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San Francisco - Songwriter/Composer Series Featuring Enrique Gonzalez Müller & Matt Nathanson
Photo: Enrique Gonzalez Müller and Matt Nathanson at the Songwriter & Composer Series at the Swedish American Hall in San Francisco. (Photo: The Recording Academy)
[On March 21,2012] the San Francisco Chapter of NARAS (the GRAMMYs) held the first in a series of workshops about the craft of songwriting. Asked to speak about creativity, producer/engineer Enrico Gonzalez Muller and singer-songwriter Matt Nathanson presented two sometimes wildly divergent perspectives on craft.
Mueller (not surprisingly as the engineer) mostly took a regimented after-the-fact problem-solving approach, while Nathanson focused on finding a unique voice and having the courage to hear it unimpeded by outside noise.
Photo: Enrique Gonzalez Müller discusses the craft of songwriting at the Songwriter & Composer Series at the Swedish American Hall in San Francisco. (Photo: The Recording Academy)
Mueller stressed the importance of taking time after a song kernel is formed to get perspective, advocating a period of what could be called “forced forgetfulness.” The song is “written,” you take a vacation from it, and then come back to listen when you’ve (as much as one can) forgotten that you are the author. He stressed that the first listen after forced forgetfulness offers precious insight into how a listener will perceive a song, insights that will be lost after repeated listens, when the brain has become acclimated and the song never sounds foreign again.
He then outlined the four elements that he, as a collaborator, listens for to decide whether improvements can be made: structure (e.g., intro, verse, chorus), section length, musical content (e.g., harmonic choices), and dynamics. Using audio examples, he demonstrated how changes to one or all of these elements can dramatically alter the feel of a song. At this early stage of production, he said he takes no note of lyrics, preferring to hear them like the Peanuts characters hear the adults, as unintelligible pieces of sound.
And this presented perhaps the most interesting moment of the evening, as Matt Nathanson jumped in to say that for him, lyrics are the most important part of a song, and that he labors, sometimes for years, to perfect them. Ultimately, the two came to agreement that lyrics can be essential (as in a Bob Dylan, Suzanne Vega or Leonard Cohen song), or they can be throwaway if musical ideas are strong enough to carry the song. Tellingly, Nathanson admitted, despite being an avowed music fanatic, that he remembers very few lyrics except his own.
Photo: Matt Nathanson discusses the craft of songwriting at the Swedish American Hall in San Francisco. (Photo: The Recording Academy)
Nathanson was similarly open about his artistic struggles, confessing that creativity is “not my friend.” He stressed that success (in his case in the form of a wildly successful radio hit) can be creativity’s worst enemy, because it lures you toward wanting to satisfy an outside audience more than yourself. In trying to unlock the magic formula that leads to success, the artist’s unique perspective (and connection to the creative spark) can be lost.
The art of songwriting is equal parts hard work and fairy dust. Thanks to the generosity of the presenters, the audience left with tools for the work and tips for finding the fairy dust.
To view more photos from this event, check out our media gallery.