Wednesday, May 14, 2008

How I became Songwriter

Hi Everyone

Today I'll tell you how I became a songwriter. It was a long time coming...not
that it took a long time to learn how to do it, rather it took a long
time for me actually realize that I have always had this ability.

My story begins way back in elementary school. Remember when the teacher
would make the class write English compositions? ...what a bore...especially
when the topic always seemed to be "What I did on my summer holidays".
Ooh boy! Where do I begin?

Better still, remember those doggone book reports they made you write,
just to make sure you were reading your quota of novels.
Here's a secret.
I never read a novel at ANYTIME during my entire formal education.

Please excuse me a moment while I digress to short side bar on reading.
Today in the education system in Ontario, Canada - where I live, work and also teach in
the public school system -
the powers that be, seemed to have noticed that boys do not like
to read. They have boys book clubs,reading recovery classes,all manner of remedial
endeavours to try and make boys read more. Here's another secret for you. It's not that
boys are poor readers, it's just that Boys do not like to read. Boys are action figures. They
want to move,they are whole body orientated. It's just plain boring to sit still. Reading is
like meditation.What school boy has the capacity to meditate? Reading just ain't fun.

Now back to the book reports.
I solved this little problem simply by manufacturing all of my book reports.It was,
as the proverbial quotes says, 'Like taking candy from a baby'. I just wrote
about any movie I'd seen on television. Changed the names of the characters;
conjured up a respectful sounding name for the author;opened up any book and
voila, a publishers name, publishing date, everything you needed to put the
finishing touches on your report were at your disposal. With the millions of
books in the libraries, who was going to check? To work the system, one must
know the system.

What did I do in High School English class you ask? Easy! By then, Coles notes
had been invented. Coles book store, a once famous but now defunct Canadian
retailer,published a synopsis for every major novel that had been set as required
reading in most Canadian schools...including Shakespeare.

You probably think that I grew up rather illiterate. Not so. I could read with the
best of them. I read only when I had to make notes from science,history,geography
texts etc.

My mother was an actress. She was forever quoting lines from Shakespeare,
Dickens, Langston Hughes. Mom just loved poetry. I remember as a young boy,
she would hire jazz musicians to come to the house and accompany her while she
performed her favourite poems aloud.

... and rap and dub poetry think they are the new kids on the block...?

I never consciously shared my mothers enthusiasm for the written word, but I was
always captivated by her performances.

In my last year of High School I had a teacher named Mr. Gillanders, who had a
profound effect on me. He showed me what English literature was all about.

He introduced the class to J.D. Salinger, through J.D.'s short stories, in particular
"To Emily with Love and Squalor", - racy for its' time. He showed us how
' Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-do you' in Vachel Lindsays' poem " The Congo" .
I remember my mother would often recite "The Congo" at home.

Don't assume that all of a sudden I upped and became an English literature freak.
I did,however,complete all of the readings he assigned... novels excepted of course.

Time passes,and I'm in my graduating year as a music major at Wilfred Laurier
University. I had choice of doing a piano recital or a research paper. I chose to do
the research paper (less work). When my prof remarked that I could already
express myself quite well within the writing medium,I took his hint and accepted
the challenge of doing the recital instead.

In hind sight, I realize that I have always been in a literary environment,
surrounded by literary mentors. I do know that I have always had the ability to
express my thoughts,clearly and effectively. As a youngster,I often wrote prose to
the "apples" of my eye, but never thought to connect it to music.

At one point in my early music career I took a stab at writing lyrics. Man,were they
lame. I told myself that lyric writing was obviously not my forte, and I should
therefore leave that art to the likes of Billy Joel, Jerome Kerr, Richard Rogers,
Bernie Taupin and Cole Porter, who were obviously"born" with this kind of talent.

Later on in my career, my then manager,Catherine Gastmeir, suggested that I try
writing my own songs. I told her it was out of the question. I simply just didn't have
that kind of talent.

To prove me wrong, Catherine wrote a poem for me...a starter poem if you will.
You can read her poem here.

I used Catherine's poem to help me write the words for my first song.
Here are the lyrics.

Listen to the song. It's called
"Love is a Strange (& Sometimes Kind of Thing)"

Credit Catherine with leading me to the song writing spirit that has dwelt
within me all of my life. Thank her for giving me the confidence to try something
I never thought I had the ability to do...writing a complete album of words
& music. Hats off to her for suggesting that I study Shakespeare's sonnets.

Thank You Catherine


Anonymous said...

Hi Mr Livingstone

My names Misbah Malik, I'm fifteen years old and live in the U.K. I love writing songs and also enjoy poetry. I would like to write for a career but I'm not very sure about how to get there. And who better to ask then a songwriter, right? I know you may be thinking I'm a bit young to be thinking that far ahead, but every little helps.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.
Please write back:

kory said...

Hi Misbah
There is no one way to become a song writer, in fact there is no one way to become/do anything in life.

I could however, suggest you learn to play an instrument if you don't already know how.

The most popular instruments for songwriters seems to be the guitar, not saying that this is the best instrument... look at your own Elton John , Andrew Weber or Canada's own Paul Anka (who by the way started writing songs when he was your age)

In Canada we have a society called
the Songwriters Association of Canada (SAC). They have monthly meetings where writers get their songs critiqued by"big wigs" in the business.

I'm sure they have a similar organization in your area.

One thing I have learned about songwriting, is that everybody's opinion is different, and if YOU like your song,then that's good enough... not to say that you can't improve on what you've written.

You should work with a simple recording device of some type
(there are 100's of affordable ones out there) to capture any musical ideas you have. Many mp3 players have a recording function builot in. This way you can hum/strum/sing your tunes/ideas as they come,and then you can revisit them later.

Being able to read/write music allows you to write down your melody exactly as you hear it.
This is the method I use,as I am a trained musician,but MOST songwriters play by ear.

Recording a "version" of your song is imperative, unless you have a memory like a steel trap.

There are also many songwriting courses on the internet,some better than others...trial & error.

You might also want to work as an intern in a local recording studio, as you'll learn a lot just hanging around the studio meeting musicians, songwriters etc.

Good luck in your endevour and don't hesitate to send me your songs as "works in progress"if you want any feedback.