Private Victories – Songwriting Outside Yer Head

One of my pivotal experiences as a songwriter was walking along a street in downtown Wellington in the mid eighties and hearing a steel worker high on a building site whistling along to a tune on his transistor radio. It happened to be a song I had written with the Narcs called (You Took Me) Heart and Soul. I went into a mental spin marvelling at how a song that had been inside my head was now inside his head; how my original personal thought had now become public property. Heart and Soul went on to win music awards but for me this was a better moment. It’s what Steven Covey would call a “private victory”.

It’s funny how songs get in. I seem to know a lot of songs without any idea of how I know them. There are songs from films (Goldfinger), old pop songs (Do- Wha- Diddy- Diddy- Diddy), war songs (It’s a Long Way To Tipperary) and other songs that just seem to have turned up (I Love to Go- A- Wandering, A Knapsack On My Back). Through nursery rhymes, school singing, church services and rugby club after-match parties these songs go in through our skins and into our DNA. Based on collective memory most people will know the opening line and a whole group of people can sing one of these songs together. Picture a New Year’s Eve party singing Auld Lang Syne and you’ll know what I mean.

Over the coming weeks we are interviewing musicians about coming onto next year’s Bay Of Plenty Polytechnic music course. Every year these interviews are interesting. They start out very formal because the nervous perspective students want to show their musical skills off – there’s pressure to impress. What usually brings these interviews to life is when I ask the questions “Do you write your own songs?” and “Can you sing me something you’ve written?”
It is amazing how many young musicians instantly produce a book of lyrics they have written and begin to sing. Almost without exception the songs are personal, powerful and are often very moving. The pressures of audition evaporate as the singer and the song take flight.
Why go somewhere to study song writing? There are many very good reasons. One of course is that early in your career you meet and collaborate with other songwriters and producers. You also have a chance to study the canon of great songs from Gershwin, Porter and Berlin through to Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Marley, Stipes and Dave Dobbyn. (How did “….otherwise fine” get under my skin?).

If you are inspired by the thought of becoming a songwriter get off the couch, grab a guitar and head down to your local Polytech to learn more about creating and recording great songs. You need a passion for music, a love of words and the desire to take the art of song writing to the next level.
One day you may even see shoppers tapping toes to your song in a supermarket queue. Not too long ago I was shopping in the Warehouse and heard another of my Narcs’ songs Diamonds on China, playing on the store’s in-house sound system. Right on the song’s bridge a checkout cashier crashed in with cheap microphone feeding back with the message “Lost child in aisle 10!”. Somehow it was perfect. Another private victory.
Written by Liam Ryan Thursday, 09 November 2006

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