Songwriting advice from Jason Isbell…

“I just take a lot of notes, whether it be on my phone, laptop or actually written down in a notebook. I’ll revisit those when I get time to sit and write. I try to be really observant and play close attention, because people say things that are really poignant all the time. Most of it just slips in one ear and out the other.

“If you learn to focus on those things and pay attention to the world around you in a different way, the inspiration is always there. Then it just takes a lot of work really. Some songs come quicker than others, but most of them I’ll spend a lot of time on just to make sure I’m saying exactly what I want to say and there’s no dead weight; any floral language that doesn’t really serve a purpose. And clichés; that’s the first thing I do when I’m editing, try to find clichés. If I’m not using them in an original way then I won’t use them at all.”

How Take it Easy was written…

Launched a new band: the LoFi Decibels

Featuring all original songs in the Americana genre, the LoFi Decibels provide songs that are introspective with an emphasis on story telling and whiskey.

You can watch a video of several of our songs here

Eric Church on songwriting

Bruce Springsteen on songwriting

Songwriter Interview: Trent Gay

It’s always neat when you’re a fan of a musician, and then you get to know them personally and you’re even more of a fan of theirs. No disappointment.

I’ve had some very interesting conversations with Trent over the past couple of years about music, musicians, songwriting, songs. One such conversation took place in the context of Trent’s music blog, – the Freezing Process. So it was only a matter of time before I’d ask Trent if he would agree to do this interview, and I was pumped when he accepted to play along.

Trent is a member of several bands, and just last year, one of them – Paranoid Social Club – hit the road and played a whole bunch of dates in a whole bunch of states around this great nation. One reason why I look forward to our conversations is because Trent is that music lover who doesn’t just focus on one genre of music. He’s a also a great Twitter follow, for those of you who are into that sort of thing, at @TrentTZA.

Without further ado, here’s the interview:

1. Please share whatever biographic details you feel comfortable sharing:
I currently play music with Paranoid Social Club, Anna Lombard and Arc Of Sky, though I write only for Arc Of Sky. I also co-host, a podcast about Maine music.

2. When it comes to songwriting, is this something you always did even before you were involved in gigging?
Yes. I started writing songs in my teens and playing at open mic nights as soon as I turned 21.

3. Do you write the lyrics first, then the music, the other way around, or is there no set formula?
Usually I start with a bit of music, just enough to get a vocal melody going. Then I work on all of it together; music, vocal melody and lyrics. Most of the time I develop the vocal melody before I put lyrics down but there are times when both happen simultaneously. 

4. Given a choice, would you rather write on your own or co-write?
I haven’t done much co-writing and what little I’ve done I’ve found challenging, though I’m certainly open to it. [editor’s note: anytime you want to give it a shot, you know where to find me!]

5. As a songwriter, who is your main influence?
Favorite songwriters are Bob Dylan, Morrissey, Elvis Costello, Kurt Cobain, and Kanye West among many others, though I never think about them when writing. I just try to write the best melodies and lyrics I can. 

6. On “How Long”, which is my favorite song of yours, there’s an ache and an urging. May I ask if the song came from a personal experience? For that matter, is personal experience a main driver of your songwriting?
All my songs come from personal experience. Through the writing process those experiences are tweaked, embellished, diminished, inverted, contrasted, imagined, mixed up or whatever and the song itself becomes the most important thing, rather than accurately chronicling any real life story. Once the writing is underway, I take whatever license I feel works for it. So while I always start from a personal experience and feeling, the end result is a song, not a biography. What’s that quote about art being a lie that tells a greater truth? 

7. Do you believe in scheduled writing efforts – like every morning from 1000 to 1200hrs without fault – or do you prefer a more organic solution where you write whenever the fancy/inspiration strikes you?
Scheduled writing doesn’t work for me. To me, the point of songwriting is capturing a moment of inspiration and sharing an emotional connection with others. That’s what I want as a listener and I don’t know how to schedule it. Wish I did. 

8. How did Radio Silence come to be? [Listen to the song here]
I was strumming a chord progression I liked with that Cmaj7 and A9 and thinking about someone with whom I wasn’t speaking and then that pre-chorus came up. I spent a lot of time honing the vocal melodies and lyrics for that one, going through it note by note and word by word many times over before it was finished. 

