If you're interested enough to have gotten to this page you must be interested in my opinions, heaven help you. But perhaps there will be something here that actually is entertaining or maybe even helpful in some way.
|Who (what) are your
I don't mean to be coy about this, but the truth is that a smaller list might comprise those who haven't influenced me. Frank Sinatra, for example, no matter how much respect I have for his voice and musicianship and his way with a song, has not had a big impact on what I do. I am not attracted to the songs he chose, nor am I especially taken with crooners in general. A personal matter, as I suggested above. Song stylists are not my focus. But who would deny the power of a Bessie Smith, say, as another example?
Jazz musicians in general are also beyond my domain, both technically, ethnically and probably philosophically. Jazz is simply not my heritage. I'm not joking when I say I see myself in the tradition of the New England Transcendentalists. I've had a special fondness for the work of some of the great blues artists - Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Big Bill Broonzy, Reverend Gary Davis, Howlin' Wolf, Pink Anderson, Robert Johnson, etc. - borrowed heavily from time to time from both the Piedmont and Delta Blues geniuses.
My earliest memory of being moved by a song on the radio was the Mills Brothers' "You, You, You," when I was about three and was absolutely in love with the song. And there was always something unstoppable in me about wanting to make music from early on, though the belief that I actually could so so was hard and long in coming.
In my teens I listened to a lot of "Classical" music, and probably as a direct result of my being installed in the Springfield Symphony Chorus by Robert Nye, my French teacher (bless his heart) at Wilbraham Academy, I came to love Leonard Bernstein's music. Though Bernstein has not always been the darling of "serious" music critics, I did and still do admire much of his compositions, especially the early work. You can hear his influence in Bard. At the same time I was listening to grocery store promotional LP's of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, I would be blown away by The Mamas and Papas' "Monday, Monday." It only confirmed my suspicions about John Phillips to learn that he went to the Eastman School of Music. So both these threads, Classical and Rock n Roll wove their way through my fledgling feeling for writing my own music. I have never been able to entirely divorce myself from either stream.
But my earliest influences as a songwriter are obviously the contemporary singer songwriters of my youth, from Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, The Beatles, Crosby Syills and Nash, Neil Young, Joni Mtchell and so on through the whole panoply. It took a while for me to get beyond this stage, but it was crucial in getting me to even consider the possibility that I might be able to do something along these lines.
And then, of course, there's Redhead Lefty....
songs have you written?
I've been telling people "seventy-five" for the past thirty years.That's a joke. But it is about the number of tunes I keep in my head at any one time for performance' sake. That's maybe six or seven hours worth.
|Which comes first, the melody or the
This is probably the most asked and obvious question, understandably, to any songwriter, especially from other songwriters and aspiring songwriters. There is no one answer. Maybe for Bob Dylan the "music always comes first," but not for Bernie Taupin and Elton John. Or Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Or Rogers and Hammerstein, either.
Much has been written about the right hemisphere of the brain being the locus of creative inspiration (for right-handed people). This is not so clear when it comes to musicians and some other artists. A fascinating discussion about this occurs in Julian Jaynes' relatively obscure work, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, and if you can get
|past the title
and are interested in such things, you may find this book fascinating, as I do. If I've
got it right, the essential thesis is that human consciousness as we know it is a
relatively recent culturally learned phenomenon, and that only a few thousand years ago
didn't exist - human beings hallucinated the voices of the "gods"
that directed behavior, particularly in stressful or novel situations. Within its
limitations, I think this book has it about right.
