Lyricists and Composers are ‘Links in a Chain’ in Absorbing ‘More Songwriters on Songwriting’

Paul Zollo's book is a satisfying sequel in which composers from Paul Simon to Sia, Elvis Costello to Loretta Lynn, discuss their creative processes.

“Well, where could they come from but someplace else?” asks Rickie Lee Jones, responding to a question about the derivation of her songs on the occasions that they appear to arrive fully formed, as a message delivered from the ether. “When they come whole, it makes it feel like it’s somebody else giving me the work. But I don’t know. There are so many answers… When I write stuff, I always go, ‘Thank you so much.’ So if I answer truthfully, I feel like I’m talking to somebody else. Whether or not it’s my heart that is setting me free or somebody else’s, it feels like there’s somebody else to say thank you [to] for what happens.”

Jones’ mystical evocation of the song-writing process is one of the many gems of insight and perception offered in Paul Zollo’s More Songwriters on Songwriting. The book is the follow-up to Zollo’s 1991 volume in which composers from genres including pop, rock, jazz, country and R&B talked frankly about the craft of song-writing.

A musician as well as a music journalist, Zollo appears to have a gift for getting his interviewees to open up about their creative processes, and he does so again in this new edition, encouraging artists as diverse as Paul Simon, Sia, Richard Sherman, Joan Armatrading, Paul Anka, Peter, Paul and Mary, Alice Cooper, John Prine, Herbie Hancock, Joe Jackson, Richard Thompson and Aimee Mann to discuss their work with disarming candour.

Zollo opens proceedings this time out with an autobiographically-inflected “Introduction” which reveals something of his own background and musical influences. Pete Seeger’s definition of songwriters as “links in a chain” then informs the structure of the whole volume, as correspondences, contrasts and connections become apparent in the interviewees’ varied responses.

Byran Ferry (appropriately poolside) tells how the lyrics for “Avalon” came to be written in four different countries. Chrissie Hynde reveals the inspiration for “Brass in Pocket” and the surprising fact that animal rights activism is a principal motivation for her work. Elvis Costello and Patti Smith bring some fresh comments to the old debate about lyrics versus poetry. The self-deprecating Randy Newman speaks about the value of writing from a character’s perspective. The self-satisfied Bernie Taupin talks about developing many songs by beginning with a title.

Wry and slightly pompous, Leiber and Stoller effectively dethrone “the King” by revealing their dissatisfaction with the most well-known recording of one of their compositions. Loretta Lynn, straightforward and gracious, reminisces about the original ten-verse version of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (she was instructed by Owen Bradley to make some cuts) and offers perhaps the most beguiling piece of advice in the whole volume: “Write about the truth. If you write about the truth, somebody’s living that. Not just somebody — there’s a lot of people” (p.142)

A few drawbacks must be acknowledged. Several interviews would benefit from judicious editing (the conversations with Hynde and Smith are but two examples in which information is repeated in a rather irritating fashion), and while Zollo’s questions are by and large intelligent and well-informed a slightly fawning tone underpins the discussions with the author’s most admired subjects. Moreover, despite the heft and bulk of the volume, the focus remains highly North America-centric throughout.

Yet such shortcomings don’t prevent More Songwriters on Songwriting from being a very satisfying companion to it’s predecessor, a book that will absorb and inspire not only fans of the diverse featured artists but also students of song-writing more broadly. As Ferry puts it with charming simplicity: “I think people need songs in their lives. They always have and always will”(p.322).

RATING 8 / 10