By PAUL ZOLLO
Being a songwriter in the world is the best of jobs and the worst of jobs. It’s the best because we make songs. We make order out of chaos, and find harmony within the dissonance. We give meaning to an increasingly crazy world, and create something timeless in a time when nothing seems to last more than a moment. And we get to live inside of music, which remains one of mankind’s most beautiful forces, as mysterious as ever, and powerful.
But it’s also the worst job in many ways, not only for the decimation and reconstruction of this industry we once knew, but because being a songwriter is a vulnerable position to be in. To be a songwriter in this world –a creator of music – requires a singular sort of person. It takes someone who feels things deeply, deeply enough to reach down into that well of emotion and swirl of ideas, and capture it with the abstractions of music combined with the specificities of language.
Of course, the kind of person who wants to do that – and is capable of it, even creating an entire career of it – is the kind of person who feels things deeply. Who might overthink some things, or all things. Who might linger often on the edges of obsession if not in its very core. Such is the source of art. Everyone knows sorrow, among other dynamics, is often at the heart of songs. And someone who connects so directly with sorrow, or any intense emotion, is deeply hurt by criticism and rejection. So this songwriting thing can be painful. But it’s necessary pain.
It takes real courage to do what we do. It takes chutzpah, as my mother would say. Creative courage. This is the business of putting your heart and soul out in the world, where everyone feels free to criticize and tear down what you’ve done. And it hurts. Songwriters, except if they’re genuine hacks, feel this stuff to our cores. And when somebody tears into one of your songs, it’s like an arrow straight to the heart. Because, as Randy Newman told me, songwriting is “life and death.” It’s everything. Nothing means more. Few things achieve the kind of bliss a songwriter experiences after completing a great one. And few things hurt more than unwarranted criticism.
James Taylor kept going in the face of withering criticism from Rolling Stone. (Photo by Paul Zollo)
Sure, constructive criticism is good and even necessary. Not always invited, and should be offered only when asked. But destructive criticism, well, that is quite a different matter. Any kind of rejection can be hurtful. Yet this is a business, not a humane organization created to coddle songwriters. This is an industry, and those in charge necessarily want something from you they feel will sell. And they determine what will sell by what is presently selling. At this very second.
Which means they aren’t going to be looking for your most experimental work. As great as we know it may be. They are not looking to stretch the envelope in any way. They want something that fits directly into that envelope. As those of us who have done this for more than a few days knows well.
So your challenge as a songwriter becomes not only the writing of songs, but the ability to withstand criticism and rejection. If you are not derailed by it, you can stay on track. If it does stop you, however, you won’t make any progress. Louis CK, the great comic, spoke of bringing this wisdom to life – the wisdom to withstand circumstances that don’t work well for you. “As long as you don’t stop,” he said, “you are unstoppable.”
Few words matter more in the ongoing challenge of remaining an artist in this industry, and creating art you know can be successful, if it is given a chance. But this is what it takes, and examples which prove this are abundant.
Keep in mind that few things are more subjective than a response to music. Even collaborators of famous songs didn’t recognize what they had at first. The most famous example is the writing of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg. Arlen had composed its famous melody, but his lyricist, Harburg, didn’t like it at all. He had yet to write the words, and felt this was all wrong, too sophisticated – and “like a torch song” – for a little girl in Kansas.
Arlen, however, knew what he had. So he invited his neighbor Ira Gershwin to hear it, and Ira suggested he simplify the accompaniment, and “play it like a folk song.” When Yip heard it in this new setting, he recognized the beauty of this tune, and wrote the iconic words to it.
Dave Brubeck told me that when he brought “Take Five” which Paul Desmond composed on his suggestion to their drummer Joe Morello’s 5/4 groove, to Columbia Records, they didn’t want to release it: “You don’t know the fights we had,” he said. “It wasn’t in 4/4 time. The sales-people said it could never work. Well, they were wrong. It worked.”
To put it lightly. “Take Five” became the single most-played jazz record of all time. Yet those in charge were certain it couldn’t fly.
Record companies being wrong is nothing new, of course. Capitol Records, as well as every single American record company. except Vee-Jay, famously rejected the Beatles not once but many times. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that only singers can have hits in America – think Sinatra, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, etc. – but groups, no. And per usual, that prevailing wisdom was entirely wrong, based only on the past with no vision of the future (which was the British invasion, which changed popular music forever and gave Capitol Records and others American labels their greatest success ever.)
