Becoming a Songwriter, Part 1

Becoming a Songwriter, Part 1

I have a book on songwriting about halfway completed. Andi and I thought it might be fun and hopefully fruitful to share a few chapters with Art House America Blog readers. These two chapters focus on how it is that we become songwriters and how we know what we know.Charlie Peacock

To move through the world by any means, at any age, is to bump into music. It’s everywhere and in everything. And some people are born magnetized to it. It sticks to them. Not only do they intentionally step into new influences, the influences inhabit them.

My first memory of music not directly related to my family story was the classical music played during kindergarten nap time. In later years I recognized it as Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky (“The Nutcracker”). Television show themes and cartoon/animation music were something I also picked up on — and then much later found out they were the work of composers like Philip A. Scheib, Carl Stalling, Hoyt Curtin, and Raymond Scott. All of these tacit influences seemed to reveal themselves when I took piano improvisation seriously in my late teens. You can hear them full bloom on the recording Jeff Coffin and I made titled Arc of the Circle (2008). 

By 1963 at seven years of age, I was definitely choosing the music I wanted to listen to. My aunt Karoly Williamson was my mentor and guide. Karoly was still a young teenager living at home with her parents (my grandparents). Because my mother worked at Yuba City High School, I would begin each week day at my grandparents’ house, walk to school, and then return to their house until a parent picked me up. This afforded me lots of time embedded with a real live teenager and her music. It was my first exposure to The Beach Boys and The Beatles as well as all the major singles of the day. Karoly was always singing along to Top 40 radio and on many days we watched either the Lloyd Thaxton Show or Dick Clarks American Bandstand. Then, like so many baby boomer musicians, yes, on February 9th of 1964 I saw and heard The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.

The Columbia Record Club played a major role in my musical education. It was created in 1955 by Columbia Records as a direct mail campaign of particular interest to rural music lovers living some distance from big city record stores. By 1963 it commanded 10% of the American record market and my parents were members (Columbia enticed new members to join by giving them one or more free records). In addition to ordering the records of your choice the club would often dangle the carrot of a free compilation such as The Headliners featuring songs by Tony Bennett, The Dave Brubeck Trio, Lionel Hampton, Johnny Mathis, and more. Or Teen Scene with The Dave Clark Five, Bob Dylan, Chad & Jeremy, The Byrds, and Bobby Vinton might be on offer. Each compilation had a different catchy title and was filled with a sampling of artists. Many of them, like Percy Faith or Mitch Miller, I couldn’t care less for. To my young ears, it was music that had nothing to do with the present, much less the future. 

What the Columbia Record Club compilations provided me was something akin to what kids enjoy today with Spotify and iTunes. My impressionable ears could sample a good bit of music and decide fairly quickly that I liked Thelonius Monk, Johnny Cash, and The Yardbirds. But Ray Conniff and his Orchestra? The Four Lads? No, thank you. The first record from the club I got to choose for myself was a compilation of Chubby Checker dance hits. I wasn’t immune to The Twist, The Pony, and especially The Limbo. What kid doesn’t want to bend over backwards under a stick while shimmying to a fake island beat?

Pop mythology has it that after The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show everything changed, and it did  — even if there were other significant contributors to change. No doubt The Beatles were the tip-of-the-spear attack, though — one that launched thousands of bands and sold a whole lot of records, guitars, and drums.

Yuba City, where I grew up, and Marysville across the river were no exception. Little kids started bands; teens had bands; live music was everywhere. It was common to hear bands rehearsing in garages and bedrooms. You could buy guitars at the department stores like Sears (Silvertone), Montgomery Wards (Airline), and Woolworths (Teisco). Ludwig drums were de rigueur. Farfisa and Vox combo organs were available for musicians not ready to take on the behemoth Hammond B3. Occasionally there would be a Wurlitzer or Fender Rhodes Electric Piano. “Louie Louie” was the first song you learned. Then maybe “She Loves You,” “Get Off of My Cloud,” or “Little Black Egg.”

Not every band played covers. Some mixed in originals too, like native sons Drusalee and the Dead. In 1965 they released a 45 rpm single of Drew’s original “Lily” backed with the standard “Exodus” done surf-style (Varden Records). Keeping with the ghoulish theme, the poster billed it as The Morbid Sound of “Lily.” Like the other big local names Freddie and the Statics, and Sonny Oliver, Drusalee and the Dead gigged often and were openers for all the big acts coming through Northern California.  

