'The last time I spoke to Paul Simon...' As the sentence trails off, Pat's face warms with a slow grin. 'I just like saying that. It's the only time I've spoken to Paul Simon, but it sounds better, and it is technically true; it was the last time I spoke to him.'
On the first weekend in April, 35 songwriters turned up at APRA's Melbourne office in Richmond (Australia) to hear Pat Pattison. Pat was instrumental in establishing a songwriting major at Berklee College of Music. Past students have included Gillian Welch and John Mayer. He is also the author of many books including 'Writing Better Lyrics'.
Sitting up the front in blue jeans with his American tan, he made small talk while we straggled in. A quick poll of the room revealed writers from Melbourne's jazz scene, singer- songwriters, producers, electronica artists and everyone from keen beginners to songwriters who'd had pop chart success.
'Where do you get blocked?' Themes of perfectionism and cultivating quality ideas were met with: 'You have permission to write crap, because crap is the best fertilizer.' And 'Monitor the quality of ideas you choose to spend your time with. Stay in places you find incredibly joyous and deeply moving.'
We spent the rest of our time on what it means to take songwriting to the 'next level'. We learned how line length, rhyme scheme, and staying bound to your senses in writing can help you amplify meaning, and draw the listener in. 'Pull me into the song by making me see, touch or taste something. When you write something sense-bound, put it in as soon as you can. It drips down like dye, colouring the rest of your song, but it can't drip up.'
At the end of the first day we were buzzing with ideas and possibilities. The second day was for critiques of our songs. When Pat heard our nervous murmurs he said something that summed up the weekend. 'I'm not interested in what you do with that song. I'm interested in helping you write a better song next time you sit down to write.'
The next day I was armed with a song I was fairly confident with. It had received reviews praising the 'poetic honesty' of the lyrics, positive feedback at gigs, and Triple J airplay. Still, as it played to a room full of songwriters, my adrenalin rose. Pat looked tired.
'What is the feeling of this song? Is it a stable or unstable feeling?'
'It's about longing, so - unstable.'
'So, would you use stable or unstable structures to express your idea?'
My lyrics were expressing an unresolved feeling. The structure, and the sense of completion it gave the song, coloured it with certainty. He changed some lines without sacrificing meaning, and made my intention for the song resonate more clearly than before. After the initial sting of being an unrecognised genius, I felt a rush of possibility. I now had some tools to help my audience engage as passionately with my songs as I do.
'The best song in you is the song in front of you, so go forward and write fearlessly.'
Since then, songwriters from the workshop have been meeting once a week to write, (as well as eating, drinking wine and endless cups of tea). And my songwriting? At my last gig, a long term fan said 'There's something about your new songs that's taken them to another level.' Now I'm writing daily, sometimes fearlessly. Fuelled by possibility, I'm more curious than ever about my next song.
Special thanks to Clare McLeod for hosting these, and for bringing Pat to Australia. Pat is returning in January for more workshops.
- Zerafina Zara Australian Performing Right Association Newsletter