Frank Zappa famously said, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” And I must admit that I do agree, at least to a certain extent. I mean, how can you possibly convey its magic, when of all of the emotional context, rhythmic feel, and textural nuance are absent from the dialogue? These four very different books all take a unique tack, with varied success.
BEATING SONGWRITER’S BLOCK
Jump Start Your Words and Music
by Gary Ewer (Backbeat Books)
Designed to inform newbies and pros alike, this tome covers an expansive list of topics, from defining what songwriter’s block is, to exercises to jumpstart your creativity, song structures, melodies, progressions, lyric writing, and even producing and marketing your songs. Each chapter contains extensive instruction, along with bullet points that encapsulate the overall message conveyed, as well as “Pro Tips” sidebars that give you real world solutions to your songwriting challenges.
One such section, titled “Sixteen Weeks to a Better You,” outlines a plan to writing a song every week for (you guessed it) 16 weeks. This chapter includes methods that help you set up a regimen that includes creative warm-ups, melody exercises, and even social media punishments (embarrassing things you post for missing your stated goals)!
Overall, I didn’t always agree with these methods or even the spirit behind them, but I would definitely turn to this book for a cursory look in the event I was less than prolific for a sustained period of time.
BEHIND THE BOARDS II
The Making Of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Greatest Records Revealed
by Jake Brown (Hal Leonard Books)
Now this is the kind of book I most enjoy reading. Usually.
Behind the Boards attempts to reveal the tricks, stories, and techniques employed in the making of some of rock’s most iconic records, with anecdotes from the actual engineers and producers whose tireless efforts and innovations created these timeless musical treasures. Songs like the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” by the Clash, Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” and the Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus” all seem ripe for juicy remembrances, technical insights, and wacky anecdotes, but every single chapter is weighed down by the super-clunky device of, in the publisher’s words, “seamlessly oscillating between narration and interview.” Seamless is not the word I’d use for this ultra-hackneyed approach, wherein the author tries (mostly unsuccessfully) to stitch together excerpts from the interviewees’ own books and writings with his own narrative, resulting in a muddled, uninteresting mess that oftentimes never even tells the story it purports to.
Case in point: The chapter devoted to the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” seems to chronicle the entire career of producer Chris Kimsey, via an ADD-like bouncing from topic to topic that is so completely convoluted that it doesn’t ever get around to focusing on the song’s legend, which I already knew via interviews and an autobiography by Keith Richards. A complete waste of time that reads like a really bad fifth grade book report.
A FRIEND IN THE MUSIC BUSINESS
The ASCAP Story
by Bruce Pollock (Hal Leonard Publishing)
Ordinarily, I would shy away from a book that seems so obviously about… lawyers, unless it was by written by John Grisham. But with a foreword by Quincy Jones and a preface by Lyle Lovett, I took a chance.
This hardback is actually a complete and fairly well-rendered accounting (pun intended) of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers and its 100-year-old history. The performance rights organization’s rise to dominance is followed from its initial formation (featuring such songwriting luminaries as Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin), through the payola scandals of the ’50s up to its modern-day navigation of emerging technologies. And, seemingly, every hurdle in between.
The never ending battle with BMI is a touchstone that drives much of their narrative, with scintillating tidbits like:
“Although they made as little headway against BMI as they were making against jukebox owners, ASCAP kept the lawsuits flowing.”
Which sounds great, except zzzzzzzzzz… zzzzzzzzzz… zzzzzzzzzz… oh sorry. Where was I? Mostly this is just a self-congratulatory love letter that ASCAP seems to be sending out to its membership and, presumably, potential members as well. It’s thorough, extremely well-researched and has some cool pictures of Stevie Wonder, Barbara Streisand, and Paul McCartney. A sleeping pill for the songwriting insomniac…
by Rosanne Cash (Penguin Group)
Admittedly, this book is a couple of years older than the others here, but at least this one’s got some meat on its bones! The multi Grammy-winning, multi-hair colored songstress dishes on all manner of topics, from what songs mean to her to music business infighting, husband stealing, and her relationships with both her famous father Johnny Cash and stepmother June Carter Cash.
Her openness and willingness to discuss any topic with unbridled frankness and enthusiasm brings a fresh, riveting perspective to many topics her fans have speculated upon for years.
I especially liked her discussion about writing the song “Black Cadillac,” which she came to realize was about her father’s passing, even though she had written it for her Aunt Louise some time earlier. She referred to this phenomenon as sending oneself “postcards from the future.” As I myself have experienced this as a writer, it was a concept I immediately connected with.
With Composed, Rosanne Cash reveals herself to be… an open book.
Apparently, I am much harder to please when it comes to books, rather than music. Fine. When they’re good, they’re good, right? That last one’s really good, as is the first one, albeit in a much more academic sense. .500 is a pretty good average, nonetheless.
Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning singer, songwriter, and record producer. He reunites with Peter Bolland and Michael Tiernan as Allied Gardens for Songwriters Acoustic Nights at Swedenborg Hall on July 20. The trio will be joined by the talented Joe Rathburn as well. A rare opportunity not to be missed.