9. Have you ever said or heard someone say something and thought to yourself “There’s a song in that”, and then wrote the song? If yes, which song is that?
No. I’d love for that to happen some day. 

10. I have seen you wield a guitar fearlessly on stage many times; do you use other instruments to write songs?
No, I don’t play or write on anything but guitar. 

11. Is there a song that came together in less than 30 minutes from original idea to finished product?
Yes. A Thing Like Mine from the Arc Of Sky EP was one of those. Thirty minutes total is pretty close. That’s a great feeling. 

12. When you write a song, what makes you think “Yup, that one will be on the CD” as opposed to “I like you, I’m happy I wrote you, but you won’t end up on the CD”?
I dunno, it’s either good enough or not. I’m not happy to write anything that I don’t think is good enough to release and I’ll immediately forget those songs and never play them again. Might remember a part to use later in another song. 

13. When you write a song, if you write it with just an acoustic guitar, how much of the final arrangement as a full band enters into the equation?

None. I write on acoustic guitar and the full band arrangement doesn’t enter my mind other than a general vibe, if that. Then I bring it to people I trust and am open to whatever they feel, even if it’s a direction I hadn’t considered. In many cases those surprises from other people are some  of my favorite parts of the process. That’s when a song becomes something more than what it was when I wrote it, through a creative contribution from someone else. 

14. Which songwriter out there do you think doesn’t receive enough accolade for his/her work?
That’s a tough one. There are so many amazing writers who never really get their due. David Lowery of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker is one of my favorite writers who kinda flies under the radar. Jesse Lacey of Brand New is another. Jay Farrar of Son Volt is one of my favorites. Doug Martsch of Built To Spill. The list goes on. 

15. Do you ever use tricks to “prime the pump” when the inspiration well has run dry? If so, what are they?
No, I wish I knew some. 

16. Do you have any advice for beginner songwriters?
Melody, melody, melody. And be honest. 

17. If I told you can have three things of your choice to go write a song… what would those three things be?
A guitar, beer and cigarettes. 

18. When do you know that the time to stop tinkering with a song has come?
When every note I sing is the note I wanna sing and every word is exactly the word I wanna say. I play the whole thing through and finally, there’s nothing left to be done. Play it a few more times to be sure. Now I’m done. 

19. Please finish the sentence: Songwriting is…
The most enjoyable and rewarding pain in the ass I know of. 

20. What should be know about the upcoming Arc of Sky CD? 
I’m very proud and extremely honored to have had the kind of talent I had contribute to Arc Of Sky. To have people like Jon Roods, Anna Lombard, Ray Suhy and Jonathan Wyman work so hard and with such enthusiasm to bring my songs to life was an amazing experience and I hope that energy comes through in the songs. Also proud to have Anna [Lombard] contribute the first song she has ever written entirely by herself to the project. I feel like it’s the best work I’ve ever done and am excited for people to hear it.

Will Hoge – Even If It Breaks Your Heart

Sure, the Eli Young Band made the song famous, but “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” is a song written by Will Hoge and Eric Paslay in April 2009 and originally recorded by Hoge on his seventh studio album, The Wreckage.

Bruce Robison – Angry All The Time

Before this song was made famous by Tim McGraw, it was written by the very talented Bruce Robison. His wife Kelly Willis is also featured on the track – and is a fine singer/songwriter herself.

The song reached Number One on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks.


Support this site!

Buy the T-Shirt online, get an immediate free download of our 1st CD, Chillin’. Or, you can buy them at the gigs, too!


Uke’n’Smile Logo T-Shirt

Songwriter Interview: Jay Basiner from This Way

1. Please share whatever biographic details you feel comfortable sharing:

I was born into a very musical family. My dad, the son of a conductor on the railroad in Massachusetts, was brought up learning countless American folk songs. Traveling songs, hobo songs, train songs, drinking songs, love songs, etc… My father was and still to this day is always singing and playing the acoustic guitar.
Songs were a second language in my home and music was a mandatory part of my upbringing from violin and piano lessons starting at age 4 to drum set instruction starting at age 12 to guitar playing in college. The guitar is my primary instrument today, but it was the last one I picked up and the only instrument I play regularly that I received no formal training in.

Likewise, my mother’s side of the family was filled with music. Because they were Italian, many of the songs I remember at family gatherings during the holidays were in Italian, accompanied by my Uncle Benny who was an accomplished accordion player.

