Have you ever witnessed the birth of a song? Unless you’re a composer of tunes, maybe not. But Andy Robinson wants you to know that there’s nothing magic about it…in fact, at his Songwriting Workshops, all are welcome, from the veteran songwriter to the person with a scrap of lyric written on a cocktail napkin.
The story of how Robinson started the workshops is a bit of a tale. As a musician and songwriter from San Diego, he’d played with many bands and written many songs. His self-described “folky” songs, he thought, might be able to be fashioned into country hits, so the president of Vanguard Records set up some meetings in Nashville, arguably the songwriting Holy Land.
“I loved Nashville,” Robinson says. “I met with Jim Rooney (who produced Garth Brooks and John Prine). I go to see him and the AR at Warner Bros Nashville. I play my songs, and the upshot of that was I learned exactly why my songs would not work for these artists that I thought they would work for. These people would say why they wouldn’t use this song for so and so. I learned that I’m not that songwriter. I was fascinated by the fact that here’s a city of people who know what they want. They just write songs all day long—these people live and die by songs. A record doesn’t get made unless someone thinks it is a hit song.”
As he tells it, he came home to San Diego and decided that composing songs tailored for the hit factory wasn’t for him. “I write for myself,” he said. But he did make his way to Los Angeles, where he attended several different songwriting workshops, just to polish his craft. The idea of full-hearted collaboration is key to the success of the songwriting group. All are welcome, and experience is not a disqualifier. “It’s not about me being an expert or about you being an expert,” Robinson notes. “It’s about all of us trying to write a good song—how our songs affect other people and doing it in a way you don’t usually get to do.”
From a background peppered with interestingly named bands (Horsefeathers and Elton Duck are just two), Andy Robinson spent 1976 moving to LA and getting serious about the music business. He picked up the mountain dulcimer but decided to team up with synth players. “The guys had more equipment on stage than any 10 bands I’d seen,” he notes. The band, Invisible Zoo, had a song played in various markets, at KROC and around the US. “It didn’t translate to us making a living, but it was fun.”
He went through several iterations of bands, including the Andy Robinson Band, the Questionnaires, and A Different World, a band that signed with the Vanguard label (Allison Brown and Peter Case were on it) “and we were one of the first three new albums to come out on Vanguard.” The band broke up “like bands do,” but it made Robinson realize that maybe he would prefer to go it alone. “I ended up releasing solo instrumental albums. It was really fun because I didn’t have to be reliant on four people. I could hire anyone I wanted to come in and play.”
When he decided to focus on songwriting and solo performance, he started to attend songwriting workshops, most of which were not particularly helpful. “In LA, sometimes people would get a little cantankerous,” he says. “The groups were a lot larger, and the guy facilitating would have to say time, let’s move on, or they wouldn’t get everybody in. That’s why I think it’s important for people to write down their thoughts. With a big group, that written aspect gets overlooked.”
He did go to one, in Los Angeles, where the format was so much different. “You play a gig and ask people if they liked the songs, and they always say something positive. But it’s so different playing a song with other songwriters and having them comment on things like ‘I love the melody, but I don’t understand how your chorus relates to your verse.’ It blew me away.”
In that LA workshop (on which he’s patterned his current class), people wrote down feedback for each song or fragment or lyric, and the feedback was given to the songwriter to take home and study if they wanted to. “You saw commonalities in the critiques,” he says. “If four out of seven people are telling you they don’t understand what you’re writing about…if you’re open to it, all of a sudden you think, ‘they were actually paying attention.’” Gold for any songwriter: real constructive criticism.
“And we haven’t had one fistfight!” he jokes. “Here, it’s generally mellow people. It’s hard not to get defensive when someone is talking to you about your song, so we emphasize kindness. If we have time, we have longer conversations. There’s a lot more time to chat with a smaller group.”
Veterans and newbies alike can get something out of the sessions. “Everyone is going to be learning something. I’ve seen people exchange numbers, collaborate on songs. Someone might not know if they can write a song, but more experienced people can point out different things to consider. Some people come in and don’t know anything about song structure. You might find a collaborator.”
Robinson worked for many years producing instructional videos for a sheet music company and then went on to be the public relations liaison for Taylor Guitars. But since retiring, he devotes his time and energy to songwriting and being the music doula to other budding composers.
“At first I tried it with just my friends and just had meetings at my house, but many of them weren’t that into improving their songwriting,” he says. “So, I decided I wasn’t going to target my friends. I reached out through Facebook and went onto the SD Singer Songwriter page and put the word out. Then I started using Meetup, and that’s where I got most of the people who are semi-regulars now. It’s like anything on Meetup…it shows we have 93 members, but average attendance is 6, and if I get 9, that’s great. I don’t care. I just care about who shows up and if they get something out of it. People come and get excited, and some come once and I don’t see them again. It’s all fine because the people who appreciate it really get something out of it.”
Rick Lee, a local singer-songwriter with a band called Strange Brew (http://www.strangebrewmusic.com), is one of the group’s regular participants. “You never know who might show up or how interesting their material maybe,” he said. “There are all types of songwriters who come. Some even bring their recorded song to the session. I’ve brought several other songwriting friends to Andy’s session, and they’ve all had positive things to say about it.”
Dave Michaels, songwriter and recording engineer running the Sanctuary Lab, came to know about Andy Robinson when judging a contest curated by Cathryn Beeks called The Game. He chose Andy’s song, then titled “Real World” (now titled “Funnybone.”) After choosing Robinson as the winner, the engineer recorded the song at the Sanctuary and worked on it with the songwriter. “He has a real knack for telling a story with a wholly unusual point of view, and his instrumentation (which is mostly acoustic instruments played by himself) is cleverly written to complement the story with. His voice is very distinctive.”
Michaels has attended several of the workshops and seen many musicians grow, share, and learn under this unique mode of collaboration. “It’s a great set up for artists interested in learning to increase their skill levels in songwriting,” he said. “I’m honored to be in the group. What I like about the way he interacts with all the songwriters is the methods he uses to encourage other players with a functional/educational approach with very useable ideas. The writers take away real changes and ideas that help improve their tune. He participates with a full and kind heart…He’s one of those rare individuals who make a difference when they arrive.”
Vocalist/guitarist Suzanne Shea (https://www.suzannesheamusic.com/) has attended the songwriting meetup about five times. “I like to emphasize to all that the general feel of Andy’s Songwriter Meetups is very welcoming and comfortable, no stress! Sitting comfortably in a semi-circle and no need to use PA equipment, it’s just casual and comfy. Andy sets the tone for the event and reminds everyone to stay honest, yet positive in their feedback. Offering some options and ideas for the writer to consider. It’s very helpful to a writer to know if others who hear the song are getting the story or message the writer is shooting for.”
The idea of full-hearted collaboration is key to the success of the songwriting group. All are welcome, and experience is not a disqualifier. “It’s not about me being an expert or about you being an expert,” Robinson notes. “It’s about all of us trying to write a good song. How our songs affect other people and doing it in a way you don’t usually get to do.”
The next Andy’s Songwriter Meetup will be on October 28 at the Allied Gardens/Benjamin Branch Library, 5188 Zion Avenue. Another, on November 12, will be held in Mission Valley. Go to the Meetup link to get the most updated information.