I write the songs
A group of local musicians, songwriters and music instructors have banded together to form the Songwriting & Performance Institute
In the early days of 1961, a 19-year-old singer named Bob Dylan went to the Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey to visit a patient who was suffering from Huntington’s disease. The patient’s name was Woody Guthrie. Guthrie was a singer, guitarist and songwriter and unquestionably Dylan’s hero. Dylan was there to pay respect and to talk about music. He wanted to know more about songwriting and had traveled from Minnesota to talk to the person he felt had the most to teach him. Songwriting is a craft, and even a visionary like the man Dylan would become had to learn the craft, sitting at the end of somebody’s bed.
When, in 1962, Dylan’s debut album was released, it contained only two original songs. The first was a “talking blues,” a song that employed a traditional form often used by Guthrie, and the second was called “Song to Woody.” The man who would go on to become the most important singer-songwriter of the second half of the 20th century began his career by meeting, and writing an ode to, the most important singer-songwriter of the first half.
This kind of torch-passing is central to the “oral tradition” of folk music. And most of the contemporary genres of songwriting—from rock ‘n’ roll and rap to country and blues—are different styles of folk music: music of the people, by the people, for the people.
Songwriting is a craft—one that can be taught and learned. The long-held conventional advice for aspiring local songwriters has always been this: Move out of Reno. Move, like Dylan did, to New York or Los Angeles or Seattle or at least Portland. But a young generation of local songwriters have planted their feet here and proclaimed that Reno, like “New York, New York,” is a place where “if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.”
Taking care of business
Great business ideas, as often as not, arise out of frustration. Somebody needs something, can’t find it, and then they decide that they’re going to have to do it themselves. It’s about finding and fulfilling a need. Chip Evans manages his teenage daughter’s music career. His daughter, Anne Marie, is a young singer with recognizable poise. Evans was doing everything he could to help his daughter’s career, and with some success—Anne Marie was performing regularly in a variety of settings, and her performances were attracting a lot of attention, both in person and on websites like Myspace and Youtube. But Evans found himself wishing he had a local resource to draw on for ideas and information.
Eventually, Evans enrolled Anne Marie in the Step to the Stage program at Maytan Music Center. The STTS program is sort of like a youth soccer program for creative kids—they get to play rock ‘n’ roll music rather than kick balls around. It’s a great program for talented teens, like Anne Marie, to meet and collaborate with other musicians their own age.
But the focus is on collaboration—rock band as team sport—rather than the personal development of learning a craft.
Evans really connected with STTS’s executive director, Eric Stangeland. Stangeland is a guitar whiz—one of those guys that can play anything, and he’s spent time in a variety of bands. He’s an instantly likable guy with a great laugh and a natural ability to communicate complicated musical ideas with clear, everyday language—factors that make him an ideal music teacher. He was voted Best Musician and Best Music Instructor in this newspaper’s 2008 Best of Northern Nevada reader’s poll.
Last October, Evans and Stangeland began talking about starting a program similar to STTS but with the focus squarely on songwriting. The ideas quickly began to take shape, and by Jan. 9, the newly christened Songwriting & Performance Institute was hosting its launch party.
Evans is the CEO of SPI; Stangeland is the musical director. But there are other musical instructors who have gotten involved along the way—and the staff of SPI is an eclectic cast, many of whom are musicians, like Stangeland, who have garnered innumerable accolades awarded in this newspaper’s readers’ polls.
With two acclaimed albums, a deeply devoted following and a slew of awards, Kate Cotter might be the most high-profile singer-songwriter Reno has to offer. The big, bald, boisterous Todd South is a talented singer and songwriter but is probably best known as the host and soundman at the Reno Music Project, an open mic night and musicians’ showcase at Maytan Music Center, consistently rated the best in the area. Grace Hutchison is a sultry singer-songwriter and the education director for the Reno Philharmonic. Then there’s Leisa Golding, a singer-songwriter and co-director of the STTS program, multi-instrumentalist Lenny Supera, and Oliver Ex, a music promoter who will teach some of the program’s business and promotion classes.
“It’s a diverse group,” says Evans. “And they don’t all have the same body of knowledge.”
The institute found a standalone building on Wells Avenue that will function as headquarters, classroom facility and recording studio. The interior is a comfortable space, painted mostly white and green. Outside, a sign reads, “Write, perform and record your own music!”
Part of the goal, for Evans, is including parents in the process.
“Kids get ahead with parental involvement,” he says, and he mentions working with his son in the Boy Scouts of America as a good example of that kind of rewarding experience.
“The music world is scary for a lot of parents,” says Evans. He wants the SPI program to be a way for parents to get involved and support their kids’ musical aspirations.
What Evans didn’t expect was how many adults would be interested in taking classes. Though the original class schedule was designed with teenagers in mind, Evans estimates that nearly half the calls he has received have been from adults wanting to take classes. So, at the launch gala, he made the surprise announcement that SPI would be offering classes for adults.
“We thought that would be at least six months out,” he says.
