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For many years, my primary orientation has of necessity towards writing songs for other people to sing, rather than aiming to be a performing songwriter first and foremost. Why?

I've been trying to do many things in my life besides music, and so I had to resign myself to not being a regularly performing, touring or teaching musician. By writing songs for other people, songwriting (in principle) was one thing I could do on my own schedule, around the edges of other things (though I hate this). So it was one way I was able to stay involved in music during This Phase.

This means writing for other people. But I still write the way I write.

I also was very timid about my own singing for many years. An extended pubescent voice-cracking period, combined with a stint as the pinch-hit ballad singer in a Irish band that played in those smoky pubs where you inhale two packs of secondary smoke a night, bellow at drunken politicians and don't survive if you aren't a burly-chested bearded singer or a quick wit like Mark Graham), managed to rattle my confidence in my singing. Oh, yeah, and the flute player in the band hated playing tin whistle so I sang everything in G or D which were my two worst keys!

So I naturally slid into the habit of writing songs picturing (or rather, hearing) other people's voices singing them. (At first it was no one's in particular just anyone's voice but mine!) And I discovered that this was incredibly liberating. I was encouraged to write songs in styles and genres, and vocal ranges, that I myself would never have attempted to sing. Just as a mask can become a source of power, a song written in this way can be a kind of mask that reveals a truer face than one's own.

Once I was lucky enough to have people willing to receive songs from me (even asking for them) I found that this ability I had unconsciously cultivated could be applied with intention. If I liked someone's music, I would listen to it for awhile and immerse myself in it. My inner ear -- that little imp that sits inside me, voraciously and indiscriminately soaking in everything I hear (whether I listen to it or not), dissolving it down into little melodicles, re-juggling them and throwing me the resulting half-digested tunes and phrases like a kid tossing peanuts to the elephant at the zoo (often at the most inconvenient of times)—would bask in this other person's music for awhile, then sure enough, start to toss out songs in that style.

This way of writing songs has been quite a path for me. It's interesting that so many of my songs were recorded by women, and that I've been able to write a lot of songs from a woman's perspective. I think this is much easier for me because of this approach to songwriting.

 

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