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Dancer VIP: Judith Jamison – Alvin Ailey former Artistic Director

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Mario Spinetti – Your Song

Submitted by on 27 Jan 2009 – 8:27 PM Comments

We enter a floor of practice rooms “illegally,” using our former school ID’s. Down the hall is a teacher’s study, door ajar and decked to the nines with a grand piano, red velvet drapes, full-length mirrors, and air-conditioning; we’ll take it. For all the money apparently spent on scenery, the lighting is gruesome. But among three independent writers in the same boat, what’s a little more honesty?

Mario Spinetti: How do you define a song?

Damon Donau: Well, “Happy Birthday” is a song. It stems from melody. It has a theme. It’s a melodic expression of ideas.

Brandon Intelligator: But then there are bands like Autolux that make melody out of noise.

DD: That’s true, but I think a melody has to be singable.

MS: What about lyrics? The classic definition of a song is “lyric set to melody.” Yet some instrumentals are songs, like “Billy’s Bounce” by Charlie Parker, or any other number of [instrumental] jazz standards.

DD: I grew up a huge fan of The Who, and in the liner notes Pete Townshend was always credited as the writer, but occasionally Robert Daltrey would be credited with writing a song. After some research I discovered that he had just written the lyric, and that never sat well with me. A lot of the time a lyric is essential, but if you’re just writing the lyrics, that’s poetry! To me it’s more about the music, because you can sing gibberish, like jazz scatting, and it can be a song.

MS: Some might also say the power of a great song is to inspire. Is there a song that got you started on writing?

BI: Every song on Abbey Road (1969). I always thought that Beatles record was the way music was supposed to sound.

DD: Frank Sinatra. When I was six I won a talent show at the Mount Airy Lodge in the Pocanos singing “New York, New York.” I caught the crooner bug. Then, when I was 9, I became obsessed with Nirvana; Nevermind (1991) made me want to get a guitar and write music.

BI: Green Day was also huge for me in junior high. When I started writing songs I was always stealing Green Day tunes by accident. And that still happens.

DD: It still happens all the time.
BI: Picasso said, “good artists borrow, great artists steal.”

MS: Does adversity make for better songwriting?

DD: Personally, I’ve been dealing with a lot more “real-life” experiences since graduating from college. Stupid things, like struggling to pay rent. There’s a lot more “real” pressure than there was in college. So that puts me in a different place, and I have different things to say.
BI: Definitely. In college I actually wrote a song called “Han Solo” about Han Solo from Star Wars. Lyrics used to be such an afterthought for me. Now they’re completely in the forefront.

DD: When you start with a lyric it’s much different.
BI: It’s a little more honest. I sympathize with Damon. After college I was writing about the frustrations of not being able to find a job, and of course love is always at the forefront, so I started doing a lot of juxtaposition between the frustrations of finding a job and finding the right girl. Both equally frustrating!

MS: So you’re saying experience dictates style.

DD: Exactly! And there’s so much more freedom to that than just saying you’re going to write “pop music,” or “rock music.”

MS: Like the kid that says, “I’d like to be a pop star now.” Or worse, “I’d like to be a punk ‘artist’ now,” which is so different from the genre’s innovators, who grew up on the Lower East Side actually living the life.

DD: You can try and force this thing, but the best material just comes out of being yourself. I look back at what I used to write in college and it just seems so whiny and insecure. Now, out of school, I have my own convictions. I’m not trying to write about someone else’s. If I did, it would be hollow. When you find yourself really believing in what you’re saying, I could give a shit whether somebody agrees with it or not.

We kept on talking through most of the night, as songwriters are apt to do. I sat on and listened in marvel at all of the ways great songs had been written in the past. But the most striking moment to me was that last line from Damon. That’s what a great song is. Hell, that’s what great art is. If you want to be technical, a song should have a melody, and it may or may not have a lyric, but the bottom line is that in order for it to be substantial it has to come from a place of truth and experience — otherwise why write it?

Mario Spinetti