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Schooled! Songwriting with Ellis Paul

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Photograph of Ellis Paul by MacPolski
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The  local children’s museum often holds evening workshops for parents and educators.  I first met the museum director at one of these events.   The discussion that evening was on fostering creativity, and the museum director told the group that truly creative people are uniformly poor spellers.  He and I had never met, never spoken, yet in a room full of people, his smiling eyes met mine and the director said to me, “I bet you’re a terrific speller”.  Ouch.  Nailed.

So many years later, when musician Ellis Paul wrote “rhythmn” on the conference room board, I knew I was in the right place.  On a beautiful Sunday in July, creativity was brewing in a small back room in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  This was a master class on songwriting taught by professor Paul, the recipient of 14 Boston Music Awards and current nominee for “Best American Roots Songwriter” (Alternate Root’s Reader’s Choice Awards).

There were 15 students registered for the class, men and women from their 20′s to their 60′s.  Many came with guitar and half-written songs in hand.  One young woman brought the teacher a sweet bouquet of summer flowers.  I brought a sandwich and a good attitude.  I was there to listen and learn, and to gain a better understanding of how a songwriter crafts a song.

From the beginning, Ellis made it clear that “the principle word in songwriting is ‘writing’”.  The class was encouraged to write often, and write freely, allowing uncensored thoughts and ideas to flow through the pen onto an unlined page.  From those scribbled notes and random thoughts a song hook, a chorus, or theme might later appear.  We tried this, writing for several minutes in response to a single random word prompt.  I discovered quickly that my classmates were poets whose unstructured flow of words somehow set a scene, described an emotion, and built a story.  I was dismayed to find  my own writing littered with punctuation marks, my thoughts arrested by commas and handcuffed by periods.

As the class read their passages aloud, Ellis emphasized the natural punctuation that arises from word patterns.  Consonants can produce an invisible rhythm and act as timekeepers when repeated in series.  Alliteration lends a poetic turn to an otherwise ordinary phrase…suddenly, softly, the bliss of a kiss.

Ellis explained that every song should have a mission, a unique message or slant to deliver that will justify three or four minutes of the listener’s time.  The lyrics in support of that mission are used to describe the storyline, but not in absolute terms.  By providing sensory and other descriptors that trigger emotion and memory, the songwriter allows the listener to become a co-writer who will then interpret the song based on his or her own experience.

As an exquisite example of a song that uses sensory details to elicit an emotional response, Ellis offered “Angel from Montgomery”.  He asked the student seated to his right to sing the verse for the class, and encouraged the rest of the group to listen carefully for those details in the song that make every line real and authentic, and make it easy to believe John Prine when he sings “I am an old woman…”.

I had some difficulty concentrating on this task; Ellis failed to mention that his choice of singer was not random, and I fervently hoped that others would not to be asked to perform.  This sentiment was confirmed once the song began; Amy Black is a Boston based professional singer/songwriter who sang beautifully, accompanied by Ellis Paul on guitar.  Listen for the class and Ellis to join the chorus at song’s end.

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We then talked about the details in the verse and the emotion of the chorus that together describe a passionless life, and a longing for something more.  If dreams were lightning, thunder was desire, this old house would have burnt down a long time ago.  There is passion remembered… when I was a young girl well, I had me a cowboy… Ellis again directed our attention to the use of sensory details to bring the song alive… There’s flies in the kitchen; I can hear ‘em there buzzing… The song shows the old woman’s bitterness and depression without ever using those words.  How the hell can a person go to work in the morning and come home in the evening, and have nothing to say?

We played a game then.  Each student was asked to describe a famous person by listing physical and sensory details that would lead the other class members to guess the individual’s identity.  What items would you find in the person’s bedroom?  an empty perfume bottle, poetry books, an old baby blanket, an ink pen  What does this person see in the mirror?  a crooked smile, a covered blemish on the chin, wide eyes, sadness, a stranger  What color describes this person?  a mix of greys and blues  As one class member quickly listed these details, and the students began to discuss the clues, the gentleman seated next to me quietly crumpled a paper in his hand.  That paper said bat, ball, cap…  In his defense, let me just say that I firmly believe the Derek Jeter song would sell substantially more downloads than the Sylvia Plath tune.

As the class drew to a close, Ellis encouraged all of his students to keep writing, and to find a writing partner with whom to share ideas and perspectives.  He emphasized collaboration as a key component to successful songwriting; several of the students exchanged email addresses and pledged future contact.

It has been several weeks now since my first songwriting class, and I still smile when I think of an afternoon well spent.  Ellis had asked us a question, “When is the last time you allowed yourself the luxury of time to think about a song and allowed yourself the pleasure of writing?”  The answer is that it had been a long time and I truly enjoyed those few hours.  Have I since written a song?  Well yes, yes I have, and it’s very, very bad.  There’s some good news, though:  I don’t spell that well anymore, either.

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A special thank you to singer/songwriter Amy Black for allowing the posted audio file to be shared.  Visit Amy’s official website for more information including tour dates & locations, and song samples from her new album, “One Time” http://www.amyblack.com/

Thank you to master singer/songwriter Ellis Paul for lessons offered, good humor shared, and for inspiration given.  For more on Ellis, visit his official website: http://www.ellispaul.com/  Purchase his newest album, “The Day After Everything Changed”; you’ll be glad you did.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Louise #

    Thanks for this wonderfully written insider’s look at songwriting. It is not easy to write songs, I gather. Your humor and the little audio snippet of one of my favorite songs just added to the brilliance of this blog. Thanks again.

    September 7, 2011
    • tim gfearan #

      It helps to remember the lyrics of the master songwriters you’re studying.
      i.e….”If dreams were thunder,and lightning was desire”, is the line.

      September 7, 2011
      • Tim, there was certainly some confusion in class on this particular line! I decided to go to the source. Here’s John Prine singing “Angel from Montgomery” -

        The relevant lyric is at 1:07 of the video. He does sing “If dreams were lightning….” in this video clip. I know that Bonnie Raitt delivered the lyric differently, as you posted.

        September 7, 2011
  2. Louise #

    I love Bonnie Raitt’s version of Angel From Montgomery but until reading this blog and the comments I did not know that the words were changed in her recording. Thanks tim!

    September 7, 2011
  3. Blues Rider #

    “… my own writing littered with punctuation marks, my thoughts arrested by commas and handcuffed by periods.” Absolutely love your writing. Perhaps you don’t feel you can write a song, but you certainly weave a beautiful well-written blog. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your piece as well as occasionally chuckling. Superb.

    September 8, 2011
    • tim gfearan #

      I humbly stand corrected,On Tap!…..guess ive heard too many women singing Bonnies version.

      September 8, 2011
      • I’d say that Bonnie Raitt can sing that song anyway she likes, and I seriously doubt anyone will correct her! Thanks for stopping by, Tim. I’m very interested in songwriting and hope to get different writers’ perspectives on the art. If you have any suggestions regarding songwriters you’d like to hear from and/or discuss, please let me know. I’d appreciate your input.

        September 8, 2011
    • Thanks for reading and for your kind words, Blues Rider. I appreciate it very much! Songwriting is such an interesting topic to me. Ellis told the group that he usually lives and breathes a song for 48 hours. He gets the whole song down in draft form in just 2 days, and then usually edits the draft 3 times before it’s finished. I’m in awe of the whole process.

      September 8, 2011

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