Kevin Welch’s Songwriting Concepts

As Kevin Welch is one of the most respected songwriters in the game, I’ve always wondered what he knows that I don’t. His numerous solo records—as well as his albums with partners Kieran Kane and Fats Kaplin—are chock full of songs that drive deeper and hit harder than most. I decided to start with the basics, and find out where his early influences came from.
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"I’d always heard about Woody Guthrie, and he was born just down the road from where I grew up in Oklahoma,” answers Welch. “I became really intrigued with Woody and [Beat poet] Jack Kerouac at the same time—which is a rather deadly combination for a young guy.”

Then, I wanted to find out how Welch manages to keep his music fresh and innovative.

“If you get to a point where you’re just playing the same old stuff, it’s a good idea to have something that’s going to knock you out of your trench,” he says. “Like a lot of people, I’ll get down into my old, well-worn grooves—you know, the same old chord positions and keys. At that point, just take a capo and put it way the hell up on the neck, or pick up a gut string or something. Do anything that’ll make you change the way you play.”

Welch has also produced some marvelous material through cowriting with craftsmen such as Alan Rhody, David Olney, and John Hadley, but he admits there’s a danger in the practice.

“Nashville is a real bastion of cowriting, and I’ve always maintained that collaboration is not necessarily a healthy way to work,” he says. “I think it’s very important to continue to write by yourself. Otherwise, a kind of dependency can develop. I’ve seen it happen with great songwriters. They’ll get used to cowriting, and used to having someone sitting with them saying, ‘Yeah, that’s good.’ Then, they can become terrified of writing all by themselves, and trusting their own judgment. Now, a lot of songs want to be cowritten, but a lot of songs want to be written by one person with one point of view.”

Anyone who has ever labored over a song should appreciate Welch’s take on writer’s block.

“We’re so compelled to be putting out all the time, and when that’s not occurring, it makes us nervous,” he says. “But there are two songwriting modes—input and output. If I’m not writing anything, I tell myself I’m on input mode, and I don’t worry about it. I’ll do a lot of reading, or watch some films, and just gather information. I just have to assume that I don’t have anything to say right then. It can be unnerving, but you have to trust yourself, and say, ‘Okay, I’ll go out and learn something, and then start writing again later.’”

Finally, I asked Welch to leave me with an aspect of songwriting that is often overlooked. “Songwriters need to remember that this isn’t a written medium—it’s a ‘heard’ thing,” he says. “Sure, some people will sit down and read lyrics, but 99 percent of people are only going to hear your song. When you’re sitting with pen and paper, it’s easy to forget that you’re only writing the words down so you can remember what to sing. So don’t worry so much about being ‘literary.’ You just have to make sure you design your words in such a way that sends them straight into someone’s ear, where that person can instantly get what you’re singing about.”