TR: I read somewhere that you maintain that if you become a better writer, you become a better person. This is more than just a writing class then?
PP: Oh absolutely. To become a better writer, what you need to do, of course, is open your writer’s eyes. You can do that with a series of exercises, morning writing for ten minutes. It’s called Object Writing, which stimulates your writer – your writer who, by the way, is the laziest person on the planet. You give your writer a sharp elbow in the ribs the morning, open your writer’s eyes and then your writer stays with you all day long. So your writer is looking at the world with you and you’re seeing the world. You look out and you see a row of windows and you may think of each of the windows as an entry into a different universe or you may think of the windows as observers, as eyes. You know, you’ll see them in ways that you, as a normal person would not see them, but the writer in you is looking for not only what they are but for what else they are and in doing that, it deepens your understanding and creates a much more interactive between you and the world. You see everything for not only what it is but for what else it could become and that, in my opinion, deepens your life.
TR: Personally I believe that most creativity is a process, would you endorse that as well?
PP: Not only would I endorse that creativity is a process, but that’s the only thing that’s even remotely interesting about creativity. It’s almost never about where you end up -- and we’re back to a philosophy of life. It’s never about the destination, it’s always about how you get there, and so, if you’re in song writing to become a hit songwriter, if you don’t get hits, then you’ve been a failure, haven’t you? But if the reason that you’re in song writing is because you adore the process and extract joy from every second that you write and you don’t get hits, then you’re a success.
TR: You say that students bring their own talent to the table and then you show them how to use that talent more efficiently. Is this an exercise in motivation and being in the belief?
PP: Oh, heavens, no. This is where the rubber meets the road; this is very practical. I certainly have no responsibility for the level of talent that anybody has, but if you come to me and want to harness that talent, I will unroll a long leather pouch full of tools for you to try. It’s the tools, the very practical tools, which are very specific, that, you know, take the so-called magic out of it. Some people want to believe that it all just comes sort of out of the ether and have no control over it and who are just sort of channelling. But there are very practical tools, with songwriting, with lyric writing, with melody writing: you just try things. Here try this hammer, try this chisel, try this awl. You know, they try and it and say “Oh my god, this makes what I feel and what I perceive able to be delivered in a much more effective way.”
TR: I read somewhere, that you actually believe we have seven senses to deal with, I thought there was only five – what are those seven senses?
PP: Oh, I’m sure there are even more than seven, but there’s the normal ones of course. The reason the senses are important is because the most powerful writing, the stuff that really engages your listener is when you are engaging their senses. So if I talk about running down the beach, my bare feet slapping the wet sand, or the smell of fresh cut grass, your sense memories are immediately engaged and you put your stuff into my words and so my song becomes yours. Every song that you have ever loved in your life is one where you say, “Oh my god, you’ve been reading my diary.”
TR: Is that universality?
PP: I sincerely believe that the synonym for universality is “specific and sense bound.” It is not and it never will be a synonym for “generic and abstract.” You know, so many people say, “ Well I wanted everybody to be able to relate to this” and they say something very generic, and the fact is that nobody relates to it. But when you stimulate your listeners’ senses, everything works. So there are the normal five senses that you deal with of course and then there’s the two other senses that I indicate in Writing Better Lyrics, one of which I call the organic sense: basically your sense of what’s going on internally, muscle pains, your heart rate, your lungs expanding and contracting, your pulse. Tom Waits writes, “Hell Marysville ain’t nothing but a wide spot in the road/Some nights my heart pounds like thunder/Don’t know why it don’t explode”
PP: And then there’s what I call the kinesthetic sense, which is your sense of motion, your sense of everything going on around you, getting dizzy, tumbling, all of that stuff. That is your best resource as a writer, you just have to learn how to access that stuff.
TR: I notice that you encourage your students to find a title as quickly as they can in the writing process. That’s something I never actually knew before, and it’s so obvious.
PP: Yeah, well I never knew that before either. There I was on the road with my band and I was a line writer. I would start with a line and just sort of keep on going and somewhere along in the process, I’d wonder what I was writing about. And then I’d say, “Well it doesn’t really matter, because everybody has their own interpretation anyway and besides which, if it’s obscure, maybe people will think it’s profound” and so on. But when I started writing in Nashville, which I think, is the Brill building now on the planet. There are more songwriters per square foot in Nashville than any place else and they are fabulous writers. When I got to Nashville, people would say, “Hey, you got any ideas?” and they’d pull out a little book full of titles.
