albums-that-made-me-a-better-songwriter

The Music Albums that Made Me a Better Singer-Songwriter

creativity, music, songwriting

It’s been a while since I’ve done a roundup of my favourite things, and if there’s anything that can make you a better musician, it’s listening to other musicians. Tom Waits said:

“For a songwriter, you don’t really go to songwriting school; you learn by listening to tunes. And you try to understand them and take them apart and see what they’re made of, and wonder if you can make one, too.”

Tom Waits

That sounds weird coming from me because I do go to a songwriting school, but while there are things to be learned at school, the best music education is undoubtedly listening to other people’s albums and learning covers. (For a long time, I rebelled against the idea of learning other people’s songs instead of writing my own, but there is much to be said in favour of it.)

So, here are some of the records that I’ve listened to over and over again until my ears bled:


Dory Previn – ‘Mythical Kings and Iguanas’


Dory Previn is a recent discovery of mine. She is honest and direct, though she sometimes masks pain with irony that makes you want to listen twice. She wrote lines such as “You can read the early paper/ And I can watch you while you shave/ Oh God, the mirror’s cracked/ When you leave/ Will you come back?/ You don’t have to answer that at all/ The bathroom door is just across the hall” in ‘The Lady with the Braid’.

She had a tragic life – a childhood with an abusive, mentally unstable father (which culminated in him keeping the whole family hostage for several months) and a failed marriage that ended with Dory being hospitalised. She wrote through it all, and she wrote fearlessly.


Joni Mitchell – ‘Clouds’


This album gave us ‘The Gallery’, one of my favourite Joni songs which happens to be about Leonard Cohen, and other gems like ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ and ‘Chelsea Morning’.


Bon Iver – ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’


There are lots of reasons to love this album. Lyrics is probably not one of them because most of it is gibberish that sounds good without meaning much. But the feeling in the songs is unmatched, and the story behind the album is one of the best since Thoreau’s ‘Walden’. Bon Iver hid out in a cabin in the woods to write this album after a heartbreak and recorded all of the songs with a shabby SM58. The production, the intimate feel of it, the idea of authenticity imbuing the album…a dream of songwriters everywhere.


Jeff Buckley – ‘Grace’


This album is on every musician’s list, for sure. For me, there is one song that stands out the most, and it’s an interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s ‘Corpus Christi Carol’. Not only the vocal technique is out of this world, but the feeling in the song washes over me and brings me to tears every time. Jeff Buckley didn’t agree about this, but I think he’s one of the best vocalists that has ever lived.


Nina Simone – ”Nuff Said’


No one grabs me by the throat as Nina Simone does. She internalises the world’s pain and makes grief universal in songs like ‘Mississippi Goddam’ and ‘Sunday in Savannah’. Knowing everything she risked with these songs takes my respect for her to a whole new level, and we’re not even talking about what a legendary pianist she is and how arresting her voice is. On this album, there are also some live recordings, and hearing her talk in between and during her songs is a gift.


Tom Waits – ‘Closing Time’


Tom Waits transports me to another world with his songs – to some version of a gritty America where feelings are more intense, beer is more bitter, lonely men sit in diners and women always leave. It’s a testament to the great songwriter he is that he can create a whole world out of a couple chords and some poetry. Listen to the whole damn thing, you owe it to Tom Waits and yourself.


Lou Reed – ‘Berlin’


I have always loved Lou Reed’s lyrics, and this album is him at his best. When it was released after his successful ‘Transformer’ album, it was dismissed as a commercial flop (not the first one that turned around for Lou Reed). Maybe it was just Lou Reed being ahead of his time because the album is considered a masterpiece now. It follows the story of two lovers – Caroline and Jim, and is filled with drugs, abuse, and general desperation, but it also has some of the best lyrics and imagery thought up by Lou Reed.


Eddie Vedder – ‘Into the Wild (Music for the Motion Picture)’


This is one of my favourite albums, but that might have a lot to do with the fact that I loved the film for which it was the soundtrack. There is a sense of freedom in the songs. Maybe it’s the careless strumming, the crack in Eddie Vedder’s voice, the lyrics. The album has pulled me through a lot of difficult times with the sense of hope and space it conveys.


Django Reinhardt – ‘Djangology (feat. St├ęphane Grappelli)’


Django is one of the most inspiring musicians I’ve ever heard of. After a terrible fire in the caravan he shared with his wife, the Romani-French guitarist suffered severe burns and lost the use of two fingers on his left hand. While doctors didn’t think he’d be able to play again, he persevered, developed his own technique, and became one of the best jazz guitarists of our time.


Carole King – ‘Tapestry’


There shouldn’t be any discussion about this: Carole King is one of the best songwriters in history. And ‘Tapestry’ brought us ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ (check out Aretha Franklin singing it while Carole King watches!!), ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow?’, and ‘It’s Too Late’.


