More Songwriters On Songwriting
By Paul Zollo

Da Capo Press 2016, $22.99, £15.99, ppxiv-657

At first glance, what is entailed by the expression "Songwriters On Songwriting" could appear as nothing much - after all, what's so special about having those who write songs, words and music, discuss in depth the nuts and bolts of those artifacts they've created?

Well, the point is that - even putting all issues of professional competence aside - what is considered as a proper discourse about the process of creation and those objects of creation is often nothing more than vague reasoning about things that don't have a lot to do with music itself. So, the quite banal intention of investigating music can sometimes turn into a groundbreaking activity, as it puts under the spotlight, at centre stage, something that can be discussed in rational terms while looking at its elements: chords, melodies, rhyming schemes, performance, arrangement, influences (in both directions), and so on.

Totally by chance, about twenty years ago, I happened to buy the second edition of Songwriters On Songwriting, a book that I still regard as required reading. A fourth edition, which added more material and which was published in 2003 is the most recent I know.

The "cast of characters" featured on that volume of Songwriters On Songwriting is really something else. A partial (!) list reads: Pete Seeger, Willie Dixon, Sammy Cahn, Mose Allison, Tom Lehrer, Bob Dylan, Pail Simon, Brian Wilson, Carole King, Jimmy Webb, Donovan, Burt Bacharach, Laura Nyro, Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks, Frank Zappa, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Graham Nash, David Crosby, Todd Rundgren, Walter Becker, Rickie Lee Jones, David Byrne, Tom Petty, Richard Thompson, Los Lobos, Suzanne Vega, Bruce Hornsby.

So it's only logical that upon reading about this new volume - which is not an "updated edition", but something made of entirely new material - before spending one's hard-earned money, one could wonder if this new book is as good as its illustrious predecessor. The new book is "thinner" - well, maybe that's not the right word for a volume that's 657 pages long - while the font size is definitely larger, something maybe best explained by the declining eyesight of an audience that's supposedly made for the most part of boomers?

When it comes to the condition of "music of quality" and its chances of survival (an issue that can be seen as made of two different aspects, or considered as a whole) one could regard the time elapsed since 2003 as "a period of crisis". But let's not forget that very often what is considered as "a period of crisis" appears as such only in the present tense. A few years later, that same period will maybe be regarded as having been "not too bad, after all", especially when compared to this new "real period of crisis we're experiencing right now". And so on.

Talking for a moment or two about who's not featured in the new volume - in a minute, I'll talk about those who are, it's an impressive list - these are the names that came to my mind: Ani DiFranco (lotsa brilliant albums that can be discussed in a variety of ways); Ben Folds and Regina Spektor (two original concepts of music-making, a piano-driven composing style that's definitely not common nowadays); Fiona Apple (not many albums released, true, but still an original, forceful artist), who's briefly discussed in this volume in the Elvis Costello interview; while among the "new faces" I'll single out Diane Birch (an artist of brilliant complexity).

Still, the problem remains, and has to be confronted. Are "The Golden Age of Songwriting" and "The Age Of Melody" definitely behind us? (It has to be noticed that according to my formulation those questions are practically the same, but nowadays a lot of people don't share my outlook and categorization.)

This is a value judgment that was explicitly formulated by Paul Simon in an interview that appeared in the first volume of Songwriters On Songwriting. A parallel line of reasoning was espoused by Randy Newman in various print outlets, with the increasing importance attributed to rhythm compared to melody and harmony as an important vehicle of change.

Talking about a "Golden Age" implies by necessity knowing what is released today (something which should be obvious, but often isn't). The next step being, having a closer look at those factors that can act as an obstacle for the birth and well-being of "quality music". Many of these factors can be said to be similar to those present in other fields of human life, while others are specific to the music environment.

So one could talk about decreasing attention spans, those changes that took place in the music industry in the last thirty years, the increasing role of sight for the appreciation of music since the days of MTV, the "Internet Revolution", the change of the concept of "individual property" after Napster and free downloading, the "information overload" that's so common today, and nowadays multitasking as practically the norm.

We have to consider that - though it's true that starting from day one all "rock" artists, from Beatles to Stones to Dylan, have always had an "image" - today any successful artist is also a "persona" whose identity sees music as just an element among many when not just an accessory, and whose financial survival depends on a multitude of sponsorships and endorsements of an extra-musical nature.