By 1965 my father was employed as the band director at Marysville High School. After the local football games, where his students marched and played, there would be a school dance. One fateful night, with the game over and the band room locked up tight, I accompanied my father to a dance where Drusalee and the Dead were playing. I saw Drusalee rise up from his coffin, tenor saxophone blazing. The music felt like a huge gust of red-hot wind. Dad collected the cashbox and we were on our way. I was nine years old and under the spell.

I think this is the way it must be. Every musical child born into the music of a people and place must also hear and see music done by others outside your immediate circle. There must be some heroic figure (and hopefully several) that inspire the young musical person to imagine himself or herself doing that thing, or something similar — essentially, making something. Saying in your energized imagination and will, “I want to make that. I will make that.” 

The encounter should happen in-person if at all possible, and often. I was fortunate. Before I turned twenty-one I had already seen Ray Charles, B.B. King, Ike and Tina Turner, Jimmy Smith, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Art Blakey, Stan Getz, Chick Corea, Al Green, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, and the Staple Singers play live.  Consequently, my imagination and will were energized. But television, video, streaming the Newport Folk Fest on your mobile device, or the iTunes Music Festival will also do the trick. The point is to keep your eyes and ears open to surprise and inspiration from wherever and whomever you encounter it. Everything you take in works together for your development. All of it is important. Songwriters should be the most curious and alert people in the world.

I began taking trumpet lessons in the 4th grade. Now music truly was mine to succeed or fail at. Though I was still very much an absentminded little kid, my father wasn’t raising a son that didn’t excel, and so I did. By 5th grade I was competing as a young soloist and writing my first melodies. Like a lot of boys I loved baseball and girls too, but music had its grip on me. Still does.

From that time on I was more of a conscious musical sponge than I had ever been. I was moving from a more passive absorption of influences to an everyday active pursuit of music. This is the course the musician/songwriter’s life must take in order to collect the bedrock of musical experience you will draw on for the rest of your life. Not that you won’t add to it, because of course you will. But there are formative experiences and influences that occur in a young season of life that will never be duplicated later — no matter how much you grow, mature, and take on the world.

Early on I found my three primary songwriting influences: James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and Paul Simon. These were buttressed with the English influence of The Beatles and Donovan as well as the Motown influence of Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, and Marvin Gaye. Top 40 radio from 1965 to 1973 is ingrained in me. I mention these dates and not others because I had an AM radio glued to my head during this period. The blues were always foundational to me. In fact, most kids of my generation learned to play and write blues songs first. I devoured British blues via John Mayall and the many groundbreaking players that came through his band (e.g., Mick Taylor, Eric Clapton, and Jack Bruce). For country and southern rock I gathered to myself all things Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and the Allman Brothers. Todd Rundgren was pivotal to me in terms of smart, soulful pop. Every horn band from Tower of Power to Ten Wheel Drive to Pacific, Gas & Electric meant something to me. As did Al Green, Sly and The Family Stone, Parliament-Funkadelic, Curtis Mayfield, Joni Mitchell, and Stevie Wonder. But all of these influences came under the headship of one Miles Davis and the unprecedented stream of pioneering musicians he recruited for his landmark recordings: Wynton Kelly, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Ron Carter, Keith Jarrett, and many more.

Every song I’ve written and will write has some blend of these influences to thank. They are seminal. By choosing them as influences and absorbing their history, songs, styles, and nuances, I have strongly and irrevocably influenced all that I’ve done as a musician and songwriter. 

If the music of the family story and place I was born into is my foundation, this large collection of influences is the framing and walls of my musical house. It’s because of all of this, when people ask me, “How do you write a song?” I can answer, “How can I not?”

What would your list look like? Find out. Write it down.

As an artist, songwriter, and producer I’ve had the opportunity to meet or, on occasion, work with a number of people on the list above. Almost all of these artists, musicians, and songwriters are 7 or more years older than me. Jackson Browne is a good example, born October 9th, 1948 (8 years older), or Herbie Hancock on the far end, born April 12th, 1940 (16 years older). When you’re inspired by music, the age of the one making the music is meaningless. I only mention it because it seems to follow a pattern of musical influence. Keeping the house building analogy going, if the walls and framing stage I’ve just described is made up of people a little older than you, the next stage of influence is comprised of music-making peers.

Becoming a Songwriter, Part 2

Becoming a Songwriter, Part 2

Harvesting Air