MAY 5, 2017
IS SONGWRITING AN ART or a craft? That question is never far from the surface in journalist/musician Paul Zollo’s More Songwriters on Songwriting, a collection of 46 interviews with a who’s who of respected tunesmiths. Not that art and craft are mutually exclusive; nearly everyone who considers him- or herself to be a “songwriter” tends to describe the act of songwriting as some combination of divine inspiration and hard work. If we rephrased the question in terms of “avocation” or “job,” answers might get qualified more strictly along the lines of whether the respondent can pay the rent from songwriting royalties or must punch the timeclock at Starbucks. And yet journalists keep asking about art and craft. It’s certainly a topic that has come up frequently in my own interviews across three decades as a rock critic — although considering the waffling (and outright obfuscation) it elicits, I sometimes wonder why anyone would bother asking about it anymore. Songwriters inevitably paint their work in varying shades of heavenly intervention (“the words just came to me out of nowhere, like a gift”). But as they also tend to be uncomfortable with the notion of anyone getting a free ride — even if that ride comes via God’s own Uber fleet — they will talk about the many times they agonized and labored over a song until it was finished. Consider the (possibly apocryphal) tale of Leonard Cohen beating his fists in frustration against the floor of his New York City apartment as he worked out the final draft of “Hallelujah.”
In 1991, Zollo issued his first anthology of previously published interviews, Songwriters on Songwriting (Da Capo Press), featuring long-form Q-and-A conversations with such giants as Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Paul Simon, and Randy Newman. The critical and (presumably) commercial response was sufficiently good to merit subsequent revised/expanded editions. The acknowledgments page for this new book indicates that the original Songwriters has even been adapted as a textbook for college courses.
Zollo is a prolific writer and gifted interviewer who has written for respected publications such as Musician, Billboard, American Songwriter, SongTalk, and Performing Songwriter, the latter three being the original sources for the bulk of the interviews in More Songwriters. Some of these conversations date from the ’90s, but most come from 2000 to 2015, with the lone ’80s entry being an unpublished 1981 interview with Marjorie Guthrie. A handful were conducted specifically for this book.
Highlights? Brian Wilson is a return guest in a 1995 interview. Zollo conveys the man’s notorious awkwardness at the outset: “I’m trying in vain to communicate to Brian Wilson the level of joy people receive from his music […] He’s not hearing it, looking up at me with his face downturned and a decided ‘if you say so’ expressed in his weary eyes.” Indeed, as the Q-and-A unfolds, practically the only moments when Wilson replies to Zollo’s questions in more than a few terse sentences is when he’s describing how a particular sound was created in the studio. It’s roadside-wreck fascinating to read how Zollo prods and probes in vain for a revelation, or even something of substance; to his credit as a professional journalist, he soldiers on for the duration, although one suspects he selected the piece for inclusion in his book primarily as a marquee clip.
Patti Smith is Wilson’s polar opposite, talking to Zollo in 2010 not long after the publication of her first memoir, the award-winning Just Kids. Not only does she take the handoff from Zollo and run with it question after question, she genuinely seems to come alive. She holds forth at length about her view of the intersection between poetry and rock lyrics, her fondness for certain keys and chord changes (“I just naturally gravitate toward minor keys”), and — aha! — those moments when she really had to work hard to get a song the way she wanted it, as compared to the times when she felt as if she were “channeling someone else […] taken over by another being.”
Falling roughly in between these two extremes is Loretta Lynn, who spoke to Zollo at her home in Nashville in 2014. Having interviewed her myself 10 years earlier, I was struck by how “on-message” Lynn remains; several answers were so similar to the ones she’d given me that I found myself wondering if there’s anything she hasn’t been asked by journalists at this point. While graceful and amiable enough to Zollo, one gets the impression that she’s on autopilot, no doubt having scheduled a series of back-to-backs in order to get all the press stuff out of the way early in the day: “The melody just comes in my mind […] I felt it was a good line to use […] If it don’t come easy, I lay it down. And sometimes I’ll pick it up, and sometimes I won’t ever go back to it.” Well, gee, thanks Loretta: now we know what makes you tick. (When I interviewed her in 2004 there was one notable unscripted moment. I had made a casual reference to musicians and politics, specifically the recent Dixie Chicks controversy and Nashville’s reaction, and she positively went off on the Chicks, additionally going into detail about her unwavering support for President Bush. As the story I was writing was about her Van Lear Rose collaboration with Jack White, I didn’t include that tangent in my final draft. Pity. It might have provided unexpected insights into her personality for the readers.) Out of respect for his profile subject, Zollo still manages to convey a sense of immediacy and importance. It’s impossible not to write about Loretta Lynn without acknowledging her stature — she’s the Queen of Country Music, period.
