Songwriting Tip: Walking that Line
by Harriet Schock
There’s a line between art and commerce and for some people, it’s wide enough to walk. Finding a way to do it is an art in itself.
I know some of the best songwriters walking the earth but you might not know their names. That doesn’t mean they’re not great. And I know some really successful ones who are also exceptionally good. Today, even in a city as known for songs as Nashville, there’s a feeling that “formula” is taking over. And the pervading attitude is that merit doesn’t necessarily accompany success, and certainly vice versa.
When I was in Nashville one of my meetings was with a former promoter from the record label I recorded three albums for in the seventies, in L.A. He’s been very successful in Music City since then and when I recorded my last two CDs, I sent them to him. When he heard the newer songs, he announced that he was still a fan. This was my opening to ask him a question I didn’t dare ask the strangers I’d been meeting with all week. “Could co-writing here actually hurt my writing?” He gave me a candid “yes.” I thought about it long and hard. I took “could” to mean if I wrote with the wrong attitude, it “could” harm me but I would make sure that didn’t happen. Some of the greatest songwriting I’ve ever heard is coming out of Nashville, in my opinion. So I decided to adopt the attitude that I could learn from anyone or anything I admire. But I wouldn’t let it dilute the style I’d become known for in my own writing. I had found another thin line to walk.
My first writing session was with someone who also teaches songwriting and that was really fascinating. It was like speaking “shorthand.” I just sat in the library where we’d found an available grand piano and played endlessly to a drum track until we found a melody for the chorus. We discussed the lyric direction and he wrote the lyric to the verse with my minimal participation. I took the tape home and wrote the verse melody which I sent him.
This particular collaborator also helped me learn some of the unwritten rules of Nashville collaboration: The B writer (the one with fewer hits) brings the concept to the A writer (the one with more hits).
Therefore, in my next songwriting session, I brought the concept. I had no sooner said the last syllable of the title than my new co-writer had the guitar up, playing and singing a melody that made me feel totally at home and enraptured. I began to realize the reason this multi-hit-writer was so successful was that he’s really good. Melody and harmony fell out of this playful creature like a fountain overflowing.
This brings to mind another kind of thin line, one mentioned by Irving Berlin, who spoke of the thin line between familiarity and plagiarism. Berlin walked this line deftly and attributed his success to it, and my collaborator was walking it like a trained gymnast. When I heard the melody and chord changes, it was nothing I’d heard before and yet it felt completely familiar. Every note went where I wanted it to, like when someone finds that place on your back that itches.
Another interesting line I encountered that trip was between hanging out and becoming a drinker. I noticed a lot of networking going on at songwriters’ hangouts, which happen to be bars in many cases. I don’t know how they spend day after day there without liver damage, but the “whiskey flows and the beer chases their blues away.” And since I was drinking water and trying to say in “The Zone,” it didn’t have much effect on me except as an observer. I understand legal sobriety is now determined by Breathalyzer tests, for which I understand Listerine can cause a false positive. So it’s not easy to find where demarcation is sometimes. But I still try to walk the line. All of them.
Harriet Schock wrote the words and music to the Grammy-nominated #1 hit, "Ain't No Way To Treat A Lady" plus many songs for other artists, TV shows and films. She co-wrote the theme for “Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks,” currently showing in 30 countries. She and her band were featured in Henry Jaglom’s film “Irene In Time” performing 4 of Harriet’s songs. She also scored three other Jaglom films and starred in “Just 45 Minutes from Broadway.“ Jaglom’s most recent film, “The M Word,” features Harriet’s song “Bein’ a Girl,” performed on camera at the end of the film. Karen Black wrote the play, “Missouri Waltz,” around five of Harriet’s songs, which ran for 6 weeks at the Blank Theatre in Hollywood as well as in Macon, Georgia. In 2007, Los Angeles Women In Music honored Harriet with their Career Achievement and Industry Contribution award. Harriet teaches songwriting privately, in classes and a popular online course by private email. For her performance schedule, list of credits and samples of her work or information on her book (Becoming Remarkable, for Songwriters and Those Who Love Songs), and her new up coming book, her songwriting classes, online courses and consultation, go to: www.harrietschock.com
To enter the 21st Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net