I can sit down and write a song anytime I feel like it, but the results could easily be pretty pedestrian. I know the terrain and have had a lot of practice. But as any proficient athlete knows, the more you have to consciously think about what you're doing, the more you are likely to stumble. There's no getting around the necessity of inspiration (the original Greek for "inspiration" is theopneustia, meaning "god-breathed"). Here's a story: I was falling asleep in a little loft bed at a friend's house when I heard a song-- hallucinated it, if you wish. I had been imagining writing something like this in a general sort of way, a slow finger-picked thing with intense lyrics. Now I was actually hearing a song, and had to stop and question in my semi-sleep consciousness if this was something I already knew. It wasn't. So I got up, grabbed a cardboard box and a pen, and went out into the front room- a workshop actually- and wrote down the words as I played guitar long enough to remember the melody in the morning. How effortless was that? The song is on Jeremiah- "Prophet in His Prime." You'll judge for yourself the relative merits of the song.
And this sort of thing is not uncommon. "Jimmy Jones" is a long half-spoken, half sung piece, unpublished yet, that describes a similar event. I have come up with quite a few songs, or pieces of songs in this way. There is always some labor involved in fleshing out the parts that dropped from my memory, the way dream events will do, and the work is not unlike filling in a crossword puzzle. But the sense that the song was simply given is undeniable. Barry Cowsill called it (yelled, actually) "Incoming!"
Some people believe that songs (or any creative ideas) are simply in the air, waiting to be retrieved. Listen to this: I dreamt once that I was in a house somewhere in the Islands where Sting was staying. I was writing a song and happily offered it to him. I read or heard some time later that he was in a house in the Islands somewhere when he awoke with a song in his head, went to the piano and wrote it in ten minutes and then went back to bed. "Every Breath You Take." I don't know how many of my friends called me to ask if that was my song when they first heard it. This sort of thing goes on all the time.
So.... the short answer is that songs come in anyway you can imagine, but for me, I almost always have to hear both the words and the music at the same time.
The offer for free MP3 downloads expired in September, 2010. We're happy that so many of you took the opportunity and downloaded thousands of songs. You can still preview clips from any published work at the store and there are 35 free MP3's still available there.
There's a passage in Luke from the Bible where a great feast has been prepared but everybody is too rich or too busy to come by, so the commandment is given to go out and compel them to come. I'm laying out the table. We'll see.
photo: April Ford
|Where are you playing?
Where can I see you perform?
Please visit the performance page.
Laid back? You betcha. "It's a physical." -- Jimi Hendrix
photo: Paul Silver
|"You're really good, (or,
"I hear you're really good") -- why aren't you famous?"
My reply to this sort of question is coy, automatic, and a nearly verbatim quote from Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart): "Why I am famous! - for not being more famous."
And I get this question, with its not-so-subtle implications, more than you might think. The dirty rotten plain truth is that while you're caught up in the desperate quality that is behind this question, asking it of yourself, there are only a couple of possibilities - either there's something lacking in yourself- talent, drive, luck or whatever- or the world simply couldn't care less about the worth of your life's work. At this point I'm comfortable with either and both explanations.
For whatever reasons, I simply do not care about fame and fortune, about "success" as the "world" sees it. Maybe it's my age. So what? What I do care about is my immediate environment, about the people I love, about my community. What I do care about where my work is concerned is simply
photo: Thom McCarthy
|that it is made available to
anyone who might find value in it, in whatever way is meaningful to them. I don't
believe that the world necessarily rewards people commensurate with the value of their
work, that "the cream rises to the top." Sometimes it does. And I cannot
be objective about my own work-- or about anyone else's either in the ultimate sense. And
I do love to write and perform and suspect that I always will. More about fame. Something about critics.
|What's your biggest
ambition in all this?
...[S]peaking with the authority of the private psyche alone. --Jane Roberts
Well, now, there's no talking about this sort of thing without getting personal. I actually have a belief system, hard won, that simply put says that consciousness creates the real world and not the other way around. It remains a challenge to live by, and is something that presumes an opened-ended acceptance of things as they are as well as things as they could be.
