As Director of The Mountain Stage New Song Festival, Gar Ragland kindly offers his insightful thoughts for both new and old songwriters alike, about the musical opportunities that exist for writers, and the applied playing physics ... on writing a song.
An active musician, singer/songwriter, and the founder of Riparius Records, Ragland brings to this interview a career that has studied musical composition and improvisation with Macarthur Genius Award winning pianist and educator, Ran Blake. His performances have included appearances at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., New York's Knitting Factory and New England Conservatory's legendary Jordan Hall. He released his first solo CD, Untethered, in 2001.
[Steven Digman] Could you define the basic elements (the ingredients) you consider necessary for writing a good song?
[Gar Ragland] What separates a song from other forms of music is the lyric, and the relationship between the music and the lyric. So to start, the theme presented by the lyric needs to be strong, and the angle of delivery needs to be clever. There is a finite number of themes available to the songwriter, most of which have been addressed many times over by a number of very talented songwriters. However, there's real room for innovation in how that theme is delivered. What's the context? [Who's] doing the delivery? Is the songwriter observing, experiencing firsthand, or both? This is the territory in a song to really be clever, and unique.
Next, the relationship between the lyric and the music has to be solid. Does the feel of the music- both the melody and the harmony (i.e., chords and chord progressions) reinforce the theme of the lyric? If so, then chances are the song is on its way to being solid.
[Steven Digman] When writing songs what resources do you use for ideas?
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[Gar Ragland] Wow - anything and everything. Basically, all resources can be divided into two camps: external and internal.
As for external resources, what's so enjoyable to me about songwriting is the way it encourages, perhaps even necessitates, living one's life in an observant, adventurous way. To try to stay attuned to subtleties that, if you weren't mining for ideas, would otherwise be missed. External resources for me include people watching, museums, historical figures and historical events.
As for internal resources, I find my songwriting to be an extremely effective vehicle for sorting through my own emotions, feelings and issues. Daniel Lanois, one of my musical heroes, calls it 'soul mining.' Songwriting is an amazing tool for developing greater self-awareness, and it's an amazing form of self-administered psychotherapy. As humans, we're emotionally complex by design, and our modern, complex lives further creates an endless sea of internal songwriting resources!
[Steven Digman] Are there any non-musical influences that have influenced your writing?
[Gar Ragland] ... Most of my songwriting resources are non-musical. The sources of inspiration are almost always non-musical, yet it is through a lifetime of listening to and playing music that I as a songwriter use a musical medium to capture, develop and articulate the ideas that are sparked by those sources.
[Steven Digman] Who are your Favorite songwriters (songs)?
[Gar Ragland] ... I have so many favorite songwriters, but I'd have to say my top five are Joni Mitchell, David Byrne, Hank Williams, Cole Porter and Stevie Wonder.
[Steven Digman] What are some of the common mistakes that you believe new songwriters often make?
[Gar Ragland] Trying too hard to sound like someone else, and trying too hard not to. This sounds contradictory, but I'll try to explain myself. Clark Terry, the great trumpet player and educator, once said this when asked what steps one should take to achieve musical greatness: "Emulate, Imitate, Innovate." When done sequentially, I think he's right on the mark. As artists, we all need musical mentors and role models. The composite of these alone goes a long way toward making someone's style unique. For example, how many songwriters can cite the five artists I mention above as being their favorite songwriters? How many can site yours?
As a fan of all of these artists, the next step for me as an artist in developing my own style is to absorb the elements of their music that I'm so drawn to in the first place. That begins first by lots of listening, and then by imitating the music, first by learning to play and sing their music, then to write in a similar way. Songwriters often make the mistake of not doing this in an attempt to be unique before their own style has actually developed, and that does not happen overnight. It's a lifelong process!
Second, I think of number of songwriters stop at the point when they're writing just like they're songwriting heroes, resulting in a 'heard before' style and spending too much time reinventing the wheel. While I believe that emulation is a fundamentally important step, the process needs to continue to move forward. This is accomplished by emulating a number of different types of songwriters, and in time, one's own songwriting style develops through the subconscious hybridization of the styles of a number of different songwriters. Songwriters can begin this process, and reap its benefits, from a very early stage, and they should have the confidence in their own skills and creative abilities to it.
[Steven Digman] What one rule (or rules) should a songwriter always follow?
[Gar Ragland] This may sound cliché, and it is, but for good reason: Follow your own voice. In this world of uniformity and homogeneity, the arts desperately need to remind society of the beauty and empowerment of self-expression, of transcending cookie-cutter influences in our lives. Songs are a wonderful vehicle for being reminded of this, especially if the artist/songwriter has led by example in the creation of the music. Hallelujah! Songwriters should always be mining for material, and never discount the value of their ideas and source materials for songs.
[Steven Digman] Always break?
[Gar Ragland] Any rules they've ever been taught about songwriting! There are so many ways to 'skin the cat' as a songwriter, that every songwriter should be open to any and all vehicles for writing songs. Most songwriters, myself included, develop their own set of rules, which often work well but can at the same time prove limiting. We should all be open to trying new approaches to songwriting, however unorthodox they may be."
[Steven Digman] The business side of songwriting: how difficult is it?
[Gar Ragland] There is a lot of uncertainty in the music world, and the music industry is traditionally a tough industry in which to work. First, do it because you love it. Don't be primarily motivated to 'make lots of money' - chances are you'll find yourself disappointed.
That being said, there is no better time than the present for the independent songwriter/musician to be in the industry. Advancements in technology (recording equipment and the Internet) have served as empowering tools to the independent artist by effectively weakening the stranglehold that record companies once had on determining whose music was heard. It is a difficult business to break, but one that currently has a considerably large number of opportunities to exploit.
[Steven Digman] And finally Gar, do you have any advice to offer for new or unpublished songwriters?
[Gar Ragland] Capitalize on the current tumultuous state of the music industry. Find a niche and develop it. Capitalize on the relatively inexpensive price of great sounding home recording equipment and the cost-effective marketing power of the Internet. Make a great recording of your own, build a website that showcases your talent, and sell CDs from your website. If you're a performer, sell them at shows as well.
If you're a songwriter who doesn't perform, find local talent whose performance style matches your writing style and have them perform your material.
Work with a producer who has experience in getting the job done from start to finish, who has both a creative and business vision for your music. This is a particularly wise investment if you've never gone through the experience of putting together a recording project and/or business plan for your music. It's like having a personal tutor to walk you through each step of the way. If you choose this path, work on a project fee basis, and work the producer for all that he/she is worth! Chances are you'll learn the ropes well enough to do it on your own for subsequent projects.
Last, search for sources of revenue other than selling CDs. Work to license your music for film, television shows, commercials, etc. The Internet is an excellent resource to learn about non-traditional sources of revenue for your creative work.
For Information about the Mountain Stage New Song Festival, go to www.newsongfestival.com