TR: Just one liners?
PP: Yeah and they’d use those to centre the song. I actually do a whole workshop on Writing from a Title, you start with a Title and you’ve already got the DNA of the song right there. So the ideas are already implicit and it becomes an acorn and the song grows from that. Not only do you have the concept that’s implicit from the title, but you also have two other things. You have rhythm, and you can use that rhythm as a little motive to develop other rhythms that are integrated with it and therefore form a unity. This is back to Aristotle, you know Aristotle said 2500 years ago that every work of art should exhibit a sense of unity.
TR: Did he sell records?
PP: He sold a lot of stuff and you know, a lot of it is still with us, including his “Categories of Being” – the foundation for Roget’s International Style Thesaurus. Back to unity: you can get a sense of rhythmic unity from the rhythm of the title and therefore, you get a sense of contrast when you go to another section. You also have the sounds of the title and I encourage people to find the stressed syllables of their title and take those sounds to your rhyming dictionary, and do some brainstorming before you start writing. And you know, I’m not alone in recommending that. Stephen Sondheim does that, Eminem does that, Cole Porter did that. McCartney…
TR: One of the biggest problems we have in the New Zealand scene, is that we don’t have really, a publishing industry. What there is, is pretty much just administrators really. What advice do you have for our local writers?
PP: Part of that is going to depend on what it is that you’re after. If you are a songwriter period and you have no intent, or capability of performing your own music, but you do want to continue to write songs, it becomes a very difficult thing to do, to keep yourself motivated to write songs when they don’t have a place to go. One of the things I recommend for that writer is to take advantage of some of the better song competitions around. Take advantage of the USA Song Contest, take advantage of the Billboard Song Contest, take advantage of the John Lennon Song Contest and certainly there’s a website called themusesmuse.com which I think is run out of Toronto, which is a very nice resource in terms of where the competitions are. I know that when I was isolated and writing songs, it gave me an incredible boost to have the American Song festival and I would write songs knowing that there was at least one place that the songs could go that was kind of like buying a lottery ticket – that’s a thing to do.
Certainly if you are just a pure writer, you need to hook up with somebody who can record those. You have to get your butt out the door, you have to go listen to people out in clubs and when you find somebody that you resonate with, try to get next to them and find people to perform your music. For singer-songwriters, it’s a different thing. Singer-songwriters, you’ve got to get your face out in front of as many people as often as you can for whatever money or lack of money there is. And expose yourself because sooner or later, if you have the goods, the word’s gonna get around. So you just have to get out there and you have to do it religiously, do it doggedly. And if you can, take a little journey to Los Angeles or to Nashville or some place like that for a week or two. I recommend highly that you do that and that the first time that you go there, you remember that God gave you two ears and one mouth and that ratio needs to tell you something, that you listen before you speak. Nobody rang you up and said, “Hey, come on over” and so you go over there and you see what’s there. For my students, I have them going to Nashville, because, whether or not you want to be a country writer, it’s still a fact that there are more great writers per square foot there than any place else on the planet and so you just go there and you just treat it like grad school. I live in North Hampton, New Hampshire and when I walk into any restaurant in North Hampton, New Hampshire, I know without looking, that I am the best songwriter in that restaurant. When I walk into Nashville, into a restaurant, I know without looking that I am absolutely not the best songwriter in that restaurant and I love that. I love the level being higher – you know, if I’m the best songwriter in any particular place, I’m not going to learn anything. I’ve always found that the best writers are the best students. They’re always looking for something more, they’re always looking for new information.
TR: I read somewhere that you maintain that if you become a better writer, you become a better person. This is more than just a writing class then?
Pat Pattison has written what some people call the aspiring songwriters bible, and it’s called “Writing Better Lyrics” and has written others on a similar theme. Professor Pattison teaches lyric writing and poetry at Berklee College of Music in Boston, which is the only place you can get a degree in music with a major in song writing. He is in New Zealand to present song writing clinics as he does elsewhere around the world. I asked him who does his courses.
KH - Aspiring Songwriters or established songwriters?
PP - Both. I’m delighted to say the information seems to be of use to people who are just starting and also to people who have been doing it for quite sometime.