I should have mentioned above that any number of writers/poets have had a profound influence on me both personally and artistically. Dante Alligheri's Comedy was one of the first to hit me hard where I live. There are many others, but the most important influence on me personally by a writer is
|Jane Roberts (Seth
Speaks, etc.). Her work, despite what anyone may believe about its source, is the
most seamless philosophy I am aware of in contemporary times. I have little patience
for existentialism as I have come to understand it-- but here is not the place to go any
further with my own arguments... except... to say that her principle idea was that we
create our experience out of the beliefs that we hold, whether or not we're aware of them.
As far as I know, she originated, or at least popularized, the phrase, "You
create your own reality." It makes for a fascinating comparison to read her alongside
the Julian Jaynes book mentioned above. If you can read between these lines a little, you
will get an inkling of what my personal ambition is like.
With songwriting my ambition is to work with any feeling, any subject, particularly when it feels that I am breaking new ground for myself. For me there is nothing too sacred or too mundane to rule out. Bitterness, tenderness, silliness, anger, fear, joy, ideas-- any and all of the human palette is available. I don't like it when it feels like I am writing a song I have already come up with. Other songwriters may well have covered the territory before, but I am speaking of my own psychic terrain and how far I can push those boundaries. There's little that excites me more (yeah, sex, sometimes, but be cool).
And recording, when it's going well, is just about the best way you can have fun standing up (sitting, occasionally). Other times, it's just the work one has to do. My ambition is to keep it up.
In performing my ambition is to get the song across, to entertain, to get a laugh, to move folks, and most of all to inspire. And you thought I was modest....
is the best/your favorite of your songs" Your CDs?
Whatever I'm working on at the moment. A lot of people respond to Salvation Street. I'd be putting myself in a pretty uncomfortable position to choose one of my children above the others.
|Can I have your autograph?
Try cutting and pasting in your favorite legal document. Let me know how it goes!
photo: Kerstin Zettmar
|I've written a
song. Could you listen to it for me?
Yeah, but you'll have to sing it a whole lot louder for me to hear it from here.
|What Advice do you have
for aspiring songwriters?
Generally my advice is the same advice that anyone would give or should give whatever the vocation, whatever the calling, whatever the degree of relative success. The work has to be it's own reward. If there is love in your work, if there is heart, if there is dedication, it will only help fulfill your own humanity and ripple out to affect the humanity of others. Where there is fear, where there is greed, where there is desperation, there will be suffering and wounding beyond your recognizing.
video still: Donn Lincoln
speaking, and I think this applies to any creative pursuit, start with a form. This
is the advice I received once when whining to a buddy at college that I couldn't
write. It has stood me in good stead over the years.
It could be simply two lines that rhyme, forming a stanza. It could be a favorite guitar lick that organizes and self-generates the structure of the piece. It could be a fundamental song form of intro, verse, chorus, bridge, and whatever of these parts you choose to end the piece. Fortunately the pendulum has swung back to where we recognize the value of form. Formlessness is next to laziness, sloppiness, and a lack of discipline, all of which are anathema to the creation of work with integrity. We are creatures born to love form. Isaac Bashevis Singer once told me that one James Joyce was enough..."we don't need a whole army of them." (I'm sure he wasn't putting down Joyce, only some of his less talented imitators.)
But don't forget the value of imitating. As we all know by now, "stealing" another's work can lead to something original, get us unstuck from our dearth of ideas. Apparently Bob Dylan borrowed from many a soul including Redhead Lefty.
Curiously enough, my attempts to imitate other songs led to the writing of several original songs that don't directly have anything to do with any previous model, including one in which I wrote from a woman's point of view (something I was right proud of at the time) -- "Bold Troubadour."
And Dylan has certainly endured his share of plagiarism lawsuits, about which I am on his side-- it's all part of the folk tradition, as Woody Guthrie knew well. Acknowledging the source material doesn't do any harm, however, unless you're determined to take all the credit-- and the cash. Remember Lennon's "And So this Is Christmas?" Who complained that the melody was virtually identical to "Stewball," a song about a horse and a horse race?
Music and performances © 2011 JP Jones. Publishing © 2011 Vision Company Records. All Rights reserved.