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August 15, 2012

I started this blog in August last year (2012) and ever since then I’ve opened it up occasionally, stared at it, and then closed it, without writing a word. Recently I saw people had viewed it and I felt a little bit guilty: they’d bothered to find their way to my blog, only to find the cupboard was bare. I thought ‘something must be done’, so today I just started writing without knowing what I was going to write. That’s still the case. I can tell you I’m at home in Cornwall, that after the last few days of sunshine it’s now blowing a hoolie outside and raining, and that I was forced to light the woodburner as a consequence.

I can also tell you that I saw yet another singer/songwriter on breakfast tv this morning. They always seem to be young, female, attractive, with whispy voices, a record deal and a video to promote.

I get tired of singer/songwriters. There are far too many of them. They seem to be breeding like flies, encouraged by songwriting courses and college courses that are springing up everywhere. I confess that I have taken part in such courses but probably won’t anymore. Most likely because I won’t get invited, having turned up at the last one with a chiller box containing the ingredients for making my vodka cocktail* and for drinking said contents, but also because I’ve stopped believing in their validity. It’s true that many people seem to get a lot out of them, and that they provide a buzz by creating a high energy creative pot from which ideas pour forth and are nurtured, but I’ve also seen another side. Students come mainly from three groups: those who don’t have much of a clue but are willing to have a go, those who are reasonably competent but are unlikely to shake the world, and those who are extremely talented and blow me away with their abilities. The first group will most likely have a good time. The second group may do as well, and it may sharpen their writing, while the third group shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

The second group are the most worrying. Spurred on by encouragement, they can be prone to inflation and may end up believing they’re better than they are. One such example, having been on a course, started offering their own songwriting lessons. That troubled me.

I’m alway mindful of the story of Dylan Thomas, short of money, mostly drunk, yet still fighting against the dying of the light. On a lecture tour of America, to boost his income, on one occasion he staggered (drunk) onto the stage and said: “How many of you here want to be writers?” They all raised their hands. “Well why aren’t you at home writing?!” says he, and staggers off.  The harsh reality is that people either have talent or they don’t, and silk purses, etc, etc. When it comes to politics I lean very much to the left but when it comes to creativity I’m afraid I tend to throw democracy out of the window. Once upon a time there were no songwriting courses, or degrees in music production, and yet great songs somehow got written and great records got made, just by people with talent and ability doing what they did best. It’s something worth pondering.

*This is my Vodka Cocktail. It might have already been invented and have a name, but the idea came to me like a song, and then I worked on it. One large glass. Several large ice cubes. Several large glugs of 40% abv Russian Vodka. Several large glugs of Campari. Topped up with fresh orange juice (oh alright: supermarket 100% orange juice, ‘with bits’).

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  1. Love the Dylan Thomas anecdote – and as far as I recall, he was not the product of a creative writing course….

  2. I agree with that, my daughter is currently at Brighton institue of music studying song writing but feel she falls into the 3rd catergory, I am biased of course. Her best song to date she wrote before she started this course. I gave her a ukulele for Christmas and on the same day she wrote it.
    She’s also been interviewed and played her songs live on local radio in Brighton so the process of being on the course has given her opportunities.

  3. @tonyhazzard and well worth waiting for too. Last para sums it all up. Absolutely.

  4. Oh… and… its high time a stone… no, make that a large boulder… got thrown into the pool of mediocrity. Long may the ripples caused wash away the dross.


  5. Katie Whitehouse permalink

    Some wise words as ever Tony.
    You have always inspired me to try and write better, and you even encouraged me to crank up my flywheel to get the guts and energy to perform. I have no idea which of your categories I fall into, I don’t even think that matters….but I love the wisdom you bring to courses and also your legendary vodka cocktails, which have offended no one as far as I am aware x
    I think you raise some interesting points!

  6. Mel permalink

    I think it’s also worth mentioning the horrific songwriting contests out there that demand you pay £20 entry fee per song… Then not to mention websites that encourage you to pay a subscription fee to have your songs played to an “industry official”.
    Shows like the X-Factor only help to feed the idea that anyone can make it…

  7. Katie Whitehouse permalink

    Just returned from walking my dog along the banks of the River Dart. It’s always such good thinking time and space for my very slow brain. Here are more (very personal) thoughts from me.

    If a songwriting course pretends to offer a magic formula for writing hits, or if the people leading songwriting workshops give false praise and hope to participants, then I can see your point Tony, about the second group of possible participants. I totally agree with Mel about the songwriting contests that charge an entry fee, and about X factor.

    The courses I’m involved in personally, aim to challenge each songwriter as a unique creative person, supporting each participant to explore and stretch every aspect of their writing and musicality… and sometimes just to have a go. It’s not about writing hits, not about jumping through hoops and certainly not about giving false hope. Our Summer School, in particular, offers space and permission to write, a lot of support in a well structured, safe but enjoyable environment, simply writing songs with heart and mind engaged and creative spirit set free… It’s about people of all levels who enjoy writing songs and meeting like minded people. A few of them are, I agree with Tony, exceptional, but perhaps feel isolated and enjoy a collaborative experience? We only use facilitators who we believe will give tactful but honest and useful critique, even if that is not what participants want to hear (and sometimes they don’t like it!). We have never been let down by a facilitator and I believe we have an extraordinary team.

    There are so many good reasons for writing songs. Wanting to be famous is not one of them… wanting to enjoy writing songs, to write the best songs we possibly can… and to meet and learn from the Hazzards and the equivalents of the Thomas’s of this wonderful craft? That seems good enough to me… and might even cause some positive ripples in the pool of mediocrity out there which is, indeed, so highly visible (and audible) these days because of the Internet and advances in home recording technology.

    Some exceptional people do well on their own, some are well supported by their own team, others want a bit of support. Charles, you are probably right about your daughter and hopefully she will get what she feels she needs from her course and find the confidence to stand out. The song she wrote on the uke before starting the course was probably straight from her heart, and that’s why it stands out as her best song yet. My gut feeling is that I want to hear that song! It’s harder for the very good people to stand out, but the opportunity is still there and the ball is more firmly in the court of the artist to do a lot of the work (hard work!).

    Happy Monday to all of you x

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