KH - I understand that Berklee College of Music in Boston is the only place where you can get a degree in music with a major in song writing. Is that still the case?
PP – That is still the case as far as I know.
KH – Why is it so rare? You’d think that it would be quite a common thing especially in this day and age when Song writing is the thing.
PP – Well, many schools have some nod at song writing with a course or two. Generally, those courses try to cover everything from writing music, to writing lyrics, to demoing, to getting your songs out there and it’s a nice overview, but not really a way to get really specific and give the songwriter a lot of help. We’ve got a fifteen course major at Berklee that seems to be working. We’ve got a lot of pretty good folks coming out of there.
KH – Coming out of there are a couple of people we’re going to be hearing from, Gillian Welch and John Mayer. Did they go through it and then become huge or were they fairly successful and then did it to polish up? What stage in their career did they do the course?
PP – They did the course when they were just fledglings. John, when he did it, had not yet recorded his first album. He left Berklee and went down to Atlanta and recorded his first album down there. He came to study guitar playing and realised that he could write songs and apparently paid good attention.
KH – It’s a funny thing to teach, if you’ll excuse me for saying so.
PP – LAUGHS
KH – Do you think? How did you start teaching it? What’s your background in song writing?
PP – My background is actually in philosophy and literary criticism. I did a degree in philosophy from Indiana University and a degree in literary criticism from the Kenyon School of Letters and that was what I was teaching at Indiana and at Notre Dame. When I started teaching at Berklee, I came on as an English teacher and decided I would teach a course in literary criticism. Of course, I knew nobody would take the course, so I called it “Analysis of Song Lyrics”.
KH – To sex it up a bit, as it were.
PP – That’s right. We used Paul Simon, Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell and so on as fodder for literary criticism. I, of course, never told anyone that it was a course in literary criticism. So, it seemed to help. Who knew that the tools of literary criticism would actually reveal something about how songs worked? But it did.
KH – Are you saying that song lyrics are literature?
PP – I don’t think so. Certainly some of them rise to that level and there’s a literature of lyrics, I suppose. But lyrics are just half of a union. They’re not made to stand on their own; they are made to be married and there are a lot of consequences to that. But certainly choice of tone, choice of language, diction, all of that stuff; things which apply to the composition of literature apply to the composition of lyrics.
KH – So you were teaching criticism, and people learnt how to criticise through the albeit temporary medium of song lyrics. Is that how it works?
PP –Basically, but more than that what actually happened was that there were a lot of people there who were songwriters and they testified that the course was really helping them write songs. I thought, well that’s really nice and so I put together a second course called Writing Song Lyrics. I’m still really grateful to the students who took that class, but did not lynch me for my ineptitude. But I learned as I went and in the meantime, I had a band and I was writing songs so I had some practical training going on.
KH – You had a band?
PP – Oh yes. Just a small little folk band.
KH – For which you used to write songs?
PP – Yes. I wrote a lot of songs for us.
KH – Let’s have a listen to the song you’ve chosen by John Mayer called “Belief”. Were you in on the creation of that?
PP – I certainly was not.
KH – When John Mayer was doing your course, did you know he was going to be a star?
PP – No I did not. I didn’t know Gillian was either. He certainly was an attentive student and I knew that there was something going on with him that was going to come out some way. He certainly is a good player too and I’m really impressed to see him step out more and more as a player.
KH – Do people have to qualify to do your course?
PP – No, anybody can take it and I hope that anybody who takes it will come out of there with something positive. Some people will take it and actually use the tools to create a career. Other people will have some other career but still dabble in it and it will always improve your listening skills and therefore your enjoyment skills.
KH – And given that as you say lyrics are a half of a union; made to be married to the music, everybody would also be a musician?
PP – Yes – at Berklee that’s a requirement, that everybody there is a musician and everybody goes through the same core musical program.
KH – Apart from lyrics only being half of the union, they could conceivably be poetry under some circumstances, but aren’t usually? Would you say that?
PP – Not usually. For example, in this song, there’s a great deal to be made out of the phrasing that he uses. When he comes into his first little chorus, he could have set the lyric in such a way that it was much more aggressive, that the phrases came right on the downbeat of the bars. But instead, he’s setting the phrases behind the downbeats of the bars which makes everything sort of float and takes a little bit away from it. That’s something you can do musically that you really can’t do visually with a poem. That you actually reduce the impact of it by where you place it in the bar and that’s we talk about that sort of stuff a lot.
