Serving the Song
Ian Tamblyn has written more than 1,500 songs over his lifetime and released more than 30 albums, earning a Juno nomination and a Canadian Folk Music Award in the process. So we were thrilled here at Roots Music Canada when he offered to share some of his wisdom with us. Ian has reflected on and written about many facets of artistic life over the years, and we’ll be publishing some of those writings in the coming weeks. Thank you, Ian!
The title of the songwriting course I have been teaching is Serving the Song. When I thought of this phrase, it was about keeping your focus on the song at hand. What is the story, the expression, the description, the emotion of the song before you? The phrase “serving the song” is also about getting yourself out of the way of the story, including oddly enough, autobiographical songs. The phrase “serving the song” also entails the “keeping it simple stupid” phrase in place in the most intelligent way. Don’t complicate the song with verbal, emotional, or musical distractions. Stay on track. Some get away on you, like dreams, they drift. I think the more you practice, the more you work at the craft of songwriting, you will begin to hone your aim on the true intent of the song you are writing. Serving the song also means serving that song to its completion. It is not a song until that song is complete and worked in. Only then will it truly be a song. When serving the song, get yourself out of the way in many ways. Don’t bring your personal problems to the song; in a Zen way, a little detachment can go a long way as you are dispassionately “looking” at the song before you. Ironically, I think this would be the case as well when expressing a trouble that you have before you; the dispassionate look can approach the trouble from a meaningful distance. Many people suffer writer’s block because they and their baggage are standing before the song preventing them from seeing it. Do not compare yourself to others. Do not think of results, or even of completion as you enter a song. Just do it! And in doing so, serve the song.
For many years, I would get an idea for a tune and immediately write it down. I still occasionally find myself with a tune that writes itself, but as often as not now, I will get an idea, a phrase, a story or consideration, I will write down the phrase and then let it freewheel for a few days, thinking about how the song might be, the perspective I might take on the song, how it could work, what it might sound like. In my head I go over the mood territories I have that might suit the piece musically. I hold this notion in my head for a few days, and it is interesting how things will sort themselves out in that freewheeling mode. I think by placing the song in the free association part of my head, I am serving the song. I am thinking about the song all the time, and I am not thinking about it all. Do the hard thinking before you write and then write clearly and simply. Forgive the elliptical nature of the conversation but the approach and engagement of the song is somewhat Zen-like. Do not will or wish a song; serve a song.
Some songs, like political or historical songs, may not work exactly this way. In these cases, the-surround-the-topic approach at first might work best; getting all the information in place about a political event or historical event is important, and it must be impeccable. Like a poorly-chosen word, an incorrect piece of information will stand out and shatter the illusion and, therefore, any point you’re trying to make with the song will be lost. However, in serving this type of song, one might step back from the information once gathered and let the “take” on the information roll around in your head for a while. Let your thinking advise your approach so that, when presenting your take on the subject, it is refreshing and edifying. Again do the thinking about the song before writing.
Many of the exercises in my classes are the exact opposite of what I have said above. They fall into the category of “don’t think stupid; just do it!” Strangely enough, what I have said above can harness the immediacy of the “just do it exercise” when serving the song.