Songwriters on Songwriting: Joan Baez

“If you want to love your music, and not feel that you have to sell your ass down the river to get something going, you’re probably going to want to keep your day job.”

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: Joan Baez, legendary folk singer.

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We’ve talked about the hunger for substance in songs. There are many songwriters writing meaningful songs, yet they are not easy to succeed with in today’s times. Do you have advice for songwriters wanting to follow in your path?

Get a day job. You have to be willing to roll with the punches. If you want to love your music, and not feel that you have to sell your ass down the river to get something going, you’re probably going to want to keep your day job.

But don’t be discouraged. I was discouraged for a while. I had to get over blaming everybody for my own predicament. Because it was really my own fault. I was saying, “They don’t understand how wonderful my music is. The record company doesn’t understand; they’re all morons,” and so on. I didn’t understand that I needed management and publicity and all those things that were anathema to the old me in order to be efficient and have people hear the stuff that I create.

Guess what? It’s the nineties. Yoo-hoo, Baez! I’m still in the Stone Age, but I’m toddling along.

Two takeaways here for any creative.

First, if you want to write stories with “substance,” or even if you don’t, the least stressful and most conducive way to create a lifestyle which allows you to pursue your dream is to find a way to sustain yourself financially independent of what you may (or may not) receive in the way of revenue from your writing. Take the money pressure off the table. This can be a combination of limiting your lifestyle and finding the perfect gig with minimum hours — bartender, night watchman, dog walker — but having that in place gives you the independence to write whatever the hell you want to write.

Second, don’t blame the buyers for not ‘getting’ you. Yes, some of them may not get you, but more often than not, the issue doesn’t rest with them. It’s on you. The script… or song… or book you’ve written just isn’t good enough. If something doesn’t sell, write something else. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. You have to have patient and persistence. I just had a conversation yesterday with a screenwriter who spent 18 years pounding out spec scripts until his first project sold and got produced. He could have become a bitter dude, laying the blame on his lack of financial success all those years at the doorstep of the buyers. Instead he kept writing, studied the craft, and got better as a writer. At last count, he’s had 7 movies produced.

Here is Joan Baez singing one of her songs “Speaking of Dreams”:

What’s your favorite Joan Baez song?

For the rest of the Songwriters on Songwriting series, go here.

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