Thursday, August 21, 2008

Song School Installment Three: Josh Ritter (now LONGER)

I've been listening to The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter rather obsessively for the past few weeks. I knew he would be at Song School and the RMFF so I wanted to be prepared. I had various songs by him on various mixes from Nate, but I wanted to really give him a listen. This just got me more excited.

As I said previously, Josh missed the first day of Song School due to flight problems. The second day, Tuesday, I wasn't sure if he was there. There had been no announcement and no one had said "Hey! There's Josh Ritter!" So at 1:30 I went to the Mountain Lion Tent where his session was supposed to be. I was the only one there. I decided not to move--to sit in faith that Josh Ritter would appear. A guy named Ken appeared and we discussed the chances of this deal actually going down. Ken decided to take action (good man!) and go ask somebody. There I sat, alone in the Mountain Lion Tent, when in walked Josh Ritter. I wasn't actually sure it was Josh Ritter. But I said, "Hi, I'm Emily" and he said, "Hi, I'm Josh Ritter." So, yes, no question about it...Josh Ritter. And there we were alone in the Mountain Lion Tent.

But as soon as people could see that there were people (me and Josh Ritter) in the Mountain Lion tent they began to come. I was afraid it would be huge, but it was only fifteen or so people. Let me just say, that Josh Ritter looks like he's 15--maybe 20. He was very nervous. He said had never taught anything before and was quite unsure what to expect from us or what we expected from him. He said he had a bottle of whiskey in his bag should worse come to worst. But we were very easy and he was great.

He had seven or eight principles of songwriting to share. Two that have really stuck with are 1) never use cliches and 2) mulch your ideas. Cliches are the easy way out. We should strive to say things--convey our ideas--craft words so perfectly that we create the new cliches. As songwriters we should be writing so beautifully that people will borrow our wording.

The mulching is a little harder to explain. Josh said that he rewrites and edits...well...a lot. He said he works with an idea for as long as he can until he is certain it simply isn't going to work and then he mulches it. He visualizes chopping off the idea and letting it drop to the floor. Then, all his future ideas, all his potential ideas eat it. They cannibalize it. It becomes mulch or compost and feeds his future ideas. It's the conservation of energy--nothing is lost. Even though it may be frustrating to strike a thought you have put a lot of thought or energy into, it isn't lost. It feeds your future ideas. Parts of it may emerge later in another form.

We talked for a long time. It was very conversational, very participatory. Then someone (Sarah Sample, I think) suggested he sing a song for us and then tell us about his songwriting process. He played The Temptation of Adam, Kathleen and a new one called Folk Bloodbath. It was awesome. He closed his eyes and smiled and sang his heart out right there in the tent for the 15 of us. Ahhhhhh.....

Nate wanted more details, so I thought I'd tack some on.

Regarding The Temptation of Adam, Josh said that he had been mulling over the concept of this song for some time. He had the story. He specifically had the ending in mind--"I look at the great red button and I'm tempted"--and had to work backwards to fill in the story/events that precede it. He did a lot of research about missle silos. It sounds like he reads a lot. I think he was speaking specifically of this song when he talked about his rewriting and editing process. He will write the same song over from multiple points of view, with different rhyme schemes, in differet meters until he finds what works best. I can't say that I've ever been that committed to a song--to keep rewriting it?!

Another thing he talked about, which I loved, was debunking the myth of "the artist." A person doesn't have to be mentally ill, or medicated, or wacky to be an artist. Josh admonished us to be healthy, go for a run, get a good night's sleep and go buy groceries--"you'll write better." He also said that crediting being an artist or crediting "genius" for great songs does everyone a great disservice. It devalues the work of the songwriter. Songwriting is a craft, not an art--through discipline and work songwriters hammer together words into songs. To say that someone writes good songs because they are an artist implies that songs magically appear. It implies lack of effort. It implies ease. It also implies that you have to be a certain type of person (ie: unhealthy, medicated, wacky, up all night, messy, difficult, etc--you know the stereotype) to create good work. That was affirming to a fairly straight-laced gal like myself. It is also great to think that I can improve. It's not some gift and you take it or leave it. It's a craft and you learn it and practice it and improve it.

Regarding "Kathleen," Josh mentioned something about getting into a fight at a Dunkin' Donuts and somehow that tied in to the writing of the song. I never quite made the connection, but it was funny to imagine him getting in a fight at Dunkin' Donuts.

Clearly, I'm all out of good details.

Song School Second Installment: Melissa Ferrick

I took a class with Paul Reisler called Directed Writing, which was great but sort of intense and structured. It was 2-1/2 hours three mornings in a row. Most classes just met once. Everyday there was a morning session, lunch and then two afternoon sessions and open mic in the evenings. After the first Reisler class I wanted something more loosey goosey. There was an afternoon session with Josh Ritter scheduled but his flights had been screwed up and he wasn't there yet. I saw "Creative Songwriting Group" with Melissa Ferrick. The schedule offered no descrition of what this entailed and that appealed to me.

