A few months ago I shared some songs on the KGNC/News Channel 10 morning show The Chat. They asked about songwriting, how it happens, why I write songs. Here's an expanded version of the answer I gave.
For me, writing and performing songs is the basic human impulse to tell stories. Stories are how we’ve tried to understand and explain the world and our place in it for as long as we’ve been human. And we relate to each other through our stories. If you tell me the story of your life, I begin to understand where you’re coming from, how you see the world, what moves you. That can’t help but bring us closer together.
Music is a very immediate, compelling medium to tell stories. As long as stories are ideas, concepts, constructs floating around in your head, they’re really not too useful. But write down a lyric, build a melody, grab a rhythm or a hook…now we have something to talk about, relate to with each other.
So many things go into a song. You want it to draw people in, tell a compelling story, move with rhythm and life. My friend Hunter Ingalls approached his poetry the same way, infusing his poems with three essential elements - sound, rhythm, and meaning. The trickiest part for me, though, is not what you put into a song, but sensing what you need to leave out. Because it's the holes we leave that let the listener participate in the song, fill in their own story with the story you’re telling. MIles Davis said it simply, it’s not what you put in, but what you leave out. Bob Dylan is a master at the art. You wanna leave an empty place, a vacant chair for the listener to sit and join you.
I don’t think a song should spoon feed the listener. You wanna give something to think about, work at, invest some effort beyond the four minutes. So if I write a song about the most promising officer Ranald McKenzie, I’m not gonna tell you everything about him. I wanna make you curious, so that you go the next step, dig a little deeper. (If only there was a device you could hold in your hand that could instantly answer any question you asked it.) Sometimes you just say, I love you baby. Other times you realize that this love thing is complicated and you wanna sing about that in a way that lets the listener plug in their own story and their meaning of love. Now we got a dialogue going. And once we start communicating, anything is possible.