KH – That verse “Belief is a beautiful armour/ but makes for the heaviest sword/Like punching under water/You never can hit what you’re trying for.”
PP – Isn’t that wonderful?
KH – It’s great. Why isn’t it poetry though?
PP – Poetry contains its own rhythms and this verse is a fairly regular rhythm, all equal length lines, all equal rhythm lines; and it is the re-rhythmicising of it musically that gives it some of its power. Although the language itself, if you want to talk about poetry in terms of metaphor and simile, there’s some brilliant, I think, use of metaphor.
KH – But poetry has its own inner spring, whereas lyrics rely on the music.
PP – Sure. When Keats says, “Thou foster child of silence and slow time” you can hear time slowing down there with the two stressed syllables in a row, “slow time.” And so it contains it’s own groove: da DAH da DAH da DAH da da DAH DAH. If you were going to put that to music, the only thing the music would be capable of doing would be orchestrating that rhythm.
KH – Have you got a greatest songwriter of all time in your head?
PP – No, although, there are some pretty decent songwriters out there. I think Sondheim is pretty wonderful. I think Irving Berlin is pretty special. I really like Eminem. I like Sting. Certainly Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and so on
KH – Gosh I thought Bacharach/David would be up there.
PP – Ah, yes of course but you said songwriter not songwriters.
KH – That’s true – they were a fairly extraordinary partnership and they kept churning out these hits and did seem to be quite different from what had gone before. I wonder where they got their internal rhythms from?
PP – I’m not really clear – I think sometimes they worked music first and sometimes they worked lyric first. The rhythm typically, in partnerships, comes from the music side of it.
KH – Is there a type of person that you groan at when you see them signing up? Someone that wants to make a lot of money making advertising jingles, for example, do you spurn them at all?
PP – No, of course not. Everyone has their own particular dream. The only people that are somewhat of a bother - Berklee has a motto, “Esse Quam Videre,” which means “To be, rather than to appear to be,” and people who come hoping to become famous, who want to be seen as musicians rather than to be musicians typically aren’t going to last at Berklee, because it’s too hard, there’s too much work involved. The posers who really don’t want to work are a problem in every field, but certainly in one of the spotlight fields like performing and writing, the glamour professions, there are a lot more posers there than probably in insurance.
KH – And has your poser content increased as the glamour of instant fame has become it seems more achievable these days?
PP – I don’t think so, not at Berklee at any rate. We have an audition process now. Only three out of ten get in now and they have to audition and they have to interview.
KH – So you can weed out the posers?
PP – Yes.
KH – Your next track is Gillian Welch’s “One Little Song”. You said you didn’t know that she was going to be a star and that kind of figures, cause she’s pretty unusual, isn’t she?
PP – She certainly is. She was an obsessive student and spent a lot of time in my office bringing in songs. Then she went to Nashville and while she was in Nashville we remained in pretty close contact and I had actually something to do with her getting her publishing deal, therefore her record deal. She has, since then, really come into her own. She was in Nashville for a couple of years before she wrote what I think was her turn-key song “Tear my Stillhouse Down” which became bluegrass song of the year for the Nashville Bluegrass Band the next year. When she wrote that, I knew that it was time for her. Now she has gone on to record I think four albums at this point and has seven Grammy nominations and three Grammys to her credit,
KH - This song that you want to play for us could by the anthem or a prayer for a songwriter couldn’t it?
PP – It certainly is.
ONE LITTLE SONG
KH – Gillian Welch was in New Zealand recently and had a huge turn out. People seemed to regard her as the voice of authenticity.
PP – She certainly is that. When she came out with her first album, there was some reviewer, in Spin magazaine, I think, who took her to task for being inauthentic, that is to say the music sounds really authentic, but actually she’s the daughter of two hollywood musicos who actually did music for the Carol Burnett show.
KH – She can hardly be blamed for that, besides she’s adopted, does that not count?
PP – Yeah, she is adopted and the funny thing is she found out just a few years ago -- she found out that her natural mother was in New York were she became pregnant, but her mother was actually from the hills of West Virginia, so that was pretty interesting to find out.
