What Makes a Good Song

guitar 75I started writing songs the same time I started learning guitar. I kinda thought that was a part of the deal.

 

When picking the five songwriters I did for this interview, I asked myself only one question, what makes a really good song?

Only I can answer that question for me; some of these guys I’ve known over 30 years. Obviously, all of them are talented and have been around for a long time. When I judge a song, I evaluate whether it can cross musical genres or sound as good on piano as guitar or whatever. Are the lyrics memorable and something I can relate to? Does the melody catch my attention? Does the song evoke an emotional response from me? Can I listen to it a bunch of times and not tire of it? All the guys I picked for this interview have written songs that meet my criteria, some of them more than I can count using all my fingers and toes.

The songwriters I picked are some of my favorites from my generation. All of them impacted how I saw and enjoyed the music scene at one time or another.  I still could have added ten more and not made a dent in the St. Louis talent.

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1) How long have you been playing?

Danny Kathriner: Started guitar when I was eight. So, over 30 years or so. (That makes him 38 … yeah). Started playing drums when I was about 11.  Stuck with drums for most of my professional career. 

Michael Eisenbeis: I’ve been playing guitar since I was nine.

Chris Grabau: My dad has an acoustic guitar that I messed with as a kid, but I really started to get into playing guitar by around 15. The same day I got my drivers permit, I went to the local guitar store and bought my first guitar; a blond Harmony Stratacaster.

Ej Fitch As long as I can remember. I guess my earliest memories of an instrument would’ve been around three or four years old, banging on my great-grandmother Annabelle’s piano, my parents telling me to be quiet and her telling them to “leave him alone he’s going to be a musician.”

Joe Thebeau: About 30 years.

2) How long have you been writing?

Danny: Started writing songs on the upright piano when I was about 11 or so — around the same time I really started getting into music. I would go into the kitchen while the family was watching TV, and I’d listen to my small transistor radio. I distinctly remember songs playing on stations like KSLQ and KXOK. Their formats were pretty broad in those days, and I liked most things I heard — everything from Kansas to Andy Gibb. 

Michael: I’ve been writing songs since I was 15.

Chris: I started writing songs the same time I started learning guitar. I kinda thought that was a part of the deal…

Ej: I always messed around with playing my own things, but I don’t think I really wrote a song until the mid-80s. My friend Scott was an audio student at Washington University, and he used me as a project. He told me to write a couple songs. When I went into the studio everything changed. Having the freedom to overdubbed guitar parts and play other instruments was a real rush. Literally, the next day I went to my cover band gig and, after the show, quit the band. After that, all I wanted to do was write songs.

Joe: Also, about 30 years. I started carrying around a notebook before I really even had the guitar worked out.

3) Describe your family members’ musical interests and abilities.

Danny: My mother sang very loudly during church. But there was no church choir to speak of, only the small congregation. It was a small Baptist church in Catawissa, Mo. I remember being very proud of her because I thought she had a great voice. I thought she was the best singer in the church — he was. But I hated to sing in front of people when I was young. I quit playing guitar and taking lessons from a fellow church member because he made me sing while I played. It bummed me out. These days, I never make my own kids sing. They all play instruments. They are all pretty shy, like me.

Michael: I had a grandma who could play anything with strings. My uncle played guitar all the time when I was a kid: Elvis, old country. He gave me my first guitar.

Chris: My dad played a little guitar, folk songs mostly (Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul, and Mary). My mom played piano from time to time, and we had a piano around the house. I never really took any lessons though. I bought a book called The Guitar Handbook and studied it cover to cover. I still have the book!

Ej: Most of my family members played instruments or were passionate about listening to music. I was surrounded by a lot of different types of music: gospel, doo-wop, country, rockabilly, top 40, just about everything. To this day, I think that really influenced me being open to all genres of music. There was one cat that really stood out. My uncle Joe Warren Hanks. That cat could play any stringed instrument. He had dobros, banjos, guitars, fiddles, dulcimers, steel guitars, all kinds of stuff laying around. Years later, I realized he played by ear. I don’t mean he just didn’t know how to read music. He didn’t know an A chord from a G chord. He would just look at me and say, “Hey kid just start playing. I think I can keep up with you”. He passed away several years ago. He was a huge influence on me back then, and he still is.

Joe: My dad is a barbershop quartet singer. My grandma used to play the piano. My daughter plays alto sax and trumpet, and we took piano lessons together for a while. She also plays some guitar.

4) Do you dream in color or black and white? Do your dreams influence your music?

Danny: Weird question, girl. Very Jungian. I am too deep a sleeper to remember my dreams. However, I assume they are good, and I assume they are colorful. 

Michael: I haven’t remembered a dream since the death of my dad in 2007.

Chris: I think most of my dreams are in color. Yes, I think dreams can influence my songwriting. I have made a few songs while in that liminal state between consciousness and sleep. I often keep a notebook by my bed because I have woken up in the middle of the night to write a few words and gone back to bed.

