John Hiatt is not a musician I know as much about as I probably should. I don’t think I could name you one of his songs without looking, though I’ve heard plenty. And this is strange, because he plays with people I love – Lyle Lovett, Ry Cooder. He grew up a few blocks from where I lived in high school (although he was long gone by that point) in Indianapolis. And he favors Gibson J-45s, which is what I play and occasionally consider writing love songs about. And then there are these quotes from his recent interview in No Depression:
“When I was younger, I didn’t really consider myself much of a guitar player,” Hiatt recalled. “I started learning how to play guitar just to write a song. As soon as I had three chords figured out, I wrote my first songs, so it always felt like it was a support thing for me – just a device so that I could write. But, as I got further into it, I started realizing it was an integral part of what I do, so I can’t really separate the two.”
Yes, that’s it exactly, except that I feel like I need to write a song because I play the guitar. It never seemed that important to me before, which is one of the reasons why it’s taking me so long to get started.
As a classical composer, I wrote for other people, people who could really play. But this time I need to write something I can play and sing myself, so I am limited by what my hands and voice can do. And sometimes those limits feel unsurmountable. But really, there is nothing wrong with a good three-chord song. And I can play more chords than that.
But this quote is even better:
“Songwriting terrifies me. I don’t even know how it’s done,” Hiatt confessed with a laugh. “I still don’t know what happens when I write a song. It’s completely beyond me how one ever gets written. I’m stunned every time it comes out.
(full article by Julie Wenger Watson here)
Terrified, yes. And that’s the other reason. But what am I terrified of exactly? I’ve thought about this. Here are some of the things that terrify me about song writing:
- I suck
- I have nothing interesting to say
- I might write about the wrong thing
- I feel like I should be better at this than I actually am
- People might laugh
- What if I accidentally steal something I heard somewhere?
- I might tell someone something I regret revealing
- I might write something terrible and not know it’s terrible
- Did I mention that I suck?
So yeah, confidence and fear of both revealing and not revealing are an issue. And yet the thing that drives me most toward song writing is the way in which songs can get you outside of yourself, so all of these roadblocks you throw in your own path don’t matter for a while.
Last night I sat down and wrote a song in about 30 minutes, tops. I’ve never done that before. And I don’t hate it. The only reason I did it was that I didn’t think of what I was doing as songwriting. And I learned a couple of important things about process.
The first thing I learned is that just as writing for an audience can free you from the tyranny of the blank page – it really helps to tell SOMETHING to SOMEBODY – writing music for someone can free you from worrying about whether or not what you are doing is good.
I’ve been slowly taking on a few gigs covering services at my local Catholic church when the organist is out of town. I’ve been singing and playing violin for services there for several years, but after showing up with a guitar for a couple of services, I’m now getting a few to do on my own when he’s away. And I love it. As a musician, I like to feel useful. The structure of the liturgy keeps things together and keeps me from worrying. I know it too well. I’ve been a working church musician since my teen years and have been working mostly in Catholic churches for the last two decades. I know the drill.
Last Sunday I took on the Sunday night jazz Mass. It’s not so much about jazz as about a loosening of the rules around music and congregational participation. At communion, instead of doing a standard hymn, I sang “Now is the Cool of the Day” by the late folksinger and songwriter Jean Ritchie. It’s a song based very loosely on the Garden of Eden story with an environmental message that’s all Ritchie. I sang this song sometime in my childhood and forgot about it, but rediscovered it at a memorial concert for Ritchie in New York a couple of years ago when it was sung completely a cappella by Susie Glaze, standing in the middle of St. John’s Lutheran Church on Christopher Street. It was an arresting moment in an evening of gorgeous songs.
Here is Susie singing it, but accompanied by Ritchie’s sons, Jon and Peter Pickow.
I used to work and play guitar with Peter. When I asked him about this song he told me that his mother wrote it when she was ironing on a hot day. “She said she’d heard the phrase ‘the cool of the day’ and thought it sounded nice.” I think of ironing every time I sing it now.
This version by Kathy Mattea is maybe closer to the spirit of the performance I heard at Jean’s memorial:
But as much as I love that,I wasn’t quite sure I could handle singing completely a cappella, so I made my own spare arrangement on the guitar. And I was completely unafraid of letting my voice ring out while sitting behind my guitar, something I struggle with as a singer in other situations. Making the arrangement and sharing it wasn’t terrifying. It made the song mine. In that moment, I owned it so it was easy to share. Afterwards, several parishioners came by to tell me how much they loved hearing it, which is always nice to hear.
I’m going to be covering another Mass in a couple of weeks and that moment inspired me to go one step further and write something myself. I was focused on what the congregation likes what I thought they’d like to hear. I started noodling around on the guitar and then decided to set the Ave Maria in Latin.
The second thing I learned was that if you need an idea, sometimes you can steal it. Without thinking too much about it, I started playing through Courtney Barnett’s “Don’t Apply Compression Gently.” This is a song I love playing. It’s easy and repetitive – the entire song is a repeated chord progression described by the title: D[on’t] A[pply] C[ompression] G[ently]. While playing it you get to pick out melodies and counter melodies over the chords. It’s allowed me to loosen up my right hand and think not just about harmony but about real accompaniment. Plus, who doesn’t love a song with lines like “I may not be 100% happy, but at least I’m not with you.”?
I use this song as a warmup almost every night. The steady chord progression warms up my fingers. The opportunities for improv warm up my brain. So it’s not surprising that when I sat down to write, I found this chord progression under my fingers. It became the basis for my setting of the Ave Maria. The rest I just heard as I played through the progression. The rhythms of the Ave Maria text work well in triple meter, and I’m a waltz fan in general, so the 3/4 time was an obvious choice. And probably due to all that improvising on this progression, the melody just sort of wrote itself.
The first half of the song is entirely set over D-A-C-D:
C G D A
Benedicta tu in mulieribus
C G D A CGD
et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus.
The second half needed a change, so I moved into D minor:
Ora pro nobis
And picked back up a riff from the first part (Benedicta tu) but over a different chord for:
And moved back to major moving down by whole step, inspired by the music used to accompany godliness in movies from the 1950s and earlier (I was thinking about The Bishop’s Wife):
G F E
Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae
Then we return to do the first part again twice through and the piece ends on the dominant G.
My husband walked in while I was playing through it. “That’s pretty.” That’s what I was going for. It’s not especially interesting, but it’s pretty and a useful meditative accompaniment for the process of Communion. I’ll sing it in a couple of weeks as I’ve written it (and will try to get a recording then), but I’m already hearing contrapuntal parts for the return of the opening that make me think I need to rewrite it for choir. I’m not sure if I’m done with this one yet.