I was always a drummer in bands growing up. In college, I started playing guitar and started the first edition of the Jay Biddy Band with Dave Patterson who is the bass player in This Way. Dave and I have been playing music together for something like 12 years. I remember the first edition of the band played a lot of Paul Simon, which still to this day is one of my biggest influences.

I received an electric guitar for Christmas one year and my musical life became infatuated with louder rock & roll music rather than the more folksy / country music I grew up with. The Jay Biddy Band took our cues from bands like the E Street Band, Rolling Stones, The Beatles and Tom Petty to name a few.

The Jay Biddy Band, which was always a cover party band, took on a new persona as the Crossfire Inferno and we recorded and released an album called “Restless” which was a 3-piece garage rock/punk/alt country project.

The next project was This Way, which included Crossfire Inferno drummer Seth Kearns, guitarist Max Cantlin, keyboard player Jeff Merrow, Dave Patterson on bass, Anna Patterson on background vocals and myself on guitars and vocals. That version of the band was as close to the wall of sound type E Street obsession as I will ever get. The songs were anthemic, big and boastful with soaring guitar licks and solos, thick harmony, pounding drums, lyrics about liberation and a very schticky stage show with myself really trying to be a Springsteen like figure. That band released a record called “We Could All Make History”.

In my spare time, I was writing a lot and the songs were much different than the songs on WCAMH.
My interest in the whole rock atmosphere began to diminish and I took things back to the basics of my childhood. The acoustic guitar, the voice and simple, honest lyrics were really all that mattered again. Simplicity was key and the over the top stage performance style seemed to be rather trite and forced and not what I felt was my most authentic musical self.

The reconstruction of This Way happened much more organically than a planned course. Max, Seth and Jeff had all left the band and we were in very much of a transitional period and we had considered dissolving the band. I had continued to write, though when Andrew Martelle showed up from Nashville to live back in Maine where him and his wife are from, it felt like we had a considerable band again. And we did.

2. When it comes to songwriting, is this something you always did even before you were involved in gigging?

I began songwriting around the same time I started playing guitar. I had grown up playing violin, piano and drums and never wrote any music per se, rather just played music. When I started playing guitar, I used songs to teach myself the guitar. I would learn a song and then apply it to songwriting. For me, songwriting never was something I did for thoughts of doing it as a career. I just wanted to express myself through music and lyrics. The more I did it, the better I became at writing effectively.

3. Do you write the lyrics first, then the music, the other way around, or is there no set formula?

There needs to be a spark for a good song to be born. Sometimes that spark is a phrase or single word I found intriguing and pregnant with creative possibilities at a certain moment. Often times that spark is a chord progression or guitar lick that is unique and not obviously clichéd. After gigs, I often will decompress by picking a guitar quietly in my living room. Because my gigs usually have me performing some of what I consider the finest written songs, I feel like I am at an able place after gigs to create something new and clever.

If the spark that starts a new song is a musical one, I force myself to compose as much as I can until I’m out of ideas and I record all of these ideas. Inspiration comes in such spurts that you must seize it when it knocks at your door.

If I just came up with a cool chord progression, then I can probably come up with an equally unique melody. If I am able to come up with a melody too, then I’m probably at a good place to arrange the form as well.

So I’ll work on one of these ideas for as long as I can until I’m either finished or out of ideas.

The next day, I will go back into my enormous list of lyrical ideas and emotions and try to find a lyrical spark that will make the melody and chord progressions a song.

4. There is often a nostalgic, nod-to-the-past flavor in your songs. How important is that to your songwriting?

I’m inspired by pushing the genre in which I work further–adding something to the fabric of Americana music, which is where I feel I am my most creative and honest. I love folks like Avett Brothers, Gillian Welch, Ryan Adams, Mumford and Sons, The Civil Wars… Those guys aren’t reinventing a musical wheel, they are using a familiar wheel to drive a vehicle that will carry new and urgent emotional sentiments of the here and now that have the potential to deeply affect people’s lives.

5. Do you write with Andrew (Martelle, mandolin & fiddle player) & the rest of the band, or usually alone?

I have written a bit with Andrew and I will continue to do so I’m sure, though when I write, I need to take myself into a very deeply personal and vulnerable place to dig out something real and not contrived. I like being alone at my most vulnerable so I can really let my feelings breathe.

