Those of you who get John Chesher's emails for the Excelsior Singer/Songwriter nights will be well aware of John's recommendation to take part in Pat Pattison's songwriting seminars. When I found that Pat was giving a seminar in Byron Bay during January 2008 I decided to combine business with pleasure and booked in to Pat's course for the weekend.
The lyrics course is a two day seminar. I wasn't sure what to expect as I didn't know what format it would take. As I was in foreign territory I was a bit daunted by the prospect of "workshopping" with people I didn't know and showing my writing weaknesses to strangers. However, those fears were unjustified as it became apparent that basically Pat was going to impart information for the first one and a half days and then critique the songs submitted by participants. Although I was initially calmed by this, my secondary reaction was "does this mean we've got to listen to this guy talk for something like 12 hours?" Even when my powers of concentration were at their peak, I reckon 1 hour of listening to someone talk was pretty much all I could take.
How wrong I was. After 15 minutes I was completely on the edge of my seat furiously writing notes.
I've got to say, this was the best 2 days a songwriter could spend. By lunchtime Saturday, after two and a half hours, I learned more than I had in 35 years of playing and writing music. It just kept getting better. One thing that really impressed me was that this was not a class on how to write lyrics by numbers or how to fit a template. The word "commercial" was used once, but in a context where the technique employed not only created a more "commercially acceptable" lyric, but also created a more emotive lyric.
Pat's experience in songwriting, including being involved in the foundation of the songwriting major at Berklee, and teaching there for 32 years, enabled him to draw on a wide range of songwriting examples. These included Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Don Henley, Buck Ram, John Mayer, Gillian Welch and others who were less well known to me.
Pat is not just a vast reservoir of knowledge and experience. He has a wonderfully entertaining speaking style and a self-deprecating sense of humour that keeps your interest the whole time.
The cynical might say, " well, yeah, if I had access to the lyrics for some of the best written songs of all time I could probably come up with some ideas and techniques. But how does that help others write songs? " That's where the critique section was such a mind-blowing experience.
Those interested in participating were invited to choose one of their songs and provide a lyric sheet to Pat. You had the choice of either playing live or playing a CD of the track, but Pat preferred the former. I had chosen one of my oldest songs, "Six O'Clock Swill". Although it's a song I've been proud of, I always felt there was something missing in it, and still believed that there was work in that song to be done as a songwriter.
Pat initially explained that since I'd written it in the third person narrative, the audience was "some distance" from the character in the song, just observing him. He then took it through the voices. In the second person, and with just the change of a couple of pronouns, the entire focus of the song changed and became stronger. This led to a couple of other changes and by the end of the session I still had my own song, but with tips and suggestions that were easy to implement. In my view, and the view of the others at the course, they changed the entire emotional dynamics of the song, and made it more powerful. It wasn't a case of "dumbing the song down" to make it commercial, it was a case of using Pat's tips to make the song react with the listener, thereby making it more appealing.
The same thing happened with every song submitted. I've got to say that I was mightily impressed with all of the songs as they were presented. There was not a dud among them. But one by one, no matter how good they sounded at first, by the time Pat made his suggestions, every song was transformed into something more dynamic, more gripping.
Pat wasn't rewriting, or taking over our songs. What he was doing was showing us how, by implementing the techniques he'd imparted during the course, we could better shape our material by "running them through the boxes" (you'll have to do the course to find what I mean by that). As Pat said: "I don't care about these songs you've brought today. I really don't care about them. What I care about it are the songs you're going to start writing tomorrow."
I was so impressed with the course that I felt obliged to email John Chesher the next morning , even though he'd done Pat's courses before. Doing a course with Pat, I imagine, is a bit like having sex with Elle Macpherson...no point doing it unless you can tell someone.
By the time this article is published the current course of Pat's seminars will be completed. But he is coming back in June/July and, unless there are unforeseen circumstances, I will be signing up for the 'writing lyrics from music' course.
At the risk of sounding like Molly Meldrum, "do yourself a favour"- if you are a songwriter, would like to be a songwriter, or even if you think you're the best songwriter around: sign up for one of Pat's seminars. You won't regret it.
-Brian Ralston, Byron Bay, Australia