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Newsletter Issue #130: 11 Feb 2007

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In the 'I' of the Songwriter

In the preface to his collected short stories, 'The World Over', W. Somerset Maugham states “to be read is not the motive which impels the author to write, his motive is other…” However, he begs the question, what that other motive might be.

 

As I write, I am in the middle of recording, at my brother’s studio the songs I’ve written, mostly on my girlfriend’s piano, over the past year. To get these recorded, even in rough and early mixes, is a great relief to me. Supposing I died, and no one heard 'The Sorry Bus' or 'Back Before You Came' except live, recorded on their fading memories? This had bothered me. Yet, why should I care? Dead is dead, and if it not, then we will have other things than songs to worry about. Nonetheless, the songwriter is concerned with that which will outlast him.

 

Recently I spent some idle hours completing online personality tests. I was surprised to be told that my “Extraversion results were very high which suggests you are overly talkative, outgoing, sociable and interacting at the expense too often of developing your own individual interests and internally based identity.”

 

It’s that last phrase, about internally based identity, that started me wondering about identity. If the test had an obvious flaw it’s that the questions didn’t stipulate whether I should answer as the artist or as that other guy. That other guy, had I answered for him, might not have seemed so talkative, outgoing, sociable and interacting.

 

To what extent are songs an attempt to construct a new, better persona? Someone who always knows how he feels and how to express his feelings, who has the right words to ask for what he wants and the arguments to reconcile himself to what he can’t have?

Academics might say, “…poems are frequently written in the first person. Often this contributes to the building up of a persona which is part literary creation, part based on reality. On other occasions, the poet speaks with different voices which are temporarily adopted…It is not always easy to distinguish between the various ‘I’s” .

 

The singer-songwriter is like an actor performing his one-man play; one based on his life, sure, but, if it’s at all interesting, it’s probably his fantasy life, and it also includes scenes where he portrays other characters – as he understands them. I’ve never been attracted to songs about the stage, or a specific musical instrument, or being a musician, with one or two exceptions (like the exceptional Kyle Bronsdon song 'I'm A Player', or Bic Runga’s amazing 'Get Some Sleep'). They’re like novels about English professors. Write about what you know, sure, but do something interesting with it.

 

Much of what I want to say can, it seems, be said in variations on the standard boy wants girl, boy misses girl, or girl and boy mistreat each other type of song. I seldom write the 'Maxwell’s Silver Hammer', or narrative, type of song, and when do I am reminded of Edmund Wilson on the Novel;     

 

"The real elements of any work of fiction are the elements of the author's personality: his imagination embodies in the images of characters, situations and scenes the fundamental conflicts of his nature or the cycle of phases it passes through. His personages are personifications of the author's various impulses and emotions: and the relations between them in his stories are really the relations between these. One of the causes of our feeling that certain works are more satisfactory than others is to be found in the superior thoroughness and candour with which the author has represented these relations.”

 

I can’t think of a single song in which I haven’t tried to improve the 'I', granting him, or me, some desirable attribute that, in the context of the song, seems credible. “…If he makes the I of his story a little quicker on the uptake, a little more level-headed, a little shrewder, a little braver, a little more ingenious, a little wittier, a little wiser than he, the writer, really is, the reader must show indulgence. He must remember that the author is not drawing a faithful portrait of himself...” Glad to see Maugham and I are still on the same page.

 

As for the “you” of the song, the truer to life she is, the better the song will be. Within reason: if you like her cooking, say so, but don’t praise some rare dish that only she makes, if you want your song to have wide appeal (though many highly specific songs have become firm favourites with audiences who have misunderstood them, you can hardly predict this).

 

If you want to say something simple like “I love you” or “I’m sorry” in a song, you’ll find that easy to do; what I find harder is saying such things without qualifying the emotion, or hedging my bets with humour or distractions.

This may make for a better song, even a more honest song, but a simpler song would have the virtue of sincerity. If the simpler song is what you do best, don’t knock it. Half the art of writing a good song is knowing when you’ve done it. I’ll trail off on that thought, because there is no conclusion. The internal debate rages on…

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Thanks to George D. Henderson from The Puddle for this editorial.
If you would like to write a feature editorial for the newsletter, please drop us an email and we'll get it set up!

Streetwise Scarlet

Thanks to Sam for answering the following questions:

1) What is your greatest achievement?

Our greatest achievement as a band would have to be getting our record done over the Christmas / New Year break this year, it has been a long time coming I guess.

We did it with Justyn Pilbrow (Elemeno P) at The Lab, we had a glorious many days living underground that we wont easily forget. J-Pill squeezed some amazing tunes out of us that we are very proud of. Hoping it should be on store shelves around mid-year.

Personally we have all achieved many great feats, 2006 was a pretty tough one for all of us but we continue to kick ass and take names.  Keep and eye out for our record ‘Try Hold Me Down’ coming soon.  You will be amazed.

2) What do you think could be done to make NZ music even better?

We have to write better songs. We have to record better songs and we have to take it to the world. The people with the power and the money in NZ need to get better at supporting the right talent and making it happen. Soon enough there will be egg on many peoples faces. We all like eggs, but not on our faces.
 
3) Where do you see yourselves in 5 years?

Anywhere but here (at my office cubicle sweating because the air conditioning don’t work right).
 
4) What is the best thing about making music?

Everything. We love making music because we have to, its what we are on this earth to do. The 4 of us weren’t sent here to iron sheets or sell cars.
 
5) What advice would you like to give to other aspiring musicians?

Write great songs. Be real. Entertain me.

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Streetwise Scarlet is Sam Smith (guitar, vocals), Jesse Smith (guitar, vocals), George Hampton (bass) and Scott Lamb (drums).

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Take The Willing

Take the Willing may be a relatively new band in New Zealand's ever popular metal scene, but they have already made quite an impact up and down their country with their hard hitting, aggressive and generally kick arse live show. You may have seen them when they were supporting Blindspott on their nationwide tour, or over summer where they once again hit the stage with Blindspott, with the addition of kiwi punkateers The Bleeders and Full Nelson. The shows were pretty damn loud to say the least!

It all doesn't end here tho… it isn't just the tour that rates in their highlights. The up and coming support slot with Hatebreed has the lads foaming at the mouth, and if you ever have the opportunity to talk to any of them about their up and coming album 'Fight Music', well the word excitement really doesn't give their reaction justice. Lead singer Nathan is heading over to Sweden to mix and master the album with some of his all time favourite producers: Pelle Henricsson and Eskil Lovstrom. Locally these guys have produced Blindspott's recent album, as well as international heavy weights Poison the Well and Refused. Plans for their first solo nationwide tour to coincide with the release of 'Fight Music' are all in the pipeline. Take the Willing are set for big things, so stay tuned for more.

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Take The Willing are Nathan Sowter (lead vocals), Kurt Andersen (guitar, backing vocals), Kaya Rayner (guitar), David Lennon (bass) and Jayden Faass (drums).

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