I see now that, my attention fully dedicated to those heavy problems, I haven't mentioned the book's author, Paul Zollo, not even once. As in the previous volume, his great understanding of all things "music" - Zollo is also a musician and writer - and his laudable scrupulousness when investigating an artist's outcome are the precondition for high-quality, profound, lively interviews. When things are not so brilliant - a few interviews that on paper show great potential in the end read like a wasted opportunity - this appears to be due to matters of time/effort/whatever on the side of the artist, but this is a rare occurrence.

Here's just a hint of what the volume offers.

The previous volume opened a beautiful window on the past, from Pete Seeger to Livingston and Evans to Sammy Cahn. Given that the concept of "past" can be given many meanings, here we find:

Marjorie Guthrie, an unpublished interview from 1981 about her husband Woody Guthrie.

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, "the first independent record producers", writers of rock'n'roll classics such as Hound Dog, Stand By Me, Jailhouse Rock, Spanish Harlem, Ruby Baby.

Richard Sherman, who together with his brother Robert penned a multitude of songs for Disney, from Mary Poppins to The Jungle Book.

Sheldon Harmick, who wrote countless Broadway shows, starting with Fiddler On The Roof.

Jeff Barry, who in the 60s wrote such smash hits as River Deep, Mountain High.

Kenny Gamble, a great interview with the guy who alongside Leon Huff created the "Philly Sound".

Peter, Paul and Mary, and their influential "folk" music.

Herbie Hancock, in a long conversation about Jazz, Joni Mitchell, and "The New Standard".

John Sebastian, talking about those hits he recorded with the Lovin' Spoonful, a great occasion for getting to know many great songs that are almost forgotten today.

Stephen Stills (the only member of the "fab four" not interviewed in the previous volume), an interview that's surprisingly clear and full of precious details.

Paul Simon in a conversation from 2011, as analytical and profound as always.

Brian Wilson from '95, a music writer one always enjoys reading.

Elvis Costello, who was interviewed in 2015, at the time his memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink was published. Funny to remember that at the time of his first album a musician possessing such a various and rich background was introduced by the music press as a "wild man" (it was the "punk era").

Joe Jackson interviewed in 2015, in a conversation that deals with what at the time was his current work, dedicated to the music of Duke Ellington, and with his "evergreens". Sure, "Steely Dan was one of my big influences, I think, as a teenager" would have been a surprise for music readers during the "punk era", when Jackson didn't often talk about his studies in Academia.

Rickie Lee Jones in a long interview that combines one from 2011 and one from 2015.

Patti Smith, in a pleasant, varied conversation.

Chrissie Hynde, in a long conversation that is the most alive and heartfelt in the book.

Aimee Mann, shown in all her analytical glory at the time of her great album, Lost In Space.

James Taylor in the year 2007, a long, varied, and deep conversation, from chord voicing to matters of death and memory.

Randy Newman from 2007, from orchestra to lyrics, a great interview.

Jorge Calderon, talking at great length about his collaboration with the late Warren Zevon.

Richard Thompson in 2009, with his usual great talking about guitar scales and chords, rhyme schemes, and everything.

After reading the book, one can't help but wonder whether a new volume of Songwriters On Songwriting will ever see the light. Sure, I'm usually inclined to a dark outlook on such things (to tell the truth I'd never hoped to see this new volume appear), but by now I don't expect to see the third volume of Behind The Glass by Howard Massey anytime soon.

Part of the problem deals with the future of what by now I've learnt to call the "paper book", an aspect for which proper solutions can still be found: those interviews with Jeff Barry and Joe Henry featured here were taped live in the web series called Songwriters On Songwriting Live at the Songwriting School of Los Angeles.

Another side of the matter - appearing at the top of the charts - is the deep change at the heart of the very idea of what constitutes songwriting, from a song born on a guitar or on a piano to a technical dimension that's more similar to what used to be called "musique concrète" than to what we usually call "songwriting", with the idea of collective work, including sampling, and the sometime presence of nine writers, in order to give birth to a "collective creation".

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2018 | Jan. 1, 2018