Ej: Good question. The next time I dream, I’ll try to remember. I don’t think my dreams have ever played into my songwriting.

Joe: Color. Yes. I often use images from dreams in lyrics. There’s so much insight into our waking life that comes to us in dreams. It’s just sometimes scrambled up in images that don’t seem to make sense until you inspect them for symbolism.  For a while, I was keeping a dream journal and that provided quite a bit of subject matter for my songs (and my therapist).

5) What do you like most about writing songs and playing?

Danny: I enjoy the process of writing. I enjoy when a melody comes to me and the challenge of writing lyrics — that is to say, writing lyrics that fit into a particular meter that I already have wrapped around a melody. I love melodies, always have.  To me, it’s the most important part of a song.    

Michael: To me, the ultimate thrill about music is playing a song that I’ve had a part in writing. Cover songs are great to make a buck but ultimately leaves me flat and uninspired.

Chris: All of it. I mostly write and play guitar at the same time. I love the mini breakthroughs … when something clicks and then all of a sudden melodies, words, and harmonies align. I can also spend days building counter melodies or trying different instrumentations.

Ej: Writing songs gives me the freedom to play, do, say, be whatever I want. Actually, playing is a rush — interacting with an audience and other musicians.

Joe: There’s a moment when a song comes together — music and words all line up just right — and you just know that it’s done; a sort of magic moment. I live for that moment. 

6) Where do you draw inspiration from when you write songs, and what’s your favorite part about the process

Danny: Melodies come from wherever. Who knows? Perhaps our collective unconscious. Perhaps I was influenced by the melodies from church hymns. 

Michael:  I usually write while doing mundane things like driving or anything that involves background noise. I usually do not write with a guitar. It usually starts with a lyric line.

Chris: It really just depends on the moment. Sometimes I don’t know where a song comes from. Other times, I will start writing about something specific but the end result will be something else entirely.

Ej: I guess being alive is my inspiration. I don’t really have a process. I just try to play the guitar two or three hours every day, jot down ideas, and see what happens. Sometimes songs come in five minutes, sometimes they come in five years. Sometimes I have something that’s done and take it to a band that I’m playing with, and it sucks. I go back home and keep playing it and then two months later, I take it to the same band, and it works. There’s no reason behind it. It’s all about mood and timing.

Joe: Songs come at me from a variety of directions. Sometimes it’s a personal situation or problem I’m trying to work through that causes a bunch of writing to happen. Other times, it’s an observation about someone else. And sometimes a composite character emerges from writing about a number of people. There’s a lot of room for license in songwriting, meaning it’s OK to stretch the truth to make things more interesting. My favorite part of the process is hard to pin down because it could happen right away or maybe it takes years, but it’s that moment when the music, words, and title all show themselves to me. While I have occasionally forged a song together all at once, it’s usually a revelatory process for me where I feel like I just sort of catch bits and pieces as they are thrown down to me. 

7) What sorts of things have you done over time to improve your songwriting

Danny: I never try to improve my songwriting. Perhaps this is why my songs have never improved *joking.* I really don’t consider myself a songwriter either. The title sounds a little contrived and pretentious. Right? I write songs, sure.  Nonetheless, I have always played by ear and picked out melodies on piano or guitar. Then, I surround myself with great musicians. 

Michael: The best thing for me was writing songs with others. Writing again with my old partner Packy Reynolds from the younger band days and writing with Kevin Gagnapain and Mike Flynn from my band Shooting with Annie has provided some of the best songs I’ve been involved with.

Chris: When I am feeling like I am in a rut, I try writing on different instruments. I just got a piano for the house and wrote a handful of songs on piano. One of them is going to be on the new Magnolia Summer record. I think working with a different instrument breaks me out of the worn paths I turn to on guitar.

Ej: I don’t think I’ve made a conscious effort to change the way I work. I just keep playing.

Joe: A good friend advised me to “mind your verbs,” meaning that the action words in a song are important. Taking her advice, I try to avoid lazy verbs and spice things up by exaggerating the action whenever possible. Lyrically, a lot of my songwriting actually starts with a big pile of prose or maybe even a poem and then translating some of the images and ideas into lyrics. Songs have to be sung which means lines from poems don’t always work directly. Musically, I learn songs by other artists who I think have got the goods and then see if I can borrow some of their composition techniques to spruce up my own stuff. 

8) What do you do when and if you get writer’s block

Danny: I don’t worry about it. It’s not like anyone is knocking down the door waiting for me to write songs.

Michael: I don’t stress it. I never write as a daily or weekly process. I find that songs come in batches for me.

Chris: First, I try to remember not to beat myself up about it, and I try to muscle through it. False starts and waiting for inspiration will only leave you feeling miserable. So, I just try to make time to write. I have learned not to stop midway through a writing a song. Sometimes working through a bad song leads to new territory.