KH – Yeah, I spoke to her about that actually and she said Revelator sounded like she discovered where she came from over a period of time through her music. She sings “one little rag that ain’t been wrung out completely yet”. Do you ever think that in an age or remixes and references and retro remakes, if you’ll excuse the alliteration, that we do run out of songs that sound new? I expect you to say no, because you’re not going to get anybody to sign up if there aren’t any songs to write.
PP – Well, you know, even if every song has been written, every song hasn’t been written by me and in the journey of writing a song, one discovers things on a deeper level no matter whether that idea has been written a thousand times before, and so songwriting is certainly a process of self discovery. In terms of it being something that’s never been done before, I really loved Bob Dylan in his No Direction Home Scorcese DVD saying that “yes there I was in the sixties doing something that nobody had ever done before” and then he pauses and says “I think I was wrong about that.”
KH – He has been performing and will be performing again in New Zealand quite soon. He did a great show in Wellington and he did Blowing in the Wind, but not the Blowing in the Wind that everybody recalls, from the old acoustic guitar protest song, but a kind of a swept up quite slick Blowing in the Wind that detached itself from its folk roots and I’m wondering whether, I suppose that’s what you can do when you are Bob Dylan. You can remake songs and make them sound new, relying on people’s knowledge of the old one at the same time.
PP – Right. Anything that gets Bob Dylan out on the road is fine with me.
KH – He doesn’t seem to have any trouble getting out on the road.
PP – Well I appreciate that he’s still out there.
KH – He’s extraordinary. If he did your course, would you say, gosh this is an idiosyncratic eye, I’m going to have to leave him to his own devices?
PP – Certainly it would be really challenging because after all, Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan.
KH – What if he wasn’t Bob Dylan, what if he was Robert Zimmerman and had signed up?
PP – And was still writing these songs?
KH – Yeah
PP - I would do what I do with all of the students. He would be there of course for a reason, because he wanted to get better and it would be my job to find ways to direct him, to make him better. I hand out tools and the tools that are applicable for someone who is just starting to write songs are still the same tools that someone whose been writing songs for years uses, and if I can show them an interesting way to use a tool or more accurately to actually articulate what the tools are that they have been using subconsciously or instinctively, just making it an articulatable tool makes it more useful.
KH – You teach that there are seven senses, am I right?
PP – Yeah, there’s the usual five, but then we can talk about “when I saw you, my breath started coming faster, my heart pounded, everything was tense” and that’s a sense of the body and I call it the organic sense – for example, a sense of heart rate. Tom Waits writes “Hell Marysville ain’t nothing but a wide spot in the road/Some nights my heart pounds like thunder/Don’t know why it don’t explode.” And that’s the use of the organic sense. Then there’s the sense of motion or the kinaesthetic sense for which there are billion dollar industries called amusement parks that are only there for stimulating your kinaesthetic sense. Tilting on a roller coaster, rolling down a hill hen you are a kid to make yourself dizzy, so those are the other two that I add.
KH – And you can enhance that by use of the lyrics plus melody?
PP – Sure. The point of using your sense in the first place is to stimulate your listener, to make them involved in the song. There’s a difference between saying “Something’s changed between us’ which is sort of telling and abstract and saying “You never close your eyes anymore when you kiss my lips.” One tells and the other one shows, and when you can stimulate your listeners senses, then they put their stuff into your words and so the song becomes theirs.
KH – Is there any danger of people writing to format in order to make money?
PP – I don’t know if it’s a danger, but it certainly happens all the time.
KH – Presumably it’s a perfectly valid way to make a living.
PP – Absolutely, but I discourage formula writing because if you start writing by formula, then you become less involved yourself in the writing and just on a very personal level, there is less growth. I tell my students that if they spend the next twenty years writing songs and try to write for radio and don’t succeed in getting something on the radio, then they are a failure. If they write for twenty years and write things that increase their ability to perceive and make them know themselves better out of a deep level like John Mayer does in the song “Belief”, then if you don’t get anything recorded, you’re not a failure because you have grown as a person. I also think that the only chance that you have of succeeding is to add that special thing which is who you are to the music and the more you write to formula, the less involved you are, the less you bring to the table.
KH – Most people who do your course will go on to record their own songs do they, or do they write for other people?