Rock ’n’ Roll High School
SPI’s first full class was a clinic titled “Overview of Today’s Music World.” It was a nearly two-hour course split neatly in half. The first half was a PowerPoint presentation, conducted by South, for teens and parents on the current state of the music industry. For the second half, the parents and students went to separate rooms for question-and-answer discussions about the new institute, songwriting and the music industry in general.
South’s presentation loosely covered the development of contemporary songwriting and a brief history of the industry, starting with Thomas Edison’s first phonograph and ending with the astute observation, “10,000 Myspace friends does not equal a successful music career.”
But overall, South said the latest technological developments have democratized the music industry, making it easier for independent artists to record and distribute their own music. The old industry models no longer apply.
“I couldn’t get a gig in the ‘80s if I wouldn’t play ‘Sweet Home Alabama,'” joked South.
He ended the presentation by debunking some commonly held myths about the music industry. For example: “Only the best and most talented artists make it. … Have you heard the Jonas Brothers?”
South is the kind of guy you can stick in front of any crowd and basically guarantee he’ll be entertaining—but he seemed a little ill-at-ease conducting a PowerPoint presentation. He was much more lively and entertaining moderating the second half of the clinic, the more informal discussion with the teenagers, while Evans talked to the parents in the adjoining room.
It was a little awkward because there were only four teenage students in the class and nearly twice as many instructors in the room—a few too many chefs in the kitchen. But just getting to hang out with a room full of musicians is a good way for the aspiring songwriter to glean a few ideas.
When one student asked about pre-show jitters, both South and Stangeland told funny, self-effacing stories that put the room at ease. The conversation was casual and open-ended but still managed to hit upon some technical aspects of songwriting: dynamics, for example. A dynamic change is a musical change in volume and tone rather than a harmonic or melodic change, which are changes in pitch. Stangeland cited Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” as a classic example. The verse and chorus are easily differentiated, even though the chord patterns are the same. The chorus has a loud, distorted guitar part and heavy drums, while the verse has a more simplistic guitar part, and the chord pattern is carried by the bass line. Same chords, different parts: That’s dynamics.
But what is a song? A short piece of music with a vocal melody? Well, there are a lot of great long songs (Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” for example), a lot of great instrumental songs (Booker T. & the M.G.'s “Green Onions") and even a lot of great songs that aren’t particularly melodic (arguably Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power"—though it’s undeniably great). For any possible defining characteristic of what a song is, there are dozens of examples of songs that don’t fit that definition. (The one possibly unbreakable rule might—might—be that a song is made of sounds.)
“There are so many different kinds of songs: political songs, story songs, intellectual songs,” says Cotter. “And the lyrics can be cryptic, or they can be universal. There are so many different ways that a song can be good.”
Stangeland, South and Cotter represent three complementary approaches to music and teaching. All three are knowledgeable, but each has a very different personality. Stangeland is easy-going and approachable. South is a witty, entertaining showman. Cotter is intensely thoughtful—she speaks with long, deliberate pauses, during which time she seems to summon her ideas from some faraway place.
“In my opinion, [a song is] the unique opportunity for a singer-songwriter to explore the relationship of melody, lyrics and delivery,” she says. “And any one of those things can be great or mediocre … but when they work together, it can be this transcendent experience that can resonate emotionally or intellectually … A song is strongest when you’re able to integrate all the different elements into something cohesive.”
Performer Hutchison takes a more intuitive approach. “It’s an emotional expression, a release,” she says. “There are all kinds of structures and methods for writing songs, but for me, it’s a tool for viewing my life and the things within me or around me.”
In songwriting, there are no absolutes: There are great songs with only one chord, and great songs with dozens of chords. There are songwriters who obsessively research the history of the music and the subjects of their songs, and who carefully consider every songwriting decision—Bruce Springsteen, for example. There are raw, loose, untrained songwriters who write about their own lives and make their decisions intuitively—Daniel Johnston, for example. Most songwriters are in between those two extremes.
Something as idiosyncratic as songwriting can be difficult to teach.
“I wasn’t sure at first that you could really teach somebody songwriting,” says Hutchison. “But growing up … there’s about four people that taught me things, without whom there’s no way I’d be a performing singer-songwriter today. … And if I go ahead and share what I do have, if that has any impact at all—that’s why I’m doing this.”
Cotter, who has been writing songs for at least 15 years, learned to do things through rigorous trial and error.
“It’s a discipline,” she says. “If you just sit around waiting for inspiration to strike, you’ll never get anything done. You have to write every day, putting in the time. Sometimes you have to write a lot of crap to get to the good stuff.”
The goal of the songwriting classes is to provide students with the basic building blocks—how chords, melodies and lyrics work with arrangement and production.
“It comes down to instilling people with a sense of confidence and freedom to explore different ways of composing lyrics and melodies,” says Cotter. “The goal is not to box them in a formula, but to give them the basic tools to play with and find their own style.”
And then she says something that everyone involved with SPI has said: “I wish there had been a program like this when I was first starting out.”
Now the question is, can 15 years of daily practice and trial and error really be boiled down to six-week course? Probably not. But it’s a start. And every great songwriter has started out the way Bob Dylan did: by listening to songs, learning songs and then, if they were smart, tracking down a songwriter and asking a few questions.