by Harriet Schock
I tell my songwriting students this often. I tell myself this often. Songs are small things. Unlike a play or screenplay, songs can’t have a large cast or a bunch of subplots. If the idea of the song is “You are so beautiful to me…” then you simply say that and very little else. In fact, you should check out the lyric to that song. It’s astonishingly concise. Of course, I’m not saying every song has to be that truncated, although if it has a melody that good and that much emotion in the lyric with a vocal by Joe Cocker or Ray Charles, who needs more?
One of my favorite songs is “The Song Remembers When” by Hugh Prestwood. He simply writes vignettes of what the “I” in the song is doing—standing at the counter, rolling through the Rockies—when a song comes on and makes him (or when Trisha Yearwood sings it “her”) remember the relationship because the song brings it back. Now he doesn’t go into a dissertation on the time space continuum, he merely states that no matter how long a time has transpired, and no matter that he doesn’t even remember what went wrong in the relationship, when he hears that song, he’s right back with her. And he gives examples of how it happens, as well as making philosophical observations that are eloquent with the ring of truth. Consider this phrase about looking back on the old relationship, “But that’s just a lot of water underneath a bridge I’ve burned.” I use this as an example of brilliant craft that once you’ve broken the code of what he’s doing there, you can do it too. And you’d better be brilliant and eloquent because you don’t have much time to tell your story. It has to be a whole love story, or a whole life, or a whole movie with a plot even if no subplots—and it has to all happen in around 3 ½ minutes. So we don’t have time for non sequiturs and flowery language that doesn’t communicate.
Speaking of language that communicates, I have my students read Charles Bukowski’s free verse poetry for 4 things:
1) He says a lot in a few words
2) He uses conversational language
3) He writes very visually and
4) He uses irony in just about every poem.
I find that irony can’t be taught but it can be caught, like a cold. Somehow Bukowski’s irony is simply more contagious than other poets’ irony.
Sometimes at an open mic when I’d swear I’m hearing the plot of “War and Peace” crammed into someone’s original song, I want to suggest to them, loudly, that songs are small things. But when they’re written really well, we remember that diamonds are small things too.
Harriet Schock wrote the words and music to the Grammy-nominated #1 hit, “Ain’t No Way To Treat A Lady” plus many songs for other artists, TV shows and films. She co-wrote the theme for “Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks,” currently showing in 30 countries. She and her band were featured in Henry Jaglom’s film “Irene In Time” performing 4 of Harriet’s songs. She also scored three other Jaglom films and starred in “Just 45 Minutes from Broadway.“ Jaglom’s recent film, “The M Word,” features Harriet’s song “Bein’ a Girl,” performed on camera at the end of the film. Karen Black wrote the play, “Missouri Waltz,” around five of Harriet’s songs, which ran for 6 weeks at the Blank Theatre in Hollywood as well as in Macon, Georgia. In 2007, Los Angeles Women in Music honored Harriet with their Career Achievement and Industry Contribution award. Harriet teaches songwriting privately, in classes and a popular online course by private email.