PP – Oh, many of them write for other people.
KH – That must be quite a strange thing, to give up your baby to someone else.
PP – I have many students out there who write for other people and who are doing it very successfully and they don’t think of it as giving up their babies: they think of it as feeding their babies. I have one student by the name of Greg Becker who is writing in Nashville and has been incredibly successful recently writing for Rascal Flatts and Alan Jackson among others, and he said that he only became successful when he stopped trying to write for the market and tried to write the best song that he could that said exactly what he wanted to say. Suddenly everybody discovered him.
KH – Your next song is a Paul Simon, who wrote both music and lyrics for Still Crazy After All These Years. Now he is a great songwriter. What’s this one got for you?
PP – I love the way that it develops from verse to verse, I love the bridge on it.
KH – What is a bridge?
PP – The Bridge is the vacation section in songs, which makes you, want to come back home and have bagels again. It’s the section in this song
Four in the morning, crapped out, yawning
Longing my life away
I’ll never worry, why should I?
Now at that point we expect a line here the rhythm goes
da DAH da da DAH da da DAH,
but he just goes
da DAH da da DAH
and we don’t get what we expected. The section feels unstable and it supports his meaning: whole concept of the bridge, that of feeling unstable. I think it’s a brilliant piece of work.
STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS
KH – He makes you want to know what happens in that song doesn’t he?
PP – He does, and it’s a lovely use of the title. It’s a pretty neutral title in the sense that it doesn’t answer who is still crazy after all these years or when they are still crazy. The title attaches itself to the verses, so the first verse is: I met my old lover from the past, and she and I are still crazy. In the second verse, “I’m not the kind of man who tends to socialise, I’m still crazy after all these years,” “I” in the present tense attaches itself to the neutral title. In the third verse, in future tense, it is both I and the jury of my peers who are still crazy after all these years. It’s a really interesting use of tense and point of view colouring a neutral title and making it refer to different people and times. I talk about that in Writing Better Lyrics in the chapter “Stripping your repetition for re-painting.”
KH – And leaving the title open to interpretation as it were?
PP – Leaving it open to attach to the verses so you have more ability to develop the verses from the various points of view and from various tenses.
KH – Irregularity has got a lot going for it, not so much in that song, but I imagine that the analysis you did of “Closing Time” by Leonard Cohen with particular interest. I have a particular interest in Leonard Cohen, and it’s a genius song, but as you point out, he doesn’t give you the expected bit and you keep on expecting and expecting that it’s Closing Time. That’s quite daring isn’t it?
PP – It is, but Paul Simon does it in the bridge of “Still Crazy” too, where he shortens the last line. The music is very adventurous in that song. He was studying harmony in New York at the time and I don’t know whether this story is apocryphal or not, but apparently he and Bob Dylan met I the Village and Bob said, “Hey Paul, do you know any new chords?” and Paul said “Nope”.
KH – Bob was trying to steal his chords? Shocking!
PP – He was looking for some new information.
KH – You’ve got an ongoing relationship with Nashville, you’ve mentioned it a couple of times. Did you play with your band there? What happened?
PP – I’ve been going to Nashville for twenty-five years.
KH – Just out of professional interest?
PP – I write there with folks, but for the last twenty years, I’ve been taking my students down there over Spring Break. I take about 150 students down there every year and set up five days of non stop clinics and presentation and performances, for them to observe, and it’s really quite an educational experience and through that I’ve met many different people. The town really is very generous and turns out in droves; the best producers, the best writers, the best artists all come and talk to the Berklee kids.
KH – So there’s some kind of critical mass that took place in Nashville whereupon it took off? I mean, why Nashville?
PP – Well, for me it was pretty simple. Nashville is a microcosm of the music industry.
KH – Yeah, but how did that happen?
PP – Well, actually I first went down to Nashville because the Vice President of SESAC strongarmed me into playing some of my songs for him and said, “I want you to come down here, I’m going to set you up with some of our writers.” So I went to Nashville for the first time having a bunch of writing appointments with professional writers and loved it, so I started going down on Spring Break and in the summers to write. One of my students said, “I know you go down to Nashville to write, tell me where to go cause I want to visit.” So I said “Come on down for Spring Break with me, I’ll be down there and I’ll show you round.” He brought five of his friends and so that was the first Nashville Trip. We kept going from there on. Nashville was the place that I went on writing junkets myself, for a while, and still do.