As noted, the book presents a broad cross-section of the songwriting community, from early giants of pop and soul (Leiber and Stoller, Jeff Barry, and Norman Whitfield) and icons of the folk and classic rock era (John Sebastian, Gene Clark, Stephen Stills, Paul Simon once again — Zollo has his comfort zones) to refugees from punk and new wave (Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Chrissie Hynde, Dave Stewart) and a smattering of well-regarded latter-day artists (John Henry, Sia, Matisyahu, and, er, Rob Zombie). Unfortunately, hip-hop is not represented at all, unless you consider Matisyahu a hip-hopper (let’s just agree that you’re not likely to have the Hasidic reggae/rap vocalist’s name come up in a discussion about Biggie, Tupac, Snoop, and Nas). This isn’t a crime on Zollo’s part; he gets to pick his interviews. But it does point to a flaw in how we define “songwriter.” It also brings to mind how purists inevitably complain about a hip-hop act getting the nod over a thrice-overlooked ’70s rock legend in the annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announcements. Bottom line: If universities can teach courses dedicated to the history and aesthetics of hip-hop, we should be able to discuss what goes into creating hip-hop songs just as we discuss the creation of any lyric-driven musical genre. I risk excommunication by my rock-nerd peers, but Public Enemy’s lyrics speak to me a whole lot more than anything Bob Dylan has written in nearly two decades.
At some point, every writer is struck by the urge to thumb through his or her back pages. Not only is it far easier to assemble rather than research and write 300-plus pages of artist biography, but compiling a “Greatest Hits” collection scratches a certain writerly ego itch.
Yet rock critics are not created equal, which is why, qualitatively speaking, such personal anthologies tend to be hit or miss. The rise of affordable self-publishing has tipped the scales toward the miss, too. Plus, most writers regard their contemporary output as superior to earlier efforts, and not without justification: the presumption is that writing improves with time and experience. Speaking personally, I often cringe when I come across something I published 30 years ago. Recently, I wanted to resurrect a Flaming Lips interview originally conducted around the time of their first album, only to realize that I’d have to draft an entirely new introduction unless I wanted to sound like a gibbering fanboy.
So when approaching a collection such as Zollo’s, it’s logical to assume that some revisionist tweaking has taken place. That’s not a journalistic crime, and I don’t think it’s disingenuous on a writer’s part, either. The idea is to present the best possible read, avoid stylistic “hiccups,” and keep the lens focused firmly on the subject. Since I don’t have original copies of magazines that first published Zollo’s pieces, I have no way of knowing what, if any, redrafting was done. But I am struck by the consistent quality of the author’s writing. Each entry’s extended introduction, typically three to four pages in the range of 1,000 to 1,500 words, adroitly summarizes the artist’s backstory while subtly making the case for why he or she is worth being profiled in the first place. Zollo also sets the scene for the interview itself: an office suite high above Manhattan (Marjorie Guthrie); a sunny Tennessee morning (John Prine); a table outside a small cafe in Malibu (Rickie Lee Jones); breakfast at the artist’s favorite deli near the Hollywood Hills (Brian Wilson). These narrative intros get the reader’s attention and hold it.
The Q-and-A format can grow wearisome when the interview reads like a conversation transcript, right down to the ums and non sequiturs. But Zollo is no novice. He distills the most salient passages of his conversations and renders compelling portraits. As a songwriter who understands the art form (or craft, take your pick), he also brings to the table the kind of easygoing empathy that allows him to ask the right question in response to the previous answer. Except for Brian Wilson, who clearly would rather be any place but in front of a tape recorder, Zollo’s subjects seem not only to enjoy their interviews, but also to appreciate their interlocutor’s insight. I bet most readers will feel the same way.