers who once were hear and trying to imagine their world and their lives. The stories that wove themselves around me as I travelled came out as songs as I walked. And the music and form came from all of the sounds I ever heard in that marvelous musical place. Nothing I write is in one sense new, it is ignorant of the rules that is all. SO in a sense with me - the experience / the story comes first, not the lyrics, the story.
Of course - you don't have to walk through the wilderness to write great songs. But surely the heartbeat of a great song is pure experience - like when a newly-romantically dumped Percy Sledge stood on stage and hollered 'When A Man Loves A Woman'. And reimagining that song into existence is to unconsciously tune-in to the sounds you love and acknowledge the 'rules' but not be bound by them.