6. How do you feel that Bruce Springsteen’s songs have impacted your songwriting?

I think Bruce is one of these American artists that have effectively written timeless rock, pop, folk and country songs. The Pop Springsteen is the most recognizable, but not the most inspiring for me. I love his solo records the best – Nebraska, Ghost of Tom Joad, Devil’s and Dust. I think he can be his honest and least clichéd away from the confines of the E Street Band, which is a pretty rigid institution and rightly so.

As a writer, Bruce was the one who first gave me the nerve to be an unabashed and prolific songwriter.

7. Do you believe in scheduled writing efforts – like every morning from 1000 to 1200hrs without fault – or do you prefer a more organic solution where you write whenever the fancy/inspiration strikes you?

I would love to sit and write every day at a designated time and place, but because of the time demands of the music business and life in general, it just ain’t possible. I think a good songwriter can sit down and get some valuable songwriting done whether they are particularly inspired or not. I recently took a personal writing retreat where I forced myself to write as much as I could. I didn’t go there particularly inspired or with specific things I wanted to work on. It was tough at first to churn out anything of worth, but I kept at it and finally stuff started flowing out of me. I wrote what I believe are a few of my finest songs by forcing myself to write during that week.

8. On the song New York City, it seems that you personify the city itself. Is this a stylistic device you enjoy? Do you use it often?

I love to travel and experience new cities, dig deeper into the essence of ones I love and to imagine stories of folks from cities I have never been to. The song New York City is a love affair with the city itself, which takes on the role of a woman. I feel very inspired by New York and its history. I feel it is the quintessential American city and so many Americans were first New Yorkers immigrating through New York. I just finished a song about Tulsa, Oklahoma, a city I have never been. We have a song called Greetings From St. Louis, a song called Ol’ Mister Drifter about a man encountering all kinds of cities across America. Sense of place is a major idea that I draw upon in my songwriting.

9. Have you ever said or heard someone say something and thought to yourself “There’s a song in that”, and then wrote the song? If yes, which song is that?

All the time. For instance, my father always tells me “you living out your daddy’s dreams” regarding my work in music and his inability to ever really break career wise. I loved that line and the feelings that arose from it. It’s part of the chorus of “The Balance Beam”, one of This Way’s newer tunes that we play at every live show. My buddy Bob Hole was going through a breakup once and we were talking about it. Somehow the words “you can take it all or leave it all behind” came up in that conversation and I immediately wrote it down because I loved that imagery and how that could apply to so many life occurrences. We got a good song out of that one.

10. How, if at all, does being a multi-instrumentalist impact your songwriting?

Because I play lots of instruments, I am able to realize much of the arrangement and instrumentation ideas either in my head, on a demo or in rehearsal. Rarely do I come to a session with no idea of what I want the drums to sound like. Because of my years playing drums, often times a rhythm is the spark that fires an entire song. In demos, I often play a bass line (be it very rudimentary), or sing or play out melody lines that I have in mind. Many of the songs on Goodbye Forever were written on piano.

I write very differently from instrument to instrument. The melody and feel that comes out of a tune I write on piano is often very different than what I would come up with on guitar. I’ve written songs on accordion, which is cool because my knowledge of that instrument is very rudimentary and so I have no choice but to keep things very simple, which can be harder for me on guitar or keyboards, which I have far more experience with.

11. Is there a song that came together in less than 30 minutes from original idea to finished product?

These days, I tend to really labor over songs. I’ll write something, sometimes quickly, and think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, and then I’ll listen to the demo in the morning and think it needs tons of improvement. Most of my songs go through loads of rewrites until every melody, every word, and every chord change ads something unique to the work. My earlier songs would come out quicker. I think I wrote Riding Through the Courtyard in about 20 minutes. Lots of the stuff off the Crossfire Inferno record was written very quickly because I wasn’t into over thinking my writing at that point. I do believe that if a song is taking a very long time to complete, perhaps there’s something not quite right with the foundation of it.

There are a few songs I’ve written that took nearly a year to be happy with and they are songs that don’t really get played much because all that time created something that was perhaps too complex and over thought to be effective.

Then again songs that seem to ooze out of you are usually from a kind of place of divine inspiration of sorts. I remember Can’t Take This Away coming out very quickly and no rewrites were ever made which is very rare for my writing.