I had heard Melissa Ferrick's name before but hadn't heard her music and hadn't seen her yet at Planet Bluegrass. So, I was walking into who-knows-what. I soon found that she is a gem. She is super skinny hipster with black hair and big black rimmed glasses. She spent most of the time sprawled out in the grass while the rest of us sat in chairs in a circle. Her tour manager Bubba was with her and he is a delightful and charming guy.

The class was nothing earth shattering. We did a brainstorm cluster on paper. We all started with the work rock and did a word web/diagram thing. After a few minutes, everyone had riffed on "rock" and had a page covered in words. Our next task was to take 15 minutes and freewrite, trying to connect words from opposite sides of the page. This was good fun. When came back and read aloud what we had written. Some of it nonsense. Some of it hilarious. Some of it genius and some of it intriguing and worth pursuing in further writing. The best thing was just Melissa's vibe. She is smart and funny and open. She'd point out what she thought were interesting phrases or ideas. The group was full of great people too. Everyone pitched in and discussed the writings of others. It was nice to do something immediate--talk about a process, jam through it, write and share. Invigorating. At the end, Melissa had us all commit to something off our page to write about it.

Then she played a few songs. And members in the class played songs and she offered suggestions and comments. It was a very fun, very relaxing hour or so. Just what the doctor ordered.

Melissa gave us her cell # and told us that if we did actually write a song to call her or find her so she could hear it. Or if we had questions or wanted help/input on anything, we should track her down--she was at Song School all week and didn't play the festival until Sunday, so she would be accessible. Very generous.

I had chosen to write a song based on a riff I got into about gold lamE. If I knew how to make an accent, that would be a lower case e with an accent--shiny metalic fabric. You know what I mean, right? The ideas bumbled around in my head. Over the course of the evening they started to take shape. In the morning I sat out with my coffee, my notebook and my guitar and wrote and wrote. I wrote and crossed out and wrote more. I went to class but gold lamE was rattling around in the background. I ate my lunch, scribbled in my notebook, and noodled on the guitar and by the time for the next class Gold LamE was mostly complete.

I knew Melissa was having class in the same tent as the day before, The Spider Tent near the main stage. So after my afternoon session--with Josh Ritter who finally showed up (more on JR in Installment Three)--I walked over to find her. I started to feel sheepish. Really? I'm really going to walk up and just play this song? But I had no reason to believe that Melissa was anything but geniune when she said to do so and my mantra for the week was "this is your one shot at this, so take it." So, I walked up and announced that I had a song to play. After some initial bumbling and trying to remember--my brain was filled with Josh Ritter songs--I played it.

Melissa and Bubba's reaction was beyond what I could have imagined. They loved it. They asked me to play it again. We talked about where the lyrics were a bit rough and threw around ideas for patching them up. Melissa said, basically, that she thought this song should be cut in Nashville...and did I know her good friend Lori McKenna? And when I got home my first order of buisness was to demo this song and email it to Melissa so she could pass it on to Lori and whoever else she thought might be able to help me.


Lori McKenna is a Boston songwriter. Faith Hill cut like five of her songs on her last album and Lori has been the opener for Faith's tour.

If the story ends here I can still die a happy woman. That sort of affirmation does not grow on trees, my friends, and the sentiment alone made my week. If actions follow and something...anything...whatever...happens as a result of this amazing moment in time, well it will be the icing.

The next day Bubba tracked me down with a new plan. He thought that waiting for me to demo the song might take a while (true...though I have recording equipment in my possesion I still haven't done it...maybe tomorrow) so he wanted to video tape me playing Gold LamE. That way he'd have it on him if opportunity arose. So on the last night of Song School I sat in the Wildflower Pavillion and Bubba Mack, Melissa Ferrick's tour manager extrodinaire, videoed me singing my new song.

Once I record it, I'll see if I can't find a way to post it here so you can all hear me channelling my inner Dolly Parton.

So, I love Melissa Ferrick. Not only because of her kindness to me, but because she is funny, a fantastic songwriter and an amazing performer. Her set rocked. Hooray for Melissa Ferrick.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

First Installment

I just got back last night from my week at Planet Bluegrass in Lyons, Colorado. I am still unpacking and processing but I wanted to post a couple of incredibly cool items to give you a hint, a smidge, a clue about just how amazing the four days of Song School and three days of the Folks Festival were.

Click here to read the article with which this photo of me and Josh Ritter (and some other people, but it's me and Josh Ritter who are important) was published. It's about The Song School and I am quoted. Thank you, Denver Post for making a public record of this!

And, this is one just makes me happy, click here to see my name mentioned in Melissa Ferrick's blog.

Aaaaaahhhh. Good stuff. More to come.