Thursday, 19 January 2012

On setting traps for songs and getting inside the jukebox

I've been thinking a lot about songwriting and recording lately. Thinking a lot about both and not doing much about either. I've been working on two or three songs for about a year and I'm almost happy with one of them. When I was in my early twenties, I would write two or three songs a month. For over a year now, I've been recording some songs and instrumentals on my home computer with the plan of putting together a little album. Hopefully, it won't take me another year to complete it.

I was going to write something here about the beginnings of the art of songwriting -- something about Elizabethan sonnets, would you believe -- but I'll save that for another time because I've just read an interview with Tom Waits in the December 2011 issue of Uncut magazine. Tom Waits knows a thing or two about songwriting and recording. Last year he released his twenty-second album Bad As Me. Some of these new songs are as good as anything on Swordfishtrombones or Rain Dogs (two outstanding albums of his from the 1980s.)

In the Uncut interview, Waits says some remarkable things about the process of songwriting and recording. On recording, he says ‘... basically it is a very mechanical process, putting a record together. You could say it starts with, like, music lessons, learning to play an instrument, and working your ass off till you can get a sound out of it, then taking your chances and trying to create just the whole act of recording, hoping you're going to catch a bird in there, y’know?' He talks about 'setting a trap' for a song: ' ... my theory is that songs don't really enjoy being recorded. If you're not careful, you can mangle the whole thing in the recording process. I always thought songs lived in the air. Figure if you open up a window, they might float in, go up in your ear, come out the other ear, and wind up on the radio. I remember when I worked in a restaurant, sweeping up by a jukebox, and thinking, OK, how do you get in the jukebox and come out of it? That's the real trick.’ Waits goes on to consider the risks in combining too many different musical influences: '... when you're making a song, you ... have to decide what belongs, and how far you can stretch it ... ' Comparing the process with cookery, he observes '... sometimes you have to throw a whole batch out, and that really hurts ... You can make something for three days until it's just mush.'

I'm going to try and bear all this in mind as I work on my songs and recordings over the coming weeks and months. And remind me, next time, to tell you about Elizabethan sonnets.


  1. TW's songs and AG's fictional characters - minds of their own!

  2. Mighty interesting. Mighty interesting. Although I know nothing about the art of songwriting and pretty much nothing about cooking either, I do like the comparison between the two. That seems to make a lot of sense.


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Tony Gillam is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at the University of Wolverhampton, a freelance writer, trainer and musician. He is the author of 'Reflections on Community Psychiatric Nursing' (2002) and 'Creativity, Wellbeing and Mental Health Practice' (2018).