KH – Is there a sound that comes out of Nashville that is still distinctively Nashville?
PP – Boy, less and less. It’s a pretty wide variety of stuff that gets recorded there, although it’s one of the few places where people still play together. Watching a Nashville recording session, where everybody is in the studio at the same time, you know, the vocalist is in their booth – they’ll overdub the real vocal later, but for the most part, you get these great players in there and they are all sitting in the same room playing. You don’t get that any place else. The Nashville players are the best players in the world and they know how to listen. It’s amazing.
KH – You obviously favour, and I right, country or folk type ballads? Do rappers ever take your course?
PP – Oh they do, and actually I have a section in my Advanced Lyric Writing class where I force them to write rap music and very few of them have ever written rap music, but it takes their writing to a whole new level. I love it. I’ve been listening to rap ever since Run DMC came out.
KH – And is there any music that you don’t like?
PP – I don’t think so.
KH – I was reading Jimmy Webb’s Tunesmith and he was saying that he would force himself to listen to music that he doesn’t like because it’s like a vitamin tablet and it mightn’t taste nice, but you’ve got to do it in order to keep your brain open.
PP – Or you can just have the attitude that there’s something worthy in everything from rap to opera and certainly you look at the various genres in terms of what they are attempting to do and what they have to offer and if you are looking for example at opera, there’s a place where melody is everything and the relationship between words and melody is everything, and so if you go into the opera experience thinking “Oh I hate people screaming”, you’re going to miss the point. So you’ve just got to find whatever it has to offer and then you extract tools. I listen to music certainly for enjoyment and there’s always a part of me that’s thinking, “OK what did you do? How did you do that? Can I do that? OK this is how it works. And then I take it to my students.”
KH – This hasn’t destroyed your appreciation or your enjoyment of music, you know, being aware of the machinery of it all?
PP – It certainly has opened some of the music too wide to be appreciated, but it deepens the appreciation when somebody does it really well, for example, the John Mayer thing with “Belief.” I’ve listened to that song maybe a hundred times at this point and I still appreciate it. The playing, the writing is wonderful and the tools that he is using, tools that we talked about in my course are just stunningly used, as is stuff with Gillian.
KH – Your final track is “Child Again”, Beth Nielsen Chapman, again Nashville. I don’t know much about her.
PP – She came in as a Nashville writer, but was writing very interesting songs and became a recording artist. She now has several albums out and has appeared on Oprah, has appeared with Elton John, she’s written number one songs for Willie Nelson and other folks, but this is her singing a song that she wrote and this is one of the songs that got her a record deal.
KH – And this song in particular?
PP – This song is a really nice example and I use it in class for two things. Number one, how the ideas develop from section to section and secondly, the relationship between the chorus and the verse. The verses are quite stable in their formation and she’s talking about very stable ideas. When she gets to the chorus and talks about running in the summer wind, everything there is very dreamy and airy with an odd number of lines, longer lines and shorter lines and an odd number of bars, and it gives it a sense of freedom and it’s one of the things, actually if there is anything that I talk about, passionately, it’s the relationship between words and music and how everything you do supports emotion. Think about reducing all emotions to just two categories: stable and unstable, just those two. If your intent is to create something that feels like it’s dreamy and floaty or confused, “Ever since you left me baby” or something like that, then you can try to structure your song to reinforce that instability.
KH – Which is quite risky isn’t it?
PP – Oh yeah, but quite effective.
KH – This is not a trick question, and do people ever say this to you, as I am about to, if you’re such a good songwriter, how come you’re not rich with a swimming pool? You maybe for all I know.
PP – It was an interesting thing for me, when I was about thirty-five, trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, I realised that if I never wrote another song, I’d be OK, but if I never taught again, I wouldn’t be, and so the scales fell from my eyes at that point, and I realised that I was a teacher who writes and not a writer who teaches, and so that channelled my energy appropriately. When I do write, and I do write quite a bit, I keep my eyes open for tools for my students more than anything else.
KH – Is that a long way of telling me you’ve never had a huge hit?
PP – I’ve never had a huge hit, but then, my students have lots of Grammys. I’m proud of that.
KH – It was very nice to talk to you, thank you, Pat Pattison.