I had the opportunity to hear musician Suzanne Vega speak twice in November. Vega’s work is one of the strongest influences on my own songwriting and music, so it was a privilege to here her speak in person about her career and work.
First, she gave the keynote address at the northeast Regional Folk alliance in New York. She talked about the recent deaths of Bill morrissey and Jack hardy, who were her friends and supporters during her early years as a performer. These two helped her build her peer network, get out to play in more places, and held her to a high standard for her music.
Second, I attended a songwriters workshop by Vega in Washington DC. The workshop was set up to have three DC-area songwriters each present a song to the group, and then Vega would discuss the work with the writer. I expected her to be tough, critical, and encouraging. She was critical, and she was tough on one songwriter in particular who really didn’t appear to be ready for such a public grilling. But I was impressed with Vega’s warmth and genuine interest. She seemed to like the songs a lot more than I did, and she showed no sign of a “rock star” attitude.
Vega described how a good song is an idea that you can’t get rid of, something that sticks in your head and keeps bugging you until you have to finish it. that’s very different from my process, which is to capture lots of ideas so that I don’t lose them. she seemed to say that a writer could just lose a lot of ideas, because the really great ones would force themselves to stick in your brain. I can see both sides–take down all your ideas and inspirations, and review them later to find the few gems. But don’t tie yourself entirely to those notebooks and computer files, because a really good song will write itself over time.
One person at the DC workshop asked how he could become more comfortable and free as a performer. “Rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse,” was Vega’s answer. Another great reminder that practice is the number one ingredient for good music. How hard and how smart you work at your rehearsing determines how good you perform.
Vega pointed the audience at one of these events to Jack hardy’s songwriting manifesto. Here is a brief version of this set of ideals and instructions, well worth your pondering. Write a song every week. Get into the good stuff that other people are doing. Melody is half the song, so write melodies that stand without your guitar or piano. Spend some time reading and thinking about Hardy’s ideas, and you’ll learn how hard and how rewarding it is to be a songwriter.
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