Wednesday, October 21, 2020

A songwriter’s guide to formative albums

It feels convoluted to say so, but I am a songwriter. I don’t say this because I think I’m particularly good at it, I don’t proclaim to be a font of talent, but I like to think I know good lyricism when I hear it. And I also don’t want to dismiss the creation of melody and composition. But since that is something I can’t claim to know much about, I won’t insult anyone by trying to write about it. Now I was in English class, I know there are people who dismiss the lyrics as just trimming or frills on the song and don’t want to dive into deciphering the meaning. People’s disdain for poetry was not lost on me and still isn’t. I feel like everyone subconsciously ties analysis of lyrics back to English classes so there’s an assumption you can’t have fun listening to the lyrics. 

Let’s free ourselves of that for the time being shall we?

I do listen to lyrics when I listen to music and I mean REALLY listen to them. So I had an idea. I thought I would take you guys on a little journey, assuming you’d like to come along for the ride, to explore some of the albums I grew up listening to that really influenced my direction as a singer-songwriter.

Okay so listen, this article is very much going to make it seem that I grew into being a music snob from a young age. I’d like to pre-empt this by saying I listened to Nickleback all the time, I wanted to be Shakira, I worshipped Pink, I went through a massive Avril Lavigne phase; I wasn’t really into exploring music until I was older and the only reason I know about this music is because my parents listened to it. I had a foundation provided by my parents. I still think these artists are awesome and music snobs are one of my biggest pet peeves as a species. I’m all for people listening to whatever it is they want to listen to. However, while I loved these artists for sometimes lengthy periods of time, they didn’t influence my writing – these albums did:

Blue – Joni Mitchell

I’ve found that being a female singer-songwriter is not the easiest. It’s hard to gain any real recognition; women in music have historically been written off as a side-line act, especially when there isn’t a mass amount of production on their tracks. Therefore, as just a girl with her guitar, I find Joni’s album Blue all the more inspiring. The album is simple enough: her, a guitar, a piano and a dulcimer and that’s really all she needed. It’s been heralded as one of the greatest albums of all time, is number three on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 albums list (this is the highest position a woman has ever held on this list) and was given a Grammy Hall of Fame award. In this album you see her masterfully write about the dissolving of several relationships and her experiences traveling while on a break from performing.

Whether or not you love her voice, you can’t deny she has masterful control over her it and it’s one with character. The melodies she chooses to pair work effortlessly together, and needless to say – really, really great lyrics: timeless, relatable, and clever.

Songs that had me hooked: This Flight Tonight (later covered by Nazareth), Blue, Little Green……….. all of them, please listen to all of them. The album is a masterpiece.

Steady On – Shawn Colvin

This is an album I always come back to. I had a Shawn Colvin CD in the car when I was really little so these songs are burned into my subconscious and normally I don’t enjoy that but I never get tired of these songs. She grew up listening to people like the Kingston Trio and Pete Seeger, hopped from bar to bar performing in Illinois back in the 80s. This narrative is all sounding very familiar and relatable to me. It was when she moved to Berkeley, California that she found her footing in folk and started making the music she’s known for. After being hired to tour with Suzanne Vega she was signed to Columbia Records and a hop, skip and a jump later she released her debut album Steady On in 1989.

Her voice has a lovely soft quality to it but holds weight, it has impact. The production of the album is very much in keeping with the decade it was made in – interesting percussion, solid guitar riffs and interlocking melodies. And of course, excellent use of lyrics to weave great imagery.

Songs that had me hooked: Shotgun Down the Avalanche, Diamond in the Rough, Cry Like an Angel

Sounds of Silence – Simon & Garfunkel

Come on, they’re prolific, I had to include them. I retain Paul Simon is one of the best songwriters of all time anyway, his solo stuff is incredible, but this album really had an impact on me. Sounds of Silence was their second album, the title of which was slightly modified from their first ever hit ‘The Sound of Silence’. Actually, fun fact, the only entirely new composition on this album was their song ‘Blessed’. Several of the songs had been released on their album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. and more had been on The Paul Simon Songbook, released 1965 in the UK.

Simon & Garfunkel are known for their harmonies, so I won’t even go into it (I could ramble about it though, I think harmonies are one of the most under-utilized tools in music right now). The guitar playing is something to aspire to for all lyrical guitar players and the lyricism for all writers. They have a knack for making something mundane sound magical. Listen to the song suggestions for examples of that.

Songs that had me hooked: Kathy’s Song (one of my favorite songs of all time), April Come She Will, Leaves That Are Green

New Moon Shine – James Taylor

I didn’t quite realize how much music this man had made until I looked into trying to pick a favorite album of his to talk about (which was hard by the way). This was his 13th studio album and went certified platinum, like pretty much everything else he does. Taylor started playing guitar at age 12 and his style evolved through influences of Woody Guthrie, hymns and carols. As such, even in his lyricism has a very narrative style. He soon became a master of finger-picking bringing in his training on the cello and his knowledge of the piano. As he grew older he started listening to blues and folk and his style evolved ever more. He channelled his personal struggles with addiction and self-doubt into some pretty stellar music.

His voice is smooth and well-rounded, he has a gift for timing and phrasing that’s liberally seen throughout all of his work and I think it’s especially prevalent in New Moon Shine. While he shines just on his own with a guitar, the production on every song is varied, keeping it interesting, while still playing to bring you back to the lyrics.

Songs that had me hooked: Copperline, Shed a Little Light, The Frozen Man

Rumours – Fleetwood Mac

And last but never ever ever ever ever least: Rumours. I don’t really know how to do this album justice and I certainly don’t know how to convince you to go listen to it, in my mind its existence does that for itself. It was Fleetwood Mac’s eleventh studio album released in 1977. It was produced with the intention of creating a ‘pop’ album: it crosses the boundaries between pop, folk and soft-rock. Nicks, Buckingham and McVie all worked individually writing lyrics and occasionally shared them with each other; ‘The Chain’ is the only song that all members collaborated on. As a result this album has a consistent sound but no consistent tone or topic, keeping it interesting.

It is a stellar combination of harmonies, mastery of every instrument used (pay special attention to guitar licks and drums on Fleetwood Mac songs, they’re awesome), and clever, heart-breaking lyrics about the demise and building of relationships within the group.

God it’s hard to narrow this one down but…

Songs that had me hooked: Never Going Back Again, Songbird, The Chain


So bottom line is, I’ve been very lucky to have wonderful writers to look up to and inspire my writing and this is the tip of the iceberg of great writing out there. I implore you all, the next time you listen to music you love, try listening for the writing, it’s often surprising how much it can add to the experience. 

- Chloe Boehm



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