The Kings of Songwriting

The Songwriters Summit is a series of workshops during Canadian Music Week (March 10 – 14) designed specifically for songwriters with participation from industry professionals. This year, The Kings of Songwriting workshop featured a panel of legendary songwriters, each speaking about his/her personal writing techniques.

Songs are spawned from many different places and every songwriter has his/her personal way of approaching the music and lyrics. Paul Williams, who has written many classics including “We’ve Only Just Begun,” starts with “an empty page” and is inspired by what comes from the heart. He shared a story about a trip he took in 1987 to Jamaica – at the time, he had been drug/alcohol free for seven months. Staring at a blank page for seven long days and nights, he tried to write. Finally, someone put him out of his misery by offering him a rum and coke. “Twelve hours later I found myself standing by Bob Marley’s grave explaining Reggae to a lot of black people!” Songwriter tip; seclude yourself on a tropical island with the local rum – that should inspire the artistic imagination.

Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, on the other hand, has a more “unorthodox approach” to writing a song, “I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t stare at an empty paper. I write about situations … like a situation that is awkward or funny.” He spoke about collaborating with Annie Lennox. “We lived together for four or five years and only wrote one instrumental during that time.” When they broke up the two went on to write over 250 songs together. His suggests that if you want to write a lot of hits break up with your significant other and then square off daily in a hotel room; that should get the creative juices flowing. He picked up the guitar and, with Cindy Gomez on vocals, performed a new song they wrote together in London while driving around Piccadilly Circus … She ain’t Lennox but she does have the pipes.

Torontonian Dan Hill, who had the blockbuster hit “Sometimes When We Touch,” reminisced about his father’s disapproval of him being a musician. Just before his father’s death in 2003, he wrote a song, “I am my Father’s Son.” He candidly reflected, “For the first, I sang the song to my father and, for the first time, I saw a tear go down his face … After my father died, I couldn’t write and I realized that I had been writing all these years to try to impress him.” (Hill went on to write the book I am my Father’s Son: A Memoir of Love and Forgiveness.) Later in the workshop, he performed “Sometimes When We Touch” on piano – it was definitely the high spot of the hour long workshop.

Don Schlitz believes that the songwriter should “let words find the music and music find the words.” Back in the 70’s Schlitz was a starving artist living in Nashville. One day while walking down the street, a song came to life in his head. He rushed home to put it down on paper. “The Gambler” became one of Kenny Roger’s biggest hits. Songwriter tip; document your work – if you don’t, a number one song could be tossed out the window. Schlitz then performed the song on guitar – it was amazing to hear the songwriter sing the song after hearing it on the radio for so many years.

The Kings of Songwriting workshop was a highlight of Canadian Music Week. It was an honour to witness such great songwriters, all in one room, speaking so openly about such a personal and creative art form. Looking forward to next year’s Summit at Canadian Music Week 2011.