“You love a song and you play it, and you love it and you keep playing it. Then absentmindedly you discover a new little note that you want to add to it. Or you have a line of your own that you try in the same tempo or in the same meter. And out of the song that you know grows a new song of your own.”
I wrote my first song when I was 14 years old. Over the years, I’ve composed hundreds of songs. It was that interest — music — that led me to take a year off from pursuing a doctorate and led me down the circuitous path that has been the rest of my life.
I don’t write songs nowadays, more focused on screenplays and writing about writing. But I can’t help but think at least some of who I am as a writer derives from all that time studying and composing songs.
Which is why I say that one of my favorite ‘screenwriting’ books is “Songwriters on Songwriting,” a collection of interviews by Paul Zollo with some of the great songwriters of our time, from Mose Allison to Frank Zappa. For what are songs but stories?
Each day this week at this time, I will post insights from a songwriter about their craft in the hope their words may inspire us as writers.
Today: Donovan, a folk singer-songwriter and one of my earliest influences.
Like the Beatles, who also never learned musical notation, you have a great freedom in your melodies and your phrasing that seems very natural, rather than learned.
Yeah, I would say so. I would harp back — harp being the key word — to the tradition of Irish and Scottish music where the lyrical poetry is natural. I played with classical musicians on my early albums and found that they couldn’t improvise. Songwriting to me, as far as I know now, is this: You love a song and you play it, and you love it and you keep playing it. Then absentmindedly you discover a new little note that you want to add to it. Or you have a line of your own that you try in the same tempo or in the same meter. And out of the song that you know grows a new song of your own.
This hearkens back to the concept that Everything Is A Remix. It’s all been done before. There is nothing created which isn’t influenced by something which came before. Rather than run away from that fact, embrace it. Find something you love and, as Donovan suggestion, “you play it, and you love it and you keep playing it.” For screenwriting, I would extrapolate this to mean you immerse yourself in a genre of movies which enrapture you. Watch movie after movie after movie after movie. Study them. Let them infuse your consciousness and seep down into your unconsciousness.
Then you write stories in that genre. You play around with conventions, tropes, and memes. “And out of the song that you know grows a new song of your own.” Same thing with a screenplay. Inspired by movies in a genre, you make up a story which has echoes of predecessor films, but can stand on its own as different.
Donovan’s comments remind me of an anecdote I remember reading about Woody Guthrie. It’s estimated he wrote over 4,000 songs. When asked how he did it, he replied [paraphrasing from memory], “Well, I take a song I like, and I give the melody a little twist here, and a little twist there… and I make it my own.”
Sound advice. Immerse yourself in a genre. Learn it until it suffuses your soul. Then bring your own unique voice to the story you write. Since Hollywood operates on the principle of ‘similar but different,’ you are on solid ground with this approach.
Here is Donovan performing his song “Hurdy Gurdy Man”:
What’s your favorite Donovan song?
Trivia: Donovan is the father of actress Ione Skye and Donovan Leitch.
For the rest of the Songwriters on Songwriting series, go here.