Tom Petty told me when he brought in Full Moon Fever, he was told his label wouldn’t release it. The reason? They didn’t “hear a hit.” He waited six months, by which time many of those executives who didn’t like it had been replaced. He brought in the same record, and they loved it. It became one of the greatest successes of an extremely successful career, garnering not one but four hit singles: “Free Fallin’,” “Running Down A Dream,” “I Won’t Back Down,” and “A Face In The Crowd.”
Tom Petty lamented that his label wouldn't release Full Moon Fever because they didn't "hear a hit." (Photo by Paul Zollo)
Ray Evans, who with his partner Jay Livingston composed several standards, including “Silver Bells,” “Mona Lisa” and “Que Sera Sera,” told me that every one of their famous songs was turned down and criticized.
“Every hit we had was turned down all over the place,” Ray said. “`Mona Lisa’ was not even going to be released. Nat King Cole said, ‘Who wants this? Nobody will buy this.’ … `To Each His Own’ was laughed at. They said, ‘Who wants a song with that title?’ … We played `Buttons and Bows’ for the head of Famous Music, and he said, ‘We might be able to get a hillbilly record out of it. That’s the best we can do.’”
Even the singers themselves often didn’t grasp the greatness of their material, none more famously than Doris Day, who would only do one take of “Que Sera” because she so hated it that she didn’t want to sing it twice. It became the greatest hit of her career, and her theme song.
“That’s nothing against her,” Jay said, “It’s just that nobody knows.”
Well, there is somebody who knows. That’s you. The songwriter. You know better than anyone – be it a critic, an executive, a singer, or even a spouse. You know what you’ve got. You need to trust your heart, and trust your song. And know you’re not alone. So many of the great songwriters I’ve interviewed told me they suffered because of criticism and rejection. Their years of success did nothing to protect them for this injury. Yet they used the pain to motivate them to move towards their next work.
Rickie Lee Jones said that she was singing at a campfire – years before she made her first album – and a total stranger insisted on telling her how awful her singing was. It made her cry. But she didn’t stop singing.
James Taylor told me that after Rolling Stone dubbed him the worst of all the “confessional songwriters,” it hurt him for years. But he kept going.
Paul Simon said he was so downhearted by the poor reception of his album Hearts and Bones that he felt nobody cared anymore, “nobody was listening.” But rather than indulge in self-pity, he followed his muse to South Africa and recorded the tracks that became Graceland. Figuring he’d lost his audience, he drowned his sorrow in music, and created a landmark in American popular music.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for a serious songwriter to pay attention to what [critics] say,” he said. “It’s just too hard. And it’s not informative. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Unless you write songs and make records, you just can’t know what it’s about.”
The moral, in the words of Ray Evans, is: “Never give up.” Being an artist in this world, and in this industry at this time, is bound to be painful. But that pain can be translated into song. You need to endure, and to keep going. The only thing that can stop you, ultimately, is you.
It helps to remember that what you do matters. Writing a song – in this world at this time – is a true achievement. The world doesn’t tell you to write songs. Often it encourages not creativity, but destruction. But songwriters bring songs to this world, and that is, as Van Dyke Parks said, “a triumph of the human spirit.” Whether one person hears your song or one million, it is a true triumph. Which is why I echo Bob Dylan’s remark, “Thank God for songwriters.”
Paul Zollo is the Senior Editor of American Songwriter magazine, and the author of Songwriters On Songwriting, Hollywood Remembered, and Conversations with Tom Petty. His next book is the sequel to Songwriters On Songwriting, which comes out in October with Da Capo Press, More Songwriters On Songwriting, with new interviews with Leiber & Stoller, Elvis Costello, Loretta Lynn, John Prine, Brian Wilson, Paul Simon, Randy Newman Chrissie Hynde, Stephen Stills, Kris Kristofferson, Herbie Hancock, Sia and many others. A Trough Records artist, his most recent album was Universal Cure. He wrote all the songs with Darryl Purpose on the chart-topping and critically acclaimed Still The Birds, and recently wrote two songs with Dan Bern for his next album. He has started work with Matisyahu on his memoirs. He hosts the live interview version of his book, Songwriters on Songwriting, LIVE - Interviews by Paul Zollo, recorded in front of a live studio audience at The Songwriting School of Los Angeles.
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