12. When you write a song, what makes you think “Yup, that one will be on the CD” as opposed to “I like you, I’m happy I wrote you, but you won’t end up on the CD”?

I go through that a lot. I try to write all the time. Some of the songs are very meditative singer songwriter affairs that don’t quite fit in the This Way lexicon and those I am keeping for perhaps a different kind of project down the line. Some songs are more fit for the North of Nashville style of heavy simple outlaw country influences. Then of course, most of the songs I write are what This Way does best.
It’s a tough position to get into thinking “this song could be a hit” or “this song will really get a club moving” because you can be ignoring emotions far more valuable than instant gratification which is a lesson I’m trying to improve on. I have a lot of songs stockpiled that I’m not sure what to do with them, but if I bring a song to This Way, I feel that it is a song that needs to be heard by as many people as possible and one that should be recorded and released.

13. When you write a song, if you write it with just an acoustic guitar, how much of the final arrangement as a 5-piece band enters into the equation?

I generally have ideas for the entire ensemble when I write it though the band really brings the arrangements to life and I’m generally not one to tell anyone exactly what to play unless I have a very strong conviction about it. But I certainly have ideas that I hear in my head of what the bass and drums might be doing or if it’s a fiddle or mandolin song. I generally always write the harmonies in Garageband, but often times those change in rehearsal.

14. Take it all (or leave it all behind) is a great tune, both on CD and on stage. How did it come to be?

That was one that came to me after a gig one late night. I was watching the Woodstock ’69 documentary and just strumming my nylon string guitar. I had started experimenting with capoing further up the neck as it made the guitar sound almost like a different instrument, which really sparked something. I have all the steps of that song on recordings, from the riff at the top to singing dummy lyrics, to trying different capo positions, to different form ideas up until the finished product that is pretty much exactly what you hear on the record and live. Andrew and I started playing the tune with North of Nashville (which is often times how I like to test out new tunes on audiences before I bring them to This Way). It killed every single time, even more than some of our most memorable covers. We both knew we had something very strong.

The tracking of Goodbye Forever was complete before the song was written. This Way was playing the song live and it was the highlight of our shows from the get go. We realized it would be a shame if we couldn’t place the song on the record. We had to pull some very tight strings and push forward our mastering and duplication dates to get it on the record. It was recorded in one day in a marathon session with very little overdubs and edits. As we get ready to get back in the studio, we’ve all decided that our recordings should be modeled after the Take It All session, as it’s the best thing we’ve ever recorded and it was so close to never making it on Goodbye Forever.

15. Do you ever use tricks to “prime the pump” when the inspiration well has run dry? If so, what are they?

There’s an ancient plant that, when inhaled, can put you in a very magical place creatively. Other than that, playing along to music, reading as much as possible and watching stimulating movies and programming are all great ways to spark some new creativity. I have written some really cool songs from an idea I saw in the old Twilight Zone series. That’s kind of my go to show when I’m looking for some inspiration. My Netflix account thinks I’m a 75-year-old man with some of the old stuff I watch. And when I watch or read anything, I always have either my phone or my notebook around to jot down something that has a song in it.

16. Do you have any advice for beginner songwriters?

You have to learn the craft, pay your dues and constantly be in a state of becoming. Learn the songs of the artists that inspire you — songs are the great songwriter’s mentor.

Do the research; dig deep into the stuff your family listened to if it inspires you because that’s where you often find your voice amongst the millions of people doing the same thing. And then just play as much as you possibly can.

Don’t think of a cover as “just a cover” think of it as a piece of your essence and find yourself in the characters of the songs you’re playing. The songs that you close your eyes to are often the ones you have a personal connection with. Make a list of those songs and try to build your own narrative using the tools of those songs. This won’t work for everybody, but it certainly works for me.

Your best song is always the one you have yet to write so get working on it.

17. If I told you can have three things of your choice to go write a song… what would those three things be?

Pencil, paper, guitar.

18. When do you know that the time to stop tinkering with a song has come?

When I have played it live a few times and it feels complete or if, after listening to the demo and read the lyrics several times and it feels right.

19. Please finish the sentence: Songwriting is…

an expression of the truest and best side of me.

20. What should we know about your latest CD?

It’s the best work we have done up until now.

You can buy This Way’s Goodbye Forever album here

Follow This Way on Facebook!

You can also listen/buy This Way’s latest album, published 9/2012, entitled The Story of Simon Pure.