Ej: Watch TV.

Joe: The type of block I usually experience is that I get a song 60, 70, 80 percent done and then it just stalls out. I wish I could say I have a solution to the problem.  I’ve got stacks of songs that are in that state. Sometimes I just start working on something else and hope for the rest of the song to show itself to me when it decides to do so.

9) What do you think the biggest misconception about songwriters is?

Danny: There are no misconceptions about “songwriters.” 

Michael: That there is some sort of magic to what they do. It’s just making shit up. No big deal.

Chris: I think the biggest misconception about songwriters is that it comes easy for some people. Every songwriter I know has a pretty strong work ethic. They take time to write, and they work on it consistently.

Ej: I’ve never really thought about what people think about songwriters. We don’t have to be art heavy. Sometimes we may have something specific to say, or sometimes we may just want to have fun doing what we do.

Joe: In the Internet age, I’m not sure there are any misconceptions about songwriters. Everything is right out there for all to see.

10) What’s the last song you heard that made you wish you had written it?

Danny: I really enjoy the newest Grace Basement record. Anything from this one. 

Michael: Probably any of Buck Owens’ 21 #1 Hits.

Chris: “The Way To Be,” by Grace Basement. I think Kevin Buckley is a fantastic songwriter. I love the lyric, “when I call your name, who will answer? Rocket Man or Tiny Dancer.” God, that one line alone speaks volumes.

Ej: I don’t even know the name of it. It was an instrumental NPR theme song.

Joe: “Maybe Sparrow” — Neko Case

11) What’s your motto or the advice you live by? Do you have any advice for younger musicians?

Danny: I think I’m old fashioned, but I’d advise my own kids to tune out things like American Idol and The Voice and all the superficialities these programs have rendered. The sick culture of celebrity just oozes from these programs. They feed off of our culture’s overt and seductive obsessions with fame … and authenticity and sincerity not only get lost (even worse) are not even missed by the viewer. 

Michael: It doesn’t take talent, it takes time.

Chris: 1. Put in the hours. 2. Be nice to people. STL is a big, small town, and I think it has a pretty amazing community of musicians. Respect one another’s pursuits. 3. Have some self-respect. Don’t do it just for “good exposure” or for page views.

Ej: Don’t listen to what people say to you. Just play what you like and have fun doing it.

Joe: I wish that I had a motto or strong sense of how life should be lived. My advice for younger musicians would be to indulge your impulses and always follow the muse.

12) If you could sit down and play with any musician, alive or dead, who would it be and what would you ask them?

Danny: I grew up listening to Elvis Presley b/c my mother loved him. I never understood his iconic eminence. I never understood his genius. I acquired a sense of respect for him later on — much later.  But in the late 1950s the guy had it all:  looks, charm, talent, and even humility. I would love to hear him sing when he was 23 years old. I wouldn’t need to participate, just hear him. I don’t even know what I’d ask him but to hear him belt out “Just as I Am” would be quite a moment. 

Michael: George Harrison. I’d ask him how he put up with McCartney all of those years. Or probably some gardening questions.

Chris: Man, I don’t know. I don’t think I do well meeting people I really respect/admire. I always feel like I say stupid things. BUT … I would have loved an opportunity to have a few pints with Joe Strummer and talk about writing. Maybe play a few tunes by a fire or something.

Ej: Johnny Cash. I wouldn’t say anything to him. I probably wouldn’t even play. I think I would just sit there and stare at him.

Joe: I have consciously avoided meeting my heroes. I prefer to leave the image unspoiled, and I just know that meeting them would only reveal their human side.  That being said, it would be interesting to see what John Lennon would have been like if he had lived longer. Like, what would he think of the way the world is today? Would he have aged and seasoned and gotten a bit more conservative in older age or would he still be raging with anger.

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I didn’t answer what makes a songwriter or a good song with these interviews; I only gave you a peek behind the curtain of some songwriters and how they work. 

For those who may remember these two bands from back in the day, The Finns and Treeweasels will be playing Nov. 30 at Blueberry Hill. For those of you who don’t remember or know, they contain three-fifths of the guys I interviewed. | DL Hegel

https://www.facebook.com/#!/events/359078137554127/

Photos: DL Hegel 

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Some links for the guys:

Danny

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Half-Knots/148286265202331

www.cavestatesmusic.com

https://www.facebook.com/TheTreeweasels

Michael

https://www.facebook.com/TheWhoBand

http://www.shootingwithannie.com

Chris

www.magnoliasummer.com

www.cavestatesmusic.com

Ej

https://www.facebook.com/#!/SomaJetSet

https://www.facebook.com/TheTreeweasels

 Joe

www.magnoliasummer.com

http://www.sonicbids.com/2/EPK/?epk_id=76004

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