PJ Harvey – ‘Uh Huh Her’


I love albums that feel complete to me, and ‘Uh Huh Her’ feels like a beautiful whole, with seagull sounds, soft songs, hard songs, instrumental bits. It’s also undeniably PJ Harvey. For a songwriter, it’s a lesson in continuity, comprehension, and lyrics such as “When I was younger/ I spent my days/ Wondering to whom/ I was supposed to pray/ It’s you” in ‘It’s You’.


Alice Coltrane – ‘Journey In Satchidananda’


Everybody knows John Coltrane because… well, he’s a genius. But so was his wife. I was introduced to this album by a nerdy musician friend, and I was sold. Where should I start? First of all, she’s a jazz harpist. But she is also a swamini, an ascetic, and this album is heavily influenced by traditional Vedic chants. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard, and if you’re interested to find out more about her, I recommend you read this piece about her in ‘The New Yorker’.

best-books-for-songwriters

My Favourite Books for Songwriters

artist, creativity, music, productivity, songwriting

For those of you who don’t know me – I LOVE reading. Not just love. LOVE. For someone who hasn’t lived in the same place for longer than four months in the last three years, I have a lot of books. And since I’m a songwriter, a lot of them are inevitably about writing and music. So, I thought I’d share my thoughts on my favourite ones with you.


On inspiration and creativity

‘Big Magic’ by Elizabeth Gilbert

big-magic-elizabeth-gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert is the woman that brought us ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, inspiring people all over the world. ‘Big Magic’ has a different purpose. It doesn’t talk about how to become a bestselling author or how to embrace your wild, creative dreams. Instead, it focuses on small victories, on how to live a creative life without harbouring unrealistic expectations. Gilbert writes about her own life, her process, and how creating in itself should be the goal. It’s the book to read when you’re feeling stuck, or when you don’t know why you’re doing it anymore.

‘Writing Down the Bones’ by Natalie Goldberg

This is the best book on writing and inspiration I have ever read. Natalie Goldberg gets down to the joy of writing, incorporating Zen practice and meditation into her teaching. The love she has for writing and creativity is so contagious it will make you want to throw aside the book and start writing. Which is exactly what books like these are supposed to do anyway.




On lyrics

‘Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting’ by Jimmy Webb

tunesmith-jimmy-webb

This is probably the most thorough book on songwriting I’ve ever read. It’s written by one of the greatest songwriters of our time (think ‘Wichita Lineman‘ and ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix‘) and gives amazing insights into how professional songwriters work. Webb dedicates a whole chapter to his writing process, describing in detail how he starts and finishes a song. It’s a book for more advanced songwriters, as it deals with some theoretical concepts and frameworks beginners might not be familiar with, although Webb briefly explains all the terms he uses. He also delves deep into melody and harmony, which a lot of books on songwriting fail to do.

‘The Songwriter’s Idea Book’ by Sheila Davis

songwriters-idea-book-sheila-davis

Sheila Davis has several books to her name that have become required reading in music courses. In this book, she talks about how personality types influence the way we write and think about our work, and offers 40 strategies for writing a song. She talks about everything from rhetoric devices and figurative language to plot strategies and the importance of a good title, but the main emphasis of the book is on ‘whole-brain writing’ and how our personality influences our productivity.


On music business

‘How to Make It in the New Music Business’ by Ari Herstand

This book is the Bible of the music business for independent musicians. Ari Herstand – a DIY artist himself – talks about everything you might want to know. Although parts of the book focus specifically on the US, most of it is geared towards musicians everywhere. He gives practical tips and provides strategies, timelines for releases, and templates for emails. It’s the most hands-on book on music business I’ve read so far.

‘The Art of Asking’ by Amanda Palmer

Although technically it’s not about the music business, it taught me more about how to handle my career than most other books that are. Amanda Palmer – a DIY legend – writes about how she started out, the innovative (read: crazy) strategies she used to build a fanbase, the work that went into her Kickstarter campaign, and the mental toll of it. It’s not a step-by-step guide by any means, but the creativity with which Amanda Palmer built her music career from the ground up is so inspiring, it will spark interesting marketing ideas in any songwriter who reads it.


On recording

‘The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook’ by Bobby Owsinski

If you’re like me and don’t have the money to record in a studio and pay a mixing engineer, this book is a great guide to start your research with. There are a lot of good Youtube videos out there to help you with whatever DAW you’re using, recording techniques, etc., but it can be hard to find good videos on mixing. This book, however, has everything. Owsinski talks about dynamics, effects, dimension, frequency. The book also includes interviews with producers/mixing engineers like Bob Brockman, Dave Pensado (who also has a great podcast on music production called ‘Pensado’s Place‘), and Ed Stasium.


If you have any other recommendations I haven’t mentioned, let me know in the comments!