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Songwriters on Songcraft: PJ Harvey, Frank Ocean, Tom Waits, Björk and Bowie

Posted by on October 18, 2013

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PJ Harvey: “If you want to be good at anything, you have to work hard at it. It doesn’t just fall from the sky. I work every day at trying to improve my writing, and I really enjoy it. Nothing fascinates me more than putting words together, and seeing how a collection of words can produce quite a profound effect.”

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John Lennon: “Songwriting is about getting the demon out of me. It’s like being possessed. You try to go to sleep, but the song won’t let you. So you have to get up and make it into something, and then you’re allowed sleep.”

Björk: “What comes first? The melody, always. It’s all about singing the melodies live in my head. They go in circles. I guess I’m quite conservative and romantic about the power of melodies. I try not to record them on my Dictaphone when I first hear them. If I forget all about it and it pops up later on, then I know it’s good enough. I let my subconscious do the editing for me.”

Stevie Wonder: “I can see everything that I’m writing, I can visualize all those things happening. … Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes doesn’t mean he lacks vision.”

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Tom Waits: “For a songwriter, you don’t really go to songwriting school; you learn by listening to tunes. And you try to understand them and take them apart and see what they’re made of, and wonder if you can make one too.”

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Paul Simon: “It’s very helpful to start with something that’s true. If you start with something that’s false, you’re always covering your tracks. Something simple and true, that has a lot of possibilities, is a nice way to begin.

Lou Reed: “You can’t ask me to explain the lyrics because I won’t do it…I always believed that I have something important to say and I said it. That’s why I survived because I still believe I’ve got something to say.”

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Morrissey: “The title is often more important than the song because more people will read the title than hear the song, and the title will draw them in or repel them. It’s very important to me that the words have very soft edges and are easy to say.”

Lady Gaga: “Some artists take years. I don’t. I write music every day. When I’m writing music, I’m thinking about the clothes I want to wear on stage. It’s all about everything altogether–performance art, pop performance art, fashion. For me, it’s everything coming together and being a real story that will bring back the super-fan. I want to bring that back. I want the imagery to be so strong that fans will want to eat and taste and lick every part of us.”

Freddie Mercury: “People are always asking me what my lyrics mean. Does it mean this, does it mean that, that’s all anybody wants to know. F**k them, darling. I say what any decent poet would say if you dared ask him to analyze his work: If you see it, dear, then it’s there.”

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Bob Dylan: “If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to. Anyone who wants to be a songwriter should listen to as much folk music as they can, study the form and structure of stuff that has been around for 100 years.”

Nick Cave: “Inspiration is a word used by people who aren’t really doing anything. I go into my office every day that I’m in Brighton and work. Whether I feel like it or not is irrelevant.’”

Thom Yorke: “What happens a lot with songwriting is that a melody or rhythm or something stays with you like catching a cold. And during that time what happens is that I can then fit things on to it, it all fits and glues together. Sometimes it’s crazy ‘cos it can almost be anything. But if you catch the cold then the nonsense makes sense. It’s like you’re getting beamed it, like with a ouija board and something’s pushing your hand. It’s not a pleasant experience necessarily.” 

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David Bowie: “You write down a paragraph or two describing several different subjects creating a kind of story ingredients-list, I suppose, and then cut the sentences into four or five-word sections; mix ‘em up and reconnect them. You can get some pretty interesting idea combinations like this. You can use them as is or, if you have a craven need to not lose control, bounce off these ideas and write whole new sections.”

Frank Ocean: “In art, at a certain level, there is no ‘better than.’ It’s just about trying to operate for yourself on the most supreme level, artistically, that you can and hoping that people get it. Trusting that just because of the way people are built and how interconnected we are, greatness will translate and symmetry will be recognized.”

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Tune in to DJ Michele Myers Friday nights at 9pm on KEXP 90.3FM Seattle, kexp.org. Music historian & producer, Michele’s made over 200 radio stories for KEXP Documentaries. She’s written scripts, lesson plans & features for the SmithsonianExperience Music Projectthe University of Washington & NPR.

One Response to Songwriters on Songcraft: PJ Harvey, Frank Ocean, Tom Waits, Björk and Bowie

  1. Jeremy Shatan

    And then of course there’s Irving Berlin, who famously didn’t believe in inspiration. “I do most of my work under pressure,” he said, “When I have a song to write I go home at night, and after dinner about 8 I begin to work. Sometimes I keep at it till 4 or 5 in the morning. I do most of my writing at night,..”

    Very nice round up of quotes.

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