September 1, 2004

Patty Larkin on Getting Lucky

“Songwriting usually begins with the guitar for me,” explains folk-rocker Patty Larkin, whose intricately sculpted songs, virtuoso fretwork, and adventurous arrangements grace her most recent release Red=Luck [Vanguard]. “As I’m practicing, a lick might pop out that I really like, and I’ll keep playing it until it becomes sort of mesmerizing. It’s almost a process of getting into a meditation. The guitar helps me do that—it transports me, and lets the right side of my brain take over a little bit. Often, a melody develops from that guitar part, and I’ll hang on to the part by developing some lyrics around the melody. A lot of times, the lyrics evolve from vowel and consonant sounds related to what I’m feeling in the moment, and those end up becoming words.

“For me, a significant part of songwriting involves hooking into a stream of consciousness and trying to connect phrases. For instance, if I come up with a couple of lines I like, I’ll ask myself, ‘Is there another way to say this?’ Sometimes, it’s really fun if you’re heading down one path to go somewhere completely different. Throw in a phrase that has nothing to do with what you were just talking about, or think in terms of non-sequiturs to get an image in there that might connect. You’ll find yourself making associations that end up being poetry—if you’re lucky!

“The biggest part of the process is keeping the inner critic off my back, and trying to stay in an alpha state of not thinking too much. The songs that come together easily are sometimes the best ones, because they’re coming from that feeling place rather than an analytical, ‘Okay, what do I want this song to be about?’ place. Your song is as strong as its weakest line. If you have more than one place you think it’s weak, then it still needs work. You should also ask yourself if you’re trying to fool people. You need to be as true to your inner self as you can—even if you’re representing a character. If you think you’re full of it, that’s always going to show.”

—Anil Prasad,

Big Boy Pete’s Psychedelic Songcraft

In the early ’60s, Peter Miller—a.k.a. Big Boy Pete—was the guitarist for Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers, an in-demand London band that frequently shared bills with the Rolling Stones, Kinks, and Animals, and also toured with the Beatles. Between 1962 and 1965, the Jay Walkers released a dozen singles on the Pye and Decca labels—several produced by legendary studio iconoclast Joe Meek. When Miller went solo in 1966, he employed many of the envelope-shredding recording techniques he’d gleaned from Meek. Two tracks, “Cold Turkey” and “Baby I Got News for You,” were minor hits, and the original 45s currently draw over $500 at collector’s auctions. Big Boy Pete’s ultra-catchy psychedelic songs were considered “too outside” by the ’60s record industry, but, in retrospect, they rival or surpass those of many of his peers. (Collections of Pete’s recordings are available from Gear Fab, Dionysus, and Raucous Records.)

What’s the difference between writing songs in the ’60s and writing them now?
I don’t think there’s any difference when it comes to the actual writing of a song. All the components are the same, and the song structures are pretty much identical. But a great song is timeless. There’s a big difference between simply writing a song—putting down anything that pops into your head—and being a songwriter. A songwriter takes the pains to carefully consider all the elements that go into constructing a song, and he or she knows there’s a big difference between words and lyrics, and a cool riff and a complete melody.

Which comes first, the words or the music?
It’s more difficult to adjust lyrics to a pre-existing melody line than to write a melody for the lyrics. If you write the words first, your meter is established. If you’re attempting to fit words to a melody, your available synonyms will be severely restricted due to syllabic length. Every word must get your point across better than any other. Similarly, the choice of melodic notes can make or break a song. Also, there are many variations of chord changes that can accompany the same melody line, so try them all.

How do you decide what to write about?
I’ll write about anything, but I try to approach the topic from a new angle, or, at least, take an old message and tart it up with a current philosophy. If you have to use a cliche, make sure you can’t preempt it with your own words, and that it’s appropriate for what you’re trying to convey. But don’t be afraid of using cliches—especially obscure ones. Just remember that if you’re going to steal, steal from the best.

What distinguishes a good song from a great song?
Is it memorable? Is there a hooky part that even the most unmusical listener can, and will, want to sing along with—even on the first listening? Can you identify with the message? Does it make you want to laugh or cry? Does the lyric paint a picture that you can actually see and be a part of? And never throw away your first songs, because some of them may eventually turn out to be your best.

—Barry Cleveland

Want to write a song with Big Boy Pete? Potential collaborators should check out his CD of song demos, T
he Margetson Demos [Gearfab], and contact him via his Web site,  

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